Friday, May 27, 2011

Too good not to share

I'm in Calgary at the airport waiting for a flight to Montreal.

I'm returning from a small, intimate, and very important conference where I was an invited speaker.

The conference venue was the Buffalo Mountain Lodge in Banff. The resort looks exactly like what you picture when you hear the name.

A collection of log row-cottages with pitched roofs, huge dormers, and field-stone fireplaces, nestled on the flanks of Tunnel Mountain among stands of lodge-pole pines.

I've been here since Wednesday and there hasn't been a single ray of sun. Until this morning it was all heavy overcast skies and drizzling rain.

In any other place in the world, that is a poor recipe for any kind of good time.

This part of Canada features the most stunning scenery I have been privileged to see in my lifetime, so a little bit of rain only adds another shade to nature's perfect palette.

On the drive into Banff on Wednesday in my rented Ford Focus I took a slight detour.

It was impossible for me not to imagine how great it would be to be riding my Vespa here.

Beautiful twisty roads draped on gentle rolling hills that you get to enjoy all by yourself with virtually no traffic as far as the eye can see.
On Thursday, following my presentation, I had a few free hours to decompress and decided to explore a scenic route I had spotted on the Google Maps application on my Iphone called the Minnewanka Loop.  It isn't possible to make a scenic mistake in Banff, and this was certainly no exception.

The road shows incredible promise right from the start, just minutes from Banff village.
A mere 5 kilometers later it's difficult to see Lake Minnewanka without feeling like you have been magically transported to a beautiful but distant and unfamiliar world.
I climb back into the Focus and follow the road.  Just beyond the lake, I come upon these two residents grabbing an afternoon nibble by the side of the road.
They seem friendly, but it's a rented, fully insured car, so those horns aren't nearly as intimidating as they might be if I were on my Vespa, or in our BMW.

Veering  onto a side road that promises to take me to Johnson Lake, I find a spot to park, and a short walk takes me to the spot where the lake empties into a mountain stream.
I return to the lodge completely refreshed.  At dinner I share the photos with some of the delegates.

After dinner, a few of us hang in the lodge's bar until just before midnight taking our time trading tall tales and polishing off a couple of bottles of fine red wine.

This morning, I wake gently and look out the large windows at the end of my room.  Beyond the gallery it looks like a dense fog has envelopped the resort.  Once I find my glasses I am truly blessed to behold a completely unexpected visual delight.
As you might expect, my scooter commute hasn't been intruding on my thoughts all that much since I left the foothills and got to the Rockies.

There is no word for this country other than breathtaking.  If you've never been to Alberta, you owe it to yourself to add it to the list of things that must be experienced.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

More about bridges

I can look out the window and see home (roughly close to shore in the centre of the picture) rapidly receding because I'm in the air again with some time to spare and my Iphone for company.

Nothing says 'fun' like typing out a long-ish blog post on your Iphone. I've got to get a bluetooth keyboard.

You can't live in Montreal without thinking about bridges.

Life on a big island sitting in the middle of a big river imposes that on you.

Even if you live 'off  island', you may well live on another nearby island.  On another large island like Île Jésus; or a medium-sized one like Île Perrot or Nuns' Island;  or a small one like Île Bizard; or a tiny one like Dorval Island (for more on Dorval Island, see my post last year) or Île Verte.

Here's an aerial view of Dorval island.
Even if you live on the 'north shore', the 'south shore', or elsewhere in the Montérégie mainland, if you want to fly to some other place far off, or go the opera, or visit the Jazz Festival or the Comedy Festival, or give birth in a large university hospital, you've got to pick a bridge to get to Montreal proper.

Heck, even if you want to take a break and forget about bridges and islands for a few hours, you'll need to take a bridge to Île Sainte Hélène to get to La Ronde amusement park.

Even though I live and work on the island of Montreal, and spend almost all my time here, my scooter commuting route still requires me to cross the Lachine Canal twice using a bridge in Lachine, and further downtown, the Charlevoix bridge.

My goal this season is to cross more bridges.

Last season the first time I left the island on my Vespa was via the Jacques Bizard bridge to get to... wait for it... Île Bizard.

The first major bridge I crossed was the Galipeault bridge to Île Perrot. Yup, you guessed right, I was 'off island' but still not on the mainland.  If you look at the centre of the picture you can see the Galipeault bridge linking the two islands.
To get to the genuine mainland I later took a really serious bridge, the Jacques Cartier, which took me soaring high over Île Sainte Hélene to land in Longueuil on the south shore.  You can read that post here.

Each bridge is a unique adventure.

The longer and higher the span... the longer the bridge approach... the faster and heavier the traffic, the greater is the challenge.  The challenge makes the experience more memorable, especially when you cross on a Vespa.

This season I added the massive Île aux Tourtes bridge to my list of conquered bridges.  The post on that ride is here.  The only way to appreciate the size of that six-lane bridge is to see it from the air.
My goal this summer is to add more bridges, and maybe a tunnel.

I want to cross both spans of the Lachapelle bridge to Laval for sentimental reasons (I used to cross that bridge daily growing up in Laval).

I want to cross the Victoria bridge for a bunch of reasons. It's Montreal's first and oldest bridge. It's a technical challenge since it has a metal grid deck,  it's a long and narrow sucker, and in it's day, it was a world-class engineering marvel.

Bridges are so special, I'm thinking of setting up a separate page with links to each of the bridge and tunnel posts so that readers can get to all that content from one place.

I may also go back and edit the posts to add more pictures, like these aerial shots I took on my outbound and inbound flights yesterday and today.

That's it for now. My thumbs are killing me. There must be something worth watching on the tube.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What you see...

As mentioned in an earlier post, this week is not a scooter week, it's a travel week.  Today an in-and-out to Toronto for some meetings, then tomorrow off to Banff for an important conference.

If I'm not riding I can always observe.

For instance, there are a lot of scooters in Toronto, and my unscientific taxi-back-seat-survey reveals that a majority of those scooters are Vespas: LXs, ETs, PXs, GTSs, Ss, the whole Vespa alphabet. Seeing is believing.  Or is it?

I picked up the current issue of Scientific American to read during my travels.  There's a promising article on quantum physics and the emerging theory that quantum effects extend into the macro world, the world we readily observe.  For instance, there's a theory that migratory birds "see" magnetic fields as a result of quantum entanglement.

What we see is very dependent on the limits of our visual process.

Case in point.

I was on a DeHavilland Dash 8 turboprop plane and I had a view of the propeller.  In flight, you see through the propeller, its outline only faintly visible.  I was experimenting with a new camera app for my Iphone (Camera+, recommended by David Pogue, really, really worth the $1.99 and more).  What the Iphone saw was something completely different.  An alternate view of the reality of the propeller.

The propeller was, at the very same time, appearing one way to the naked eye, and completely differently to the camera lens.  It's not a quantum effect, but with my muddled lawyer's brain, it helps me in my own way to relate to the article I was reading, and to Schrodinger's Cat, alive or dead, dead and alive, who can tell?

Which brings me back to riding my Vespa.  Nothing bothers me quite so much as not being able to see how I ride.  And the thing I most want to observe is how the bike and I perform in the "twisties".  How much do I lean?  Too much? Not enough?  Am I close to scraping the center stand?  What will happen if I do?  How much traction do I have?

I don't want to find out more about this vital aspect of riding by finding the limit split seconds before low-siding the bike into a ditch, or worse.

But you can't observe yourself in real time.  So I don't know about you, assuming you ride, but there's a lot going on in my mind's eye when I'm cornering.  I imagine the lean angle, try to sense the traction from the feel of the road, feel the optimal lean angle and where I am in relation to that angle.

The most lean I achieved (I think) was last week going up Camilien Houde parkway, a steep switch-back road that goes up Mount Royal from the east.  I was taking the first hairpin after entering the parkway at Mount Royal avenue.  Wide open throttle, countersteering in the curve, and man, I was lower than I remember at any previous time.  I was thinking "I'm really leaning" and creeping to the forefront was some kind of anticipation of what might happen if I scraped the stand.  Would I freak out, in a bad way, would I hit too hard and lose control?

The question I ask myself, is "why push those limits?"  Rationally, I think "slow down, enjoy riding through the scenery, enjoy the moment..."

But there's the rub with life on two wheels.  There's so much fun in those twisties.

And that's where the saving grace is with my Vespa.  My Vespa is to motorcycles, as my Miata is to sports cars: a whole lot of fun, and you don't need to be going ridiculously fast to find the fun.  I can do a four-wheel drift in the Miata getting onto an expressway ramp with the pedal to the metal at 6,500 RPM.  In a Porsche, I'd need to be going way, way, way faster to launch that drift.

I want my thrills, but at lower speeds, with less risk.

The Vespa's just right for me.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Team breakfast

Each Friday my colleagues and I take time to have a team breakfast.  Each of us takes a turn bringing in something for the group breakfast.

This Friday was my turn.

As I set out for my morning commute, I settled on croissants as the team treat, and on Croissanterie Figaro on the corner of Fairmont and Hutchison as the place I would get them.

I blogged about this cozy neighborhood café last season.  It truly is a little slice of Paris tucked away in Outremont.

While my order of two dozen croissants was being put together, I snapped a picture of the café's interior.
Unfortunately, the snapshot, taken with my Iphone, doesn't really do this place justice.  The interior is much softer than it appears in the photo, and the picture fails to convey the very theatrical, turn-of-the-nineteenth-century feel that the interior conveys.  It really makes me feel like I've been magically conveyed to a neighborhood café in the Quartier Latin of 1900.

I asked for my order (six plain, six cheese, six almond, six chocolate) to be bagged rather than boxed.  Good thing I did.  In my mind the order was going to fit in the Vespa's topcase.
 Not so much.  As you can see, that GT parcel hook I installed on my Vespa LX150 really came in handy this morning.
I shifted my laptop to the LX bag hook on the seat, and put the croissants on the GT hook.  The GT hook closes on the handles of the bags making them nice and secure.  As you can see, this year a BIXI stand has been installed right outside the café.

I used the extremity of the BIXI stand as scooter parking, something that I have been witnessing more and more lately.  This phenomenon confirms what I first observed last year.

I headed to the office down Park Avenue, happily cruising with the rush hour traffic at about 65 km/h by Fletcher's Field, up Pine then down Peel to the office.

Mission accomplished.  No croissants were harmed on the way.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The wonders of scenery

That sign says it all.

And this is what it alludes to.
Scenery like this during the morning commute is a large part of the wonder of commuting on a motor scooter.

Dealing with the weather

I don't set out in the rain.

But that doesn't mean I don't ride in the rain.

This week is a case in point.

The forecast on my Iphone weather app showed solid rain every day this week.  Monday and Tuesday bore out that prediction.  Wednesday, the weather was not nice by any means, and it did rain a bit, but there was even a brief sunny break in the afternoon, and the roads were, for the most part dry although when I left for work in the morning there was very light precipitation.

The rain that was falling is what I refer to as "spitting" rain.  I'm not sure how many people use that term.  My mother used to say that.  I did find a definition online: "To rain or snow in light, scattered drops or flakes".

So Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were driving days, not riding days.

Today, Thursday, there was rain in the forecast, but this morning, while the skies were cloudy, it wasn't raining and the roads were mostly dry.

If I didn't ride whenever rain might possibly fall, I would miss out on many excellent riding opportunities.  So today was a scoot commute.

Halfway to work light intermittent rain began to fall.  I pulled over on St-Patrick street where Autoroute 15 crosses way overhead (like five to six stories up) and got my rain jacket out of the pet carrier.  Now that I ride with waterproof armored pants, all I need to do is don the Teknic rain jacket.

With the jacket on I was on my way in just a few minutes.  Simple.  More importantly, I was comfortable and dry.

With the right gear, rain isn't an issue.  I moderate my speed and remain vigilant for road hazards like painted traffic signs on the roadway, metal plates, railroad tracks and debris.  With those simple precautions riding in wet weather is not a problem at all.

Before I began my scooter commuter adventure, I would always see motorcyclists riding in the rain and think they must be having a terrible sodden time.

I no longer think that.

And what about the commute home?  Well that was perfect.  Instead of thundershowers that my wife heard about on the radio this morning, I got blue skies, sunshine and the warmest temperatures so far in 2011.

So if you plan to commute, even if you don't plan to ride in the rain, make sure that you always have good rain gear on board.  Because as I often hear said, all prediction is difficult, but predicting the future is particularly difficult.

It's days like today that convince me that I must be an optimist.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

BIXI, BIXI, BIXI

I was in Toronto over the weekend for a family occasion and noticed that BIXI bikes are operating there as well (see my earlier post with photos of BIXIs in Washington).

This photo and the other one below were taken while driving through the University of Toronto campus (I wasn't at the wheel, my son was, just in case you think that I've taken texting-and-driving to a whole new level).

Bike share programs are wonderful, and the Montreal flavour is probably the very best of the breed.  Solar powered, off the grid, and first class bikes.

In spite of its success, or perhaps because of its success, BIXI is having growing pains, particularly in financing its expansion with sales to New York City, Washington D.C., Toronto, London, and other places that are in the works as well.

I sincerely hope that needed financial assistance will be forthcoming from the City of Montreal town council in short order.

I am among those who believe that we need to change the way we in the U.S. and Canada commute to work.  Bicycles and the infrastructure they require to make them an alternate means of urban transportation are important ingredients in the recipe.

Public bike share programs like BIXI send important messages to urban populations where they are implemented:
  • The community truly cares about its quality of life;
  • More cars in the downtown core is not an acceptable solution;
  • Bicycles are a viable and serious means of getting around;
  • Solutions that consume no fuel, or very little fuel, are by far preferable to those that consume a lot.
 It's certain that there is a cost to implementing a bike share program.  That cost is very much justified.  Implementing a top-notch solution like BIXI makes perfect sense.  The quality of the system and its bikes are an important part of the message.  It means there's a real commitment to make a change, and it means that the users' experience will be a positive one.

So color me strongly in favour.

May the nay-sayers say what they may, and come what may, I say Yeah!!!!
Oh! And while our municipal politicians are busy exporting  our bike share solution to Toronto, they should busy themselves importing Toronto's generous parking solution that makes urban parking free for scooters and motorcycles.  Now that would be a step in the right direction here.

As for the scoot commute and me commuting on my Vespa scooter, it's been lean pickings.

The atrocious and unremitting rainy weather means I drive rather than ride.

Next week the scooter drought will continue.  I'm in Toronto on business on Monday, then off to Calgary for more business for the remainder of the week.

Being a firm believer, as noted in an earlier post, in the law of averages, I will be due for many fine scootering days in the coming weeks and months.

PS: BIXI got it's funding. Hang in there BIXI!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Spring and the promise of summer


I returned from Washington to gloomy, rainy weather and a mid-week bout with some kind of stomach flu.

This week was a different story altogether and reaffirms my belief that the law of averages is inexorable in its efficiency. At least this week I'm on the sunny side of the equation.

I took the picture for this post on Wednesday with my Iphone. My usual camera was dead flat when I hauled it out of the Vespa's topcase. So this will have to do.

I took the picture on Mount Royal avenue heading west towards Park avenue. This is one of those magical times in spring that last barely a week or so. The trees are budding and the whole city is bathed in shades of pale green.

I had stopped a few blocks earlier to grab a bite. I sat at a sidewalk table waiting for lunch, taking in the bustling scene on the Plateau, and soaking up the warm sunshine. What a joy.

My trip to the Plateau was to visit the Vespa dealer, Alex Berthiaume, to gawk at bikes, drool over gear, and make an appointment for annual servicing and a new rear tire. The tire on the bike now was plugged to fix a flat and has held up well. It loses about three pounds a day with air slowly leaking at the plug.

I'm looking forward to not having to get down on my hands and knees every few days to pump air in.

As I write this I'm in Toronto for a family occasion. It's late. Nite all.
The copyright in all text and photographs, except as noted, belongs to David Masse.