Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Selecting a scooter

At a private high school I attended the program extended up through junior college. A number of the students at the junior college level rode to school on motorcycles, mopeds or scooters. I was really interested in the Vespas and Lambrettas. There was just something different about those scooters. It may have been the distinctive sound of the motor. I really can't say.

Last year when I started to think that actually
getting a scooter would be a real possibility, I was drawn to the Montreal Vespa shop. While that shop has since closed, I just knew that I wanted a Vespa.

I finally got to rent a Vespa LX 50 on the 2009 Halloween weekend. I suspected that what I really needed was the LX150 but I reasoned that taking the LX50 on my intended commuting route from downtown to the West Island and back would give me a better feel for the experience and would serve to confirm whether the extra power that came along with the 100cc increase in displacement was worth the additional cost, and the pain of getting a motorcycle license.

I picked up the bike on Friday on my lunch hour at the dealer's main location just north of Lafontaine Park, which is roughly three kilometers northeast from my office. I rode to the dealer on a Bixi bike which was both quick and convenient since there is a Bixi station just outside my office, and another one at the intersection near the dealer.

It was a cool day, but not really cold. While it is relatively rare, Montreal has seen snowfall on Halloween. I had made arrangements with the attendant in the underground parking garage in my office building to let me park the scooter there for the afternoon free of charge. The forecast called for rain the following day.

The ride from the dealer to the office was my first real taste of riding in heavy urban traffic. The full face helmet that had made my head feel huge in the shop seemed incredibly unnoticeable once I was underway. The ride presented an early opportunity to test the limitations of the 50cc engine. I was surprised to find that with a headwind, the LX50 topped out at about 40k
mh climbing the rise where Park Avenue crosses the shoulder of Mount Royal. That was just not fast enough to pace the traffic that was doing 55 or 60 kmh.

I parked the Vespa in the garage and went back to work.

I planned to leave the office early in order to avoid travelling home after sunset. At about 4:30 I changed into jeans and a windbreaker and headed down to the garage. When I rolled up and out of the garage, the first thing that greeted me was light rain. You just can't rely on a weather forecast.

I was thankful that my windbreaker was waterproof. I also really appreciated the full face helmet. From head to waist the rain was surprisingly a non issue. At first it was not so bad on my jeans either. The leg shield did a surprisingly good job of protecting me from the rain. It was definitely a dryer ride than it would have been on a Bixi bike. Nevertheless, by the time I got home, my jeans were very damp but not soaking, and
my feet had remained essentially dry.

All told, less than ideal conditions for a first test scooter commute, but in spite of the difficult conditions, I enjoyed a very pleasant ride.

The following day I awoke to find the sun shining. I figured that the weatherman was just slightly off his game and that I got the anticipated Saturday rain unexpectedly on Friday, and that I would get a much more pleasant sunny ride back to the dealer on Saturday. We went out for breakfast as a family as we often do, so I wasn't able to get underway to return the scooter until around 11:00

By that time the sun had vanished and it was raining again. But this was not light rainfall. We're talking real rain. Not large raindrops bouncing off the pavement, but a good steady downpour nonetheless.

By the time I got to the dealer's shop, I was still dry from the waist up, but otherwise I was well and truly drenched. One of the weird things I discovered about driving
a scooter in the rain, and I wasn't really surprised that it happened, because it makes sense, is that your weight on the saddle creates a depression that the rain running down your body turns into a miniature lake. You realize this kind of suddenly the first time you come to a stop and shift your weight in the saddle, and slurp, you feel like a little kid who just wet his pants. Oh well. I made a mental note to make sure to buy really good rain gear.

If my body was drenched, my spirits were buoyed and not in the least dampened.

The test was an unqualified success on all fronts. I now knew from real world experience that :

  1. The scoot commute is a hoot!
  2. The route I had planned to take from my downtown office to my home on the West Island was a really good route for the scooter.
  3. I even really loved it in the rain, without proper rain gear, and in chilly October.
  4. The Vespa LX was definitely the right bike for me. Much more substantial than the smaller Yamaha Vino I had rented in Victoria the year before, but still small enough to fit just about anywhere.
  5. A full face helmet is a really nice helmet to wear in the rain.
  6. If at all possible, I definitely wanted the Vespa LX150. I had no intention of riding on highways, but the additional power would mean I would be able to keep up with urban traffic in all cases, and with additional power in reserve.
Next up: Finding a scooter to buy.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Commuting strategy: picking a route

Commuting to work on a scooter is only a theory at this point.

I mainly commute by train, which is reasonably fast, safe and convenient. Except for having to live my life around the train schedule. When things are hectic at the office, I drive a car. Either way, the commuting time is roughly an hour.

My goal is to commute on my Vespa scooter each and every day from April through October, rain or shine.

The first step for my new commuting strategy was to find a scooter-friendly route to work. The criteria for the route were that it had to be pleasant, with no highway or expressway legs, and also reasonably efficient. The route I have chosen is probably a good part of the reason I am committed to doing this. I'll document my route during the summer on this blog.

My home is on the west island, on the lakeshore. Montreal is an island, like Manhattan. To the south, the St-Lawrence river widens to form Lake St-Louis. Three quarters of the route to downtown follows the old lakeshore road.

It's easily one of the most picturesque rides in the region. For much of the ride only parkland separates the road from the lake. The road takes you through pretty residential neighbourhoods dotted along the way by the old villages that developped along what used to be one of Canada's main early highways.

Eventually the scooter route leaves the lakeshore and follows the Lachine Canal along St-Patrick street. The canal was a nineteenth century industrial engineering marvel that allowed lake boats to take cargo from Montreal towards the great lakes, by-passing the formidable Lachine rapids. The canal was once the main artery for Montreal's factories. Almost all the factories that line the canal are long closed. For a time the Lachine canal was a dismal string of abandoned buildings. More recently, the entire length of the canal has been redevelopped as a parkway with a scenic bicycle path that travels the entire length of the canal ending at the port in Old Montreal. Most of those old factories have been redeveloped in the past 5 to 10 years as trendy residential lofts.

As ugly and forbidding as the canal once was, it has emerged as one of Montreal's great outdoor recreation spaces.

From the canal, which is only a fifteen minute Bixi bike ride from my office, the route crosses over into downtown. Five minutes on a scooter for that leg, tops!

I tested the route several times by car, and, it takes an hour.

So, an hour by car in bumper to bumper rush hour traffic on a clogged expressway; or an hour on a packed commuter train; or an hour on a scooter along one of the most picturesque, winding tree-lined, scenic routes in North America. Seems like a no-brainer.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Getting started...

The city in the title backdrop is Montreal. I took the three pictures I used to make the composite view of the city on a flight home from Victoria in the fall of 2008. The city is seen looking to the south.

(Ed.: this journal was redesigned in late 2015 and the original header was changed. Here is what it used to look like:

That should provide the needed context.

To begin this blog, a little context is in order.

I vividly remember my first bike. It was to be the present for my seventh birthday. A candy apple red Raleigh 24" frame, coaster brake bike. I dreamt about that bike. I imagined I could ride it. I day-dreamed about what it would be like to get it for what seemed like eternal winter weeks and months.

When I finally got the bike in the spring, it was everything I had hoped for. It spent the first night in my room, on its center stand, at the foot of my bed. In the darkened room, with my eyes closed, unable to sleep, I could smell its presence. A whiff of that wonderful smell that you get when you walk into a bicycle store.

I found out the next day that actually learning to ride that bike was going to be incredibly scary, difficult, and ultimately in those first few days, painful.

Like most kids I persevered and never looked back. Growing up, my bicycle was the key to freedom. Endless summer days and evenings, riding with my friends, every day a fresh adventure, more riding skills learned.

By junior college, I was riding a second-hand 10-speed bike. I was easily doing 30 or 40 miles a day, between home on Montreal's north shore, to my summer job near the airport, and then east to Ville St-Laurent for summer classes.

In university I managed to convince my parents and my grandmother to buy me a moped for my birthday. All I could afford was a Solex. It was basically a more or less sturdy bicycle with a 49cc engine driving a kind of abrasive roller that rested on the front tire. In dry weather it could easily do 20 miles an hour. In the rain, the water lubricated the roller causing slippage, and you were lucky to do 15... 10 if there was a head wind. That could be misery. Still, I loved that bike and the freedom it brought.

Read on, there's a picture of a Solex below.

With each each new bike, my range increased. I thought nothing of jumping on the Solex at my parents' house (then located on the western slope of Mount Royal) to visit my friends who lived 25 miles away in Ste-Rose.

Eventually I graduated to a family of my own, kids, cars, hockey and soccer practices, dog walking, and life on two wheels just became a thing of the past.

In the mid eightys I left my law firm to work in-house for a large Canadian public company. The firm’s managing partner bought me a really good Norco touring bike as a parting gift.

It was by far the best bike I have owned.

I began to re-discover the pleasures of cycling. As my sons, and later my daughter, learned to ride as well, we would take longer and longer rides. Eventually, the kids grew up, and, as I had done, moved on to cars. Somewhere along the way I was lucky to acquire a nice shiny red (my wife was quick to point out it was "mid-life crisis red") Miata roadster, so I wasn’t exactly pining away and missing life on two wheels.

2008 was a turning point in my life on two wheels.

My wife and I got to take two weeks’ vacation in Paris and Barcelona. Both those cities were firsts for us, and we absolutely loved each of them.

What struck me most was how people in Europe live on two wheels. It didn’t take long for that impression to hit home. In the taxi on the way to our rented condo, as we drove along the expressway towards Paris, there were actually five lanes of traffic on the three lane expressway: motorcycles and scooters were riding the white lines and traveling somewhat faster than the cars and trucks. 110km an hour in rush hour traffic on the lane dividers on scooters… all kinds of scooters, Vespa GTs, Burgmans, MP3s, and three-wheeled BMW scooters complete with 4-point seatbelts, stereos and windshield wipers.

I have to say it made quite an impression. Including the person seen here commuting on a Solex.

After two weeks of seeing all those folks living care-free on two wheels, I began to think I could do the same in Montreal.

I first rented a scooter in the fall of 2008 during a conference in Victoria B.C. I spent a wonderful afternoon riding as far as I could up the coast of Vancouver Island. What a blast.

Last fall, I rented a Vespa LX50 for a couple of days and tested a commuting route from my home on the western tip of the island to my office in the downtown core. It was October 31st and it rained for both the trip home and the trip back to the Vespa dealer. Without real rain gear, I was wetter than I have ever been, and cold too… but in spite of less than ideal conditions, I was firmly hooked by the Vespa bug.

Three weeks ago I took delivery of a second-hand, lovingly cared-for, dragon-red, Vespa LX150 with a Vespa top case. What a dream.

I haven’t begun to commute quite yet since there are some minor issues to deal with, such as installing a turn indicator buzzer (since I have discovered to my dismay that, try as I may, I remain prone to forgetting to cancel the indicators; a nice, loud, Italian air horn (a Stebel Compact Nautilus, to be precise), because I don’t want to be going “meep-meep” when some fool is bent on threatening my life; and lastly, the scooter didn’t come with its master key, so my only key is off on its own adventure getting cloned.

April 1, 2010 (I know, April Fools Day, but I’m not a prankster, this is for real) will mark the beginning of my scoot commute.

I learned a ton of stuff from reading scooter blogs and following the posts at Modern Vespa since last fall, and I figure that I owe it to others to share my experience as well.

This blog will not just be about my Vespa. Montreal inaugurated North America’s first public bike system last summer, and I am proud to say that I was one of the very first subscribers. I got a special black smart card key to prove it. From the first day the service began in May until the bikes were taken off the streets for the winter at the end of November, I racked up more than 600 kilometers on Bixi bikes. The Bixis are the best gift I have received from the C├Čty of Montreal since Expo 67. This summer I'll continue to Bixi on my lunch hour, getting down to Old Montreal, and up to the Plateau, or over to the Atwater Market for lunch.

Future posts will not likely be anywhere near this long. I just figured I needed to introduce myself properly before getting on with it.

The copyright in all text and photographs, except as noted, belongs to David Masse.