Thursday, April 29, 2010

Stewart Hall

The snow that fell yesterday and the day before is gone. There's a good chill in the air, but the scoot commute is back on.

Today's photo stop offers views of Stewart Hall in Pointe Claire.
Stewart Hall is a stately mansion designed by Robert Finlay, a Scottish architect, on a commission from General Charles Wesley McLean. Finlay also designed many of Montreal's great mansions for the city's elite, that are, for the most part, situated on the slopes of Mount Royal, and particularly in the downtown area north of Sherbrooke street known as the Golden Mile.

The mansion was completed in 1916 and originally named Mull Hall. The hall was saved from demolition by Mrs. May Beatrice Stewart who donated it to the City of Pointe Claire.
Stewart Hall serves as the City of Pointe Claire's cultural centre.

One of the many attractive features of the stately home is the western portico that offers a beautiful view of the lake.
On the technical side of things, I'm wondering about whether a windscreen would be a good addition for the Vespa. There's the choice of low, medium or high windshields. I've yet to read anything convincing on the Modern Vespa forum one way or the other, other than some people swear by them.

I am also increasingly tempted by the thought of installing heated hand grips. Thoroughly chilled hands is the usual outcome by the time I get to work. In the evening the ride is much warmer and even with lighter gloves, I don't get chilled.

Cold weather issues will be gone soon enough, and I'll have plenty of time to mull it over before the fall. I'm anxious to see what riding in warm weather will be like.

Hmmm... you write about the history of Mull Hall and before you know it, you're mulling things over.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Late April snow

Unbelievably, the weatherman was right on the money.

It's been snowing all day, and it's likely to snow tomorrow as well.

Nothing is quite as dreary, misplaced and unwelcome as a snow fall in late April.

The winter clothes are all in the basement closet, and I'm in denial. I scurry along the block-and-a-half walk to the shelter of the underground city in search of lunch while trying to fend off the blustery snow with my little umbrella.

The scoot commute seems a distant unattainable goal. Can't wait for this weather to blow on its way.

This is what I think as I gaze out my office window.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Scootless commutes

This past Friday I took a car to work, and tomorrow, Monday, I'm taking my wife's car to the dealer, so the Vespa gets a rest.

The pluses are: choice of entertainment on the radio: CDs, radio stations, Ipod selections. Air conditioning. Shelter from the world: relative quiet, comfort, sometimes company for the ride. No gear to suit up in. Choice of cupholders.

Minuses: the cost of parking, endless expressway scenes and bumper to bumper traffic.

To make up for the scootless commutes, I spent an hour in the saddle today. I rode west along the lakeshore from Beaconsfield through Baie d'Urfé, Sainte Anne de Bellevue, around the western tip of the island and Sennevile, on to Pierrefonds, then along the banks of what Montrealers call the 'back river', to Saint Charles boulevard that cuts straight north-south across the island , to Kirkland and back to Beaconsfield, then west again along the lakeshore and back home. A special treat, other than a stunning sunset that turned a wide swath of the Lake of Two Mountains into liquid gold, was that I had the road mostly to myself: a lovely twisting country road, up hills, down again through sweeping turns, pure two-wheel pleasure.

At some point in the coming weeks or months, I'll take a camera along and document some of that route for all to enjoy.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Why I ride

I posted a reply to a fascinating thread of discussion on the Modern Vespa forum yesterday.
The original poster, Wangta, had asked members of the forum back in 2008 when they thought riding a scooter would no longer be age-appropriate, when the risks would be inappropriate in view of one's social and personal obligations, and whether riders should be concerned with how they are perceived by their supervisors and others who have an influence on their jobs and careers. The thread is well worth reading. It says a lot about the demographics of scootering, the role that risk plays in our lives, and ultimately the human condition. The thread recently revived, and was new to me. It seems to be generating as much input now, as it did then. The topic and the reactions it gets are, after all, timeless, and cross the boundaries of all human experience. You get there by clicking here.

Posting the reply helped me to express why I ride. It's very relevant to this blog, so I'm posting it here as well, enhanced with some helpful links, and some [needed? - ed.] editorial comment.

Here is what I wrote:

I'm 57. I started riding a scooter 2 weeks ago. Until then my two wheel experience was limited to bikes.

I'm not the most accomplished rider, but I'm comfortable and happy on two wheels.

It took me nine months to convince my wife to accept my decision to commute this way.

Wangta, I respect your concern for the risk, and its potential impact on loved ones and others who depend on us.

The reason I rode 600+ kms on BIXI bikes last year, and the reason I'm riding the Vespa, is the feeling I get from the experience. It's the way gravity and G forces flow through you on two wheels. The sense of freedom it brings, the concentration it takes, the lessons and skills I am learning daily, the beauty of the scenes that open to me on my bike that I don't experience the same way in my car or on the train.

I was inspired to take this challenge by people like Steve Wiiliams, Dave Dixon, [Orin O'neill, - ed.] and you. Your blog on your cross-country trip inspired me to embark on the much more mundane adventure of riding 30kms to work each day. And 30kms back.

I contribute to this forum, and I now write a blog, because I am grateful to you, and all MV members for sharing your experience, and inspiring me to assume these risks from which I am getting so much pleasure.

Life well lived is all about the rewards we reap from the risks we take. Marriage and the risk of divorce. Children and the risk of birth defects, illness, and accidents that they entail. Applying to law school and the risk of failure and rejection. Changing jobs. Swimming and the risk of drowning. Flying and the risk of crashing.

Two years ago when I was commuting by train, I was very stressed in the wake of the bombings in Madrid [Wow, that was in 04 not 08, I was so far off - ed.] and the threats uttered against Canadians because of our troops fighting in Afghanistan.

How do we make sense of our decisions? Should we always take the safest route from A to B? Should we foresake activities that inspire us in order to avoid attendant risks?

The best that we have to offer to our community, to those who are closest to us, and to those that depend on us, is the inspiration to live life to the best of our potential, and in doing so, to inspire those same folks to do the same in turn.

Riding a Vespa to work pales compared to the recent achievements in the Vancouver Olympics, which in turn pale compared to the achievements in the Special Olympics that followed.

We are all better off for that risk taking.

I am better off for the risks you took on that trip and the risk you took in blogging about it [and the risk you took starting this thread on the forum - ed.]. Because even blogging and contributing to this forum exposes us to the risk of public disapproval and sometimes bitter criticism.

Thanks again.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Urban renewal

It's been an interesting week.

The one piece rain suit I purchased got tested in the rain on Monday. As expected it performed very, very well. As my son pointed out, without the helmet on, it looks like a parachute jumpsuit. With the helmet on... well, I begin to look like an astronaut.

There are two issues with the one-piece rainsuit. It's challenging enough getting into the one-piece that I wouldn't want to be doing it in the rain by the side of the road. So that means putting it on if the weather is iffy. Which often means either that I'm wearing too much gear, or worrying that I'll get caught with too little on if it starts to rain.

So I traded the one-piece for a two piece, which is a much better solution for my real need. Yesterday at lunch I went out to the Jean-Talon market and it started raining intermittently. I put the rain pants on but left the jacket in the pet carrier. The Corazzo 5.0 riding jacket is water resistant, so even if there was a light rain, or a cloudburst, I'd be fine getting back to the office.

As it happened, there were only a few drops so even the pants were overkill. On the commute home, I did get some rain, and the combination of the Corazzo and the rain pants was just the right solution.

Which brings me to the morning commute. So far this week the mornings have been a little chilly, but otherwise gorgeous. The route along the lakeshore offers beautiful scenery in a variety that is constantly refreshing. Here for instance is one of the many lighthouses that dot the route. I have no idea whether they are purely decorative or truly serve a purpose, but with the quantity of ocean going freighters that travel through the lake I wouldn't be surprised if they really served a navigation purpose.The route along the Lachine canal is the reason for the topic of this entry.

The canal opened in 1825 following four years of construction. It allowed ships to reach the great lakes by by-passing the Lachine rapids. When you visit Montreal one of the things you can do is to take a jet-boat tour of the rapids. Anyone who is even remotely interested in the development of industry in North America should take the tour. It's really the only way to see the rapids and to get an idea of their size and of the barrier they pose to navigation. There are standing waves in the rapids that are more than 12 feet tall from trough to crest.

The Lachine canal quickly became a hub for Canadian industry during the industrial revolution. The opening of the St-Lawrence Seaway in 1959 signaled the end of the canal's usefulness. It was closed to all traffic in 1970 and the industrial buildings that lined the canal were slowly abandoned and decayed.
The federal government has since rehabilitated the canal first as a cycle path, and more recently, rehabilitated the locks and re-opened the canal to pleasure craft. The canal now offers a very pleasant route for pleasure boats to get from Lake Saint-Louis right down to the Old Port in Old Montreal. With that rehabilitation of the canal, many of the century-old warehouses have been converted to trendy lofts. Buildings that were not suited to residential conversion have been demolished all along the canal and brand new condos have sprouted.

The last few mornings I have ended my commute at a Van Houtte coffee shop about a block from my office. It's good place to read the Financial Post and enjoy my first of the many cups of coffee I am addicted to. Last riding season I would get there by taking a BIXI bike from the commuter train to the BIXI stand across from the coffee shop. This year I park the Vespa on the corner.Either way, I strongly prefer commuting on two wheels.

For the next little while, the BIXIs will playing a much more secondary role as I continue to explore the many urban pleasures that the Vespa affords.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A final modification

The weather has been dreadful. Wet, cold, windy.

I therefore tackled the final modification that I had planned for my Vespa LX150: installing a beeper to provide an audible clue that the turn signal is on.

The reason I made this change to the scooter is that I find that too often I forget to cancel the turn signal after a turn. It's a combination of things really. First off, turns are tricky, and it's in the turns, particularly in city traffic, when you really need to concentrate: make sure that you're aware of what the traffic around you is doing, keep an eye on the road surface, get the geometry of your line through the curve right, including the arc, the lean, speed going in, and acceleration through the apex.

Particularly for a beginner like me, there's a lot going on. So each time that I think that I'm being diligent about cancelling the turn signal, I finally glance down at the speedometer to check my speed and find I've left the blinker on again.

The problem is that on the Vespa LX150 the turn signals are silent. Even if there was a clicking relay sound like in a car, with engine noise, traffic noise and my full face helmet, I'd never hear it anyway.

The problem is compounded by the rider's seating position. You sit straight up and in that position the dashboard is just way out of your field of vision. You really have to take your attention totally off the road to check the dash. So you only do it when there is nothing else that needs your immediate attention. Those "free" moments don't happen very often, particularly in city traffic. So you tend to leave the indicators on too often.

In spite of the terrible weather, I made a quick run to the local hardware store and practiced with the turn indicators.

Wow! what a difference. I don't need to check the dash to see if I've successfully activated the turn indicator, I can hear it beeping. That's a big plus that I wasn't really thinking of. I was only focused on the cancel problem, and hadn't focused on the activation problem. It's a real confidence booster, and a big safety plus. No more taking my attention off the traffic when I'm getting set for a turn.

That set up benefit turns out to be just as important as the cancellation reminder function of the beeper.

Now I just have to wait for the weather to improve so I can get back to the scoot commute.

If you think that the beeper's a good idea and want add a similar modification to your bike, Modern Vespa has all the information you need, and Radio Shack (The Source now in Canada) has all the parts you need.

Ride safe.

PS: for those who are following this blog, this is kind of funny, kind of not. When I was reassembling the head set, I had that one last screw to install, the one that's just below the headlight. You may have guessed it. I fumbled it and the screw dropped into the leg shield and rattled its way gleefully down under the floorboard. Like a token in a Vegas slot machine. GRRRRR!!! So at some point in the coming weeks, I'll have to take the whole thing apart to retrieve that screw. In the meantime I rummaged through my jars of misfit screws and found a suitable if temporary replacement.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A troublesome failure

The owner of the building where I work lets me park in a corner of the underground garage. It's a really nice aspect of owning a Vespa. It's so nice and compact that you can tuck into the smallest spots that don't bother anyone. It's the benefit of reducing your footprint, finding value where most people aren't even looking. Check out my sweet spot.

At the end of my commute on day two, I needed to honk my horn to get the attention of the parking attendant for him to roll up the door. Unfortunately the magnificent Stebel Nautilus air horn I had installed last week only emitted what seemed to me like a faint whirring sound.

In the past things would have been dramatically different. While I might have owned a Vespa scooter, it is very unlikely it would have had an aftermartket air horn. The reason the bike has an air horn is that the internet allows a lonely scooter owner to benefit from the experience and advice of thousands of scooterists literally worldwide.

As soon as I got into the office I posted the Stebel Nautilus horn failure on the Modern Vespa forum. Within minutes expert advice poured in from all over. At lunch time I went for a ride and the horn worked well and continued to work today. Thanks to my Modern Vespa support group, I'll revisit the wiring and replace the ground line from the battery with a heavier gauge wire and tighten all the spade connectors on the relay and horn terminals.

The pictures from yesterday's trip into the city were taken just east of the Pointe Claire village. I took two because the early morning sun made the exposure difficult. I used an old Olympus camera because I don't want to take my new Olympus SLR along until the weather and my confidence with the sooot commute improve.

For lunch, I rode to the eastern lookout on the Mountain and took this picture looking towards the east. The Olympic Stadium figures prominently with the St-Lawrence river in the background.

Mount Royal is a kind of two-hump mountain with what can only be described as a wide mountain pass running northwest. Chemin de la Cote des Neiges (literally "Snow Hill Road"), one of Montreal's major north-south thoroughfares runs along the pass, linking north and south over the mountain. I crossed from the eastern summit to the soutwestern summit.

The city of Westmount (appropriately named) straddles the western portion of the mountain. Most of the city's priciest real estate nestles there. I rode to the Westmount lookout and took this shot of downtown and the view to the south.I had sought out the mountainous route to find steep pitches on which to test the Stebel horn. The manufacturer warns sternly that the horn must be mounted within 5 degrees of vertical and I thought there was a chance that the horn failure could be chalked up to the steep-ish pitch of the garage entrance.

That now appears to be an unlikely cause of the failure and the culprit is almost certainly the wiring. If so it will be good news because the Stebel Nautilus air horn should be mandatory standard equipment on all motorcycles and all but the puniest scooters.

For Canadians reading this, the Stebel air horn can be found at Canadian Tire, not under the manufacturer's name but under the scary name "Ultimate Blast Horn", product #20-2076.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The first commute

Before I relate today's excellent adventure, just a little link to the last post. I got my new keys from Jim Hamilton at and they work perfectly. I was apprehensive about the modifications I had done but that I couldn't really test without the keys.

Wow!! is the only word to describe my satisfaction when everything worked exactly as planned.

The Stebel horn is magnificent, and the 12 volt power outlet works like a gem and shuts off when the ignition is turned off. I already used it to charge my dead cell phone on a one-hour ride last Saturday.

Now for today's news.

I set out this morning on my first commute. The clock on the Vespa indicated 7:13 a.m.

The odometer on my U.S. model Vespa LX150 read 1,434 miles.

The temperature was hovering at 1 degree Celsius, just above freezing, but the sun was up and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. The forecast called for a high of 14 degrees (about 58 Fahrenheit).

I'm not yet 100% organized for the commute since I'm still missing a rain suit, armored pants, armored gloves, and a suitable bungee net to secure my laptop to the passenger seat. Not a huge problem though, I left my laptop at the office last night and there's no rain in the forecast until Friday.

The ride in was very pleasant. I wore a fleece under my Corazzo 5.0 jacket and had leather gloves. I chose to wear some sturdy hiking boots instead of my dress shoes. They aren't motorcycle boots but they offer a lot more protection than my street shoes. I found the Nolan N-102 helmet fogged easily when stopped, but lifting the visor at red lights brought welcome fresh air, so not really an issue.

Based on advice I got from ModernVespa folks, I plan to leave my dress shoes and suit jackets at the office. Since I am just starting out, I had both of those with me this morning, so the shoes went under the seat in the "pet carrier" and the suit jacket was neatly folded into the topcase.

The route I follow winds along the old highway that follows the shore of Lake St-Louis to the Lachine Canal. From there I take Saint-Patrick street along the Lachine Canal to the downtown core.

I stopped to snap a few pictures.

This one was taken at a park in Dorval looking towards the lake.

This second shot was taken in Lachine at the junction of the lake shore road and the Lachine Canal where my route switches to Saint-Patrick street for the final leg downtown.

The Vespa LX150 has plenty of power to allow me to pace the cars and trucks on my route effortlessly. It's a big plus compared to the LX50 I rented last fall that often left me in the right-hand lane getting passed by most of the traffic.

Once I parked in the underground garage at 8:15 a.m., the odometer read 1,453 miles, so it's a one-hour, door-to-door, 19 mile or 30 kilometer commute. Even though the route is much less direct than the expressway, with less traffic, it's still the same one hour commute. And it's easily the most pleasant commute I've had in a long time.

At lunch time I rode over to the local Vespa dealer and picked up a good one-piece rain suit and a red bungee net for the laptop shoulder bag. Once I get to test the rainsuit in the rain, I'll be sure to give it a review.

All I'm missing is a disk lock or twist-grip lock and a good cable so that I can secure the bike and the helmet when I park elsewhere than the underground garage here.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Scooter modifications

I still haven't gotten my keys back from their cloning adventure in Maine, so I can't actually ride my Vespa in spite of spectacular weather this Easter weekend.

Instead of riding, I managed to free up some time to start working on the safety and convenience modifications I had planned.

Without an ignition key, there's not much I can do to test the new electrical circuits, but, what the heck, life well-lived is an adventure.

In doing these modifications I am following the paths laid out by talented scooter owners and mechanical wizards before me. The project includes a Stebel Nautilus air horn to replace the stock Vespa horn; a 12 volt power outlet in the glove compartment; and a turn signal buzzer to remind me that the blinking rider has left the blinking blinkers on, long after the turn is a distant memory.

I don't need to go into any great detail on these projects since there are extraordinarily helpful instructions and photos on the Modern Vespa forum (, and I'd just be dully repeating what other more talented scooterists have already documented way better than I possibly could.

I’ll just add bits and pieces of my experience that contribute real value for the next person who takes on these improvements.

I won’t keep you in suspense, I’ll cut right to the chase, kind of.

First off, let me quote the unknown wise person who observed that experience is what you get when you were expecting something else.

It turns out that:
  • when you are working on your Vespa in a warm, neon lit garage bay; and
  • and when you are congratulating yourself that you removed the horn cover and the interior leg shield cowl and glove box without breaking anything;
  • and when you are fiddling to convince yourself that your Radio Shack 12 volt power outlet will really fit behind the glove box, which is basically a useless activity since the pictures on Modern Vespa already offer conclusive evidence that the fit is just fine;
well, then and only then will the power outlet slip out of your clumsy fingers.

Now here’s the insight that I wasn’t able to get from Modern Vespa: the Vespa is fiendishly, cleverly designed so that anything you drop inside the leg shield is immediately and efficiently directed along the nice curvy shield and straight under the floor board. The opening to the leg shield is perfectly designed to capture anything you drop, and, unless you are a titan and are able to hold the scooter upside down over your head and shake it just so, the only way to retrieve whatever it is you drop is to remove the floorboard.

Since I was going to have to do that anyway in order to install new wiring from the battery, it was no big deal.

So I removed the floorboard; retrieved the power outlet; installed the new positive and negative leads from the battery as well as the new fuse holder; routed the new wires to the leg shield area; re-installed the floorboard; and congratulated myself again: nothing broken, nothing wobbly, no leftover parts!!

So, fresh from this victory, I grabbed the Stebel Nautilus air horn and started clumsily convincing myself that it would fit in the leg shield, roughly behind the horn cover, basically where it ought logically to go. Again, a totally useless activity, see above.

That’s when the little screw and bolt that Stebel thoughtfully provides with the horn worked itself loose as I fiddled, fell off, and, you guessed it, rattled off down inside the floorboard.

Tonight the plan is to once more remove the floor board; retrieve the bolt; re-install the floor board; stuff rags in the openings to save me from more experience with the floorboard; and complete the wiring.

I won’t take the chance of closing up the leg shield until I get my keys back from so that I can test the modifications. I know what some of you are thinking... DON'T TEST THE STEBEL HORN IN THE GARAGE WITH THE DOOR CLOSED!

Finally, just so you don’t think I’m completely inept, once I finished Dremelling the 1” hole I cut in the glove box, the power outlet snapped securely in, and looks for all the world like it was put there at the factory by the Piaggio folks in Pontadera, Italy.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Finding a scooter to buy

The easy decision was to buy a Vespa LX150. The next challenge was to find one for the best price.

After a little research, the online classified sites seemed the best way to find a suitable scooter. After spending a little time comparing listings, I found that had a lot more listings of potentially interesting scooters than Craigslist. So last fall I began to monitor Kijiji almost daily. I found that the most convenient way to keep tabs on listings was to save the Kijiji search to my Ipod Touch's home screen.

Since the Montreal market had few offerings I broadened the search radius to 600km to take in the greater Toronto market as well.

After watching asking prices for many weeks I got a good feel for the market for used Vespas.

By early February I was ready to make an offer. I missed out on a few candidates but finally got lucky. I purchased my scooter from Ocean Drive Motors (, a dealer specializing in used Italian sports cars and Vespas located in Toronto.

Purchasing from a licensed used car dealer made many aspects of the purchase easier. For one thing I knew that I wouldn't have to worry about title. I still did a personal property security search on the Ontario government's web site though, just to be sure.

The price for the scooter was a little higher than comparable private sellers, but there were some desirable accessories included in the sale, including a Vespa OEM top case, that clinched the deal. I was also able to negotiate free storage until I could figure out how to get the scooter to make the 500km trip to Montreal.

The fall-back plan was to ride it home.

Ultimately with a favour from my brother in law who was comimg to Ottawa with an empty trailer to get some tools, I was able to pick up the scooter in Ottawa with a rented U-Haul trailer and drive the final 180km back home.

Trailering the scooter in the open U-Haul was a breeze. The 10'X12' trailer's tail gate lowered to act as a ramp so loading the scooter was easy. I got all the information I needed from the Modern Vespa forum about transporting a Vespa scooter safely. I purchased a motorcycle handlebar harness from a local motorsports dealer and some motorcycle and ATV tie downs from Canadian Tire. I tied down the scooter fore and aft to the sturdy D rings on either side of the trailer bed and I chocked the front tire with a section of 4X4. With the tie downs tightened the scooter was rock solid in the trailer, even though it was not on the centre stand. Trailering a scooter on its stand can damage both the scooter and the trailer as bumps and vibration cause the stand to hammer the trailer bed. It also prevents the scooter's suspensiom from doing its job absorbing the bumps.

The drive to Montreal was uneventful. My son drove the Ford Escape SUV and I kept an eye on the trailer. There was really no need to be concerned though. The scooter never budged an inch.

The next Monday I drove the scooter from my home to the local CAA inspection facility for its government inspection (which it passed with flying colours) and then on to the motor vehicle department to get it registered.

I had carefully researched the registration requirements beforehand so the process went as smooth as silk. I had all I needed:

1) The contract of sale;
2) The dealer's registration slip endorsed for transfer to me;
3) My driver's license with the motorcycle Class 6A endorsement; and finally,
4) The official inspection report.

That night I installed the license plate when I got home from work.

The only problem I encountered with the sale was that the dealer had not secured the scooter's master key when the scooter was purchased from the original owner. I found out the significance of the missing master key only when I got the scooter home and I was reading the owner's manual. I could have anticipated the problem better if I had done a little more homework on the Modern Vespa forum.

Not having the master key meant that if I ever lost the one ignition key I have, it would be necessary to replace the scooter's computer plus purchase new keys, adding up to a very substantial expense, likely well in excess of a thousand dollars.

Luckily that glitch will have a happy ending thanks to Jim Hamilton from I sent Jim my only ignition key and the top case lock and he emailed me earlier this week that he successfully made me a new master key and reset the top case lock so that the one ignition key will now operate all the locks on the bike.

The major inconvenience is losing at least two weeks use of the scooter while my keys were in transit. That, plus a hefty price in express parcel post charges in addition to the very reasonable price for Jim Hamilton's services and new master keys. .

So the lessons learned are as easy as 1-2-3:

1) If you shop carefully, and
2) do your homework online, particularly on Modern Vespa (,
3) you can purchase an excellent pre-owned Vespa confidently and start your own scoot commute.
The copyright in all text and photographs, except as noted, belongs to David Masse.