Sunday, October 18, 2020

Running errands in the rain

I last commuted on a Vespa on Friday, July 26, 2015 [Ed.: actually it was on Thunderbird, the loud, obnoxious, Honda ACE 750 cruiser]. Doing a little light math, I started commuting in the spring of 2010 - that's a little over five years as a scooter commuter. As of today, it's been a little over five years since my last commute. I still ride a Vespa. I no longer commute.

What's the point?

Commuting on a Vespa means always having to be prepared.

Always being prepared comes naturally for me: once a Boy Scout, always a Boy Scout, and always being prepared is literally the Boy Scout motto. Thank you Lord Baden-Powell.

That means that even though I am no longer a scooter commuter, the fact that I was once a committed commuter means that I still have all the gear required to be prepared for stuff that can happen when you commute, which includes the stuff that most often goes awry, the weather. If commuting on a Vespa is in your future (Massimo!), check out The Gear Guide.

I still much prefer to ride on nice sunny days. I mean, who doesn't?

This past Thursday when I climbed the stairs for my morning ritual shower in "my" bathroom off the den, I was greeted by the unmistakable sound of rain on the third floor skylights. I can't say I was thrilled, although I have to say that rainy overcast days hold their own special charm.

Definitely not a day when I would be enticed to run errands on my Vespa.

What made Thursday different was that this happened to be the day I had finally booked for the Vespa's annual service at Vespa Toronto West downtown.

Normally I had the service done in the spring, to make sure that the bike started the season on the right note. Because I no longer commute, and with the pandemic sharply curtailing my riding, I let the service slide, until now. With fall well underway, and winter looming, riding is only going to get to be less and fun, and more and more of a chore.

What's a little rain?

In addition to the service date at Lou's shop, I had some excess hardware left over from my office renovation (a video is coming, stay tuned) to return at Lee Valley a little further downtown, and my law firm had some swag promised at our recent semi-annual retreat (yes, a Zoom fiesta this fall), and I thought I'd drop by to save Samantha having to courier the stuff to me.

Off I went, once geared-up. Giddy-up, it's high time.

I can't say that gearing up was fun. It never is for me.

It took me about twenty extra minutes to swap the mid-sized windshield for the winter one, install the Tucano Urbano skirt, and wrestle into the rain jacket I stow in the Vespa's under-seat cargo compartment (Vespa cult members call it the pet carrier - due to the "no pets" warning sticker). Doing all that while waddling around in armoured waterproof pants over heavy duty and equally waterproof riding boots, well let's just say that comfortable and fashionable aren't adjectives that apply. All that gear makes me feel more like an astronaut than a care-free Vespa rider living the dolce vita.

Here's the thing though. Once in the saddle, all that awkwardness instantly disappears, and riding the Vespa feels like I am a gliding along, happy and carefree, even in the rain.

The route was east on highway 401 - sixteen lanes of constant heavy traffic sailing along in the rain at over 100 kilometres an hour - then south onto the slightly slower-paced six-lane Allen Expressway, then further south onto urban thoroughfares the rest of the way to Lou's shop on College street in the downtown west-end. 

In addition to getting the annual service done (thanks Lou!) I picked up a new Vespa coffee mug from Lou's impressive inventory of Vespa lifestyle items, to replace the one I broke when I fumbled it taking it out of the microwave in my office, a month or so back - yes my office has a microwave... doesn't yours?

Here's the deceased black mug, appropriately upside down on my pre-retirement office desk on the eve of a winter vacation to Florida in 2014 - do you remember snow-bird getaways? The iconic Starbucks Lambretta mug on the right is still going strong.

The old mug matched my 2010 black Vespa GTS. The new one is red -  a (Product)RED version - appropriately red like my new GTS.

Speaking of my new GTS, traveling in the rain is much more enjoyable now that I have both traction control and ABS.

This is particularly comforting in Toronto, because once you get downtown, every freaking main street is beset with stupid streetcar tracks. Once the public transit norm in most large cities in Canada and the U.S., including Montreal, only Toronto clung to its streetcar network from the 1890's, including the hideous spiderweb of overhead wires and the sinuous two-wheeled treacherous steel tracks that become even more interesting when they are rain-slicked. Toronto is famously archly conservative, so evolution operates in a low gear here. While the streetcars were state-of-the-art urban infrastructure in Victorian horse-drawn Toronto before the turn of the last century, today I find them embarrassing. 

Oh... and there is a steep price to pay. Toronto's streetcars have their own track-gauge, so new vehicles have to be custom-designed and built at outrageous cost in terms of funds and time.

No, don't talk to me about San Francisco's cute cable-cars, they are adorable and an asset, and have a very limited network. If I were running Toronto, I'd restore the very oldest street cars, ditch the rest, and only run them along Queen Street, plus another connecting circuit down to Queen's Quay and along the waterfront. That would be charming, and a tourist draw. That will NEVER happen.

Calgary's light rail system may also be OK, maybe, though definitely not a tourist magnet.

I know, I know, enough ranting about public transit already!

I ended my errands further south at Samantha's. She snapped a pic after handing me my Caravel swag. I pulled my Covid mask down to reveal a smile. I take masking very seriously.


The ride home was much more direct, and quite a bit wetter, because the rain by then was taking its job more seriously.

East a few blocks to Spadina, south to Lake Shore Boulevard, hop on to the eastbound Gardiner Expressway, over to the Don Valley Parkway, up to the 401 in heavy traffic amid pouring rain and mist churned up by 18-wheelers, then west to Yonge and north on Yonge back home, just south of Finch.

By the time I got home, my gauntlets were getting a little damp-ish, my bum was also a little wet from water that somehow leaked in at a seam when I shifted my weight in the saddle. Other than that I was warm, dry, and thoroughly happy.

Riding is its own reward!

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Everything's coming up Brompton!

 I know, I know!

We don't get our new bikes until the spring!

Speaking of spring, I have a list of Brompton accessories that I want to have. The list is not that long, but guess what's on the list?

That's right... spring(s).

These are clamp springs. They are 3D printed in the U.K. by Steve Wood under the name EZclamp. If you are interested in what they do, this is a link to a video by Victor that explains it in brilliant detail. I ordered them now because the cost was small, the springs are small, and they can live in my desk drawer not bothering anyone until we get the bikes. All other accessories will have to wait patiently. 

Steve cautioned that receiving the springs, that he shipped on the same day I ordered them ten days ago on September 26th, could take weeks and weeks due to the pandemic.

Well, SURPRISE!!! they arrived today.

Turning to my dear friend Peter who mysteriously mentioned about two weeks ago that he was sending Susan and I some "surprises" that we might expect in mid-October... well, SURPRISE!!! Those "surprises” also arrived today. I had no clue what was in the mysterious styrofoam packaging from a source I had never heard of. 

rustle, rustle, wrestle, wrestle, rip, rip...

SURPRISE!!!

From Peter, his and hers Brompton mugs.

Peter thought there was a chance we might recycle them.

Nope! Nope! Nope!

Susan who readily admits she is quite particular about the shape of her mugs, likes them.

Peter, Steve, you guys scored ten out of ten!!!

Here are the springs nestled between our new Brompton mugs:


Sunday, October 4, 2020

... and now the reveal!

 I felt a little silly keeping people in suspense.

Well that ends now.

The answer (Sonja was closest-ish), is that Susan and I have ordered Bromptons.

I realize that for those of you who aren't already familiar, it sounds like we have bought some kind of bespoke rubber boots or umbrellas made in London.

It's true that our Bromptons are in fact being handmade for us in London, but they aren't galoshes or brollies, they're bicycles.

To be more specific (and this may be of interest to those camper-converts among you - which it seems a lot of you are, actually), Brompton only makes one bicycle, in, so they say, hundreds and hundreds of flavours. That means that you can order a Brompton that is best suited to your needs: from Sunday riders, to serious tourers, to world travellers.

How the heck did we stumble on buying Bromptons?

Susan and I have long been walkers. Not speed walkers, but definitely walkers. I once walked so far, on a whim, about nine kilometres, in office shoes, that I overstretched my left arch and it took more than a month to heal. We have walked in London, Geneva, Paris, Barcelona, Rome, Sorrento, Madrid, Athens, Marbella... but mostly in our neighbourhoods in Montreal and Toronto. Usually in the evening, and now in semi-retirement, pleasant afternoon neighbourhood walks.

We keep ourselves busy on neighbourhood walks in a curious way.

We award imaginary prizes to homeowners for curb appeal ranging on a five-point scale from "I really like that, good job", to "yeah, it's not bad", to "meh", to "oh that is hideous", to "bulldozer!"

On an eight-hour drive to Ogunquit many years ago, Susan and I fantasized about starting a reality TV show for hideous homes where Susan bulldozes the most hideous house, and the loser (winning!) gets a brand new home with genuine bourgeois curb appeal.

So we walk and judge; and we judge and walk.

That's got to be healthy on at least a few levels, right?

That's what I thought too.

Well, happenstance upset that apple cart.

It started with a piece in the New York Times in early September: For Successful Aging, Pick Up the Pace or Mix It Up.

It makes sense that running or cycling is going to be healthier than walking, but I was surprised that all our walking wasn't really that helpful. Our judgey fake awards on the other hand did wonders for our self-righteous satisfaction, but... we're never going to be runners and nothing is going to change that.

But cyclists? That got me thinking.

We have two amazing bikes (my Norco, and my father's Specialized bike I inherited {thanks Dad} and the City of Toronto has an amazing expansive network of bike paths.

The paths follow the deep ravines along the Don and Humber rivers and their tributaries, running many winding kilometres from the north, south to Lake Ontario.

It's not that Toronto deserves much urban planning credit.

The ravines are too steep and too narrow to warrant development as anything more than parkland. The closest to urban development the ravines have come is the Don Valley Parkway, some golf courses, and Hogg's Hollow just to the south of us.

And there you have, all at once, the wonder, and the rub.

The closest path to the Don Valley ravine parkland is at Lawrence Park just south and east of Lawrence Avenue and Yonge Street. While that is only six kilometres due south of us, getting there on a bicycle, especially for Susan who has a lot less experience cycling, is very dangerous. Yonge Street is extremely busy with tight lanes, swerving cars, parked cars on both sides of the street... it's even money whether you get hit or 'doored'.

All the other paths are even less accessible, at great distances to the south and west.

That means that it we are going to cycle, have fun doing it, and stay safe, our bikes have to travel with us by car.

We live in a condo development with typical indoor parking. If I install a roof rack for the bikes we have, I know that it is only a question of time before I drive into the garage with the bikes on the roof and damage the overhead door, destroy the bikes, the rack, the massive sunroof and the rest-of-the-roof. Yikes! I can hear the dollars in damages winding up like the spinny things on a Vegas slot machine, and our bank accounts emptying like a cascade of coins but pouring in the wrong direction.

So no roof rack then. Besides, I'd need a crane to get the bikes up there.

That means a hitch carrier.

Sounds easy, but... How many cars do you see driving around with empty hitch carriers hanging off the back? I know that would be us too. And every time we would need to open the hatch there would be frustration and cursing. Not to mention the cost of installing a hitch on Susan's beloved but seven-year-old Beemer X3. I think it requires cosmetic surgery at the dealer. Ouch! And, as much as we both love that car, we have been talking about succession planning lately... definitely not the time to 'invest' in a hitch.

So how the heck do we cycle?

We obviously need folding bikes that will easily fit in the trunk of course!

And that revelation led me to...

In short order I found this gem! A couple who travel in their Smart Car with two, two, two Bromptons in the trunk of their tiny car plus luggage! 


That almost clinched it for me.

Yet how could bikes so tiny, and that triple-jointed, be any good for riding?

And that's when I discovered the many, many, many devoted Brompton cult-followers. I won't link to all of them, just one, Victor Sabioni of the Everyday Cycling YouTube channel because Victor says all there is to say, and all there is to know about Bromptons.

 

Now I was hooked.

But would Susan go along?

If she did, this would be our first real two-wheeled adventure together (Susan has only once been a passenger on my Vespa - and not for want of invitations).

We had been for a walk in the Taylor Creek ravine this summer and I think Susan saw the charm as cyclists of all ages, sizes, abilities, and sexes rolled by.

The real test was whether I could convince Susan to visit Curbside Cycle with me. Curbside Cycle is Toronto's Brompton dealer.

Well... she did, and we did.

Susan was very impressed with what she saw and experienced.

While the Bromptons are in great demand so there is no such thing as inventory, the shop keeps a number of Bromptons as demonstrators and rental bikes. Timm Harding, Curbside's Director of Operations and Bromtpon Guru (a richly-deserved title) was generous with his time and patiently introduced us:

Susan, meet Brompton; Brompton meet Susan...


Susan's mask masks her obvious enthusiasm remarkably well. Suffice to say that by the time we left the shop we had placed our orders: one black lacquer Brompton for me, one bright red Brompton for Susan.

Now we just have to wait patiently until March or April. In the meantime, our specially-ordered Bromptons are booked in the 2021 production run in London.

I was debating whether to mention this... but... in the interest of full-disclosure and transparency, guess where else our two Bromptons will fit, other than in the trunk of our car?

Imagine this next bit in the cadence of Dr. Seuss:
in our front hall closet; 
in our ancient but still-viable Samsonite hard-sided suitcases and from there on a plane to anywhere;
on buses;
on subways;
in an Uber;
in a taxi;
on a boat (even a kayak or a canoe);
under my desk;
under our bed;
in a hotel with the concierge, or in our room;
in an AirBnB in Paris;
on a train to Normandie;
in a shopping mall;
in grocery stores (where folded and with a bag clipped on the front they become shopping carts!);
in our kids' guest bedroom under our bed, in Vancouver;
in a museum at the coat-check;
in a restaurant (not that they're open);
A N D
[drum rolL... DRRRRRRRR!]


All you camper-van and camper-bus addicts, even those of you who may have tiny microscopic restored vintage VW campers, yes two will fit.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Time to transform, again

Get set for what I believe will be another transformative step in my life, and specifically, my life on two wheels.

This is a video-free and photo-free post. A rarity of late.

But this is more about philosophy. About a life well-lived. About my humanity.

Even though images may be worth a thousand words, in this case, I think less may be more. It's complicated, as you'll soon see. Bear with me please.

In large measure, this post is about some things. To be clear(er), some things, not something, or some things.

Things - inanimate objects - are not supposed to be the focus of our lives. At least... not if our goal is to rise from infancy to maturity, and enjoy a life well-lived.

That said, I can definitely point to a few things that transformed my life. They changed the way I relate to the world, and ultimately they defined much of what I am today. These few things helped me to build the part of me that explores, that cherishes independence and freedom.

This post is also about health. My health, and Susan's health.

I'll get the health topic out of the way first, so that we can then focus on fun stuff.

The reality is that I'm getting old.

As I write this, I am 68 years old.

For the past few years, maybe even longer than that, there have been aches and pains. Mostly in my left leg, my knee... no surprise.

When I was young and crazy I skied. Not always very well, or safely. My left knee has suffered sprains, twists, major impacts. So when it acts up, well that's the toll that my youth is taking on the present me. More recently, if I sit or lie for more than a few minutes, when I stand, for a few moments or so I am stiff, and I hobble like... an old man. But... I am an old man, so suck it up, smile, grin, and bear it buttercup!

Back in mid-July I did a stupid thing.

It was pointed out to me in a loving way that the push-ups I do, from the knee, are less than manly.

I have been exercising at least five days a week for the past three years or so. Back five or six years ago I received a gym membership as a gift. When they evaluated my fitness level it turned out that I could only manage two guy-pushups. Pathetic. So now, I naturally wondered, how many of those genuine pushups could I manage today?

I did five. I could have managed a few more, but I stopped. Thankfully.

The next day I had a nagging pain in my left calf. I tore muscles there in my 30's, lifting too many cement garden tiles. I figured it was a strain, and in time would pass.

In mid-September it wasn't getting any better and was actually starting to get somewhat worse.

I went to see a chiropractor. I had a positive experience with chiropractic in 2018 when I messed up my neck as a result of way too much desk work while I took six months to write the Ontario Bar Exams.

This time however, the treatment had the reverse effect. The pain became much, much more severe. No position allowed relief. I couldn't sleep.

After a trip to the E.R., consultations with our family doctor, a cocktail of pain meds, and an ultra-sound, I managed to make it to an appointment with the physiotherapist our doctor strongly recommended.

One session later (at this point I have had four, more to come), I was all but cured.

Not only that, but last Sunday our kids were over. I was sitting in the living room. I got up to get some water in the kitchen. Three steps into the kitchen, I suddenly realized, shocked, that my old-man-stiffness hadn't happened. It's now gone, a thing of my past, no longer in my present!!! 

It turns out that virtually all the aches and pains I had taken as an unavoidable consequence of my advancing age were no longer there.

I have now pledged to make twice-yearly visits to my now-beloved physiotherapist to ensure that slow creeping posture issues are caught and cured before they get a chance to hobble me again.

That's one fascinating transformation. Bit of a fluke really.

Now let's focus on those things.  

A staple ingredient of my past major transformations has been the wheel. Sometimes four, most often only two.

The shiny red single-speed pedal-brake Raleigh I got for my seventh birthday was definitely the first thing. It seemed impossible to ride, until magically one day I could. It transformed me and became the thing that allowed me to explore my world from our freshly-paved driveway, to the freshly-paved roads of our burgeoning suburban subdivision, to the tractor roads, dirt tracks, and trails among the fields and woodlots that seemed to stretch from our front door to the horizon and beyond.

Then there was the ten-speed well-worn, second-hand bike that let me travel well beyond my neighbourhood, literally hundreds and hundreds of kilometres each summer from that same driveway at 7:00 a.m. to my summer factory job, on to Vanier College for evening classes, and back home by 10:00 p.m. or so: 25 kilometres a day, five days a week, from June to August: 1,375 kilometres, for three years. More than 4,000 kilometres in the saddle of that bike.

That was followed in 1973 by my 49cc Velo Solex moped. I wore that bike out, riding back and forth from home to university, and way up north to visit friends.

An 18-speed Norco featherweight road bike is my most recent bicycle. I received it as a gift from my mentor (later my partner) Bernard Reis in 1986. Right now it sits underground on P3, seven stories below my desk, securely chained to a bike stand, its tires long since deflated, unridden for far too long. What a bike though. I rode hundreds of kilometres on that bike too.

Later on in 1993, I purchased the best car I will ever own: my 1989 mid-life-crisis-red Mazda Miata. I rocked that car for 20 years and it never did anything but spark joy until...

... that fateful day in 2010 when my Miata lost the battle for my heart to a second-hand 2006 dragon-red Vespa LX150 motor scooter. Italian beauties nearly always prevail in a battle for your affection, don't you know, but not before the spring, summer, and fall of 2009 when I pedalled close to 1,000 kilometres on Montreal's innovative Bixi bike-share bikes.

It was that 2006 red Vespa that jump-started this blog.

In many ways that was the biggest game changer since that first red Raleigh.

Learning to ride a real motorbike, learning to commute on one, graduating to a black-and-chrome Vespa 300 GTS in 2013, exploring Montreal and its surroundings like never before, road trips to Ottawa, Toronto, State College, Hartford, and Portland, moto-camping, riding in Vancouver, the Tuscan countryside and the Florida Everglades, all of which ultimately led to another dragon-red 2016 Vespa 300 GTS with ABS and traction control just last year.

That bike has already taken me from Montreal to Toronto, to Montreal, and back to Toronto in the short time I have owned it.

As I write this, I now know, with certainty, that my red Vespa GTS will not be the last thing to transform my life.

I may not truly spill the beans for a while.

No, it's not a mobility-scooter, or a walker, although... perish the thought.

This new wonder-thing will definitely not displace my Vespa, that much is crystal clear. The reality is that they will conspire with each other to expand my ability to explore my world to a whole new level. I am very excited. You have no idea.

This time, unlike with all the previous transformative things, Susan will be along for the ride.

Our orders are in, our deposits are down, our spots in the production line are booked, and the clock is ticking.

Did I mention I'm excited? You really have no idea!

I can't wait.

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