Thursday, May 29, 2014

Tuscan Loop - Volterra

Al Gravola (Aviator47 on ModernVespa) was incredibly helpful and made a significant contribution to the planning for the Tuscan Loop.  Al and his wife used to live in the Pacific Northwest, but retired in the Greek Islands.  Avid scooterists, Al and his wife organize scooter tours of Tuscany and Provence as a hobby.  I had found Noleggio Moto Toscana on my own, but had no clue if they were a reputable rental outlet.  I know based on reviews on Trip Advisor for instance that Bici & Baci in Rome which looks like a great place to rent Vespas in Rome, has some serious reputation issues.

When I checked out the shop on Google street view, it looked a little sketchy to me.

I reached out to Al for advice.  He came through in a big way.  First off he confirmed that Noleggio Moto Toscana was the preferred scooter rental supplier for the Tuscan tours they organize.  He also introduced me to Roberto.

Al also very kindly suggested a moto tour looping route: the Tuscan Loop.
The first major stop on that Tuscan Loop is...
The starting point, Pontedera, is the opposite of Volterra and is not at all a tourist town. It's pretty much like every mid-sized town in America, with recently built residential and commercial properties, and thoroughfares that are paved with asphalt and reasonably wide. From a tourist's perspective it's not much to look at.

Roland, yours truly, and Sonja, in that order, with Roland leading the way and Sonja riding sweep, made our way out from Pontedera and south in the direction of Volterra, following the route that Al suggested.

Along the way we encountered roundabouts (in Montreal we call them traffic circles, and they are the exception in Canada rather than the rule).  Along our route there were too many roundabouts to count. I now consider myself semi-expert in the ways of roundabouts.

I have to say I'm a fan, but the Garmin GPS we used on our road trip in the rented car was not nearly as good at roundabouts as I am. "Enter roundabout and take the third exit." Sounds simple when you hear it, no? Counting to no more than three, maybe four, is a skill I pretty much mastered in grade two. Maybe grade three, tops. Brittany, our Garmin gal, must have gone to a different school.

From time to time she had to resort to "re-calculating". Sometimes she did this mere meters from the roundabout. Sometimes, even more irritatingly, she had to re-count within fifty meters of a fork in the road, where manifestly there were only two choices. At least in a roundabout I could just keep going round and round in the circle until I figured out the right exit all by my lonesome. Brittany in a similar fix, just stubbornly stuck to her original inaccurate guess, gleefully sending us off in the wrong direction. She figured she could always take her time recalculating later. After all, if we were on vacation and more laid back than usual, why shouldn't she be relaxed about the trip too?

Roland had no such issues. Following Roland was as reliable as the day is long. He had a TomTom. But I'm convinced it's Roland, not the GPS. Roland is just a damn fine navigator of Italian roundabouts. And that's that.

As the town yielded to the countryside, the straight roads yielded to twists and turns. I now firmly believe that Italian civil engineers are incapable of going from A to B, or Volterra to San Gimignano, in anything resembling a straight line. In any dimension.

We travelled left, we went right, up we went and down we went. Sometimes very nearly in circles. We traced corkscrews, figure twos, sometimes figure nines. Taking into account differences in elevation, I am reasonably sure we also traced figure eights.

None of this happened slowly. The prevailing speed limit was fifty kilometers an hour. By my estimation we pretty much always went faster than the government intended. Positioned on the road between the two Vespas, I felt like a learner.

And I was.

I had never ridden 'twisties' like this before. Well perhaps once and very briefly last summer in New Hampshire while riding through a notch behind a couple of motorcycles. But in all honesty, that was, as they say these days, a fail. And this day in Tuscany I was struggling as well.

I'm not entirely to blame. I countersteer pretty well. I understand the principle, and the practice. But my Vespa, like Sonja's Vespa, suffers from a significant disability. Left turns are a huge psychological challenge. It's all the fault of the cursed Vespa side stand. On a good left hand sweeper, that @#%?% side-stand does its level best to scrape a furrow in the asphalt. If it sounds terrible, and trust me it does, it feels even worse, and the mental image it conjurs of the bike vaulting off the side stand into a high side spill, is psychological torture.

I knew I was riding what is quite possibly, outside of the moto grand prix circuit, the most stable motorbike ever built. I knew the MP3 can out-lean most motorbikes. I had seen the videos on YouTube of MP3s in the Los Angeles canyons heeled way over with showers of sparks trailing from the centre stand. But Pavlov and his susceptible hound had had their way with me. Curses.

On the right-hand sweepers I was countersteering with brio and leaning just right, following Roland's impeccable line with assurance. On the lefties (how ironic for a southpaw), the Vespa side-stand-o-phobia got the better of me. Looking in my left mirror, I could see Sonja's side stand and the narrow sliver of daylight between the stand and the asphalt dwindling away. Her sidestand was psychicly grafting itself onto my MP3 and it was taking a lot of conscious effort to shake the feeling as it sapped my confidence in left-handers. I guess they call them sinistras in Italy for a reason. Yikes.

Some of my left sweeps went wayward, taking me into the left hand lane like a rookie. I had discussed my sidestand issues with Sonja back at the shop in Pontedera. She candidly offered that she hated her sidestand for it, and admitted to cringing when the bad scrapes rattled the bike. But Sonja is a seasoned rider with years of experience earned since before her time in Canada. I am not.

Still, I did my best to earn my keep. At one point, after a decent section of tight S turns, Sonja hit the intercom and remarked that my line in that series was near perfect. Coming from Sonja, it meant the world to me. Roland offered similar words of encouragement. He said that the MP3 looked amazing leaning deeply into the turns. With fellow riders as gracious as Sonja and Roland, any moto tour would be memorable, with or without the unending moutainous twisties.

This tour was nevertheless heaven on two wheels.

A sharp right turn at a T in the road followed by a series of climbing twisties brought us to the ancient walled city of Volterra.

Remarkably, Italians allow motor vehicles right into the heart of these patrimonial treasures. Riding through the massive midieval city gate, and cruising sedately through the narrow passages, I felt like we were crusading knights on trusted steeds. The visor on my helmet raised, I surveyed the town with what I imagined to be a knight's noble gaze from the saddle of my MP3.

Roland found the dedicated motorcycle parking and we parked as the rules suggested we should. Roland is characteristically Teutonic in his appreciation of, and respect for, society's rules. They exist for a reason, and they deserve to be heeded. If only he knew what a passionate scofflaw my inner Vespisti is. He might blush.

We strolled Volterra's by-ways, finally settling on a tiny little restaurant. The intriguing feature of the place was the glass floor revealing the structure of foundations from a long ago and otherwise forgotten past. We settled into an outdoor table, and I followed Sonja and Roland's cue, opting for bruschetta and a soft drink. In my case, an order of cheese bruschetta and a fizzy lemonade.
Copyright Sonja Mager
Copyright Sonja Mager
I was not disappointed. The bruschetta was broiled to perfection, the ample cheese melted over the four crusty slices of bread, with crisp lacy edges all around. My mouth waters as I write this on the plane to Paris for our connecting flight to Montreal.

We indulged in a relaxed friendly chat, comparing notes on Tuscany, the value of fresh locally sourced ingredients, temporarily forsaken diets, the unsuspected wonders of Vespas as touring vehicles, and the beauty of the Tuscan countryside.

We slowly made our way back to our bikes, saddled up once more, and followed Roland out of Volterra. Roland pulled over so we could record the view of the Tuscan valley spreading out below Volterra.
I crossed the road to snap a properly framed shot of our little group. I lay back on the grassy embankment, taking up as little space as I could. A large transport van loomed into view, passing me with what seemed to be inches to spare beyond my toes. There is enough room on these two-lane provincial stradales for two vehicles to pass abreast. Just.
Copyright Sonja Mager
Copyright Sonja Mager
Copyright Sonja Mager
We had settled on San Gimignano as the next stop on the journey along the Tuscan Loop.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Tuscan Loop - Gearing up

I dragged myself out of bed at the villa we rented in Cappanori just southeast of Lucca. The neighborhood rooster made my iPhone alarm redundant.

I showered, grabbed by motorcycle jacket and photo gear, pulled on my summer riding gloves and climbed into the back seat of our rented Fiat 500L.

It was seven-thirty as we pulled up and out of the steep gravel driveway and began weaving our way through the narrow, twisting, hillside backroads headed to Noleggio Moto Toscana in Pontedera. My son Jonathan took the wheel hurtling around blind corners with Italian brio. My son Andrew rode shotgun handling the GPS, adding timely hints (no! Right, hard right!) and blasting tunes from his iPad over the Fiat's Bluetooth.

We pulled into the rental shop's parking area. The front door to the shop was wide open. A comforting sight. I'll be the first to say that the shop doesn't look like much, but never judge a book from its cover, as the saying goes.
I strolled into the shop lined with Vespas and a few motorcycles. I spotted a distinguished looking gentleman in the glassed-in office at the back of the shop. Guessing it was Roberto, I introduced myself.

He rose to greet me, struggling somewhat with a pair of crutches. He made a face explaining the cast on his foot. He had been riding and was sideswiped by an errant driver. Having experienced what it means to drive in Tuscany the previous day, twisting our way to Siena, and on to Montefioralle, it's a wonder to me that half the riders in Tuscany aren't hobbled with broken limbs.

As Roberto worked on the inevitable paperwork, I selected a helmet. I settled on a copter style open face helmet with a full face shield. I would have picked a modular, but that option wasn't available. I wear vintage Bausch and Lomb aviators with loop-around arms. A full face helmet just wouldn't have worked.

I dutifully signed the rental forms, here, here, and there, inserting my signature opposite Roberto's X marks. I'm a lawyer, so I read nothing.

Roberto went about the remaining paper-shuffling with the enthusiasm you might expect. I busied myself with the helmet, installing my Sena SMH10 headset which went on without any difficulty at all.

Satisfied with that bit of work, my attention returned to the business of getting a bike ready to roll.

The black Piaggio MP3, the only MP3 in the shop, was parked Italian style, the second to last bike in the long line of bikes in the shop. Roberto grimaced at his foot, and apologized that his colleague would be there soon to get the bike out. I asked if he minded if I took on the challenge. He sized me up quickly. I guess I looked convincing enough in my Corazzo 5.0 jacket with the ModernVespa patches and 10,000 mile badge. Roberto nodded his approval.

When I say that the bikes were parked Italian style, you'll understand if you've ever been to a major Italian city, like Rome, or Florence.
You can certainly wedge a piece of paper between the bikes, maybe even a piece of cardboard. But that's about it. I angled the handlebars on the MP3, then angled the handlebars on the neighboring BMW GS, sucked in my gut, held my breath, and edged myself between the bikes.

The MP3 was on the centre stand. I straddled the bike. Roberto was quite focused on the proceedings. I held the rear brake firmly and rocked the bike off the stand. With the back wheel locked, the bike barely moved forward and dropped off the stand. Roberto looked at Jonathan and Andrew and said appreciatively "your father knows what he's doing". He looked visibly more relaxed now. I released the MP3's parking brake, turned on the ignition and released the front wheel locking mechanism. I gingerly walked the bike out of its parking spot into the open area in the centre of the shop, executing a four or five-point turn. Roberto added "your dad's really good!" There have been prouder times in my life no doubt, but I confess that I couldn't think of any at that precise moment.

I flipped the kill switch to the run position, held the rear brake and hit the starter. The MP3 stuttered to life, purring gently in the confines of the shop. Keeping a little pressure on the rear brake, I twisted throttle and rode the bike to the shop door. I negotiated the door sill, angling the handlebars gently left then right to avoid touching the door frame.

I hit the switch to lock the bike's front suspension which holds the bike in a vertical stance, and engaged the parking brake. As I switched off the ignition I found Roberto had followed me out. He patiently explained how to use the ignition key's multiple functions to release the rear trunk, the underseat storage, and the fuel filler lid.
Copyright Roland Mager
Copyright Roland Mager
Much of the explanation was lost on me because Sonja and Roland had pulled up to the shop on their Vespa GTSs and half my attention was focused on them.  Fortunately Roland was paying attention and he was able to show me how to unlock the underseat storage a little later on.  Sonja's orange Vespa GTS 300 i.e. Super Sport is a brand new bike purchased in Germany. Roland's red GTS is the bike he had in Vancouver. I had ridden behind that bike a few years back.

We indulged in the inevitable rider chit-chat while I stowed my camera gear and rain jacket in the MP3's storage compartments and installed the RAM mount for my GoPro camera on the right mirror stem. A few more minutes were lost as we struggled to pair our Sena helmet headsets. With those preliminaries dispatched, I said goodbye to my sons, we saddled up, fired up the bikes and merged into the morning traffic on the Via Pisana.

None of us had eaten, and we all needed to gas up, so a few pit stops were in order. We stopped first for some coffee followed by a refueling stop.
Copyright Sonja Mager
 Then we hit the road headed southeast towards some of the very best spots Tuscany has to offer.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Tuscan Loop - Venetian Prelude

In a word, that's Venice.
It's that, and impossibly romantic.
Can anyone think of a more romantic place on earth? Perhaps the universe? I can't. I tried. There are any number of places that certainly compete for the number two spot. But rivals to Venice for the crown? None I can think of. That's Venice.
The other thing I couldn't summon, was any time I had gone for days on end without seing cars, buses, motorbikes, or even bicycles. Venice is heaven for pedestrians. Pretty much what heaven must be, minus the angel wings. And clean too. Even the canals were clean. The water, some shade of pale green. I am tempted to say emerald green, but my inclination to colour-blindness robs me of the confidence to say so. Susan marveled that there were pigeons, but no visible pigeon-poop. Where is the pigeon poop? Yes, it's that clean. That's Venice.
Venice has alleyways that, if you were anywhere else on earth, you wouldn't dare venture into without trepidation. In Venice, when you first encounter such a passage, barely more than a person wide, dim, crooked, sometimes with only a sliver of sky visible overhead, with no one around you, and no visible end in sight, you hesitate. Every urban instinct is an angel perched on your shoulder whispering ¨really?¨. You advance warily, your fight or flight instincts on tippytoes. Then, walking confidently in your direction, not a care in the world, is a woman. Unaccompanied by burly men. Alone and carefree. That's Venice.
You get used to it. Wandering home from the restaurant in Canareggio; headed in the general direction of the Rialto bridge and Piazza San Marco; in the dead of night; no comforting crowds; here and there the occasional knot of fellow humans; not entirely certain where in the rabbit warren of tiny streets you are, exactly; not entirely certain where your hotel is, exactly. But carefree. Relaxed. A pleasant spring late-evening stroll. That's Venice.
Venice is grand. The grand canal is clearly grand.

Piazza San Marco is very, very grand. It's visually grand.

A city filled with glitsy glass and fantastic masks, silken renaissance fabrics and sleek black lacquer gondolas, a harlequin's fantasy. Yet it all works nicely. That's Venice.
Our train is hurtling south, Firenze-bound. Venezia is behind us. Perhaps forever. Too many other places to see, to be. A must see, that's certain, but perhaps just once. Like an impossibly sweet desert. Once may be just right. That's Venice.
We will only be in Florence long enough to pick up our rented car on Borgo Ognissanti. Then it will be time to fire up the GPS and head to Lucca, for the second stage of this wonderful holiday. Our villa awaits our arrival in Cappanorri, our base for the next five days. We will have visited Venice, Cinque Terre, Rappallo and Portofino, Sienna, Greve in Chianti, Montefioralle, Panzano, Pontedera, Volterra, San Gimignano, Florence and more by the time our Italian sojourn winds down.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Tuscan Loop - Guess who came to dinner?

I haven't posted because we've been very busy enjoying our long-awaited Italian vacation.

On Monday, May 19, our second evening in Tuscany, we met special friends who rode their Vespas from the Black Forest to the ancient walled town of Lucca for a delicious Tuscan meal.
Copyright Roland Mager
It was great to see Sonja and Roland again.

And so began the Tuscan Loop.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Tuscan Loop - What to wear?

After hemming and hawing, with a little dithering for good measure, I decided.

The 2013 Blogger to Blogger Tour featured the BMW Airflow, the 2014 Blogger to Blogger Tour will feature the Corazzo 5.0.

It may not be cast in concrete, but it might as well be, since I devoted hours this weekend to sewing the MV Italia patch on the Corazzo. The choice is perfect. It's what you might call a patch match. The red in the centre of the rondel matches the red centre stripe on the 5.0.

Clearly it was meant to be. If memory serves, Sonja called it.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Tuscan Loop - What to pack

The Tuscan Loop is sure to stand out as a truly unique experience.

For one thing, it's happening in Italy, not exactly next door. It won't be the first time I've flown a very long way to ride with friends.  The last time I was traveling alone on business with a weekend thrown in.  I had the luxury of packing all my gear: helmet, armored jacket and pants, boots, gloves, the whole shebang.

This time it's different.  I've got to pack super light.  I think I've pared my list down to bare necessities.  An armored jacket (haven't decided which one), gloves (likely the Tucano Urbano summer gloves), a Sena headset, a GoPro camera, and some RAM and GoPro mounts.  I'll rent the helmet along with the bike.

My plan for the rest is not to come off my bike.

I figure I can manage that for a day.

Not many sleeps left to go Bob.

Friday, April 25, 2014

A winning bid!

Sometimes you can't catch a break.

Most times, things just bumble along all OK-like.

And then there are the rare moments when things go really sidewise, or they come out unaccountably well.

Never in a million years did I imagine I would own a limited edition Modern Vespa patch.

Then that whole Limited Edition MV Patches for BitCoin thing cropped up and there was a narrow opportunity to get my hands on one.  The so-called Italia patch screamed "Buy  MEEEE!!".

And, against all odds, I did!

Alas, the seller has since gone incommunicado, inexplicably, and has yet to deliver.  How disappointing and frustrating.  I feel like the odd-man-out kid in the school yard who gets picked to play... and then the missing cool kid shows up and it's all "... Nah, don't bother, we're fine now..."

I'm sure my BitCoin Italia patch will eventually show up, as soon as the seller decides to take an interest in completing the transaction.  I truly do believe he's good for it and that he will deliver.  He just lost interest in the MV scene, momentarily, since March, after posting more than nine times a day since he founded the forum.  The truth is, I hope nothing is really wrong.  Like a health crisis.  Those who know him say not to worry.  So I'm trying not to worry.

And then the law of averages kicks in, and someone with real class strides your way.  Someone like Tom Jaszewski.  And lo and behold, it's not just the Italia patch that might come your way, but the entire MV collection, the whole shooting match, every single year-patch ever made, and every single limited edition.  The only catch is that it's a silent auction.

Never for a moment suspecting I could table a winning bid, I bid anyway.

Whadda ya know?  Hot-damn! I'll be hornswaggled!! I WON!

I never win anything.  Except a Peter Rabbit book when I was four (though technically my mother won since she entered my name in a contest on a popular kids' radio show).  That was in the time few of us remember before all broadcast entertainment moved to television.  A long, long, long time ago.  More than half a century ago.  Man, I'm   old   young at heart.

And then last month I bought a lottery ticket so Susan and I could fantasize about spending 48 million dollars on loved ones, dear friends and colleagues... and I won... $127.90.  Still, a win, is a win, is a win.  And $127.90 will go a fair way to a romantic dinner in Venice next month.

It's starting to look like I might be on a roll.

Look at the bounty that came in the mail yesterday.  Just look at it.  Look at that coveted Italia patch!  And it's here in time to be sewn on my jacket for the Tuscan Loop.  Oh joy!
I know it's silly.  But Tom and I, we appreciate these patches.  And I know I'm a serious guy, and I know Tom is a serious guy.  We have accomplished stuff.  Amazing stuff.

All to say that beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder.  I really feel blessed.  So I don't have to apologize over much for being blown away by a bunch of patches that came in the mail.  Snail-mail.  From Minnesota. Wow.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

2014 Blogger to Blogger Tour - Tuscan Loop

Well, I might as well make this official.

2014 will see another major rider tour.

I'm calling this year's edition the 2014 Blogger to Blogger Tour - Tuscan Loop, or just Tuscan Loop for short.  As with last year's tour, I plan to group all the Tuscan Loop posts in one series on the Touring on a Vespa page

This year will also star three intrepid riders.  Myself and... well I don't want to spoil all the suspense at once.

I got the confirmation this morning from Roberto at Multirent Toscana Srl that my bike is reserved.  I'm really looking forward to it.  It's a 250cc Piaggio MP3.  OK so technically I won't be touring on a Vespa.  But I will definitely be touring in the company of Vespas.  Close enough.
Noleggio Moto ToscanaNoleggio Moto Toscana
Here's a photo of the bike I reserved.
For those unfamiliar with this bike, it's a feat of modern engineering.  Its distinguishing feature is that it has dual independently sprung front wheels.  Some people assume, wrongly, that three wheels makes the MP3 a trike.  Like a CanAm Spyder, or one of those Harley Davidson trikes.  Nothing could be further from the truth, though it is possible to lock the suspension at very low speed so that you can crawl along like a trike in heavy traffic.

As soon as you accelerate, the suspension is released and the MP3 leans in the turns just like a motorcycle.  Actually, better than a motorcycle.  The chief benefit of the design is greatly increased stability on difficult surfaces where traditional powered two-wheelers can struggle. A great example is streetcar tracks and other similar situations that constitute "edge traps" for two-wheeled vehicles.  For those of you who don't ride, think of approaching a sidewalk driveway ramp on a bicycle at too shallow an angle.  The wheels can't manage the edge when the angle is too shallow and the risk of taking a tumble looms.  The MP3 is virtually impervious to edge traps.  There are YouTube videos of people riding MP3s down flights of stairs at a 45 degree angle.  Crazy stuff.

Who better to introduce you to the wonders of the MP3 than the legendary Jay Leno.

The MP3 also has an amazing amount of underseat storage.  I came very close to buying a 400cc MP3 instead of my Vespa GTS.

What stopped me? I wasn't thrilled with the look of the beast.  That front end dominates the bike visually.  I wasn't sure I wanted to trade off amazing styling for amazing handling.  That, and the reported weakness in the steering bearing that could be very expensive to repair.  In the end I chose the Vespa GTS and am thrilled with my choice.

We'll see if I change my mind after a day spent in the saddle of an MP3.  If I decide to recant, you'll read about it here.

Stay tuned, the Tuscan Loop will have much more in store, including some great tips on inter-continental moto touring.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Spam anyone?

Some posts attract spam like bees to honey.  My recent post using the words "calling cards" worked like gangbusters.

I am quite diligent about deleting spam.

That's not to say it's worthless. In fact, it can be pretty entertaining.

The fractured grammar and syntax; the generous helpings of malapropisms; the absence of even the most tenuous logical link to the subject at hand; the clumsy compliments; the absurdly ingratiating tone: the list of clownish qualities just goes on, and on.

It's truly not such bad comedy. Inspector Clouseau raised malapropisms and fractured accent, syntax and syllables to the status of revered high comedy (at least for some of us)... Does your dag baiite?

I've decided that we all deserve to be amused, to bask in the silliness. Why should I horde all the fun and keep it to myself?  It doesn't seem right.

The problem with spam is that it's always so jarringly out of place.  There you are having a chat with your friends, sitting on a patio (here they are "terrasses" - vive la différence!) enjoying some Sangria, basking in the warmth of the sun, exchanging pleasantries, and then this far-too-earnest, type-A clown sits down, honks his rubber nose, and peers into your friend's purse inquisitively.  That's spam.

Now give spam an appropriate context, and the whole thing might flip around. Drag that clown back to the circus, throw him in the ring with a lion or two, or, if you have a large number of clowns, let them drive themselves into the ring in something fitting like an original Austin Mini, or a Fiat Cinquecento.  That'll get some belly-laughs for sure.

Sometimes it's not the act, it's the venue.  This post will be my spam honeypot.  The ring, if you prefer.

How more specially ironic could it be for a post on spam to attract... spam?

To demonstrate my serious commitment to this post, and to the topic of spam, I bought some Spam on a whim.  I hadn't had Spam in a very, very, very long time.  I must have been twelve, thirteen tops.  I only ever liked it sauteed in a pan, so that's what I did.

In its defence it has a very delicate moist texture and acquires a nice golden crust if you treat it just right in the pan.  In hommage to Monty Python, I made myself Spam and eggs.  Well, Spam and egg, actually, over easy... Well how about Spam, eggs, sausage and Spam then? That's not got much Spam in'it!

Let's look at its qualities.  It's hermetically sealed in a can, but remains quite easy to open, even without tools.  That's a plus if you're ever stuck on a desert island with a shipment of Spam but no toolsThat's it, that's all I've got.

On the liability side of balance sheet, getting the Spam out of the can was less easy than I would have liked.

Moving on to flavour and nutrition, well it wasn't quite as entirely delicious as I remembered, and nutritionally there's something about the sugar content that's off, that, and the chemicals.  The good news is that you can get your entire monthly sodium requirement put to bed with a single slice.  How's that for culinary efficiency!

In the end, Spam is to elegant dining what spam is to a good beach novel.  Spam might earn a permanent spot in your emergency preparedness supplies though.  That said, you might prefer a decent varmint rifle instead.  That will help to keep your starving neighbors at bay, and give you an opportunity to hunt for tasty small game, like squirrels.  Regrettably, there is no known alternative use for spam.  Except maybe this post.

If, in the fullness of time, this post does attract its share of spam, I'm going to leave it be.

All that's left to do is bait the trap.  Have you tried online gambling? I hear it's better than Las Vegas! Escorts in Vegas are only $49.95 an hour!!  I'd go there in my monster truck as long as there was plenty of ammunition for my guns, and liquor for the evenings.  I think I'll use my calling card, no wait, my credit card, I pay it off so it's free credit, to book a room.  Or I could wait a few days and take out a payday loan.  I wonder if they've updated the porn channel at the Super 8...

That should just about do it.

My advice to you, my good reader, is enjoy the spam comments, but, by all means, don't click on the links.  No good can come of it.  Like inviting clowns to a formal dinner.

Does the clown association have a gala with awards?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Hanging with the devil

There was company in the office garage last Thursday morning.
Normally my stall-mate is a BMW R1200RT.  Last Thursday I found myself in the company of a Ducati Diavel.

There's something about Italians and sexy rides, no?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

What a difference six months makes

Last fall I posted an uncharacteristically angry post.

Following that post, my fears were rapidly borne out.

Bigoted small-minded citizens were taking it upon themselves to chastise Muslim women wearing headscarves.  There were reports of women being shoved aside on escalators in the Metro accompanied by taunts that they weren't welcome here.

Another anxious turning point followed when the sovereigntist Parti Québécois minority government that had crafted the legislation to adopt the Charter of Values, had the gall to call a spring election.

They had done the very cynical calculus of polarization, betting that there were enough xenophobic Quebeckers supporting their ironically titled Charter of Values to vote the party into a fresh mandate with a majority of seats in the National Assembly.

About a month ago things were looking particularly bleak.  It seemed that the cunning strategy might work.

Then the situation aggravated, and seemed poised to get much, much worse still.

The government trotted out a surprise star candidate.  A renowned multimillionaire businessman, a pillar of Quebec's business elite.  He spontaneously and enthusiastically proclaimed that, in addition to the Charter of Values, he planned to renew the fight for Quebec's secession from the Canadian federation.  His exuberant manifesto was greeted by the cheers of the faithful, and a beaming smile with palm-pounding applause from Prime Minister Pauline Marois.

That moment has to rank as the most depressing moment of my life as a citizen.

If the strategy worked, and the Parti Québecois landed a majority government, which was looming as a very real possibility, an exodus of money and talent would be certain to ensue.  The folks who would likely abandon the province included religious minorities, many of whom are first generation Québécois, and Québécois whose mother-tongue is not French (most of whom speak French fluently).

Not surprisingly, many of those potential leavers were likely to be entrepreneurs and professionals with above-average incomes.  Our economy is already the weakest in North America, the last thing this province needs is another massive hemorrhage of talent and capital.  But that has been the lasting legacy of the Party Québécois.  It's one of the few areas where they excel.  The economy has never been a priority for them.

These dark events had shaken my belief in what I perceived to be the evolution of the province's politics. Prior to the election of the Parti Québécois in 2012, I truly believed that cultural and political peace had taken a firm hold here after decades of costly turmoil.

The economy that began to slide downhill when the Parti Québécois won a minority government in 2012 could be expected to begin a free fall if they won a majority in the upcoming general election.  Bleak was rapidly turning to black.

And then an amazing thing happened.

Quebec voters flatly rejected the kind of future that the Parti Québécois promised.  It turned out that most of my fellow Québécois were about as shaken and appalled by the prospect of that kind of backward, insular, ethnocentric society as I am.

Today, the sun shone brightly and the future looks bright as well.  Never has the Quebec electorate spurned the sovereigntist agenda or the politics of exclusion and cultural elitism with such unequivocal zeal.

My faith in my political perception has been restored.  For the first time since 2012, my outlook is solidly cheerful and optimistic.  We dodged a bullet.

I take these things to heart.  I tend to be a serious worry-wart, and while I do have a sense of humour, I face a crisis like the recent one with grim resolve.  I have difficulty finding the humour in such serious matters.

One of my favorite commentators, and one of Susan's favorite commentators, is Josh Freed.  Mr. Freed's columns are worth every penny of our subscription to the Montreal Gazette.  His post-election column expresses more about our recent past than I could hope to express if I had the luxury of spending weeks trying to find the right words.  Read it here.  To me, it's dead on, and totally hilarious.

Nice one Josh.

You're my literary hero.

You rank right after Mark Twain.

Friday, April 11, 2014

First commute of 2014

On Monday, April 7, 2014 at 07h34, I rolled out of the garage, headed to the office, marking the start of the 2014 scooter commuting season.

The long slow route was the way I chose to go.  I stuck to the surface streets getting used to riding once more.  I needed to get out of my too complacent car-driving habits and back into my vigilant riding routine.

From the late fall to the early spring there is plenty of time for winter to erase things that not so long ago were automatic.

Getting back into the scooter commuting routine involves reviving the rituals that were second nature, but that manage to elude me a little at the start of the season.  Like remembering not to forget to cancel the turn indicators, remembering to put the earplugs in before I put the helmet on, checking to make sure the side stand really is up, and the list goes on.

Then there's the scooter that needs to shake its bugs out too.  Like the check engine light that came on once or twice during the first day's commute, or the left windshield mount that shook itself loose over a rough section of St-Patrick street.   I tried to fix that at lunch time but the pressure mount seems to have fallen apart, shedding a critical part inside the headset.  I ended up jury-rigging a temporary solution with a ROK pack strap.

I've now got three commutes under my belt and that old familiar feeling, the joy of riding, the focus, the nimble swooping way the bike takes turns and corners, the swift acceleration that leaves a yawning gap between me and the car behind me on the expressway, is all flooding back.  This is why I ride.

PS for Richard:

Here is what's left of winter in our back yard.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Out of the barn: a trifecta of creature comforts

It felt good, yet unfamiliar.

I think it's the Tucano Urbano Termoscud lap apron.  I hauled it out of its storage bag and installed it before venturing out on Sunday.  The thermometer was finally edging up into positive territory, and the snow cover with southern exposure was thinning or gone.

I had first seen lap aprons on scooters in Paris when Susan and I were there in the fall of 2008.  Scooters dominate the field for two-wheeled commuters in Paris, Barcelona, Rome, Naples and Sorrento, or so it seems to me based on my casual observations.  In Paris, lap aprons are a frequent accessory, and the Termoscud is the nec plus ultra of lap aprons.

The legshield is the distinctive feature of most scooters, and the generous legshield that the Vespa GTS offers is second to none.  When you add a Termoscud, things get downright cosy.  The Termoscud seals off the mid section of the Vespa and covers your lower body.  It is very well designed using balistic nylon and has a stiffness to it that both eliminates the airflow to your lower body and traps the air that flows past the Vespa's twin radiators, raising the termperature in the enclosure to the point where you can ride in comfort in a regular unlined pair of jeans even when it's very cold out.  Not even a need for long-johns.

It just takes some getting used to, is all.

You have to fit yourself onto the bike, sliding onto the saddle and under the apron.  There is a kind of flap that tucks up under your riding jacket that keeps the apron aligned and in position.  It's a little fussy, but no overly so.  It just takes some getting used to, is all.

There is no problem putting your feet down when you stop, and then, as soon as you're underway, your feet tuck back in like landing gear.

On the expressway the Termoscud is as stable as can be.  There is absolutely no rippling from the air flow.  It comes standard with a couple of inflatable bladders that act as lateral battens.  I didn't bother inflating them and frankly I don't think I will.  People swear by their Termoscuds, and now I see why.  Cold, what cold?

The Tucano Urbano Termoscud is the first winner of the 2014 trifecta spring classic scooter commuter season.
Next up: a tall shield.

My Vespa o.e.m. tall windscreen looks after my upper body very nicely.  For the bulk of my commuting the weather is balmy.  The Vespa flyscreen does a fine job of eliminating the wind blast to my torso.  I couldn't ride expressways much without it because the force of the wind is quite tiring.

For the cold bookend portions of the riding season, more protection is needed to keep things comfy.  In addition to reducing the wind assault to my chest and head, the tall OEM windscreen does two really handy things.  The screen extends out far enough to deflect the wind from my hands.  It isn't enough to avoid all the wind chill, but with winter gauntlets, it makes things tolerable, hand-wise, and that's handy indeed.

A tall shield is a must-have for cold weather commuting.

In the interest of full disclosure, few things are so truly perfect that they can't stand to be tweaked.  The ideal height for a tall windscreen is about level with your nose.  I took mine to a local glass shop and had it cut down.  In addition to improving the look, there's also a practical reason.  It's important to be able to look over, rather than through, a motorcycle windscreen.  This is especially true if it's raining, or the screen is littered with bugs.  Cutting the screen down to that level doesn't interfere with the protection it affords since the airflow still sails over the top of your helmet.
I said it was a trifecta, and it certainly is.

Heated grips.

Given a fighting chance by the windscreen, my Oxford Heaterz do a superb job looking after my hands.  As I rode off along the lakeshore I had them on the highest setting.  I use a Heattroller electronic heat control rather than the stock Oxford control.  Click on the link below to find out more about the heated grip set up on my bike.

Four blocks into my ride and I had to dial them back to medium heat.  My hands were cooking!!

On the expressway, with the Vespa cranking out maximum amperage, even the medium setting was too hot for comfort.

If you have a Vespa and want the luxury of heated grips, by all means don't deny yourself.  Click here if your bike is a Vespa LX150, or click here if you have a Vespa GTS.  Everything you need to know to purchase and install heated grips yourself is right there.
And there they are folks, your 2014 trifecta spring classic scooter commuter winners.

And that's why the interminable winter has been such a pain, because I know, for a fact, that I have the very best cold weather commuting two-wheeler in existence.  It was icy roads, not the cold that was keeping my bike in the barn.

That's a challenge then.  Who thinks they have a better cold weather two-wheeled solution, warmth and comfort-wise?  Sure the Big Beemers have heated saddles, but so does the Vespa because that's where the motor is.  Cold bum is not a problem in search of a solution.

Ride safely everyone, I declare the 2014 season open!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Calling cards

My grandmother who was born in 1895 in England, and who married into a patrician family in Montreal in 1918, or thereabouts, sometimes related her memories of life among the upper classes in Montreal before the Great Depression ended the patrician dream.

One of the tidbits she shared was that gentlemen had calling cards.

Today we know them as business cards.

I have two business cards.  One for my day job, and one for my volunteer job as the national chairman of a professional society.

Recently when I was in Vancouver Bob showed me his calling cards, and offered me one of each.  You see, Bob has two calling cards.  They aren't business cards, because joyriding in a Chevy Corvette is hardly business.  Neither is joyriding on a motorcycle.

His Corvette calling card is for when he's in a Corvette social setting (parading in a fleet of 'Vettes, or chatting with curious and envious passersby) and there may be an opportunity for more than a fleeting social connection.  When he isn't joyriding in the 'Vette, Bob's marauding on his R1200R or V-Strom and similar occasions arise, hence the second calling card.

Offering to trade contact information can be awkward, not to mention presumptuous.  Offering a calling card, on the other hand, is very acceptable, not at all forward, often appreciated, and harks back to an earlier more genteel period when gentlemen might "come calling" out of the blue.  The butler would come to the door, and one imagines an exchange they might have had.

"Good morning sir!"

"Yes, it is, quite.  Is his lordship receiving visitors?"

"Regrettably sir, his lordship is unavailable at present, whom shall I say stopped by?"

"I see... no sense in disturbing him, please be so kind as to accept my card and let his lordship know that I am anxious to meet with him to discuss matters of shared interest."

"Certainly sir."

"Good day then!"

Good day, sir."

In the interest of fairness and full disclosure, Steve Williams offered Bob, Karen and I his calling card last August, and Bob's friend Jenny Mah also has a calling card she offered to me that sits in my card collection.  I wonder if that's where Bob got his inspiration.  Could it be a new social trend?

At all events, since Bob and I have taken to jointly marauding all over the continent on our bikes, it's fitting for me to have a calling card too.  Since I don't have the skill to make a decent one, Bob offered to "hook me up".  He wanted to make sure I was well-equipped, socially speaking, when I go abroad in May to visit the Continent.

I have Karen to thank for the photo.  It has special meaning for me because it was taken mere moments after I hit the kill switch after rolling in to our rendez-vous point in Pennsylvania.

Here's my calling card.
I like the QR code.  It's also on my Vespa.  That makes my Vespa one heck of a calling card all by itself.

I should add that the actual calling card is razor-sharp.  I don't want anyone thinking that Bob does shoddy work.  The culprit is my iPhone and limited patience for macro photography.  Sorry Bob.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Spring road assessment

2014 will be season five for me as a Vespa commuter.

To be honest, I don't recall the beginning of any previous riding season being quite so challenging.

Spring road assessments are usually the responsibility of municipal work crews who hunt for and fill in potholes.

This year is different.  There is a combination of unusual climate conditions in play.  For one thing there is a lot of snow.  There are still substantial snowbanks by the road side.  Then there is the sun that now rises early enough, rides high enough above the horizon,  and sets late enough, to melt the snow cover no matter what the ambient temperature may be.

Finally there is the un-remitting cold front.  Arctic air is pushing down and surrounding Montreal in its embrace.  Montreal's climate this year is more like the climate you usually get in Quebec City.  I remember going to Quebec City in April.  Montrealers had shifted to spring outerwear for a good few weeks.  In Quebec City, there were snowbanks, and people were still in parkas.

When you combine these ingredients what you get is runoff from the snow melt that collects in roadside puddles where it gets splashed around the roadway.  Because the ambient temperatures are so low, the water freezes and you get swaths of pavement that you could play pond hockey on.  The problem is compounded by the fact that the public works people have gotten to the end of the road salt allotment, so now they're hoarding not salting.

As usual in the spring, there are some massive potholes here and there along my commuting routes.  In the south, they'd call them sinkholes.  Combined with the ice coverage that just kind of happens here and there, commuting on two wheels is just way too risky.  The expressway is treacherous in places (like ice covering a lane-width for a ten to fifteen foot stretch), and the surface streets have even larger ice surfaces with oncoming traffic precluding use of the other lane as an escape route.

So that's how I find myself doing road surface assessments during my morning and evening commutes.

It was above freezing overnight and today we hit 6C.  I could have ridden this morning, the ice was all water.  I'll see if that holds for the evening commute.

This is not something you can take a risk on.  Sure, you can take your bike out to toodle around the neighborhood.  But risk a commute?  No way.  Not yet.

Interestingly there were powered two wheelers in use today downtown.  No motorcycles.  Only Asian 50cc scooters.  Not likely to have been commuters though, at least no one with a thirty kilometer route to tackle.  Last night I saw a guy on a BMW GS going way too fast on a service road, passing traffic.  He looked all Paris-Dakkar'ish and way too exuberant.  I prayed that he didn't hit an ice patch.

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