Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Road Not Taken

Robert Frost wrote: 
Two roads diverge in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth; Text 

It's always been a favorite of mine because I think it describes a way of life that I've at least aspired to. Now that I've turned 60 and recognized that I've traveled a lot more roads than I have left to travel the choices seem more and more important.

As a runner I've often been criticized because I don't feel the need to hurry through races. My philosophy is that the reason I train is so that I can be out on the race courses. Why, once I'm there, would I try to get through the experience as quickly as I can? It seems backwards. If you want to run fast, do that at home. If you travel to an event, take your time. 

Those same people probably would have criticized my old Army Band and fellow motorcycle traveler, Larry, and I for our approach to motorcycle touring. As I wrote in a recent column, we often had a a destination in mind, and had an itinerary marked clearly on a map, but we rarely followed the map and almost never got to where we were headed.

My fondest memories is of Larry and I relaxing in a field somewhere looking up at the clouds and saying "The is my kind of touring"

Over the years that changed some. As I started riding bigger bikes, as my destinations got farther and farther away, as I saw more of what I wanted to see I lost some of my core principles. I lost sight of the truth that it doesn't matter where I want to be, it's where I am is what's important.

The Piaggio MP3 400 has helped me remember why it was that I started riding in the first place. It's helped me remember that that act of riding is it's own reward. It has help me rediscover the joy of exploring the world closest to me. It's been a renaissance of riding. 

Jenny and I both have BMW R1150Rs. We rode 1,000 miles in 22 hours on those bike. We rode all the way around Lake Michigan in a single day. Why? Because we could.

I won't be doing that on the Piaggio MP3 400, although I think I could. I won't because there's no need to do that to enjoy the scooter. I'll be doing what I'm doing now, hopping on and riding because it just feels good.

People who know me understand that it's exactly what I do when I run. And when the roads of my life diverged, as the traveler in Frost's poem, "I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference."

Waddle on,


Monday, September 21, 2009

Ice Cream Run

I'm pretty sure it was the former Olympic marathoner and writer, Don Kardong, who was quoted as saying that a life without ice cream wasn't worth living. I agree. But, I would add that a life without chocolate ice cream wasn't worth living. I was the kid that when they opened the half gallon of Neapolitan ice cream was careful to scrape of any remnants of the vanilla and strawberry. And, while we're talking about it, chocolate should be chocolate, not all mixed up with bits and pieces of other things. Double chocolate? Sure. Chocolate chocolate chip. OK. But leave out the flavors that distract from the chocolate.

The part of this whole Piaggio MP3 scooter experiment that has been the most intriguing for me is how much I'm enjoying it.  And, how much sense having it makes. Don't misunderstand, I knew that I would like ANYTHING that allowed me to throw my leg over it and had a motor. What I didn't expect was that I would choose to ride the scooter over a garage full of motorcycles. You could argue that part of it is that it's like a new toy and I want to play with it. But I would argue that it's more than that.

The other evening Jenny and I had enjoyed a nice dinner at home. We'd fired up the grill, sat on the deck at sunset and basked in the cool temperatures. Then someone - probably me - mentioned taking a ride to go get ice cream. I didn't say "Let's take the Piaggio". I just said let's take a ride for ice cream.

The next thing I know we're in the garage and I'm backing the MP3 out of the door. Jenny is NOT looking to drag out a motorcycle of her own to ride, but is dressing warmly so that we can go "two-up." I can't emphasize this enough. Jenny has NEVER wanted to ride two-up. But something about being on the Piaggio has changed all that.

So we did exactly that. We hopped on the scooter and went for ice cream. No drama. No agenda. No plan, really, other than heading over to The Plush Pony - there is a nearly live size toy pony inside - for ice cream. As is always the case when you're on an MP3 the ice cream stopped turned into a conversation about how cool the scooter was.

When we left the cool night air was perfect and we took the long way home. And not just a block or two out of the way, but miles of riding for no other reason than it felt good.

I'm not sure how long this can last. I'm not sure how long I'll have the scooter, but I can tell you that I would already miss the element of pure pleasure that it has provided.


Monday, September 14, 2009

All Day Sucker

300 Miles on 3 Wheels. A Day in the Life

I'm not sure when it started, but the call of the open road has been a constant pedal point in my head for as long as I can remember. I just love being on the road. These days, that means running and riding. Being cooped up in a car, or a motor home with 3 grandchildren under age 5 can be rewarding, but this weekend it was about finding a stretch of road, twisting the throttle, and heading into the next mile.

Saturday morning dawned cool and foggy. I call in riding to Brigadoon, the Scottish town of the same name that is said to come to life only one day every 100 years.

First stop was to pick up my buddy Harry, a motorcycle enthusiast, pilot, and old friend. Harry has owned, and still owns, nearly every motorcycle that I have ever wanted to ride. His tastes mirror mine in almost every way. His wife rides a Vespa 250 so I knew we could have a scooter date, and I was sure that his impressions of the Piaggio MP3 would be interesting. Our agenda for the day was simply to get on the scooters and ride. We'd done this before on a variety of motorcycles and the goal was to see if it would be different on the scooters. It was, and it wasn't.

Our first stop was the hanger at Walgreen Field in Dixon, IL. The Board of Directors, a group of pilots, aircraft owners, and mechanics meet nearly every day to discuss planes, politics, and whatever else someone brings to the table. It is the classic gathering with good conversation over bad coffee. I expected them to be, at least, intrigued by the Piaggio MP3 and I wasn't disappointed. From the instant I rolled up until the adjournment of the meeting the hows and whys of the front suspension were the only topic.

It's important to understand that these are essentially airplane guys. Their knowledge of, and appreciation for, how things work exceeds even the most adamant motorcyclist. After all, if things don't work on a motorcycle you might have to walk home. If they don't work on an airplane, well, life can get ugly in a hurry. Once they got past the how does this work question the real issue seemed to be why would Piaggio do this. What was the point, so to speak. Beyond the engineering exercise was there any reason  have this configuration. We didn't answer the question, but we had a wonderful debate.

Then it was time for Harry and I to hit the roads. I explained that I wanted Harry to spend the day on the MP3 for two reasons. First, and most important, I wanted to get his riding impressions. Secondly, though I wanted to watch another rider on the Piaggio so that I could see what was going on and maybe learn a bit about how to ride it well. Our first stop, to fuel up, set the tone for the entire day. Every time we stopped, and sometimes even when we weren't stopped, people wanted to talk about the MP3. Seeing the two-wheel front end everyone had questions. Every stop turned into a conversation.
The longer we road the more I noticed the subtle changes in the way Harry was riding the MP3. Like everyone, he started by playing with the front end. As the miles went by he began to truly experience the whole vehicle. But rather than my telling you, here's what Harry had to say: I have owned at least fifty motorcycles over fifty years and have never met one that I did not like...except perhaps a Victor 441 that seemed created to provoke my shortage of vocabulary while trying to start the @#$%^&* thing.  This promised to be an opportunity to ride something “really different”

As a few miles rolled by, it became obvious that the idiot who was writing the supertitles need to be replaced.  This wonderful machine was NOT a scooter.  It is too heavy and “planted” to be considered in those terms.  In fact after a dozen or so miles of very curvy county roads, it began to dawn on me that I was not thinking in any known two wheel mode familiar to me.

In my humble opinion, the MP3 400 is a magnificent piece of engineering with cornering ability that could allow a good rider to humiliate a squid on a sport bike, especially when confronted with a less than perfect road surface with neither steep hills nor connecting straight-aways. Harry's full riding impression are at the end of this blog.

The surprise for both of us is that the MP3 is not a motorcycle, it's not a scooter either. It's, well, it's not anything LIKE anything else. When you try to describe something new the temptation is to compare it to something else, something you already know. The problem with the MP3 is that there isn't anything else against which it can be compared except, of course, another MP3. Beyond the mere look of the vehicle, way past the novelty and the bold styling, there is an absolutely fantastic piece of riding equipment. You don't see or feel it right away, but eventually it sinks in: This is special

The joy of riding backroads in America's heartland is that you never know what you're going to come across. The scooters are parked in front of what in my experience is the largest rock garden anywhere. It stands to reason, I suppose, that living in the vicinity of the Rock River that people would find all manner of things to do with rocks. This person certainly had. They had piled them up in a vast array of styles and shapes and figures the likes of which I had never seen.
The other grand joy in riding the backroads is in the riding, pure and simple. I long ago came to understand that as satisfying as it may be to quantify a ride with miles covered on a long strip of Interstate highway, it is every bit as satisfying to look at the quality of the ride. That quality comes in equal measures from the equipment you're riding, the company you are keeping, the care you take to be present for each moment, and your willingness to discard any thought you had of what the day might be.

For us. the day ended much as it had begun; talking to people. We thought we had found an out-of-the-way place to relax and enjoy a cool drink and to reflect on the findings of that day. That peace was quickly shattered by yet another couple of curious onlookers. These folks were motorcyclist. Classic, American, Big Bore, V-Twin motorcyclists. Their theory is that if it worked in 1950, it should work just fine now. But even their hide-bound attitudes towards motorcycling couldn't keep them from admiring the MP3. 

That's my take-away lesson of the day. When you decided to do something new - whether that's run a marathon or design and build a scooter with two front wheels - people are going to be curious at first but will not really buy into the idea. To be a marathon runner, or to be a rider on an MP3, takes a bit more courage, a bit more attitude, than sitting around and letting your life pass you by. And in the end, that's the part about riding the Piaggio MP3 that I'm enjoying the most.

Waddle on,
Guest Commentary
Harry is many things: former professor, entrepreneur, businessman, pilot, and motorcyclist. He appreciates all things mechanical and seemed like the perfect person to ask to spend a day on the Piaggio MP3. What follows is his description of that day.

A Day on an Piaggio MP3: Riding Impressions and more.
Submitted by Harry Spell

On Saturday, last, an old friend came calling, asking me to ride something really different and give an opinion.  Fine, so far, as I really enjoy John's company and do not have the opportunity to spend nearly enough time with him and his lovely wife, Jenny.  Jenny was busy as was my wife, Karly so we had the day to enjoy a new Piaggio MP3 400 and, to provide a foil, my wife's two year old Vespa 250ie.  I was somewhat familiar with the MP3 as I had ridden a 250cc model while my wife was finishing up the paper work for her new Vespa.

Hold that thought....

John said, “how about we spend the day on the two 'scooters', you on the MP3 and me on the Vespa?”.  Done!  I have owned at least fifty motorcycles over fifty years and have never met one that I did not like...except perhaps a Victor 441 that seemed created to provoke my shortage of vocabulary while trying to start the @#$%^&* thing.  This promised to be an opportunity to ride something “really different” (MP reference intentional).  My supertitle scrolled “SCOOTER” as it did not look like a motorcycle, had a “step through” frame, small wheels, and no visible clutch.

  Back to the first paragraph thought...

The first impression, with my svelt porcine physique, was that, at least, it was large enough that I would not look like a gorilla on a tricycle.  The suspension made a great impression considering city traffic and obligatory potholes, but alas, the power delivery was closer to that of a simeon on a velocipede.  After being reminded by the salesman that I was riding double before the exercise began, I returned to my second analysis of the MP3, the engineering is simply riveting.  You just want to crawl under to see how the front end works.  My wife reminded me that she had just taken possession of a stunning new red Vespa and to stop ogling images of algorithms and parallelograms.  I put the notion of having a MP3 out of my mind but the engineering sugar plums kept dancing in my head.

So, off we go with me thinking “scooter” with motor.  As a few miles rolled by, it became obvious that the idiot who was writing the supertitles need to be replaced.  This wonderful machine was NOT a scooter.  It is too heavy and “planted” to be considered in those terms.  In fact after a dozen or so miles of very curvy county roads, it began to dawn on me that I was not thinking in any known two wheel mode familiar to me.  You see, I approach every motorcycle/scooter from the front wheel back.  What is happening to the front wheel determines the whole day.  It is that feed-back of grip, stability, push, turn-in, understeer/oversteer, etc. that establishes the basic nature of the machine.  I know, for some it is all about the motor; but, in my humble estimation, the motor is not very important if it cannot be manipulated down an exquisite path with an ever-widening grin.  Here is the dilemma, the MP3, little by little, inspires such confidence in the front-end that I began to stop thinking about it.  Hold the phone, this is huge; fifty plus years of riding, with all the baggage that goes with it has to be re-evaluated.

In what terms?!

I began with “scooter”, moved to a faster pace that whispered “motorcycle”, and suddenly entered the world of “sports car”!  Now what?  There is an interesting thing about preconceived notions; they are usually based upon anecdotal rather than empirical evidence.  They can also get you into things that require studied consideration; usually requiring a bit more time that a mid-corner correction allows.  It is all about definitions and categories.  I am reminded of the conundrum that must have confronted the first writer seeing a 1921 Ner-A-Car.  What is this?

Bottom line.

In my humble opinion, the MP3 400 is a magnificent piece of engineering with cornering ability that could allow a good rider to humiliate a squid on a sport bike, especially when confronted with a less than perfect road surface with neither steep hills nor connecting straight-aways.  If this suggests that a bit more motor would be nice along with more legroom, I plead guilty.  But then what is the target audience?  The MP3 is a bit heavy, for a beginning rider, especially if that rider is not adept at triggering the lock that allows feet on the floorboard stops. It also is too “pricey” to attract many first time customers.  At the end of the day, I was not tired, most anxious to talk about this great machine, and would welcome the opportunity to do it all again.  I love to carve corners without worrying about that pesky front contact patch.  Bravo e gratzie Piaggio!!

P.S. This is the abbreviated analysis.  This wonderfully executed engineering masterpiece deserves an article or at least a poem.  If I had to ride on unfamiliar roads in the rain, this would be my first choice of everything other than a chauffeured limo.


Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Table For Two

I'm starting to get used to the finger pointing. Everywhere I ride, people point. It's not me they're pointing at, it's the Piaggio MP3.

Last night Jenny and I decided to do two of our favorite things. One, have dinner at P.F. Chang's - where I think in time they will change the name of Sesame chicken to John's Chicken - and ride the new scooter. And that's where the pointing began.

Pulling in to the parking lot folks sitting on the outdoor porch started pointing. Then, they smile. They are smiling because WE are smiling and the whole place turns into a giant smile-fest. That's the best part of riding an MP3. It makes me smile, and makes everyone who sees it smile.

What's really fun about riding the MP3 is that Jenny seems quite content to be a passenger. To say that Jenny is independent is an understatement. She has never been the kind to be happy sitting behind me and just taking in the scenery. Something about the MP3, though, has changed her attitude.

In may be the whole pointing thing. Jenny sits back there waving at everyone like a Homecoming Queen. I can feel her moving around. She waves at kids in cars who press their faces against the windows trying to get a better look and she waves to other motorcyclists who do a double-take when they see us ride by.

After dinner we took the long way home. It was a beautiful evening and there's just something peaceful about riding the backroads on the MP3. There's plenty of power but it's unnecessary. The sense of not being in any hurry, of being satisfied with exactly what's going on, and of feeling like there's no need to be anxious to get to anywhere else is the perfect end to the day.

Turns out it's the perfect Penguin attitude.

Scooter on,

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Me, MotoGP, and the MP3

Just about everything at the Red Bull Indy MotoGP was new for me. I was riding on the new Piaggio MP3, I was going to an international MotoGP event for the first time, I'd be meeting up with my new colleagues at Piaggio and Aprilia, and I'd be rooming and riding with my son and his step-dad [an old riding buddy of mine]. I can tell you that everything about the weekend, from the ride to the racing to the company and conversation exceeded my expectations.
THURSDAY, August 27. The ride begins.

Being on a new ride, and not really knowing what it would be like to be traveling on a 400cc, three-wheeled scooter, I decided to give myself two days to cover the 200 miles or so from home to Indy. Turns out that the scooter was so comfortable that it was completely unnecessary.
I was amazed at how much luggage capacity there was on the MP3. I had packed my small MotoFIZZ bag, but almost didn't need it. The underseat storage on the Piaggio could have held nearly everything I needed to carry.

FRIDAY, August 28. The track ride.

The first highlight of the weekend was getting to ride a lap on the actual Indy MotoGP course. I've run the track, of course, during the Indy Mini Half Marathon. It was exciting enough just to be on the same ground as racing legends like AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti.

I also got to drive my old Firebird around the track. Talk about cool. Getting up on the banking, pushing the pedal down the main straight, slowing for turn one; awesome.

But riding the Indy MotoGP road course was better than any of that. Feeling the tightness of the curves, knowing that the GP riders would be going more than twice as fast as I was going made the hair on my arms stand up. The MP3 was perfect because I could hold my camera with one hand and work the throttle with the other.

SATURDAY, August 29. Practice, Qualifying, and Barbeque.

We spent most of the day Saturday wandering around the manufacturers exhibits and down in the pits. Being nuts and bolts guys we all wanted to see inside the garages. There's a calm but intense energy that I've only experienced in motor racing. There's so much to do and only so much time to do it that there's no extra time for lots of drama.

Saturday night we went to the Aprilia barbeque and then to the Indy Mile, a flat-track race. There's no way to describe what it looks, feels, and smells like at flat-track races. These riders - who come by the stands at well over 100 miles and hour and THEN slide through the corners - are simpy amazing. The racing went on until nearly midnight.

SUNDAY, August 30. Race Day.

With Pat's connections [him being a VP and all] we were able to get pit passes. For a bona fide gear head like me this is as good as it gets. The bike in the photo set the record fastest lap AND Simoncelli road it to victory in the 250 GP race.  Watching them prep the bikes, watching the calm precision, the focus, is one of my favorite things to do. We had exceptional access because of Pat and we made good use of it.

MONDAY, August 31, The Ride Home.

The ride home is almost never as much fun as the ride there. After a perfect weekend of bikes and buddies it's hard to face heading into the wind of everything waiting for us. I decided, in part because it was SO cold and, in part, because I wasn't in any hurry, to take the smallest roads that I could find on the way back.  

It wasn't enough just to be on two-lane roads. I wanted to be on the roads that we off the two-lanes. I wanted to take the roads that lead from one little town to the next. The roads that only the people who need to go between those two towns ever take.

I found what I was after and the Piaggio was the perfect companion. I'd run it at 75 MPH on the interstate on Friday, so I knew it was capable of that speed, but both of us were happier at 55 MPH cruising past corn fields and creeping through the small towns. At that speed I was able to soak up the geography and culture of central Indiana and Illinois. It's less than 200 miles from the house, but it is light-years away from where I live.

So, it was a magic weekend; one that will be hard to duplicate. And that may be the point. Nothing can ever truly be repeated. Even an annual event is altered by our own aging, our shifts in perspective, and the deepening of our experience.

I wouldn't want it any other way.