Category Archives: 2014: Mission Prep

Dealing With Over-Design

This is what the Vespa looks like with the floorboard and other panels removed. Sunny is ready to investigate further.
This is what the Vespa looks like with the floorboard and other panels removed. Sunny is ready to investigate.

YouTube became my best friend and prevented me from throwing tools across the room while prepping Linda’s Vespa for Nova Scotia.

I wanted to install a couple of outlets on the dashboard so she could plug in her heated Gerbings jacket. As we’ve talked about elsewhere here, having heated clothing can make the difference between misery and comfort on a ride.

Ignorant of Italian design, I thought it would be a simple job. “Two wires, how long could it take?” I figured 20, 30 minutes, tops. A simple job, right?

Oh my God, what a frickin’ nightmare.

I had two outlets, a powerlet (like a cigarette lighter, only smaller in diameter) and a Gerbings coax power plug, much smaller and designed to work with Gerbing gear.

But where to put them? Vespa has two plastic “kneepads” on the dash. The right one conceals the fluid reservoir for the cooling system. The left one opens into the front of the frame and has space for extra wires — the obvious choice.

I wanted to hardwire each plug directly to the battery, which is located below the metal floorboard. I started by removing the big rubber mat.

That’s when things got interesting. I took off panel after panel – battery cover, kick panel, front grille – and discovered a perfect bottleneck for wires in that little hump between the rider’s feet.

Existing wires to the headlights and horn and whatnot were packed into this tiny passageway and there was no way to thread extra wires through. I had to pull everything, including the front panel, glovebox hatch, ignition switch, fusebox, passenger footrests, and rear mudguards. Everything was connected; you had to take out one piece to get access to another. Not to mention the chrome and rubber trim over it all.

Labeling the fasteners helpled.
Labeling the fasteners helped.

And the fasteners! The screws and bolts were starting to pile up and I was afraid I’d overlook or lose something and mess up the reassembly. So I got some cardboard, punched holes in it and put in the screws, labeling them as I went along.

I found myself consulting a couple of YouTube videos, one from Scooter West that showed you just about everything, and another from some German fellow who was doing the same thing I was. Those visual demonstrations really helped, especially after I watched each one about 400 times.

This sort of complexity isn’t just Vespa; every vehicle has its quirks. I remember having to remove a footpeg and shifting levers from Discovery, my 1994 Yamaha 750 Virago, just to get to the oil filter.

It’s ridiculous, but there you are. And the first time you do any work of this sort is the hardest. Each time afterwards becomes easier and you don’t waste time by wondering why in hell the bike is engineered this way.

This is how it turned out.
All that for this.

I ended up trying to do it as my father would, taking my time and devoting the better part of a weekend to install those two wires. (It wouldn’t have taken him that long.) Reassembly went pretty smoothly and both plugs worked after everything was bolted back together.

As it turned out, Linda never needed to use her heated jacket during the Nova Scotia ride. But she could have, if needed.

Reacquisition, finally


As the light grew swiftly around them, and the shrunken sun lifted once more into the Jovian sky, Poole and Bowman reached out silently and shook each other’s hands.

Though they could scarcely believe it, the first part of the mission was safely over.

– Arthur C. Clarke, “2001: A Space Odyssey”


After an absence of 56 days the Vespa is home. Getting it back was an odyssey itself.

We leave early Saturday on Terra Nova, my Yamaha Super Tenere. Naively, I thought we could scoot down I-95 and get into Richmond without hitting too much traffic.

vespa.traffic1Well, that was pretty stupid. Southbound traffic quickly turns thick and 95 becomes a parking lot of grimly determined vacationers at the merger of the high occupancy vehicle lane. I can feel clutch plates burning as we negotiate the stop-and-go traffic. It would have been quicker to go to Jupiter.

But we finally arrive, four hours later, and the Vespa looks perfect.

“You’re good to go,” says Chelsea Lahmers, Scoot Richmond’s owner, and she explains how the old pump used plastic parts that expanded and seized when the pump got too hot. The new fuel pump, she says, has different material that’s unaffected by heat. The replacement was under warranty.

I ask about the notion that a Vespa gas tank should be kept a quarter-full for cooling purposes and she laughs and says no. “That’s just the Internet,” she says.

We hang around Scoot Richmond to admire the Triumphs and Vespas, and talk to Chelsea about SR’s impressive expansion. After lunch at Camden’s Dogtown Market, we take our leave.

We stay off 95 for the ride back, taking U.S. 60 west and turning north on U.S. 522 to State Route 28 and then home on I-66.

We’re both tired but it’s a wonderful ride over quiet rolling hills past small towns and old buildings and I realize how much I’ve missed these pre-interstate highways that cross America. Route 66 gets all the glory, but some of those other roads are just as impressive.

60Route 60 is an old friend of ours. We rode it through Salt River Canyon in Arizona in 2007; that was an awesome ride. We were aboard Endurance, my BMW R1150GS, and waited out a hellacious rainstorm under a gas station canopy in Show Low with two guys on KTMs and a couple on a Harley. It was like riding through a car wash.

We left when the rain eased up a little, but the descent into the canyon turned London foggy and the rain started up again. We were riding through gray sheets of water with only a tiny guardrail between us and a thousand-foot drop to the canyon floor and I started laughing hysterically at the absurdity of it all; Linda thought I’d lost my mind.

Someday, I’d like to retrace Route 60’s original path. It used to run from Virginia Beach to Los Angeles, though it now ends northeast of Yuma, Arizona, at the intersection of I-10 at Quartzsite. That’s a ride for another day.

vespa.gauge1We’re too tired to do much once we get home but I fiddle with the Vespa the next day, installing the quarter-sized thermometer Linda liked and a new bracket for the rear Hyper-Lights. I have more work to do before this year’s ride, but it’s good to have the Vespa home.

Unable to Reacquire (Part 2)


The voice of Mission Control faded out. At the same moment, the alert sounded.

“What’s wrong?” called Bowman, although he already knew the answer.

“The Alpha-Echo three-five unit has failed, as I predicted,” said Hal.

– Arthur C. Clarke, “2001: A Space Odyssey”


If the Vespa were Discovery, the spacecraft in “2001,” its fuel pump would be our AE-35 unit.

Scoot Richmond discovered Linda’s bike was part of a manufacturer’s recall to replace faulty fuel pumps. They’ve ordered a replacement and are installing it now. We should be able to retrieve the bike on Saturday.

We should have been notified about the recall, but perhaps Vespa wasn’t aware we had one. At any rate, the replacement is free.

This will probably solve our stalling-out problem but I’ll be keeping an eye on the bike – and thinking about the pump – all during this year’s ride.

Advice on the Modern Vespa website says Vespa pumps need a bit of care. As with most vehicles, the pump is inside the gas tank, but on this scooter, the gasoline acts like a coolant. So we shouldn’t let the gas level get below a quarter-tank.

That’s rather a pain in the ass, because it will force us to stop more often than we’d like. But we can handle it. I’ll still carry extra fuel aboard Terra Nova.

Motorcycles are said to have “character” when they develop a quirk that requires some looking-after. Older British motorcycles and pre-1984 Harley-Davidsons are famous for them.

So now the Vespa officially has character. And I have something that’s going to quietly haunt me to Nova Scotia and back.

Unable to Reacquire (Part 1)


The word “rescue” was carefully avoided in all Astronautics Agency statements and documents; it implied some failure of planning, and the approved jargon was “reacquisition.”

– Arthur C. Clarke, “2001: A Space Odyssey”


It was supposed to be a simple day: Get up early, take the Yamaha to Richmond to reacquire Linda’s Vespa, and come home.

It didn’t turn out that way.

Linda’s bike was at a shop called Scoot Richmond, a full-service dealer in Vespa scooters and Triumph motorcycles. We’d dropped off her scooter six weeks ago for body work, a tune-up, and new tires.

DSCN0699Getting the scooter there and back is an exhausting process – Richmond is about 110 miles from us down I-95, which is a miserably crowded highway in the summer.

But the shop is the closest one for mechanical and body work on Vespas. We’ve been there before and they seem pretty good.

I should have expected trouble, because we had difficulty getting the Vespa there in June.

Linda was riding it and I was following on Terra Nova, my Yamaha Super Tenere. After getting off the highway (two miles from the shop!) the Vespa stalled out at a city intersection and refused to start.

I’m pretty much mechanically illiterate, but I know some basic stuff. We parked in the delivery bay of an office building, mercifully closed, and I tested for vapor lock, switch settings and whatnot. The bike cranked over fine, but didn’t want to fire.

It appeared low on fuel so I rabbited off to the nearest gas station – in an apparently dicey part of town, judging from the thickness of the Plexiglas inside the building – and returned with a two-gallon container of Sunoco high-test. That didn’t help.

We called Scoot Richmond, which sent a Toyota pickup. After filling out some paperwork, we went home. Over the next few weeks, I phoned SR for updates, with particular interest in what caused the stall. They were working on it.

DSCN0696Today the Vespa is ready. The bodywork is done, the new tires installed and mechanical work completed. They’ve taken it out for a test ride and all is well. I scan the paperwork and everything seems in order, but…

“What caused it to stall?” I ask.

“You probably just ran out of gas,” the guy says. “Even after you put gas in, you probably didn’t crank it enough to get the new gas into the engine.”

I suppose this sounds logical. I don’t have much experience with Vespas, they’re exotic machines, but this simple explanation could be possible.

Linda isn’t convinced. “It doesn’t sound like you addressed the problem,”she says to one of the mechanics.

But the Vespa starts up fine and idles perfectly. So we ride away, north on I-95. She’s lead, I’m wingman.

I-95 is the highway we love to hate. It’s the main freeway down the East coast and it’s a perpetually gridlocked parking lot in summer, especially on weekends. We left home extra early to avoid the crowds heading for Virginia Beach and we hope to miss their mass migration home.

There are other roads to Richmond, of course, but they’re out of the way. Distance can negate speed.

We’re moving pretty well, but traffic starts blocking up and soon we’re in pause-and-crawl mode, in the right-hand lane. Everything stops a little north of the Thornburg exit, and Linda turns around on the Vespa and says something I can’t hear. Something’s amiss.

I roll up next to her. “What’s wrong?”

“I can’t get it started,” she says.

It’s the same thing we encountered six weeks ago: the starter cranks heroically, but the engine won’t fire. Uh-oh.

DSCN0700I turn Terra Nova to the right and we move into the breakdown lane. We set the bikes on their centerstands and pull off our helmets. I start checking the Vespa. Traffic starts moving again, leaving us behind. It’s around 3 in the afternoon and we’ve come 50 miles.

I call Scoot Richmond and they say they’ll send out a truck. I try different things, including adding more fuel just for the hell of it, without success. And we wait.

I call my father in Cleveland to see if he has any ideas. He makes some suggestions and wishes us luck.

Traffic speeds up and the bikes rock a bit in the backwash of passing trucks, even Terra Nova, which weighs around 560 pounds. Passers-by mostly ignore us, including the occasional motorcyclists, who are guilty of breaking The Code of the Road, which mandates a motorcyclist should always offer aid to a stranded biker. Perhaps we don’t look desperate enough.

Only one couple, in a white pickup truck with a caged German shepherd in the back, stop to offer help. “We ride, too,” the woman says, and we thank them and explain someone is coming.

I keep fiddling with the Vespa and after 70 minutes of waiting – I check my watch – I try the ignition and the engine starts. I figure it has to be a balky fuel pump that’s affected by heat. The engine starts smoothly and idles perfectly each time I try it. We wait for the SR truck anyway; the bike isn’t safe to ride.

Two hours after our breakdown, the SR truck – the same black Toyota that rescued us six weeks ago – arrives around 4:30. Two guys load the Vespa and secure her with tie-downs. They apologize for taking so long and say they’ll check it out. We watch them drive away.

DSCN0702We’re two-up on the Yamaha and we find a Friendly’s restaurant and stop for ice cream.

Over black raspberry and watermelon sherbet, I think about the Vespa and how I’ve never been stranded on the road with mechanical failure. Mostly, that’s because I pay attention to preventive maintenance. But I really should be a better mechanic.

We did have a minor breakdown aboard Discovery, my Yamaha Virago, near Indio, California; an E-clip slipped off the gearshift pivot and the shifter fell off. I was able to rig a clip with a grommet from a tool roll and some baling wire and soon we were on our way. That was years ago.

But today’s not over yet.

Traffic is light on the way back to I-95 and we pass a series of shopping centers. I see a brown car make a right turn from a parking lot on my right.

To my astonishment and growing anger, the driver speeds up and races for the far-left lane, the one we’re in, totally unaware he’s about to sideswipe us. I hit the brakes, hard, and Linda’s helmet bangs into mine. The car moves into the lane ahead of us and the traffic light turns red.

We’re safe but I’m furious and somehow in the rush of picoseconds I think about a motorcycling friend of ours, who was on a bike and hit by a teenager running a stop sign. His wife, on her own bike behind him, saw everything with horrified eyes. He ended up losing a leg.

The adrenaline takes over and I don’t care who’s in the car and I do something I’ve never done before, I pull up alongside and shout at the driver, “DID YOU SEE WHAT YOU DID? YOU ALMOST RAN INTO ME BACK THERE!”

The driver turns out to be a girl, maybe in her late teens, brown hair, cute, clueless, deadly. She turns toward us in shock and says, “I’m sorry,” genuinely surprised, and I glare while simultaneously almost feeling bad for her. I hear Linda say – incredibly polite as ever – “Ma’am, you almost caused a wreck. You really need to watch,” and the girl sorta shrinks back into her seat.


The light turns green and I throttle away with an overlap of emotions, fury at the near-collision, at her obliviousness, and shame at making someone else feel bad. A polite conversation would not have been possible, I suppose. Nor would it have had the same lasting effect.

We make it home exhausted without further incident – an 11-hour day, all told – and use the Jeep to go to dinner, slaying a bottle of Tormaresca in the evening.

This week I’ll research fuel pumps and pester Scoot Richmond. With luck, we’ll be able to reacquire the Vespa next Saturday, without the need for rescue.


‘It’s My Own Invention’


“What does it matter where my body happens to be?” the Knight said. “My mind goes on working all the same.”

– Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There”

Like the White Knight, I like to tinker with things, especially with the motorcycles. And, like the Knight, I’ve found myself thinking of the bike throughout the day.

We’re preparing for this year’s ride, a sojourn through New England and into Nova Scotia. Like last year on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Linda will be on her 300cc Vespa and I’ll be riding Terra Nova, my Yamaha Super Tenere. The Vespa is getting an extensive tune-up at Scoot Richmond and I’ve been working on the Yamaha.

DSCN0679The preparation has been a drawn-out exercise for me, with plans and ideas fitted together over the course of days. Much of it has been thought up in idle minutes, staring out at the bike in the morning, daydreaming while driving up to Cleveland to see my family, or snatching a few minutes of computer time at work for a motorcycling website.

I’m using this year’s ride as an excuse to add a few extras, including engine guards, which are tubes of steel that protect the sides of the motorcycle in case of a fall. (Call them crash bars if you want people to think you live dangerously.)

There’s also a bash plate that shields the bottom of the engine, a set of HyperLights that blink bright and furious when you apply the brakes (to wake up texting motorists behind you) and a power outlet (sort of a cigarette-lighter socket you commonly find inside cars). This lets you hook up heated vests and other gear and allows you to easily charge the bike battery.

Linda’s Vespa has a 2-gallon gas tank, which cuts down our refueling stops to roughly every 100 miles. That’s not a big deal for us, since it sort of slows down the ride and makes it more of an observational thing, rather than just rushing down the road as I normally do.

So I’ve been thinking about innovative ways to carry extra fuel. Last year, I used six MSR quart-sized aluminum fuel bottles in a pair of Aerostich panniers slung over Terra Nova’s gas tank, along with a 1-gallon plastic Kolpin gas cell in a sidecase. We used the extra stuff only once, but it was good to know it was there.

I ended up buying two 2-liter containers and brackets from Touratech and mounting them to the back of the sidecases. They’ll carry about one gallon. They seem to work pretty well and they look good.

But I’ve been daydreaming about the Yamaha’s luggage rack, a flat aluminum plate attached to the rear of the bike, behind the passenger seat. It’s a problem because the Super Tenere was introduced in 2010 and its after-market support is still kinda thin.

DSCN0687I took measurements, went online and looked at scores of plates and racks. I finally found one offered for Suzuki V-Stroms.

I got one and modified it by notching out two corners with a hacksaw. I used a Dremel grinder to smooth out the edges, spray-painted them black, drilled four holes and mounted the plate to the Yamaha’s tail. It seems strong enough and I may be able to add a couple of plastic tubes for additional MSR bottles.

Most of this was done over a span of weeks; I would, say, pick up a bracket and position it on the bike and think how it would work in conjunction with the rest of the machine. And even after I put down the bracket, I would think of it later even when I wasn’t beside the bike.

It’s taking little mental sidesteps, as Alain de Botton – who’s surely familiar with the White Knight – says in The Art of Travel: “Thinking improves when parts of the mind are given other tasks.” You step away from the problem in order to solve it.

I won’t know until journey’s end if Terra Nova performs as expected or if I’m making some spectacular goofs that screw up everything. The road is the final arbiter. But it’s a strangely pleasant process to make your very own modifications, to think them through and fabricate them yourself. To let your mind go on working all the same.