Screw You!


You’d think that my biggest frustration last week would have been when I accidentally broke my gas cap. It was the final fill-up before putting the bike into storage, more final than the fill-up which is part of my winterizing for storage. You see, I usually add the fuel stabilizer, then fill the tank, then go for a little ride to mix the stabilizer into the gas and work it down into the injectors, as well as heat the chain wax and oil. Then I top up again. It was on this final top up that I broke the cap. Jung would have something to say about this but I don’t, not about the breaking anyway. I’m going to write about the fixing.

Or you might think my biggest frustration would have been when I heard how much a replacement cap was going to cost. It’s a gas cap, right? How much can it cost? Okay, this is a BMW, so whatever figure you have in mind, triple it. Then triple it again. You’ll be pretty close. I wasn’t that surprised when the nice parts guy at BMW told me the amount and I said so. He missed the irony, but then maybe it was a language thing. Then he said, “You’re not surprised? Oh, then, actually it’s $ __________!” (tripled again). Big joke. (Laughing.) This time I missed the irony. Did I say he was a nice parts guy?

No, the biggest frustration of the week was in trying to remove one screw to replace this gas cap. After I had ordered it, received the call that it was in, gone and held my nose and paid for it, I figured the worst was over. But I was wrong.

The gas cap is all one unit, which is why it costs so much: the cap, the hinge, and the flange are all one piece, so while I just broke the hinge, I had to buy the whole shebang. The upside, or so I thought, was that swapping the old one out would be easy. Six screws. You undo the screws, you take the old unit off, you put the new unit on, you replace the screws. This is Motorcycle Mechanics 101. But what they don’t teach you in MM101 is that nothing, no job, never, ever, is simple.

Five screws came out like a charm. The sixth did not. At first I thought the screw must be stripped, so tried pulling up as I turned. Sometimes you can skip over the stripped thread and get the next one to catch and you are out of the woods. But I soon discovered that what the screw screws into was also spinning. Now normally when this happens, you simply get hold of the nut on the other side with another socket or wrench or, if necessary, vise-grips—whatever it takes—but you can usually stabilize one side and turn the other and, again, get out of the woods.

But what do you do when the fitting that the screw screws into is embedded in the side of your plastic gas tank and covered with a metal flange? You can’t get at what is spinning, not with a socket or a wrench or vise-grips or even pointed-nose pliers, not with a screwdriver (trying to jam it down and wedge it somehow enough for the screw to release), not with a pick, not with the bent-nose pliers you just bought hoping they might do, not with a chisel to cut off the damn thing since you are replacing it anyway, nope—not even the miracle tool advertised on late-night infomercials is going to get you out of these woods. “Are you fucking kidding me!” I bellowed at the top of my lungs, and since I was in my shed, the acoustics were such that the preschoolers across the park must have heard me. For sure my wife did, for she soon arrived, presenting herself and the dog as Cheering Party, offering tea and biscuits, and helpful advice like “Why don’t you phone Nice Parts Guy and ask if he has any ideas?” But I happen to know why Nice Parts Guy works in Parts and not Service. And I know that Service doesn’t give free advice; they say “Bring the bike in,” which in this case was not an option.

But then she said something brilliant, so brilliant that my grease-monkey brain had overlooked it. “Why don’t you take a break and look online?” Now it’s not like Siri is going to know how to remove a slipping screw from the side of the gas tank on an f650GS, but one of the “inmates” of The Chain Gang probably does! The Chain Gang—so-called because the 650 was the first chain-driven bike BMW made—is a user forum consisting of 11,493 members, all of whom own my bike or a close cousin. It is a veritable fount of knowledge on all things relating to my specific motorcycle. Whatever issue you might be having, someone else has already had it and solved it. What did people in my situation do before the internet? Oh yeah, they belonged to real user groups.

So I posted my problem and before the day was out another user replied, not with an answer but to say he’d encountered the same problem. Since his cap was merely rusted, not broken, he simply replaced the other five screws and lived with it. He said he was curious too if anyone had an answer. Then someone did. He suggested drilling off the head of the screw. My concern with this plan is that I’d still be left with now a head-less screw seized inside a still-spinning fitting, so it wouldn’t solve the problem. A little back-and-forth and soon we, yes now “we” because that’s the nature of a bike forum, had another plan: I could use a drill, not to drill the head off but burn the fitting out of its socket. With the other five screws out, I knew there was enough play to get my fingers under the ring and pull as I spun the screw and fitting. With time and patience, eventually the plastic would give and the fitting would release. Then I could grip the fitting with some pliers (or my teeth, perhaps, by that point might be preferable) and unscrew the screw, then glue the fitting back into the empty socket. That was the plan.

But first I needed this tool. All new jobs require one new tool.


This allowed me to put any of my 3/8″ sockets on my cordless drill. I put the torx socket on, drilled (counter-clockwise) and pulled and in no time the fitting was out. Here is what it looks like out, next to the screws.


It’s brass and the rounded end goes down into the plastic. It is “gripped” by surrounding plastic which had deteriorated and given way. The top is squared.

Here is a photo of the emptied cavity with the remaining five fittings.


Yes, that is gasoline sloshing around inside.

The next part of the job was glueing the fitting back in. I decided to use epoxy glue since I’ve had good luck with it on plastic before. This is where I get to play artist, mixing the epoxy and hardener on my palette.

I’m sure others have their own methods for mixing epoxy but I use waxed paper and a nail. This particular brand fortunately ended up the exact shade of grey I needed.


The first time I tried, I made the mistake of putting glue in the cavity and then trying to press the fitting back in, thinking the glue would squirt up into the vacant space at the sides and surround the fitting. But it didn’t, perhaps it was because it was 1 degree Celsius out and the epoxy was stiff, but the fitting sat too high. So I quickly cleaned the fitting and cavity before anything set and started again. The second time I put epoxy just around the “neck” of the fitting and none in the cavity. I guessed the quantity just right. The fitting bottomed out and the epoxy came just flush. I had just a little excess to clean away. Then since it was cold, I used a hairdryer to help it set. All in all, it looked pretty good.


After that, it was just a “simple” matter of replacing the rubber seal, the metal flange, the new gas cap unit, and all six screws. I did not tighten the new one but will wait until the spring when I’m confident everything has set hard before completely tightening it. I’m now thinking I might put some anti-seize grease on it, just in case I have to remove it again in the future. That particular fitting seems to be especially tight.

I’m no expert but I’ve done quite a lot of mechanical work, including changing a clutch on my car this past summer. But this single screw sure had me stumped! It’s funny how sometimes the seemingly simplest jobs can be the hardest. Most jobs involve approximately 25% familiarity with tools, 25% understanding of basic mechanics, and 50% problem-solving. It’s one unforeseen snag after another, some bigger than others. You have to keep your cool, take your time, seek advice where you can, and persist. It also helps to have a partner who injects a little something foreign into the mix when needed.

Thanks to my wife Marilyn, and Phil (aka backonthesaddle) at The Chain Gang for getting me over some hurdles to the finish. The bike is now ready to ride first warm weather next spring.



The Big Sleep


It’s the saddest time of the year. The leaves are down, the birds have flown, and the bike is in storage. A part of us goes into hibernation, only to reawaken when crocuses push through the last of the melting snow.

I love living in this part of the world. The ability to experience all four seasons is actually restricted to relatively few people living in a narrow geographical band circling the earth, and I happen to be one of those lucky few. When it’s stinking hot in the summer, we long for the days of sweaters, tobogganing, outdoor ice hockey, and skiing. When the wind-chill factor makes snot freeze and there’s two feet of snow to clear from the driveway, we think of summer soccer, swimming at the cottage, and lounging with a good book in the backyard. There’s little that’s more spectacular than the natural beauty of autumn in a boreal forest (maybe the aurora borealis?), and you’d have to be a zombie not to have your heart quicken a beat in spring when everything comes back to life, including your sex life. Maybe even zombies come back to life in the spring; I’m not an expert.

I’m thinking of the seasons of the Canadian south because, as much as I like all four in their own particular ways, I wouldn’t mind being able to ride year-round. Winters in Europe, or most of Europe anyway, are like early spring here: cold, grey, drizzly. Okay, not very enjoyable but you can ride in that. And if I lived in southern United States, I could ride through the winter. In fact, some bikers migrate south for the winter, taking their tours in late fall and riding towards the heat, then shipping their bikes back in the spring. That’s not an option for a teacher so, this weekend, the bike went into storage.

Another thing I long for? A heated garage. My house is a converted summer cottage so no basement and no garage. It would be so, so nice simply to pull into a garage after the final ride and park the bike, pull down the door. Then everything I’m about to say I did with numb fingers on my driveway in the cold of late autumn I could do in a warm garage, plus more. I could putz and play, do those big maintenance jobs over the winter instead of cutting into valuable riding time during the summer.

The main purpose of winterizing the bike is to protect it from the effects of time and humidity. I change the oil so the engine is not sitting in dirty oil all winter. For my bike, which has a dry sump system, that’s a full afternoon job. I start by removing all the bodywork which allows me access to the upper oil tank, which is located where a “normal” bike’s gas tank is. There’s also a plug at the bottom of the engine on the oil pan, and that sump plug is covered by the engine guard. So the engine guard has to be removed as well as the bodywork. So I’m basically stripping down my bike just to change the oil.

But here’s where it gets interesting. I need to heat the oil before draining. Do I remove that stuff after the ride or before? I’ve become pretty quick at doing it but it still takes me long enough that I decided to remove it first, ride the bike, then drain the oil. Yeah, I could have just idled the bike on the driveway to heat the oil, and I’ve done that before, but the chain also has to be cleaned and lubed before storage, and I wanted to heat the chain too so the new lube works into the 0-ring seals. It’s these seals that must be prevented from drying and cracking, thus shortening the life of the chain. So with both the oil and the chain to be heated, I stripped the bike and went for a ride. Anyone seeing me riding along the 20 Ouest with no bodywork on the bike must have thought I had either lost my mind or my fairing.

Next I removed the battery, which cannot freeze, and brought it into my house. Then I removed a spark plug, squirted a little oil (about a tablespoon) into the cylinder, and rotated the engine a few times to coat the piston rings and cylinder lining. This prevents the rings from drying and the cylinder from rusting through the winter. Actually, I lie. I started to rotate the engine—putting the bike in top gear and rotating the back wheel by hand—but realized this way is too much work so put the battery back in and used the starter to rotate the engine. (Note to self for next year.) Since my bike has a kill-switch on the kickstand, a safety feature so I don’t ride off with it accidentally down, I used that to prevent the engine from firing.

Next I clean the engine. This year I discovered a fantastic new product called S100. Since I had the crash and engine guards off, I decided now was the time to give the underside of the bike a thorough cleaning. I was going to use an auto engine cleaner to cut through that grease and grime but was worried it might be too strong and would damage some of the components. I asked at my local shop and was told about S100. It’s amazing! You just spray it on and hose it off with a strong jet of water. For the real tough stuff, I used a soft-bristle brush, but really even that is not necessary with this product.

With the engine clean, I coated a rag with light motor oil and wiped it down, again as a rust-inhibitor. Last year I used another great product called ACF-50 that my cousin Mark told me about. It was tough to find here in Canada and I had to mail order it and didn’t get ahead of that this year, so used the light motor oil instead. ACF-50 though is much better. It stops corrosion on contact and coats and prevents future corrosion. It was designed for use in the aerospace industry and is safe for electronics, so you can spray it on indiscriminately without worry. It’s good for 12 months so I really should just apply it each year as part of my winterization. Ironically, ACF-50 is made in Canada, so you’d think it would be easier to find here. Last year as part of my effort to track some down I drove to some remote abandoned building east of Montreal on the promise that someone there had some. I tell you, it’s that good. Yes, this is like a hard drug for bikers and you have to speak easy to the right people to get some. When I got to the building I knocked and looked in the windows but no one answered the door. Then I saw the blinds in an upstairs window move and noticed bullet holes in said window and decided maybe it was best to buy online. This is the honest-to-God truth. ACF-50. It’s good stuff, man! The light motor oil pales in comparison.

I paid particular attention to the exposed steel of the front forks. I even squirted a drop of oil on the fork rings, then compressed the forks a few times to work the oil into the seals. This prevents them from drying during the winter. Next I replaced all the bodywork and gave it the full clean and wax treatment. I know, most of my panelling is plastic, but I still feel the wax helps protect against acidification and oxidation, especially since I live near an airport and it rains jet fuel around here. The last step in protecting against moisture was to spray a little WD-40 (why do all these products have some cryptic combination of letters and numbers, like an internet password?) in the exhaust pipes and cover each with a plastic bag tied off with a rubber band. I plugged the air intake ports too, preventing critters from making those cavities their winter home.

Finally I backed the bike into the shed, put it on the centre-stand, then used my new motorcycle jack to lift the front tire off the floor of the shed so both tires are suspended. This prevents flat spots from developing. I also dropped the air pressure in the tires a few pounds. I covered the bike to protect it from getting scratched should one of the garden tools fall on it. Then I hummed it a little lullaby but there was no kissing, and no tears. It’s a lot to remember, and I found this wikiHow document helpful to review so I didn’t forget something.

I won’t be posting as much through the off-season but watch for sporadic posts on book reviews, trip planning, and my current gear wish list.


What’s In a Name?


I’ve owned my motorcycle now for over 16 months and it still does not have a name. I don’t mean the name the manufacturer has given it—manufacturers like to come up with macho, threatening names, like Intruder, Rebel, Bandit, and Savage—but a personal name like how one names a pet, a horse, or a guitar. B. B. King named his guitar Lucille, and Stevie Ray Vaughan named his Lenny. Sylvia Plath named her childhood horse Ariel, which is a great name because it means Lion of God in Hebrew and is also the name of the spirit character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Wordsworth named the home that he and his sister Dorothy shared Dove Cottage, or perhaps it was already named that when they acquired it. At any rate, I’ve been thinking about the act of naming, and specifically about possible good names for my BMW f650GS. Don’t think I’m weird—not at least for desiring to name my bike—for it’s a common practice, and I’m remiss in not providing one these past 16 months.

Is naming the ultimate act of possession in imposing an identity upon an object, or a gesture of respect in attempting to recognize something’s essential character? We name our children, or most of us do. (Former U.S. alpine skier Picabo Street was reportedly allowed as a child to name herself. We can only guess what her favourite childhood game was.) The baby arrives, we take a look, we say, “It looks like a John” or “a Jane,” or we go searching through baby name books for something that “sounds right.” God forbid we name our child after a T.V. character, although I heard that Judy Collins’ character name Alexis spiked in popularity during Dynasty’s run as a hit series through the 1980’s. Shame on those parents! I feel sorry for all Alexis’s of the world.

But back to motorcycles. The worst name for a motorcycle I’ve ever heard was Matilda. Ugh! I’m not sure if the owner thought she was dancing while riding or there was some other significance. The best name I’ve heard is Bonnie. The bike is a Triumph Bonneville, which is already a pretty cool name, so called after the Bonneville salt flats, of course, but more, the owner is a bagpiper, and in Scots Bonnie means “beautiful.” It is a pretty good-looking bike too, with a burgundy racing stipe down the middle of a matte black gas tank. But despite all this ruminating, I’m still at a loss for a name for my bike.

You can’t name your bike some literary or mythical name like Rocinante or Pegasus without eliciting some eye-rolling. A good name for a bike is both brilliant and understated at the same time. Not understated enough and it’s pretentious; too understated and it’s mundane, not in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way like my pet turtle Doug but just boring! With this many qualifications to fill for a good name, is it any wonder I’m having a hard time?

Once I thought I had it. Late one night in an intoxicated state it came to me in a blinding epiphany: I could name the bike after the high-school girlfriend who was supposed to ride with me across the country 30-odd years ago. I thought it was perfect; it would be like travelling back in time to complete an unfulfilled dream. And what isn’t a motorcycle but some sort of time-travel machine? I wouldn’t use her first name because that would be too weird, too literal, and besides, Carol just isn’t a very good name for a bike. But her middle name, Shelby, might just work. (Her father was a huge car fanatic and you can probably guess who won the Indy 500 the year she was born.) Then I discovered that Shelby means “sweet and loyal,” and that was that—Shelby it would be. I even came across a reference to a derivative of it in Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The universe seemed to be sending me a clear sign.

I know what you’re thinking: What did my wife think of this idea, and why didn’t I see the pitfall of this name at outset? Intoxicated, I said. As in “not thinking clearly.” No, this name clearly would not work, and besides, and more importantly, the few times I’d actually tried it on it just didn’t feel right. Naming is like writing poetry. You work by intuition and sense, not logic, and no matter how right a name might seem to the rational or intoxicated mind, if it doesn’t feel right in the clear sobriety of day, it’s not the right name. So I was back to square one.

Another thought I had was that the bike doesn’t have to be female. Why does it have to have a woman’s name? I’ve never referred to my bike or any other piece of machinery using the feminine pronoun. Giving the bike a gender does indicate something about the nature of my relationship with it, and the truth is, the relationship I have with my bike is not romantic. It’s not like I’m making love to my motorcycle, despite my wife’s suggestion from time to time to “Fuck the bike!” No, that relationship could equally be one of companionship, the perfect travel partner or riding buddy. But in the end, I decided that despite that logic, the intimacy and trust between a hot-blooded hetero man and his bike needs a female name, just not one of a former girlfriend if that man is married.

Sometimes a biker names a bike by playing on the manufacturer’s name, like the Bonnie example above. Ted Bishop has named his Italian-made Ducati Monster “Il Monstro.” Thinking along these lines, I thought of the GS of my bike and Giselle immediately came to mind—a good sign. It derives from the Germanic word “gisil,” meaning “pledge,” so a name my wife could get behind. It has French connotations—a nod to my home province—and best of all, is soft, suiting the 650 single, which is such a forgiving bike. If you can think of a better name, please send your suggestions or leave a comment, but for now, Giselle is the working name and starting to stick.



Last autumn when my bike was having trouble starting in the cold, I took it to BMW for a check-up. It was my first experience servicing the bike. When I explained the symptoms and said the mileage was 38,000 km., the response was, “So you’ve got your 40,000 km. tune-up coming. It’s probably the valves.”

Valves. Those things that let fuel in to and exhaust out of the combustion chamber. The very word sends shivers down the spine of most. We associate valves with $. Whatever the problem is with the valves—and I had no idea at the time what could be wrong with mine—we just know it’s going to  be expensive. Just to get at the damn things you have to rip half the engine apart. When I innocently inquired what the 40,000 km. tune-up would cost, I was told $500. I gulped. My mind is not so capable in math as it once was, but I immediately recognized that sum as about 1/10 the value of my bike! So this is the infamous BMW service costs, huh? My second mathematical thought was “I’ve got 2000 km. to figure out how to do it myself.”

So I hit the internet over the winter months and relied on my trusty Chain Gang to point me in the right direction. What I discovered is that when people say “valves,” what they mean is “valve clearances.” That’s the space between the valves and the cams that open and close the valves. Over time and use, these clearances either shrink or grow, and the valves go “out of spec,” meaning they are outside a recommended range. If the intake clearance is too big, the valve might not be completely closing upon combustion, or if it’s too small, the valve might not be letting in enough air-fuel mixture. Similarly, if the exhaust valves are out of spec, the chamber might not be sealing or exhausting completely, and the engine just doesn’t run right.

You adjust clearances on my bike by swapping out tiny shims located under the “follower,” a metal cup that rests on top of the valve. It’s actually the space between the follower and the cam we are adjusting, but we adjust it by either raising or lowering the follower by adding a bigger or smaller shim underneath. We are talking hundredths of a millimetre (.05 mm) here, so you need a good set of feeler gauges. A good calliper is also handy for checking the actual size of the shim you are removing.

If you find this rather boring, all you need to know for added dramatic tension is that if you mess up this job you can do some serious damage to your engine. That’s right: you have to put your engine at TDC (top dead centre) and remove the cams to get at the valves, and if you put the cams back even slightly wrong, you’re going to hear a great gnashing of metal when you try to start the engine again, which is the sound of your valves getting destroyed. So I wanted to get this right. No wonder it’s $500 just to check them!

On my bike, there are a few things I had to remove to get to the valves:

  1. all the faring
  2. the battery
  3. the upper oil tank
  4. the air filter housing
  5. the throttle cable
  6. the throttle body
  7. the starter relay
  8. the electrical tray cover
  9. the battery tray
  10. the heat shield
  11. the ignition coils
  12. the coolant reservoir
  13. the coil holder
  14. and then, ta-da! the valve cover

Now I was able to check the clearances and, as expected, one intake and one exhaust valve (there are two of each) were out of spec. I had mixed feelings about this. Part of me was secretly hoping they were all good and I would avoid having to remove the cams, but part of me was hoping I would find the source of my problem. Now at least I knew I had to pull the cams.

Next I had to do the maths and here’s a confession: before I became an English scholar, I failed out of Maths at U of T. Okay, I didn’t really fail out; I just realized at mid-term I was not going to excel in this field so did the Honourable Disappearance. This wasn’t linear algebra, but you do have to have a head for numbers and some spacial reasoning (e.g. If my clearance is 0.16 and my shim is 2.85 mm thick, how big a shim do I need to get roughly 0.07 mm clearance? Sometimes in life, you really do need to find x!).  For my bike, the specifications for the intake valve clearance are 0.03 to 0.11 mm. So I figured the ideal clearance would be halfway between the two, or 0.07. For the exhaust, the clearance has to be between 0.25 and 0.33 mm. I sharpened a pencil and got to work.

With the calculations done, the cams off, the shims out, I headed off to BMW to get my new shims. I showed the dude the sizes I need. “C’est quoi ça?” he asked. Apparently I had used a standard calliper to measure the thickness of the shims, so was working partly in metric and partly in imperial and the whole thing didn’t make sense. Doh! Like I said: mid-terms only.

Fortunately, because I’ve spent enough of my life doubling back and forth from home to auto parts stores, I had the foresight to bring the shims and my calculations, so the nice gentleman borrowed a calliper from service and measured them for me, redid my maths, and sold me the shims. By this time it was getting late and I had to be somewhere, so I had only enough time to get home, put the new shims in, put the cams back in place, replace the cam holder, measure the new clearances, and discover that while one was perfect, the other was worse than before! The nice gentleman at BMW had mismeasured one of my shims and sold me one that made the clearance worse. So the following day I had to remove the cover, holder, and cams again and essentially do two valve jobs. I was seriously beginning to wonder if I should have spent the $500.

What is particularly stressful about this job—aside from the risk of shifting the timing and destroying your engine—is that you’ll drop a screw or shim down in the engine. My shop manual suggests stuffing a rag or paper towels in the engine to catch any of the eight cam holder screws that might do just that. The YouTube videos I’d seen had alluded to that possibility in a vague sort of way that caused me considerable concern, such as “that would not be good,” or “you really don’t want that to happen,” and while I’m still unsure of what that would mean, I imagine it would cost me a lot of either time or money. So I worked carefully and slowly, and as I started each of the eight screws, I felt like I was a child playing Operation again. It was right at the height of this stage of the procedure that my wife walked out to the shed where I was working to ask me one of those questions all husbands love, like what shall we have for dinner, or would I take this call because somebody’s doing a survey.

In one YouTube video I’d seen, someone shows how you can use zip ties to fasten the cam chain to the sprockets. This way you ensure your cams don’t shift relative to the chain, messing up your timing and damaging your valves. But when I tried this, I couldn’t get the cams back in; the chain was too tight and prevented me from putting them back in their holders. So I held my breath and cut the ties. (I held the ties too, lest they fall into the engine.) Fortunately, I’d noted, even photographed, exactly where the hashmarks on the sprockets must be at TDC. A couple of rotations of the engine ensured the timing was spot on and everything was opening and closing as it should and there was no gnashing of metal. Still, once I’d put everything back together, I was a little nervous the first time I started the bike. It made one cough and fired, then hummed, as quietly as a thumper can hum.

All this was admittedly a few months ago, before I did my New Hampshire trip. I wanted to do this work obviously before that tour. Then just the other night I saw this video by Ari Henning from MC Garage on how to do your valves. He admits that the job gives most people the heebie-jeebies and is a major pain in the butt because of the risks involved. I admit, if I’d seen this video before doing the job, my confidence might have faltered. In the end, I think I did alright! Now I don’t have to think about my valves for another 40,000 km. and can put that $500 toward a new saddle next year.

Next up, prepping the bike for winter storage.