The Oil Leak

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“You have an oil leak,” my friend Mike remarked last July, looking down at my engine. The bike was on its sidestand, so you could get a good angled view into the skid plate, where a glistening smear foretold almost a year of diagnostic troubleshooting.

I quickly localized it to the front lower portion of the engine. It would drip down the front and collect in the skid plate at the bottom. Seeing the oil wasn’t the problem; determining its source was.

Oil can travel a great distance on a dirty engine. The dirt soaks up the oil and transports it across the bike so that diagnosis is like a shell game. Is it soaking up from the bottom or dripping down from the top? All you’ve got to go on is a blow pattern like a gruesome crime scene.

I decided to approach this like Hercule Poirot.

The suspects:

  • Sump plug sealing washer
  • Crankcase gasket
  • Starter motor O-ring
  • Base gasket

 

Sump plug sealing washer

Following the principle of Occam’s Razor, I started with the simplest explanation. I had just changed the oil and cheated and re-used the sump plug washer, so that was my first guess. You can re-use those copper washers a few times, especially if you braze them between uses, but it’s a crapshoot. Yes, there’s oil up the front of the engine, but like I said above, oil can defy gravity on a dirty engine.

I replaced the washer at the next oil change, but the leak persisted. It wasn’t the sump plug washer.

Crankcase gasket

Someone on a forum said the crankcase on these bikes is prone to leaking. This theory was supported by the fact that the leak only occurs at high revs under pressure. So last autumn, while doing some other maintenance on the bike, I torqued all the crankcase bolts. Lo and behold! A few in the front of the engine were under-torqued. Surely I’d found the source this time.

I hit the highway the following weekend and at my first rest stop I took a look in the skidplate: that familiar smear of liquid gold. It wasn’t the crankcase gasket.

The starter motor O-ring.

This is when things got interesting. The leak seemed to be coming from somewhere under the starter motor. There’s a single O-ring that prevents oil in the crankcase escaping at the interface with the starter. Again, I’d had the starter off for another job and didn’t replace the O-ring, which my shop manual recommends. Since the starter connects with the crankcase, the pressure at high revs could blow the oil past the the O-ring.

I replaced the O-ring, waiting the requisite two weeks for this $5.14 part to arrive from Germany. The leak persisted. I decided to get serious.

The best way to source an oil leak is to clean up the engine, take the bike for a short ride, then look. In theory, you should see a trickle coming from the source. So that’s what I did. When I got home, I took the starter off and this is what I saw.

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Is it coming from the starter, the crankcase, or the base gasket?

I said in theory. There’s definitely a trickle coming from that front corner of the engine, but there’re also drops near the front??? Could it be getting past the O-ring, dripping along the underside of the starter motor, and dropping onto the crankcase?

I was down to two suspects—the starter motor O-ring and the base gasket. I was nervous about torquing the gasket. Maybe it’s not a big deal, but those big, crucial gaskets scare me. Mess that up and over-tighten and you are pulling the engine. And in all my research, I had come across only two instances of a weeping base gasket. I decided to stick to the O-ring theory a little longer before interrogating the big boy.

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I picked up some Optimum Black gasket maker. The packaging said it resists vibration (important on a thumper) and is “one of the most advanced, maximum flex, maximum oil resistant RTV silicone gasket makers available.” I added a smear on the O-ring, let it cure 24 hours, and tried again.

Still no luck. I added a bead around the neck of the starter next to the O-ring. No luck.

I put some Optimum Black in the channel for the O-ring, let it cure, added the O-ring, and added a bead at the neck for good measure. Nyet! I found a slightly bigger O-ring in plumbing and tried that. Nope.

I was beginning to think it wasn’t the O-ring.

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Starter with O-ring and gasket maker

I asked on my bike forum and somebody suggested the oil could be coming from inside the starter. I hadn’t thought of that. There’s an oil seal and bearing inside. If the seal is finished, oil could be getting inside and then dripping out of the starter. If the bearing is worn, it could be causing vibration that is preventing the external O-ring from completely sealing. I had noticed slight pitting on the underside of the starter neck, which supported the theory of a worn bearing.

So the starter came apart. I pulled the old bearing using a valve puller and tapped a new one on, adding a new, greased oil seal. I was hopeful this time. There were a few symptoms supporting this theory, not the least that my bike now has over 90K on it, and with the crank revving at 5K rpm, I’d be surprised if that bearing weren’t worn.

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Starter motor disassembled. Note bearing on the armature. The little wires sticking out of the brushplate assembly is a trick I saw on YouTube to hold the brushes in place for reassembly. It was still a right royal PITA to get it back together!

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Pulling the bearing. I wrapped the armature in a rag to protect the wiring and clamped it in my workmate. Since there isn’t much clearance under the bearing, I had to be creative and use a valve puller. The feet of a bearing puller were too big.

Once all back together, I took Bigby for another short test ride. The bike was still leaking. Now I know why people say fixing an oil leak is hard.

This is when my cursing and ruminating and otherwise surly or downcast behaviour elicits from my wife the question, “Why don’t you take it to a professional mechanic?” Actually, others were beginning to say the same, including a club member. My response: “What can he do that I can’t?” (And yes, it’s almost always a “he.”) And the amount of time spent diagnosing this kind of problem would cost a fortune. It was time to concede the inevitable: I’d have to tighten the base gasket.

Base gasket

The base gasket is Item 4 in the diagram below. Tightening it sounds easy—and probably would be on any other bike—but it isn’t on a BMW. The little M6 bolts on the left side of the bike (Item 3) are nested into cutouts in the corners of the engine block, so accessible only with a torx key. I’d have to buy a set of keys and torque those bolts by hand. They are 10 Nm and I think my feel is getting pretty good, so that was the easy part. I nudged them, that’s all.

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The other side has two M10 x 223mm bolts that go all the way through the head, the block, and into the base (see Item 1 above), and they are only accessible beneath the rocker (valve) cover. I’d have to open up my engine.

So off came the plastics, the battery, the airbox, the oil tank, the battery tray, the starter relay, the electrical box cover, the heat shield, the intake manifold, the throttle cable, the spark plug coils, the coils holder and, finally, the valve cover.

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Bigby splayed open to access the valve cover.

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The bolts to be tightened are far right, next to the cams, and partially submerged in oil.

With the rocker cover off, I could now tighten those long bolts. I was nervous about tightening those babies! While the little M6 bolts were only 10 Nm, these were 60. I’d need my big 1/2″ torque wrench. Someone on the forum had suggested I back off the bolts a bit first, just in case they are seized, then retighten. I decided to aim for 62 Nm.

The one at the back went smoothly enough; I got an accurate reading from the wrench so moved on to the crucial front one. I could not get an accurate read with the wrench on this one but I did move it a few times, as much as I dared. My experience told me that I’d better stop there or risk over-tightening if I continued. Sometimes you just can’t trust a torque wrench; you have to trust your gut first. I hoped I’d moved it enough or I’d be taking the top end of the bike off again.

That was the tough part done. I took a break, made a tea, and slowly reassembled the bike.

The test

When I replaced the starter, I added another smear of Optimum Black on it for good measure. I also torqued all the crankcase bolts again, replaced the oil filter and added a smear of gasket to the cover sealing ring, and torqued all the engine mountings. Basically I torqued every bolt on the right side of the bike! Desperate times call for desperate measures.

I was so worried about this test I actually didn’t ride for another whole day. I was out of leads, and if the leak were still there, I’d be at a dead end.

The next day, my wife and I headed off for an afternoon excursion into Ontario. We packed a picnic lunch and headed west along the St. Lawrence River. After about an hour and a half of riding, my wife spotted a church overlooking the river where we could stop. I pulled in, turned off the bike, climbed off, and with God and my wife present for emotional support, I looked into the skid plate.

No oil. I looked under the starter motor. No oil.

I’m not a superstitious man, but I dared not celebrate just yet. I didn’t want to jinx myself. But on the way home I intentionally kept the revs up into the 5K+ range to stress the engine. Once back on the driveway, I looked again: no oil!

Now we did celebrate. We poured two beers and toasted the end of the oil leak. This was one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever done. It took me almost a year off and on to diagnose the problem and over a week of full time work to get to the bottom of it. A big thank you to the guys at The Chain Gang for their help. Bigby is now finally ready for the 2020 season.

The finishing touch is a new custom decal designed by my friend Brian Chu at Brian Chu Design and Illustration, Inc. in Calgary. Thanks, Brian.

650THUMPER 2005A

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20-20

 

Kevin_cropHindsight may be 20-20 but nobody can predict the future. This Covid-19 has thrown us all for a loop, and we still don’t know how the story will end. It’s hard to make plans for the summer when everything is so up in the air, but I am a Gen-Xer. We grew up with the threat of nuclear war hanging over our heads and still managed to make it to school each day, even hold a few tentative plans for the near future. A little pandemic isn’t going to stop me planning the riding season set to begin.

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Obviously, much of this is pending how the pandemic plays out, so I’ve made some educated guesses. The regions are starting to open now and the stores and schools will be in a few weeks. It looks like we will be starting to loosen social distancing restrictions in the near future, although I think everyone is going to be wary of close proximity in confined spaces for some time to come.

For that reason, I think most of my riding this summer will be either solo or with a few riding buddies, cognizant of minimizing contact and risk. I’m okay with that. Riding is already a pretty solitary activity even when shared. I love solo touring, but as I said in my last post, I love club riding too. Here are my tentative plans for this summer amid this weird year so far.

Touring

The first little tour I’m going to do is down into Vermont and New Hampshire for a few nights once the border re-opens. Last year I rode the Puppy Dog Route on my own in June and it was just the thing to recenter after being stretched out of shape by 100 students, each wanting a piece of me. This year I will try the Hamster Ride, which is the same sort of thing as Puppy Dog but in New Hampshire instead of Vermont. It’s a series of dirt roads traversing a good part of the state up to the Canadian Border. I love dirt roads, state parks, the White Mountains, the Green Mountains, and the secondary highways of the northeastern states. I think Bigby and I will attempt Mount Washington while passing nearby, but I won’t be putting any “This bike climbed Mount Washington” sticker on my pannier. That’s boasting. Besides, it makes you question the reliability of any vehicle that feels the need to advertise the accomplishment.

MtWashington

Photo Credit: Ted Dillard

I don’t have any other small tours planned, but Marilyn and I will be doing some day trips together. To beat cabin fever, we’ve done a few rides along the river these past few weeks. We go in the late afternoon and it’s a slow, easy ride west as the sun sparkles off the water. Marilyn says she thinks she’s caught the motorcycle bug. The other day while doing some routine maintenance on the bike, I noticed my rear brake pads were finished, so I’m waiting on new pads to arrive in the mail. Now she’s asking, “When are those pads arriving because I want to go for another ride?” Finally, she might be getting the appeal, and as long as we don’t get caught in a rainstorm, I think I’ll be able to cultivate that interest into a simmering passion. We will pack day lunches and head off on our own small adventures.

But The Big One, the tour I’m most looking forward to, is the cross-country one I’ve wanted to do since I was 19. I thought it might be this summer, but then our dog got sick, so it was put on hold; then sadly our dog died, so the possibility was back on; but then Covid hit, so now I’m not sure. But all going well, I’ll be heading across Canada sometime in July. I’ll head up toward Ottawa on Highway 417 which turns into the 17 after Ottawa, then I’ll just keep going, westward, through Chalk River, Mattawa, North Bay, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, and just keep going, as far as Bigby will take me. I’ve never driven across the country, so this is going to be a real discovery for me of the country I grew up in and call home.

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Mattawa, ON., Gateway to the West

The plan is to meet Marilyn somewhere out west (she will fly) and we’ll visit her sister-in-law in Washington State. I may be tempted to ride a portion of Highway 101, the Pacific Coast Highway, while I’m close, and that’s why I want to do this in July, although the heat will be worst then; I want to have the flexibility that no fixed deadline provides, and I have to be back to work in August. Then I’m going to come back through The United States, checking out their national parks. I’ve never seen the midwest, or The Grand Canyon, or Yosemite, or much of The States to be honest. So I’ll be discovering that country too, camping all along the way.

I’m considering doing some of this on dirt, either some BDR sections (Backcountry Discovery Routes) or a part of the TAT (Trans America Trail). There’s a lot to plan, but now that my work is done, I have the time to start.

Club Riding

I won’t be going on any tours with the club like I did last year, but I’ll do some day rides in the Montreal area. These are easy rides of 350 km/day or so into the surrounding regions with a few forays across the border. See my last post on the benefits of club riding. This year will be muted by social distancing, but motorcyclists are used to managing risk.

I’ve decided to lead a couple of dirt rides for the club. We are primarily an asphalt club but there are now a few members with ADV or ADV-styled bikes and even some cruisers who aren’t afraid of dirt. Often on club rides, I’d see an interesting dirt road leading off into the woods and I’d be dying to go exploring. I’m betting there are a few others who feel the same. Ideally, I’d like to offer these as an optional portion of a larger club ride, with a plan to meet the group for lunch. I’m going to call these 50/50 rides (50% road, 50% dirt). With my new Cardo PacTalk comm unit, club riding will be a whole new experience for me this year.

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Off-Roading

I cannot tell a lie. What I am most looking forward to this season is developing my off-road skills. It’s been a few years now since I took some beginner courses to get me started and I’m ready to take my skills to the next level. I’ve purchased Chris Birch’s Say No to Slow set of instructional videos on Vimeo and have been watching them while I wait for the brake pads to arrive. I can’t wait to get out there and try some of what Chris is saying.

Why pay for something that is free on YouTube, you ask? In a previous post, I listed some of my favourite online teaching channels, and I still think those are excellent resources. But Chris goes into a lot more detail than most of those, and more importantly, he covers the boring fundamentals that those channels can’t afford or choose not to cover, and that’s what I need. Yeah, everybody wants to learn how to wheelie and drift (but not at the same time!), but I’m more interested in things like bike set-up, foot placement, body positioning, and cornering in the dirt, which are covered in the video series. I was surprised that the entire set of 12 videos is under $50 Canadian. I don’t have any affiliation with the production team. I just know good pedagogy when I see it and what I need now most is guided self-practice.

There is a sandpit just over the border in Ontario I practice at, and a network of trails and Class 4 roads not much further starting in Hawkesbury. My bike has a new rear shock—one capable of some serious dirt—and Ricor Intiminator valves in the front forks,  so the suspension has just been upgraded to dirt-worthy. It’s got good crash protection, as do I with my new Leatt STX neck brace. We’re ready.

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The STX is for street and adventure riding. The wider scapula wings do not conflict with your back protector and you do not need integrated body armour.

Are you ready? It’s been a crappy spring for weather but the double-digits are just around the corner. Is your bike ready? I’ll be writing an article for my new paying gig, Riders Plus, on how to get started maintaining your bike. So get your tools out and let’s change the coolant, the brake fluid, the oil, check your tire pressures, and get ready for a new season. It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. Riding makes everything a whole lot better, especially when shared in the company of friends. If you want to escape the bad news for a day or more, there’s nothing quite like a fast motorcycle to help you do it.

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Bigby, ready for the 2020 season.

How to Survive the Off-Season

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As I write this, 40 cm of snow is descending on my home city of Montreal, Canada. My place of work is closed. In these parts, we call this phenomenon a Snow Day, and while you know in the back of your mind you’ll have to make up this missed work at a later time, for the moment it doesn’t matter. You have an unexpected day off!

Now what to do with your “free day”? Snow days for motorcyclists, however enjoyable, seem to accentuate what is already a painful time of the year. The bike is in storage for four months, leaving you counting the days toward spring and The Big Melt. You’ve got four months to fill and now you can’t even use work as a distraction. Well, here are some of my favourite ways to get through a snow day and the winter months.

Window Shop Online for Gear

My son likes to make fun of me because I’m always researching my next gear purchase. Gotta Get the Gear! I could walk into a store in the spring and buy everything I need for the new season, but what fun would there be in that? Half the fun is researching, and the other half is prowling for the too-good-to-be-true discontinued clearance-sale last-item deal in your size! (Fringe benefits of being abnormally slim is that the Small is often the last to go.)

Follow Someone Around the World

Can’t take the bike out for a spin? No problem. You can follow someone around the world online or in print. Currently I’m following Itchy Boots as Noraly makes her way solo up through South America towards Alaska. I’ve also recently discovered Ewen and Charlie’s YouTube channel where you can re-watch Long Way Round, Long Way Down, Race to Dakar, and By Any Means—all free. Thanks guys! But my favourite series is Races to Places with Lyndon Poskitt. Lyndon and Basil Bike tour around the world—but here’s the catch—they race in an international cross-country race on every continent. Hence Races to Places. Lyndon races in the Mongolian Rally, the Dakar, Roof of Africa, Baja 1000, and others, filming everything himself. It’s a huge commitment but he’s developed a huge online following. After 9 seasons and some 230,000 kilometres, the series has just wrapped up. You don’t have to watch all 9. Jump in anywhere; they’re all good. There are many, many more adventure riders spanning the globe and through the power of GoPro and YouTube, we can vicariously ride along. Martin Heidegger never anticipated this when he was so critical of technology. 

If old technology is more your thing, how about the book that started the adventure riding industry, Jupiter’s Travels? Or Lone Rider: the First British Woman to Motorcycle Around the World by Elspeth Beard? Also on my reading list is Motorcycle Messengers: Tales From the Road By Writers Who Ride, edited by Jeremy Kroeker. As more people today are travelling the world by motorcycle and then writing about it, a genre called motorcycle journalism is emerging. If you are shut in, a good book about riding can help pass the time.

Watch the Dakar (Again)

January means the Dakar, a 10,000 kilometre race over 12 days, the equivalent of riding from Alaska to Florida in two weeks. It’s the most difficult, gruelling, and therefore prestigious off-road race in the world. This year the race moved to Saudi Arabia and there was some criticism about that, but the racing is always good no matter where it is. Watch race summaries of each of the 12 stages or just sit back and watch the Best of Bikes compilation.

Watch Team Races to Places in the Eco Africa 2020 Rally.

One series I especially enjoyed this winter was Lyndon Poskitt’s team Races to Places compete in the Africa Eco Rally Race 2020. The race covers the same terrain as the original Paris-Dakar race, across northern Africa, ending on the west coast in Dakar. This was Lyndon’s next brain child after completing his round-the-world adventure in Races to Places. He put together a team of five riders for the race and brought along his dad and others as mechanics and support crew and a media crew as well, liberating him from doing all the filming and editing. In the first few episodes, we watch Lyndon build the bikes from the frame up (KTM 450 Rallys), introduce the team, organize the gear, and ship everything over to Africa. Then the racing begins. Every episode includes both race footage and life at the bivouac, and I find this series provides a better, more complete idea of rally racing than the professional Dakar footage. Well done Lyndon! Oh yeah, and there’s a dramatic conclusion. If you’re into rally racing, you can’t miss this 17-part series.

Learn New Skills

Sports psychologists claim that visualizing technique has the same physiological effects as actually doing it. That’s all the excuse I need to spend more time online watching motorcycle videos. But unlike the above, there are plenty of schools willing to offer rider tips and technical training for free. Clinton Smout of SMART Riding Adventures has an excellent series of instructional videos, as does Bret Tkacs at Mototrek. I also really like Brake Magazine’s Mini Tip Monday, where you can learn frivolous but impressive skills like how to do a donut, or spin turn, or get on and off your bike like pro. If those still leave you craving more instruction, why not get it from The Man himself, Graham Jarvis? Here are 5 Techniques to Improve Your Hard Enduro Skills. Even if you ride a big adventure bike like me or any other bike, these techniques will improve your riding.

Plan Your Next Adventure

Okay, leaving aside YouTube for the moment, another thing you can do during the winter months is plan your next adventure or tour. I plan to travel across Canada this summer, coming back through The United States. That’s a minimum of 10,000 kilometres, so I’d better get planning! I’m actually a pretty minimal planner, choosing to keep an open schedule and camp where convenient, but I don’t want to be riding past historic landmarks unawares. So I bought National Geographic’s National Historic Sites of Canada and am perusing it. I also have to decide if I’m going to do any of the Trans Canada Adventure Trail, Trans America Trail, or any Backcountry Discovery Routes while travelling. I’d like to, but because I’ll be solo, I need to get a sense of the difficulty of specific sections and routes. Fortunately, there is a lot of information online about these dirt options. But all trip planning begins and ends with GoogleMaps and Tripadvisor. So start getting excited about your next big trip by scouting your route, finding accommodations, restaurants, and not-to-be-missed landmarks. And if you’re not going on a big tour, you can at least scout your local area for those hidden gems.

Peruse Bike Forums

Speaking of trip planning, perhaps no better resource for adventure riders is ADVRider, including its hugely popular forum. I went looking for info on how many inmates (i.e. registered users) are on that forum and found nothing. But a list of registered users is 9342 pages long and each page contains 40 users, so that means there are 373,680 users! Wow! No doubt this reflects the popularity of the site and the ADV market. There’s a lot of good info there including forums on trip planning, ride reports, GPS & navigation, bike-specific maintenance forums, something titled Face Plant (I can only imagine what that’s about), and a personal favourite of mine, the Toolkit Thread. Everyone’s searching for that must-have, elusive tool, and it seems a matter of personal pride to many that they can whittle their entire toolkit down to fit inside a used pack of chewing gum. The other forum I practically live on during winter is f650.com. You may recognize the similarity in the name of that forum and this blog and that is not a coincidence. The Chain Gang, as it’s affectionately known, is a forum dedicated to owners of the BMW 650 bikes in their many iterations—Classic, Funduro, Dakar, and mine, the GS. Any mechanical issue I have, I go there first. Heck, sometimes I read about other people’s problems so I’m prepared for when that happens to me. Finding and reading a bike-specific forum devoted to your bike will alert you to the weaknesses of your machine and help prepare you for when you need to do that roadside repair.

Listen to Motorcycle Podcasts

Like YouTube and user forums, there’s a variety of motorcycle podcasts and you can find one that fits the kind of riding you like to do. One of my favourites is Adventure Rider Radio. Host Jim Martin and producer Elizabeth Martin do an excellent job putting together a weekly show that covers adventure stories, technical tips, industry developments, and more. But you don’t have to wait for a snow day to listen to a podcast. I use a podcast app on my phone that allows me to download the episode to my SD card and listen to it anywhere. I’ve found I can’t read on the bus after a day at work so a podcast is just the thing to zone out during my commute. 

Work on Your Bike

Of course, if you have a heated garage, you can always do some work on your bike. Heck, I don’t have a heated garage and still do work on the bike. Last weekend I spent some time in the shed removing the rear shock, replacing an engine mount, replacing the starter motor O-ring, and torquing my crankcase bolts. The temperature had risen to a balmy -8 Celsius (18 Fahrenheit) so I took the opportunity to do this work and be ready to ride come spring. I’ll be back out there as soon as my new shock is ready to install. A riding buddy repainted his entire bike last year, and another had the engine rebored and did other major mods, including repainting. If you are one of the lucky ones to have a heated garage, now is the time to do that maintenance and thumb your nose at the rest of us.

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Stay warm and carry on.

Write a Blog

Yes, you knew this was coming. Another way you can spend a snow day is by writing a blog post. 650thumper gives me the opportunity to revisit my motorcycle adventures, and when I heard that the college is closed, my first thought was that I’d like to spend my “free day” thinking and writing about the freedom of motorcycling.

How do you survive the off season? Let us know in the comments section below.

A Bike is a Body

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There comes a time in your life when you know you can no longer take your health for granted. Sometimes it’s not so much a revelation as a creeping recognition, but in my case, it was a specific moment. I was in my 40’s, in good health, when I walked to the curb to retrieve the recycling blue box. I bent over, picked it up, and bam! Back spasm that sent me to the ground.

“What the hell was that?” I wondered. A back massage helped work out the stiffness, but it would take five osteopath appointments and a regular routine of Pilates to put me back to health, so to speak. Since then, when I get away from doing the Pilates on a regular basis, like when I’m especially busy at work, I have a relapse. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m going to have to do Pilates regularly for the rest of my life to keep my back healthy.

But it’s not just the back. I play soccer recreationally, and I have to keep training in the off season and between games to maintain my fitness and speed. As soon as I stop, even just for a few weeks, the muscles atrophy, including the most important one—the heart—and I struggle through that next run or game. At a certain point (I’m now in my 50’s), you have to do this training just to maintain what you’ve got! It’s diminishing returns with longer recovery times, but what’s the alternative? If you stop altogether, well . . . we won’t talk about that.

When we were young, we abused our bodies. We put chemicals through them, burnt the cilia from our windpipes with one puff of smoke, stayed up all night partying or studying, lay out unprotected in the direct sunlight for hours. We might have been involved in athletics, but few ever did any training. I ran a 16K road race when I was in my teens on the minimal preparation of a few runs in the weeks leading up to the race. I know someone who stayed up all night partying before a marathon. (Yes, he finished, but collapsed unconscious over his celebratory meal afterwards.)

I’m thinking of this now as I try to ramp up my training after a month or so hiatus. I’d like to carry a little momentum into the snowy winter months here in Montreal so I arrive in the spring fit for a new season of soccer and riding. And I’m thinking of it in relation to my motorcycle, which I’ve just winterized and stored away at the end of another riding season. Come to think of it, a bike is not unlike a body. It arrives on the showroom floor pristine and perfect. Then with age and use, a few things start to break, or wear out, and you have to work to get it back to health. It’s a constant struggle with diminishing returns to keep it in good working order.

Almost all the people I ride with have new motorcycles. They require very little maintenance beyond an oil change and a fresh coat of wax. My bike, on the other hand, is a 2006, and on a recent multi-day club tour, the running joke was that every time we stopped, I had to fix something. It’s true that on the five-day tour I fixed a helmet lock that had vibrated loose, a rear-view mirror that had cracked, and a persistent slow oil leak at the front of the engine.

I keep a pretty close eye on my bike. I have to. And not just an eye but an ear. I hear every new sound—every rattle, buzz, clunk, or ticking. I can tell when my oil is old from the sound of the engine. It’s just part of riding an older bike. You get used to doing a walk-around pretty regularly, and I’ve spotted on them a burnt taillight bulb, a cracked mudguard, missing hardware. Recently I learnt how to weld plastic using a soldering iron and zip tie to repair a cracked body panel and said mudguard. With age and UV rays, plastics atrophy and become brittle, fragile. And because I do some light off-roading with my ADV bike, there’s a lot of wear and tear, vibration from the single cylinder and from the terrain, drops, crashes. Every once in a while I’ll notice something else broken, and then I’ll have to either fix it or replace it to bring the bike back to 100%.

Fortunately, I can still obtain replacement parts. Okay, sometimes I have to wait two weeks for them to arrive from Germany, but when I recently lamented this to customer service of a large online parts distributor, the person replied, “Well, at least you can still get them. Good luck trying to get parts for a bike this old from one of those Japanese manufacturers.” I didn’t know, but apparently some companies just stop making the parts for older models. When Polaris bought Victory, they promised to support Victory bikes for ten years. When GM restructured and Saturn was killed, I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d have difficulty getting parts for my L100.

With a body it’s not so easy. You can’t easily swap out a broken part, which is why I’m a strong proponent of preventive health practices and signing my donor card. Keeping your organs after death is the epitome of selfishness. (Yeah, I know the joke about “donorcycles.”) But even with my bike, I know there will come a time when I won’t be able to get a part, and then I’ll have to make it. I was this past autumn at a vintage motorcycle race, and as I walked through the pits, I marvelled at the beautifully restored classic bikes. Many of these guys must have to make their own parts. That’s another whole level of skills beyond regular bike maintenance.

When I retire, I’m going to buy not only a house with a heated garage or workshop but also machining tools so I can make my own parts. The dream is to restore an old classic bike, something that tugs on my heart-strings like an old Triumph or Norton, thinking of my British ancestry. As my body begins to fail in ways I won’t be able to stop or fix, I’ll bring an old, rusty machine beautifully back to life. “Time and tide wait for no man,” Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in The Canterbury Tales. But then, he hadn’t met a motorcycle mechanic.

Dude, where’s my bike?!

20190908_140759I’ve been putting the kilometres on Bigby this summer. I’m now over 88,000 K and, to my knowledge (I’m 3rd owner), the rear suspension has never been serviced. I also had a small oil leak coming from the front of the engine, and I wanted to check that all the engine mounting bolts were torqued to spec. I hate doing maintenance during the riding season because I’ve lost the last month of the last two seasons waiting for parts, but I felt in this case, with three jobs needing to be done, I’d dive in.

This was the biggest job I’d ever done, as you can see from the photo above. The entire back half was removed. I mistakenly took off the fuel tank because I’d read you need to in order to reach one of the engine mounting bolts. Ha! As it turned out, that advice was referring to the 650 Classic, I believe, and in the end, it wasn’t necessary. But it also wasn’t that hard. I’d had the subframe lifted before, to get my shock off; the difference was just that all wiring had to be disconnected and the subframe bolts removed. I’d run the bike down to just a few litres of fuel, so my wife helped me lift the tank off. On this bike, the subframe remains attached and both are removed together.

With the tank off, I was able to access the suspension linkage easier. The deflection lever and tension struts (“dog bones”) came off easily enough.

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Rear suspension linkage

As usual, I took photos to ensure it all went back together the same way. But now the fun began. The pivot bolt that connects the swingarm to the frame was corroded inside and would not come out. It’s a big 12″ bolt that goes all the way through the bike from one side to the other. I checked the photo in my service manual; the guy is pulling it out with his fingers! Meanwhile, I whacked away with a hammer and drift but it wouldn’t budge.

I tried to get a bar clamp or C-clamp positioned to press it out, but could not get purchase with either; there was too much in the way. Finally I decided I had to lay the bike on its side, pour penetrating oil in the top end, and hope that it worked its way down to where the corrosion was.

 

No luck. I was beginning to feel like this guy who, after losing days trying to get his pivot bolt out, eventually cut the damn swingarm off! But I was not entirely out of options yet. I brought out the big boys: my dad’s old big ball-peen hammer and my sledgehammer. I flipped the ball-peen around to place the round end on the bolt, then, using it as a punch, hit the flat face with the sledge hammer. Slowly, slowly, the bolt surrendered, not to a higher intelligence, but a BFH!

With the swingarm off, I could see what the problem was. One of the bearings was seized. I guess this job was overdue.

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A picture’s worth a thousand whacks!

Of course my local BMW dealership didn’t have any of the needed parts in stock, so it was off to Vermont to pick up an order from MaxBMW. I love those guys! The parts took a week including shipping and came with their signature package of M&M’s included.

I’d never pressed bearings before and didn’t have a bearing press, but a YouTube video showed how you can use a common vice to do the job. You use two or three sockets on each end: one the same size as the bearing to press it out, and a bigger one on the receiving side to press the bearing into. You might need to add a socket on the press side to get the bearing fully out. With a little heat from a blow torch and a bar-clamp pipe as a cheater bar, it was easy. For some, I didn’t even use the heat. Just be sure to centre your press socket carefully to avoid damaging the wall of the swingarm or linkage.

 

I’d put the new bearings in the freezer overnight, so they had contracted and were easy to press in. A little heat helped but wasn’t necessary. Then I greased the whole thing up really well with the best waterproof grease I could find. My manual called for EP2 grease (Extreme Pressure).

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Out with the old, in with the new

With the new bearings in, I turned my attention to the other jobs.  A close inspection of the front of the engine indicated that the oil leak was not coming from either the starter motor O-ring or the clutch cover, as I had suspected, but the crankcase gasket. That’s the seam that runs the entire circumference of the crankcase front to back, holding the two halves together like a clamshell. My service manual indicated that the crankcase bolts are supposed to be 12 Nm, and two at the front were significantly below that spec. While I haven’t yet had the bike up to high revs, when the oil leak happens, I’m confident I’ve found the source. There were also a few other crankcase bolts further back in the engine that needed tightening.

Finally, the third job: the engine mounts. And here is where it became interesting again. I was missing one of the five bolts! Did I remove it earlier and lose it? I remember reading the specific instructions in my manual on where it is located and how it threads into the rear brake line bracket on the opposite side of the bike, but it’s not the kind of bolt one can lose; it’s M10 x 95mm. That’s a 9.5 cm long big bolt! Did I accidentally use it for one of the front engine mount bolts, which I removed to remove part of the frame? I searched the shed. I searched the workshop. I searched the grass in front of the shed. I searched my pockets, my tool bag, my car. I lost a day looking for that bolt, which had now become The Bolt and my wife was sick of hearing about it. To this day, I don’t know what happened to the 5th engine mount bolt. Fortunately, Canadian Tire had an M10 x 110 so I put that in. It’s a little long but will do the job until I get the proper one. Maybe it’s my imagination, but the bike seems less vibey, so perhaps one was missing all along??? Perhaps one day I’ll be cutting the grass and . . . gling! At any rate, I’m glad that all five engine mount bolts are in and torqued to the spec 41 Nm.

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Using a floor jack to position the swingarm

Finally it was time to put the bike back together: the swingarm and linkage went on nicely, including the infamous pivot bolt, which I’d cleaned up and given a liberal amount of grease, including some anti-seize on the nut. Then the rear wheel and then . . . uh! I forgot the chain, so it was either break the chain or remove the swingarm again. I felt like an idiot over that one. That’s a mistake you only make once.

So I removed the swingarm, looped the chain over it, installed it again, plus the rear wheel, the mudguard, chain guide, rear rack, etc. until Bigby was looking himself again. And just in time. I have a reservation for two nights at Mew Lake Campground in Algonquin Park this weekend. I’ll be photographing the fall foliage and writing an article for Ontario Tourism on Highway 60 that winds through the park.

Mechanical work is hard! It’s not just the physical exertion but all the troubleshooting and decision-making involved. Two nights at a campfire with my pipe and some scotch is just what I need to unwind and close the touring season.

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Ready for more adventures

The Wish List, 2019

Moto Santa

If I’m going to get my wish list to Santa before Christmas, I’d better send it now. This year has been a tough one for a few reasons, but mostly because my mom died in the fall. That threw everything off, including my blog writing. I just didn’t have the appetite to write, or ride, or do any of my other interests. But the midwinter holiday and the turn of the new year is as good an opportunity as any to turn the corner and start to look forward to the warmer weather and the chance to ride again. Here are a few things I’d like to get for the 2019 season.

But first, let’s take a look at what didn’t make it off my wish list last year.

  • Upper crash bars: check
  • Inline fuel filter: check
  • Flexible front flashers: check
  • Chain-breaker: check
  • Wheel lug/tire iron wrench: check
  • New front tire: check
  • Body armour: check (not Leat but Knox)

So the only two items that didn’t make it off my 2018 wish list were the Garmin Montana GPS, for the second year running, and the Sea-to-Summit mattress.

Garmin Montana 650

The GPS is a must this year; I can’t put it off anymore. As you know if you read my last post, I actually suffered a breakdown on my tour this summer from using a phone GPS. The port on the phone is just not built to withstand the demands of off-road riding—the vibrations, the moisture, the drain on the battery. I ended up jeopardizing my bike’s battery which led to the breakdown. And if you’re doing any serious off-roading, you’re often going to be outside of cell service. This is a fairly big-ticket item so I’ve been avoiding it, but fortunately, I’ve been doing some writing for Ontario Tourism and the money earned from that writing will offset the cost this year.

There is a new 680, but the 650 will be more than enough for my purposes and maybe I’ll get a deal on a discontinued model. I’m so tired of trying to use GoogleMaps to plan my rides! It works okay to get you there but you don’t have much choice in the route (just “avoid motorways,” “avoid toll roads,” and “avoid ferries.”) I’m looking forward to being able to use BaseCamp to plan rides on my computer and import tracks to the GPS. It’s also going to open up a whole new world of off-road track sharing through forums. The Montana is the most popular off-road GPS on the market, with topographical maps, the ability to geocache photos, dual map capability, a micro SD card slot, and many more features that I’ll probably never use. Best of all, it’s rugged.

A Lithium Battery

Shorai

Shorai LFX14L5-BS12

I’ve also decided it’s time to retire my old wet cell battery. I actually got two when I bought the bike. One died about a year ago, and the second is now getting weak. The battery on my bike is known to lose fluid because it’s right next to the upper oil tank, so it gets hot. Also, you have to remove all the plastics on the bike to check and to maintain the battery, so a low maintenance battery would be a huge benefit. I’ve decided to try a lithium battery. I heard about them on Adventure Rider Radio but had concerns about using a lithium battery in a cold climate like Canada’s. However, I’ve heard on forums that it shouldn’t be a problem. You just turn the electrics on for a minute or two to let the battery warm up before hitting the starter. I won’t have to worry about this one boiling dry, as my current one did outside of Mattawa, and an added huge benefit is that it’s much lighter than a wet battery. It’s the easiest way to shed several pounds up high on my bike.

Ricor Intiminator Fork Valves

Intiminators

41mm Ricor Intiminator Valves

This past year, I lost the preload adjuster on the rear shock. I think what happened was the new Holan upper crash bars install too close to the adjuster. The bars use the same mounting point, and I think the adjuster threads got strained from the tip-overs and eventually stripped. I was lucky to find a generous soul willing to swap me his adjuster for mine, but in doing some research on this item, I discovered that many riders find the suspension on my f650GS too soft, especially for off-roading. I’m not a big guy, so I don’t find the rear too soft, but the front end does dive under braking, and for the past while I’ve had a clunking noise coming from the forks on certain types of bumps. I was going to rebuild the forks this summer, replacing the bushings, so I’ve decided to install some Ricor Intiminators at the same time to firm up the front end. They don’t look like much, but these babies have something called Inertia Active Technology. Developed over a twenty year span, this technology can distinguish between chassis motion (fork dive) and wheel motion (bumps in the road). It allows the wheel to move and stay in contact with the road but doesn’t allow the forks to compress when front brake is applied. How, you ask? You’ll have to read the details of the technology at their site. The bottom line is that you get a cushy ride on the road without the fork dive under braking, and better handling off road. According to many comments on user forums, the suspension on my bike is its greatest weakness, so I’m looking forward to improving the front end.

 

K & N Air Filter

KandN

This one is kind of a no-brainer, which makes me wonder what took me so long to make the switch from paper to cloth air filters. Okay, I do remember reading up on foam filters when I first got the bike, but what I read was that the OEM paper filter protects better than foam. And that is true, partially. Dry foam filters have holes upwards of 90 microns in size, too big to stop sand, which can penetrate your engine and do nasty stuff to it. But an oiled foam filter will protect your engine just fine, and most dirt bikes and off-road bikes like KTMs use oiled foam filters. However, too much oil results in loss of power because not enough air is getting in to mix with the fuel. Recently I discovered the K & N cloth filter which protects as well as OEM but is reusable like foam. It’s also zero maintenance (no oil to administer) and is reusable; just clean in soapy water, rinse, and dry each year. Sounds like the best option for me. Goodbye disposable paper filters.

Klim Carlsbad Pants

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Santa came a little early this year with some Klim Carlsbad pants for me, so this one is not officially on my wish list. I love my Klim Dakar pants; nothing is more flexible and durable for off-road riding than the Dakars. But they are not waterproof. That’s just not the way they are designed. They are designed to pull through overhanging thorny brush without tearing, and to allow maximum airflow when it’s not, so not waterproof and not for adventure touring. I’ve been desiring a Gore-Tex pant that will keep me cool in the heat and dry in the storms. No stopping under bridges to pull on rain gear, no trying to anticipate weather—just ride rain or shine and remove guessing from your day. I saw these on sale 43% off their regular price about a month ago and jumped before Fort Nine sold out of my size.

Steel-Braided Brake Lines

Single Front Line

Last year I accidentally damaged my rear brake line while fixing my rear shock. I’ve decided I might as well take the opportunity to upgrade to steel lines which are better for off-roading anyway. Galfer lines are made in the USA, are model specific, and have teflon inner coating to avoid deterioration. There are even colour options for both the line and mounting hardware. I’ve already got new front and rear disc pads waiting to be installed, so I’ll be doing a complete brake rebuild in the spring.

That’s it. A suspension upgrade, a lithium battery, and (finally!) a motorcycle GPS top my wish list for this year. But like last year and every year, my main wish is continued health. A friend of mine is currently battling brain cancer and wasn’t able to ride last year. He’s recently had a setback and will be spending Christmas in the hospital. I’m thinking of him a lot and would gladly forego all these goodies and more for his health, but unfortunately there are no deals like that available in life. You have to count your blessings, and bless each day you have to live. However messed up this world is, experiencing all it has to offer is and always will be the most wonderful gift of all.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to you and yours.

Bears, Mines, Batteries: Cochrane, Sudbury, Mattawa

Native Carving_web

Street woodcarving in Mattawa, Ontario

After playing in the dirt around Moonbeam, I decided to head over to Cochrane to check out the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat. It’s the world’s largest and only human care facility dedicated to polar bears. They are located on 7 hectares of natural terrain and currently have three resident polar bears. I’m not a fan of zoos but these bears can’t survive in the wild and require human care; they were all either born in captivity or orphaned. The Habitat also advocates and educates towards protecting polar bears and their natural spaces.

It was an easy ride east along Highway 11 from my campground in Moonbeam to Cochrane. I stopped at Smoothy’s in Smooth Rock Falls for gas and breakfast.

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Smoothy’s Family Restaurant; Smooth Rock Falls, ON

Okay, they don’t win the award for most original name, but Smoothy’s was just what I was looking for: a classic diner where I could get an inexpensive bacon & egg breakfast with fried potatoes on the side. In the booth next to me were four retired men speaking French. In fact, pretty much all I’d heard this trip was French—in Iroquois Falls, in Moonbeam, in Kapuskasing. I’d never realized how big the Franco-Ontarian population is! A few Anglicisms had crept into their French, but I was surprised that the language and culture seems to be surviving just fine without any Bill 101 and its ridiculous sign laws or restricted access to education in English like we have in Quebec. Having said that, I must add that this past fall the new premier of Ontario decided to cut the French Commissioner position, a slap in the face of Franco-Ontarians and a sign of how vulnerable the French population is outside Quebec. Fortunately, Premier Ford reversed his decision a short time later, I don’t know whether due to pressure from Prime Minister Trudeau, public outcry, or common sense, once someone showed him the numbers and how such a decision would hurt him in the next election.

Another interesting cultural observation I had while up north was this billboard that I kept seeing.

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I’ve never seen anything like it around Montreal or southwestern Ontario. I’m not sure who the target population is, whether residential school survivors or men in general, but I think it’s high time we begin to discuss men’s issues, including sexual abuse.

With both bike and belly full, I pushed on to the Polar Bear Habitat in Cochrane. I arrived mid-morning and a tour had just started. “Run through to the first building and you can catch up to the group,” the lady at the entrance advised. So I did, only partway between buildings I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of two bears against the fence. They were huge! And exactly as you would expect with that distinctive long neck and pointed head, and not expect. Their fur is not so much white as golden, and their eyes and ears seem so small compared to their massive bodies, no doubt evolved to cope with blinding, blowing snow. I just stood there and watched them for a minute before heading in to catch up with the tour.

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The Habitat currently has three bears on location: Ganuk, Henry, and Inukshuk. Inukshuk, whose mother was shot when he was just four months old, is the father of Henry, bred when Inukshuk was at Zoo Sauvage in St Felicien, Quebec. Each bear has a unique personality and food favourites.

The facility is impressive, with natural and artificial areas, and a pool with a glass wall so you can see the bears swim underwater if they are in the mood. There are interactive learning stations for the kids and lots of information available on the walls and other exhibits for the studious, but really, everyone mostly just wants to look at the bears. They are magnificent!

Our guide reminded us that although they look cute and cuddly, the bears are dangerous and no one is ever alone with them on the inside of the fence which, we were told, is unbelievably more to keep people out than the bears in! They have had instances of people climbing in, I guess like the idiot videoed recently swimming nude with the sharks at Ripley’s Zoo in Toronto. Some people have the most warped sense of judgment when playing Truth or Dare after a few beers.

When the bears decided to head down to the natural pond, disappearing into the trees, I decided to step back in time a hundred years and headed over to Heritage Village. (Visitors to the Polar Bear Habitat also have access to Heritage Village and a snowmobile museum.) The village looks authentic and has been used for film sets. It includes a general store, butcher’s shop, doctor’s office, blacksmith’s shop, fire station, schoolhouse, and trapper’s cabin.

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No rollerball razors here. You can almost smell the lather and tonic.

While not the impetus of my visit, the Heritage Museum was interesting. It’s one thing to learn about history from a textbook or historical movie and another to see the physical artifacts of another era and another way of life. The buildings have been authentically decorated to assist the imagination in conjuring an ordinary day in the life of early 20th-Century citizens. When I returned to the bears, one of them was being fed strawberries through the fence.

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Staff feed the bear while children watch on.

Before leaving, I wandered into the snowmobile museum. I imagine Cochrane has quite the snowmobile culture during the winter months, and it’s a good idea to preserve some of these machines here for posterity. Each is labelled with year, model, and owner name.

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Each represents the cutting-edge technology of its day.

I started back toward camp but this time, as I passed through Smooth Rock Falls, I saw a sign for Lookout Road. Assuming it led to its namesake, I pulled off and headed up a dirt road; it was the adventure bug again. At the fork in the road, I went left and the road slowly deteriorated into a trail.

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Another promising trail to follow. Would it lead to the lookout?

I was on my own and without a Spot device, so venturing along an unknown trail deeper into the bush was both exciting and unnerving. My worst fear was that I might find myself in a situation from which I couldn’t get back to the road, kind of like what almost happened when I had my off on the Lumberjack Trail, but hey, Lyndon Poskitt and many others are adventuring around the world solo so I figured I’d venture a little further along this trail. There were some muddy sections and some hills but my curiosity pulled me deeper, farther away from the road. The trail opened up into a meadow at one point, and then descended again into the trees, leading to this muddy puddle blocking the way.

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End of the line for this solo rider.

I wasn’t so much worried about going down those logs into the water as getting back. If I hadn’t been on my own, I would have gone for it, but since discretion is the better part of valour, I decided to turn back here.

Once I got back to the Y in the road, I realized that the lookout was just a hundred yards further along to the right. Doh!

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The view was worth every misdirected inch to reach it.

The next day I started home. I had about 1000 km to cover in two days. I took the 11 east to the 655 south, which took me into Timmons. Traffic through Timmons was stop and go but there was no time to stop because I was trying to reach Dynamic Earth before it closed. After my experience in the coal mine at Springfield, NS, I wanted to go down into another, and Dynamic Earth offers a tour into the nickel mine there.

A little jog along the 101 at Timmons and soon I was on the 144 south. The 144 is another of Ontario’s great roads to ride. It’s a two-lane highway that cuts through precambrian rock as it descends down toward Sudbury. There’s a mixture of straight sections but the real fun is with the large sweepers. The highway is immaculately maintained with no pot-holes or tar snakes to worry you, and surrounding scenery is pure bush, so enjoy but keep your eye out for wildlife.

I stopped at the Tim’s just outside of Sudbury. It had been raining and again my phone was not charging. I gave it a quick charge at Tim’s, but I had to keep it short if I was going to catch a tour. I didn’t want to do the tour the next morning since I had a long way still to reach my home in Montreal. As I pulled out of Tim’s and cracked the throttle, the bike lurched and the tachometer suddenly read twice what the bike was revving. It was up in the red! I’d only seen this once before and didn’t know what it meant but did what I had done that first time: I hit the kill switch, let the ECU sort itself out, and restarted. Everything was fine and I got to the mine in time to catch the last tour of the day.

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Big Nickel at Dynamic Earth

We were given hardhats and descended 7 stories underground where the temperature is about 13C (55F). The tour takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes and shows visitors what mining was like from the earliest days at the turn of the century to today.

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In the footsteps of Sudbury’s miners.

The young guide was knowledgeable and informative, and the tour was animated with video installations and mock explosions. I could see how technology has evolved over the century to create a safer and more efficient work environment. Canada also has evolved over the century and now its economy is more diversified than before, but the country is renowned for its natural resources. It was opened by the fur trade, with forestry and mining the other big resources that followed. I’m glad I experienced this important part of Canadian history while I was at one of the country’s largest mines. The Sudbury mine has over 5,000 kilometres of tunnels; placed end to end, you could drive from Sudbury to Vancouver underground!

When we returned above, it was late in the afternoon and I was tired from the race down from Moonbeam. Although Dynamic Earth has a lot more to offer than the mine, I decided that was enough for one day and headed to a campground I’d found online. While en route my bike did that lurching tachometer thing again, and then my phone finally died. Fortunately, I’d packed a car GPS as a backup and it got me there.

The next morning I left Sudbury and headed east along the 17, the Trans Canada Highway, into North Bay. I decided that the 533, although out of my way, was just too good to pass up, so I turned north onto the 63. As I did, I saw a woman rider by the side of the road on her phone. Naturally, I stopped to see if she needed some help. The chain had come off her Kawasaki 650 Ninja. She was trying to reach the local garage but no one there was answering. She told me her male friend did all the maintenance on the bike for her and she didn’t have a clue how to tighten the chain. I’m always surprised that some riders, male or female, don’t know how to do the basics. It just seems that you would always be so vulnerable, but then again, I guess the vast majority of drivers don’t know even how to jump-start a car, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised.

I tightened everything up for her and headed on my way, not knowing that soon I’d be in the same situation. As I was enjoying the 533 east, the bike surged and the tach jumped to double again. This time, rather than resetting the ECU with the kill switch, as I’d done before, I decided just to let the bike run as is; I knew the engine wasn’t revving that high—the tachometer was giving a false reading—so I kept going. The 533 is the twistiest piece of road I’ve ever ridden and a lot of fun, but I soon decided to take it easy since the bike was surging and lurching more and I couldn’t trust it. As I came down into Mattawa it stalled. I restarted it and drove another hundred yards and then it died again. As I rode the main strip in Mattawa, it died on me several more times and then I couldn’t restart it so I coasted in to a spot at the side of the road beside an entrance. As I did, I noticed a BMW 1200GS on the other side of the entrance, so we were the BMW bookends of this particular drive.

No sooner had I removed my top bag and dug out my tools than I heard a voice say “You’re missing a cylinder.” It was the owner of the 1200 and he introduced himself as John. He hadn’t seen me limp into town so I explained the situation. Being an ADV rider himself, he naturally said I could crash at his place in North Bay if needed and use his tools to fix the bike. He thought it might be the regulator. I thought it was a plugged fuel filter. I stripped the bike of the plastics and pulled the cover off the fuel supply, cleaned the filter and put everything back. The bike started and idled okay. Only before setting off, I had the voice of the Jack Nicholson character in the movie Bucket List in my head, “Never pass up a bathroom,” so I killed the engine and took care of business. When I returned to the bike, it wouldn’t start. Dead battery. Completely dead. Things were going from bad to worse.

I asked John for a push to bump start the bike. We must have been a sight heading up the main drag, me on the bike, he pushing from the back. The bike started but I couldn’t keep it running. As soon as the revs dropped to idle it died. Then we couldn’t start it at all. Fortunately my spot was still vacant so I coasted back, stripped the bike again, and removed the battery. John suggested I take it to the garage on the corner and get a quick charge on it.

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Curb-side maintenance on Bigby.

Now I had an hour to kill so I grabbed some poutine from the local chip stand and watched the lumberjack races. It was Voyageur Days in Mattawa.

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Audience participation at Voyageur Days

I wandered up to the local Tim’s and, while walking back, saw John as he was heading back to North Bay. He repeated his offer if I couldn’t solve my problems.

When I got to the garage, the owner-mechanic was gone.

“He went to the fights,” the young lady running the gas bar said.

“The what?”

“The fights. There are fights tonight.”

I was trying to imagine what kind of fights would be in Mattawa but eventually just helped myself to my battery, which was still on the charger. It was $10 for the charge.

I got back to my bike and installed the battery, replaced all the plastics and loaded the bike again. Now was the moment of truth. I turned the key and hit the starter: the bike made a grunt. Hmm . . . I guess I’m staying in North Bay tonight. Then I hit the starter again and it fired! It idled!

I know now what the problem was. I had been charging my phone off the battery throughout the trip, sometimes even when the bike wasn’t running because I needed it. I should have known that the battery is only for starting the bike, not a portable power supply. All that charging had boiled three of the cells dry. The morning of my problems, it was cold and I had the phone charging and the hand warmers on high. The charging system couldn’t keep up and the battery got further drained. When the battery dies, the instrument panel starts doing crazy things and the ECU acts up. The single source of my problems—the surging, the weird tach readings, the eventual non-starting—was a weak battery.

I now finally started heading home. At that time, I still wasn’t sure if the regulator was acting up and if the battery would drain while riding to Montreal. I kept a constant speed and didn’t ask much of the bike. I stopped only twice. Both times I kept the bike running because I wasn’t sure it would start again. I even kept the bike idling while filling it. Who’s going to stop me?

Just outside of Ottawa, I nipped into a convenience store to use the bathroom. When I came back outside, a brown liquid was pouring from underneath the bike. Problems on top of problems! My first thought was oil leak. I dipped my fingers into the puddle; it smelt like gasoline. Perhaps I overfilled it? Did it have something to do with not turning off the bike while filling? I wasn’t sure but now had extra incentive to get home. Fortunately, when I straightened the bike up off the side stand, the flow of brown liquid stopped. If I could keep the bike relatively upright, I could get home. I’ve never had such a stressful ride!

Again, I now know what was happening. Earlier in the summer, I’d had the bike on its side for the better part of a day. Oil had drained into the air box and the brownish liquid draining from beneath the bike was from the drain tube. I’m still not sure why it smelled like gas or why it was only draining now, but it was not coming from the engine.  It was draining from the air box.

I pressed onward, ever closer to home, keeping an eye on my instrument panel, half-expecting the oil light to come on. Each kilometre, I thought, was one less kilometre my wife would have to travel with a trailer to pick me and Bigby up. I was hoping to keep a steady speed all the way, but as luck would have it, the major highway passing through Ottawa was closed! It was stop and go traffic for miles as we were rerouted through downtown Ottawa, adding hours onto my trip. What a day!

Once back on the highway, it was smooth-riding. As I approached the border into Quebec, I could see lightening flashes in the distance ahead. Riding into a thunderstorm seemed the perfect climax to a stressful day, but thankfully it opened up just as I pulled into my driveway. My guardian angel had gotten me home again—and not a moment too soon.

Riding an old bike has its disadvantages, for sure, but I have to admit that the problems of the day were more my fault than the bike’s. I depleted the battery by using it to charge my phone, and I forgot to clean the airbox after the bike had been on its side. In the end, I was super lucky that Bigby conked out where he did, in Mattawa, with a mechanic on duty and John for support and advice, not on the 533 where there isn’t even cell service.

Each time I tour, I learn a little more about the bike and about riding. I’m building my knowledge in lower-risk places close to help. And each year I venture a little further off the asphalt. I’m already planning next year’s tour that will take me deeper into the bush and into more challenging terrain. Who knows where I might end up? I don’t know where I’m headed but I almost always enjoy the ride.

Double, Double Toil and Trouble

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People sometimes ask me, “Where did you learn how to fix your bike?” I answer, “I didn’t. I’m still learning.” Being a DIY guy is a never-ending process. But the start is usually the same: an oil change. The first thing I did with my 650GS is change the oil and coolant, and because we live in the YouTube era, I lucked out and found a great how-to video by Kirk of the BMW Motorrad Club of Northern Illinois doing this very service on my exact bike! I love Haynes Manuals, but there’s nothing like seeing someone do it “in person.”

From there, I changed my brake pads. Brakes! you say. Don’t you want to get those done by a professional? I know, there’s an emotional component to brakes, but the fact is, they’re really not that complicated—a disc squeezed between two asbestos-lined pads.  When time came (40K) for valve adjustment, I did a bunch of research and plunged in. Each time I start a job I don’t know where I’m going but I figure it out along the way. As the American poet Theodore Roethke says, “I learn by going where I have to go.” And each time I go, I learn more about my bike.

Sometimes the journey is made longer because you don’t know what the cause of your troubles is. All you’ve got are the symptoms. In those cases, your diagnosis is easily half the work. Now if you are an experienced mechanic, you’ve seen it all and you can make an educated guess and save yourself a lot of time. Or you have a machine that costs the equivalent of my monthly wage and does the diagnosis for you. But if you’re a DIY guy on a budget, and this is the first time you’ve experienced these symptoms, you’ve only got the Fault Finding section of your service manual, the brain hive of a good user forum, and your intuition. Using these three tools in the right combination is the most useful wrench in your toolkit.

So when my bike overheated last fall after a little tip-over in sand, spewing boiling coolant out the overflow reservoir, I packed my bags and stepped out for a new journey, one that would prove to be especially long.

I don’t know how the editors of service manuals order the list of probable causes to certain problems. Do they list them in order of most probable to least, cheapest and simplest to expensive and complicated, or some combination of both? Since I’m on a tight budget, I tipped the scales toward cheapest fix first. Top of my list, then, were things like coolant level low, radiator pressure cap defective, thermostat stuck open or closed. So I started there, specifically with the thermostat. I took it out and tested it, sticking it in a pot of water on the stove with a thermometer. It opened just fine at the temp it was supposed to but didn’t close once the water cooled. Hmm . . . Could this be the problem? So off I went to BMW for a new thermostat. At $65, it’s got to be one of the cheapest parts on this bike, so I was hopeful I’d found the problem.

I put the new thermostat in and rode one block and the temp light came on. Damn!

Next I focused on the fan. Was it running when the bike overheated? I couldn’t remember so I texted my riding buddy. He couldn’t remember hearing it running either. Maybe there’s a problem with my fan, then? I connected it directly to the battery. It worked. Good, I guess. Maybe the sensor that turns on the fan is defective? My neighbours must have been wondering what I was doing with my camping stove out on the driveway beside the bike, but I had taken the sensor out of the engine block and was heating it in a pot of water, as I did with the thermostat on the stove. The fan did not turn on. So off I went to BMW for a new sensor. I was confident I’d found the problem.

I put the new sensor in, started the bike and ran it up to temp. The fan turned on. Great! Then I rode one block and the temp light came on. Damn!

Turns out the sensor works by pressure as well as temperature, so heating it alone would not trip it. On the plus side, the fan was turning on, so I knew that system at least was working properly.

The most recent time the temp light came on I noticed some coolant dripping from the bottom corner of the radiator. I surrendered to what I was dreading and denying: the radiator must be leaking. At $600 for a new one, this brings us to the point in the journey where I decide to stick the bike into winter storage early and avoid the problem, at least until spring.

It’s been a pretty brutal winter here in Montreal. Finally spring came, I bought the new rad, installed it, rode one block and the temp light came on. Damn! Double damn!

I’m not going to say the rad wasn’t broken, because I think it was. It was bent from the tip-over and clearly leaking, or so my wallet says. So my problem is . . . shall we say, multifaceted. I little sleuthing on my favourite forum uncovered that the water pump on my bike tends to go at around 50-60,000 kilometres. My bike now has 63,000. I knew this before buying the rad, but because it’s quite an involved process to get to the pump, and because the rad was leaking, I thought it was a long-shot that the pump would go at the same time as the rad. But go it did. When I finally got the pump apart, which involved taking the clutch cover off, the gear that drives the impeller was stripped.

Believe it or not, I was actually happy to see this, for at least then I knew what the cause of my problem was.

How was I to know that both the radiator and the pump were broken? And the pump issue seems to be unrelated to the tip-over. There’s been an effort on the forum to try to get to the bottom of what’s causing the stripped gears but there doesn’t seem to be any consistency. For some guys, it happens out of the blue with no apparent cause; for others, it’s after a drop. My guess is that the impeller shaft gets worn and starts to wobble. Sometimes this results in the seals leaking, sometimes the gears stripping. At any rate, it seems to be the Achilles heel of this bike. Now I know.

With the bike back together again and all fluids replaced, I rode off and the temp light did not come on. Now I’m ready for another season and my journey can be of the real kind.

I enjoy working on the bike, or any kind of manual work, actually. Okay, sometimes there are frustrations, like when I couldn’t figure out how to get the clutch cover off with the oil return line in the way. But that too is just a matter of knowledge. I struggled for a while, then went on the forum and read that some guys loosen the exhaust manifold bolts just enough to drop the exhaust pipe out of the way. I’m looking forward to the time when I know this bike so well that the troubleshooting part will be a no-brainer and I’ll know the route before starting a job. Until then, patience and persistence are my travelling companions. 20180422_145248

Blemishes or Character Marks?

“I want a poem I can grow old in,” writes Eavan Boland at the start of her essay “The Politics of Eroticism.” She goes on to explain that she wants a poetry in which she is subjected to the effects of time, not an object frozen in time. You might not think that’s very erotic, but that’s not her point. Her point is that she wants poetry that celebrates real women, creatures of time, not illusory women, sprung from the imaginations of male writers.

Why am I thinking of this now? Because my mistress has a wrinkle and I’m not sure whether I want her to get cosmetic surgery. I’m speaking of my bike, of course. Last year, as a result of a few offs in mud, one of the side panels got scratched. This was before I bought my upper crash bars. Now that I’m about to install them, I thought maybe I’d do a little bodywork first to make her good as new. I posted a query on my forum requesting tips. I’ve done bodywork on an old car with aluminum panels before but never worked with plastic. Someone replied with a lot of information for me, but someone else wrote “I kind of like my ‘character marks’  . . . makes it look like I actually use my bike in places other than Tim’s or Buckie’s.” That got me thinking. Are scratches blemishes or “character marks?”

I know a club member who sold his bike because it had a scratch and got a new one. Why he didn’t just get the scratch fixed I don’t know. Perhaps he was ready for a change anyway. But for some riders, the bike’s pristine appearance is an important part of the experience of riding. They spend hours polishing it on weekends, prepping for the club ride. I’m thinking also of the Americade parade I witnessed en route to an off-road rally last June, when all the Harley’s were lined up at the side of the road on display. I get it: the aesthetics of machines. I’ll be one of the first to admit that each bike has a personality, and a good engineer will take into consideration form and function.

On the other hand, aside from “character marks,” I’ve heard scratches referred to as “honour badges.” What’s so honourable about dropping your bike, you ask? I guess, the theory goes, that if you aren’t dropping it once in a while, you aren’t riding it hard enough. You aren’t pushing your limits. There’s growing derision for folks who buy a big 1200GS with luggage, maybe spend $2,000 on a Klim Badlands suit, but never venture off the asphalt. Posers. I’m not knocking anyone who doesn’t want to ride off-road, just those who don’t but buy an off-road bike and gear. And if you’re going to go off road, you’re going to drop the bike. Maybe not if you’re only doing dirt roads, but once you get into mud or trail riding, sooner or later, some rut or rock or lapse of concentration is going to get the better of you. And your bike. There’s just no avoiding it indefinitely.

So why not embrace it? If you ride around fearing a little mishap that might blemish your Precious, you’re not going to have much fun. And you did buy the bike to have fun, right? To ride it, take it places you can’t take other bikes, challenge yourself with a rocky hill climb or water crossing, try some single-track, where tree branches or underbrush might jut out onto the trail, slide the back end around a corner, and yes, show off your mud-splatter and scratches at the local coffee shop.

It’s the first beautiful day of the year here in Montreal. Hard to believe we had freezing rain a week ago. It feels like the unofficial start of the season. Enjoy your ride, whatever kind of ride you do.

 

The Mother of Invention

Last fall while practising some off road skills, I broke my radiator. I was working on power slides using two cones and riding hard in a figure eight. In a power slide, you brake slide into the corner, then at the apex crack the throttle, break the rear end loose, and slide the back end around as you accelerate out of the corner. In one attempt, I must have angled the bike too much or not cracked the throttle enough (you’re aiming for the right combination of both) because the bike just plopped down on its side. It was already at a steep angle and didn’t fall far, and onto sand, no less, so I didn’t think much of it. But a few minutes later the temperature light came on and the bike overheated. At over $600 for a new radiator and no used ones available on eBay, I decided to put the bike into storage early and deal with it in the spring.

This gave me a whole winter to think about what happened. Was it just bad luck? I decided to buy some upper crash bars to protect the faring and radiator in the future. I have lower crash bars and even some makeshift ones that I’ve had welded onto those, extending out past the pegs and which I thought would be wide enough to protect the upper part of the bike in a fall. But this happened on sand, not asphalt, so they simply sunk into the sand and didn’t stop the impact on the radiator. Ironically, if the bike had fallen on asphalt, I’d be $600 richer. So yeah, bad luck. But I also got to thinking about the Dakar riders and how they dump their bikes all the time on sand and don’t end up with busted radiators. What saves their rads on impact and not mine?

Two winters ago, I was considering a trip to Blanc Sablan, QC, which would have required riding the Trans-Labrador Highway. It’s 1,500 kilometres of gravel road, and without cell service (only satellite phones placed periodically along the highway) and logging trucks barreling past you, it’s imprudent to be without a radiator guard. One errant stone thrown or kicked up into the fragile fins of the rad and you are stranded in the middle of . . . not nowhere, but Labrador, and that’s not good. So I  installed a radiator guard.

From the beginning, I wasn’t entirely happy with it. For one, it required removal of the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) shrouds to install. One look at the shrouds and you can see they’re designed to funnel air into the radiator as well as offer some protection from flying stones. In addition to concerns about adequate cooling, the guards (there are two, one for each side) are also a little flimsy. They are thin aluminum, designed to be light, but because the body panels snap into grommets on the guards (or, originally, the shrouds), they serve another important purpose in supporting the structural integrity of the bike.

Looking at the guard that came off my bike, I could see that it had buckled upon impact.

And this is after some initial straightening. My guess is that the body panel bent the guard and the weight of the bike torqued the radiator. (The leak is in a bottom corner.) It might even be that the guard was shoved into the radiator upon impact because some of the fins are damaged. The OEM shrouds, although plastic, are stronger and might have prevented the damage. Ironically, it’s quite possible that my radiator guard led to my radiator breaking! The lesson here is beware of altering OEM parts on your bike. Sometimes those German engineers know what they are doing. And these bikes, all bikes today, are thoroughly tested before going on the market. Swap out OEM parts for aftermarket ones with prudence!

So I decided to go back to using the OEM shrouds. I wasn’t completely happy because my new radiator would still be vulnerable. The only other major manufacturer of guards for my bike also requires that you remove the shrouds. I therefore had no choice but to try making my own, some that would fit inside the openings of the shrouds.

When I was a kid and was working on my bicycle (or some other project) and needed something very specific, I’d just walk around in my parents’ basement until I found it. I’d have a vague idea in mind of what I needed, and since my parents’ basement was filled with stuff of all kinds, it was just a matter of time before something that would do just the trick presented itself. Walking through a home renovation warehouse is a similar experience. You don’t know exactly where to find what you envisage or even what section it might be in, but keep walking. In my case, I found my new radiator guards in the eavestroughing section.

I started with some aluminium grill that goes in your gutters to keep leaves out. It was cheap and perfect width and even pre-painted black. Most importantly, the openings were the right size—not so big as to let small stones through but big enough to allow sufficient airflow. It was also strong enough to withstand the shake, rattle, and (unfortunately) roll of off-roading. stretched aluminum

Then I carefully measured the openings of the shrouds. MeasuringI used some cardboard and created templates that I could fit into the openings. They were basically squares but with the edges folded about 1/4″. I would use those edges to fix the grill to the shroud, but more on that later. I had to cut the corners so when folded they became like a box (or half a box). One opening on each side was a little tricky because one side of the square is not straight but has a jog. Carefully measuring and fiddling is necessary, but better to do this with cardboard before cutting into your grill.templates

When I had the four templates, I held each up to the grill and cut using tin-snips. CuttingThis is a little messy and you have to vacuum carefully afterwards to collect all the sharp bits of discarded metal. I then held the template against the cut metal and used my Workmate, my vice, and some blunt-nosed pliers to fold and shape the guards.Folding I offered each into its opening and tweaked. FittingThis requires patience, but if you follow your templates as a guide, which you know fit well, you’ll eventually get there. Use the tin-snips or pointed-nose pliers to trim off or bend in sharp edges that can scrape the plastic as you fit them. If you do scratch the plastic a bit, use some Back to Black or Armour All to lessen the visibility of the scratch.

Finally, I wrapped each edge with electrical tape to give it a finished look and prevent the sharp edges from scratching with vibration. TapingFortunately, those clever German engineers had the foresight to drill two holes in the opposite side from the mounting points, probably with something like this in mind. When the guards are done, you can fix them into the shrouds using the mounting screws on the inside and either zip ties or 1/2″ 10-24 machine screws and washers on the outside. I decided to go with the screws just to be sure everything stays put.

Here’s the finished product. I’m happy that I’ll get the cooling effect of the OEM shrouds plus protection for my new (expensive!) rad.Finished covers

These guards are particular to my bike and unless you have a 650GS you’re going to be facing a different situation. Maybe there is a good guard or any other add-on for your bike on the market. But if there isn’t, or if you’re not entirely happy with the product or the price, don’t overlook the option of making it yourself. With a little ingenuity, time, and patience, you can sometimes do better and save yourself some money in the process.