Restoration

Making an old motorcycle look good as new.

The first time I took my bike to a rally, I dropped it three times. It was my first time off-roading and I had street tires on. That’s not a good combination. Back at camp, I was lamenting a scratch I’d put in one of the body panels when another rider set me straight: “Ah, you can’t worry about that. It’s a bike.” Obviously, his conception of a motorcycle is different from many others who keep their bikes spit clean and polished to a gleam. I know one rider who scratched his bike in a tip-over at a red light so he sold it and bought a new one.

My f650GS is my learner’s bike. That’s the one you make all your mistakes on, so it shows all the wear and tear of your learning curve. It’s seen plenty of tip-overs and a few crashes—thankfully none on asphalt—and has plenty of “honour badges” to show for it. It’s also now 15 years old. So after completing my cross Canada tour last year, which included an excursion up The Dempster Destroyer, I decided to restore it and retire it from trail riding. It’s a great adventure bike and I’ll continue to use it for that, but I’ll no longer try to push it where it ought not to go. I hope to get a different bike eventually for more technical riding.

My friend Mike painted his Africa Twin a few years ago and did a great job. His company, Renomac Renovations, specializes in quality home improvements, but he’s just really experienced in all things mechanical and technical and knows paint. So I asked him to give me a hand restoring the panels of my bike.

I used a bumper repair kit to fix a chip in the beak, and bondo to fill some deep scratches. Lots of sanding with 320 and 400 wet-dry sandpaper and then we primed, painted, and clear-coated the panels. I had found on eBay a centre panel to replace the original that had been cracked by the buckle of my tank bag harness, so all panels are looking pretty good. I even had OEM look-alike stickers printed.

You have to have a loving wife to tolerate this use of the front porch.

While those are hardening in my front porch, I also cleaned up my exhaust using hydrochloric acid in toilet bowl cleaner. It works like a charm and eats through the rust pretty quickly. It even did a pretty good job on the staining of my chrome exhaust that happens through heat cycles. Just use a toothbrush and plenty of water to rinse afterwards or the acid will continue to eat the metal. I actually mixed up a mild solution of baking soda and water to be sure to neutralize the acid, then rinsed. A little Blue Job (no typo here) afterwards had them gleaming like new again.

Last fall, I replaced my cracked and scratched windscreen with a new one. I had the 12″ National Cycle VStream screen on before, but I decided to go slightly taller this time with the 15″. The shorter screen was best for off-roading, but this one, with the Puig wind deflector on top, should be best for touring at speed.

The Michelin Anakee Adventure Tires I used last year were great for touring. I put 20,000K on them and there’s still tread left, but with the bike looking this good, I guess it’s time for a new set of shoes. I thought I’d try those new Dunlop Trailmax Mission tires everyone has been raving about. They are listed as a 50/50 tire, which is the kind of riding I do, but they look like street tires. Dunlop claim that they give “knobby-like performance” in the dirt while having a round profile for smooth asphalt riding and cornering. We’ll see about that. They were a full two years in development and have some new technology built into them, including sidewall ribbing and a stepped tread. And if that were not enough, you are supposed to get 8,000 miles (or 13,000 K) from a set, so they apparently wear really well.

A new set of tires and tubes to complete the bike. Let’s see how these bad boys are.

I’ve got a set of Kenda Big Blocks with a lot of tread left on them sitting in the shed, but I think I’ll save those for my next rally. I was looking for a long-life 50/50 tire for adventure touring. I’ve tried Heidenau K60 Scouts on this bike and while the front was great, the back flattened pretty quickly. I’ll post later how these are. In fact, I think a tire review of what I’ve tried so far is in order.

The only thing I’m still waiting on before getting back on the road is the circuit board from my dash assembly. Last fall, the clock started showing nonsense and partial numbers. According to Wayne’s excellent website crossroadz, the plastic cover of the display can wear away the copper in the circuit board and disrupt the signal. Thankfully, there is an electronics technician at the bottom of my road who does excellent work at a fair price because I don’t have the confidence to practice The Dark Arts myself. He’s going to take off the display and rebuild the pathways, whatever that means. It’s a relatively small thing, but I actually use that clock a lot when riding, and the bike will otherwise be good as new, despite the 130,000 kilometres on it. The engine still has good compression and is not burning oil.

These restoration projects have been taking some time, but the real reason this blog has been so quiet lately is that I’ve been organizing a reading tour for my recent collection of poems, Invisible Sea, published by DC Books here in Montreal. So aside from proofreading and doing final edits on the manuscript, I’ve also been contacting bookstores and other possible venues to organize reading events. The collection explores the theme of flight and, in particular, early human flight.

I wanted to write something positive as a kind of antidote to the state of the world today, and decided to reach back to my childhood heroes, The Wright Brothers, for inspiration. So the opening section is in the voice of Wilbur Wright as he solves “the problem of flight,” as it was then known. The second section tells the stories of other early aeronauts, both legendary and real, from Icarus to Brother Eilmer of Malmsbury, The Flying Monk, to Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier, and John Glenn, orbiting Earth. The third section is an exploration of aerodynamics, musing on the major discoveries of air, beginning with Leonardo da Vinci’s study of streams, to something called The Compressibility Burble that happens at transonic flight. The final section is a celebration of birds, bats, boomerangs, Frisbees and all things that fly into our everyday lives.

So if you are an aviation enthusiast, you will enjoy this book. I’m marketing it to a popular audience since many of these poems are narrative and accessible to any reader, not just those who read poetry. I was inspired by the stories of these courageous men and women who risked their lives in leaps of faith, and if you ride a motorcycle, the closest thing to flight while remaining on the ground, you will connect with these poems. The collection is all of $20 and available through Amazon, Indigo, directly from my publisher, and elsewhere.

So if the blog has been a little quiet lately, it’s because I’ve been busy both with my paid work and in organizing reading events. I’m trying to put together a tour down through The United States to Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. As most of you probably know, that’s where the Wrights first flew, and I’d like to visit The Wright Brothers National Memorial there. That would allow me to ride The Blue Ridge Parkway—a bucket list ride of mine—as well as Tail of the Dragon. Then I will head over to Dayton, where the Wrights grew up, to the Dayton Aviation Heritage Museum, and back through Dearborn, Michigan, where Henry Ford has moved the Wright family home and bicycle shop as spectacles in his historical park. If all goes to plans, I’ll be able to combine in a short tour my love of riding with my love of aviation history.

Other than that, it will be a quiet summer in and around Montreal. I have to postpone my plans to tour the East Coast of Canada, including Newfoundland and Labrador, because our new dog, a rescue, still suffers from some vestigial anxiety and doesn’t travel well. He’ll need another year to settle in, so the bookend tour to the west coast one last year will have to wait another year.

What are your plans for the season? April is always an exciting time to be a biker in Canada. And are you doing any mods or restoration work to your bike? Let me know in the comment section below. I’ll be finishing writing up the remainder of last summer’s tour in the coming days, then looking only forward to another exciting season of riding on a bike that, if not new, looks good as new.

Muncho Lake, BC. I’ll be writing up the final segments of last year’s tour in the coming days.

The Prairies

I blast through Manitoba but savour Saskatchewan.

Many thanks to my talented and skilled wife, Marilyn Gillespie, for the retouching of all images used.

Of all the geographical regions in Canada, I was most excited to experience the Prairies. That probably sounds strange to many. Before leaving on this trip, I’d heard others say that prairie roads are flat and straight and mind-numbingly boring. But the Prairies were not only the one Canadian region I hadn’t yet visited in my lifetime, but they are also Big Sky Country, and I’m a Gemini, an air sign, so I like the sky. No wonder I’m also a flight enthusiast.

Provincial Covid restrictions meant I couldn’t stop in Manitoba except for food and gas, and with that in mind, I didn’t even stop in Kenora on my way out for the requisite photo-op with Husky the Muskie. That would have to wait for the return leg of my tour. I hit the highway, brought the bike up to 120 km/hr, activated my Kaoko throttle lock, and didn’t stop for hours on end. It’s not the Prairies that are mind-numbing, but the super-slab highway.

I discovered a few favourite positions on the bike to cover these miles. My favourite and go-to position was right hand on the throttle and left elbow on the tank bag. This “lean-in” look not only made me look distinguished on the bike but also saved my back as well as cut down on wind noise. There was also left hand on the left grip and right arm anywhere but on the throttle, usually dangling down by my side. Even with my throttle lock, I developed tingling in my right hand from the hours of vibration transmitted up through the handlebars, and this position gave it some relief. It’s not just the mind that goes numb on a big thumper with adventure tires. And when my legs needed a stretch, there was the Harley cruiser position. I would lift my legs up and rest them on the little Giant Loop Possibles Pouches strapped horizontally to my crash bars. Those bags became my highway pegs. 6 hours of 5000-rpm riding is not really touring but moving the bike from Point A to Point B, which was exactly the intent of Manitoba’s Covid restrictions.

Halfway to my destination.

The only relief came at Winnipeg on the ring-road, Highway 101. For some reason, my GPS decided that, enough was enough, and it would mercifully divert me, 3/4-way through the ring, off onto Highway 221 and then the 26. What a difference the secondary highway makes! It meant a few stretches of gravel road, but the tank-slapper I received on one section (a result of my bent rim, I would discover later) was preferable to another kilometre of the Trans Canada. I was closer to the land and passing through small towns with history. On one “roadside break,” I discovered this old caboose and wandered back through a field to find more quintessential prairie artifacts.

Shortly before Poplar Point, I noticed a sign stating something like “Celebrating 100 Years of Hockey” and then a historical marker. I naturally had to go explore and arrived at this historic hockey rink.

Soon I was routed back onto the Trans Canada and the rest of the day was more of the same. The only thing that made it bearable was knowing there would be a TV and bed waiting for me just over the Saskatchewan border; I had decided to take a hotel room in Moosomin—a rare luxury when I travel. After a long hot day of highway riding, a cool shower, hamburger, and more mind-numbing TV in bed would be just the thing.

En route to the beer store.

The only time my bike burns oil is at high revs, so after the kind of day of riding it had been, I thought I should check it. Unfortunately, checking the oil level on this bike is not as simple as letting it settle in the sump and pulling the dipstick. That’s because the crafty German engineers gave it a dry sump system, so oil level is a product of a) amount of oil in the bike [duh!], b) temperature of oil, c) ambient temperature, d) temperature of engine, e) altitude, f) lunar cycle, and g) bike’s direction relative to True North. It was hot, and the engine was hot, and so was the oil, so I let the bike sit for a bit while I checked in at the hotel. That only took a few minutes, but when I checked the level, it was missing about 3/4 of a quart! Yipes! I thought that was a lot, and a bit concerning, but I added it nonetheless from the quart I was carrying.

The next morning at my first rest stop I checked it again and now it was high—really high. Damn! I guess the bike did not burn as much oil as I’d thought, or perhaps I waited too long before checking it at the hotel. Guessing aside, I knew I had to get oil out of it now or risk damaging the seals. What was there to do but parking-lot maintenance. Out came the tools and off came the body panels. I was at a gas station with adjoining convenience store, so I ransacked the washroom for paper towels and dug an empty windshield washer fluid container out of a garbage bin, then drained some oil out of the upper holding tank. I did my best guess and took out about half a quart. The level was now within range and I put everything back on the bike and rode on in search of somewhere to deposit the used oil. Fortunately, in these parts, the ubiquitous Co-op gas stations have oil drop-off containers.

Now I was ready to ride, and what a ride it was! I was headed to Grasslands National Park (East Block entrance) and my GPS routed me along Highway 13, which is a different world from the Trans Canada. What a joy finally to be seeing some of Saskatchewan. While passing through Ogema along the 13 I saw a sign for Deep South Pioneer Museum. Always curious to learn something about the history of the places I’m riding through, I decided to take a look. Of course it was closed for the usual reason, but I was able to walk through the grounds and check out some pretty old machines.

Further west along the 13 I saw a sign for Horizon, and from the little bit of research I’d done, I knew there were some dilapidated grain elevators there so decided to make a detour. When driving back out to the 13, I passed this quaint little chapel. They are everywhere in Saskatchewan—spartan clapboard churches that are very different from the heavy stone exteriors and ornate architecture of Quebec churches. I could suggest that’s indicative of the difference between prairie folk and Quebecers . . . but won’t.

So tempted to give this a nudge.

The riding got better once I turned south onto 36 and even better on the 18. By now it was the golden hour, and the twisty road rose and dipped over the amber, grassy hills. Who says Saskatchewan is flat? It seemed like I had the road to myself except for mule deer that scurried away across the barren fields and a coyote that froze and glared as I passed. Was I in heaven? No, actually just in southwest Saskatchewan. I fell in love with this region. It was one of the discoveries of the entire tour and I’m looking forward to going back as soon as I have the chance.

The only thing I didn’t like about Saskatchewan was the gravel used on their secondary roads. They use small brown stones similar in shape, size, and rolling behaviour as marbles. It’s fine as long as you stay in the tire tracks, but if you get into the deeper stuff that collects between those tracks, you are in for a treat. I didn’t have the best tires for this stuff, and it didn’t help that my front wheel had a wobble, so there were a few times when I thought I was going down. In such cases, the old adage “If in doubt, throttle out” was not going to help me. And with the bike fully loaded, getting my weight back did not lighten the front end one bit. I found I just had to clutch in, coast, let the bike go where it wants to go, and hope for the best.

When I arrived at the park, I mentioned my dislike of those stones to the young lady at registration.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” she said. “When I first moved here, I ended up in the ditch.”

“Oh, you ride too?” I asked.

“No, it was in my car.”

Riding down to the campground in the valley.

But don’t let me put you off visiting the park. It is very remote, as you can see from the photo above, and you get the sensation of what it must have felt like to travel by wagon across the prairies. You are completely exposed, and I could hear the coyotes yelping in the distance at night. The wind is fierce and relentless, so cooking is a challenge, but the badlands are spectacular, especially at sunset. There is a 20 kilometre single-lane loop along the top and I was lucky enough to do it at sunset. It doesn’t get any better than that.

The Badlands at sunset.

The next morning I decided to head on over to the other side of the park. I’d heard that the west entrance at Val Marie is very different so worth a stop. Now what do you do when road signs point one way and Google Maps tells you another? It’s not that I have an abiding faith in modern technology, but I decided to follow my GPS because it showed a route through the park, and I thought it would be much more interesting than going back out to the 13 and riding asphalt.

Crossing the park by dirt. It looks easy enough.

The road looked pretty doable at first and I enjoyed the true adventure riding. Four stags crossed the road in front of me and, one by one, in what seemed slow-motion, leapt the bordering fence and headed majestically across the open countryside. That kind of sighting was the reward, but the cost was more of the infamous gravel and, then worse, sand—deep sand. It’s not fun riding a fully loaded bike through sand, but I was committed now, and to make matters worse, my fuel light was on and I didn’t think I had enough gas to get me back out the other way, even if I wanted to bail. I pursued on and the sand in the valleys turned to two-track dirt on the hills. The road deteriorated further, I was told to turn off that “road,” and I found myself facing a gate. Like I said, adventure riding is about facing each challenge as you encounter it. Now I was in the middle of a vast, remote park; I hadn’t seen a soul in about an hour of riding; I was almost out of gas; and I was facing a closed gate.

I got off the bike and untied the gate, which thankfully wasn’t locked. I swung it open, rode through, stopped, closed and tied it again, then rode on. But as I pulled away, I heard a terrible grating, scratching sound like metal on metal. I’d ridden through barbed wire! Someone had strung barbed wire across the road on the other side of the gate! Clearly I was not where I was supposed to be but had no choice now but to continue. I untangled myself and the bike from the wire and rode on, half expecting to hear gunshots. It was lucky I hadn’t received a puncture from the barbs.

Just when things couldn’t have looked worse, my GPS announced, “In 8 kilometres, turn left.” Ugh! But it’s always darkest before the dawn, and just when I thought I was riding myself into serious trouble, there was another chapel in the middle of nowhere—a good sign—and then the road got better and resembled more a road, and before I knew it I was back out on the 18 again. It was asphalt from here on.

I popped out at McCord and filled up at the local gas station there. Across the street were these old pumps next to a local museum which was . . . well, you know.

There is a Visitor Information Centre at the West Block and I learned some interesting information about the region. For example, I discovered that they get an average annual rainfall of only 30-35 cm, half of it in the summer in thunderstorms in June and July, and about a third in snowfall. This really is a desert climate! I also discovered that rattlesnakes are common and that you can hike up the nearby Eagle Butte. Normally those two clauses would be incompatible but I had adventure riding boots on so decided to do it, just for the view. A sign at the trailhead said the buzzing sound you often hear along the trail are rattlesnakes, but the grasshoppers in this region make a similar buzzing sound by slapping their wings together in flight, just to mess with you. The whole experience—climbing a desert mountain mid-summer wearing adventure boots amid rattlesnakes and flying, buzzing insects—is highly recommended. Once at the top, the view was worth it all, but not captured very well by the camera.

From the summit of Eagle Butte, looking west.

By now it was mid-morning. I wanted to stay and explore this fascinating geography some more but still had seven hours of riding to get to my destination, Calgary. Marilyn had reserved an AirBNB for us and I was looking forward to seeing her and sleeping in a bed. I hit the highway again and before long I was at the provincial border.

Goodbye Prairies. Hello Rockies.

Now I had a few days to rest the body, do laundry, eat and drink well, and socialize with friends and family before we would hit the road together on the next leg of the trip.

Starting Out

The most difficult part of any trip is leaving.

Imagine a trip across Canada by motorcycle. Imagine the problems you could face: dangerous wildlife, inclement weather, mechanical problems, security issues, fatigue . . . I faced all of these, but I can honestly say that the hardest part of the entire trip was leaving. Specifically, the biggest challenge came the weekend before my departure.

I had decided to change my clutch plates and water pump. The plates were the originals, with over 100,000K on them, and the water pump, which on my bike fails every 40,000-60,000K, had about 35,000 on it, so I didn’t want to risk it. I ordered all the parts at the beginning of June. I didn’t expect them to be in stock—they rarely are for my old bike—but two weeks to ship from Germany still left me plenty of time to do the required work before my July 1st departure.

I waited . . . and waited . . . and started bugging BMW sometime around mid-June. And waited . . . Perhaps because of Covid and the resulting supply change issues, or perhaps the shipping was slower than usual, but I actually got the new clutch springs and gaskets on the Friday before my Monday departure.

My wife, Marilyn, was stressed; I, concerned. Marilyn’s flight was booked so I was committed to getting to Calgary on the 7th for our leg of the trip together. I’ve had the clutch cover off this bike a few times, and knowing how to do a job is 3/4 of the job. It’s not difficult when you know what you’re doing. Everything was going pretty smoothly, which is something because there is almost inevitably a snag, until I went to put the clutch cover back on.

This is the most difficult part of the job. You have to turn the actuator so the splines are facing backwards to engage with the splines of the rod inside the cover, then carefully maneuver the cover on without either moving the actuator, which is on a bearing, or damaging the paper gasket, which has to line up on all the tabs on the crankcase. Since it would take at least two weeks to get anything new from Germany, there was no room for error.

Note what he says at 10:19

There’s a certain amount of tapping, knocking, shoving, wiggling, rocking, and general coercion that is required to get the cover on. It was not cooperating but one final thump with the heel of my hand and it snapped into place. I was home free! Then I noticed that the actuator was loose. It was more than loose: it wobbled. It was f’d! I’d f’d the bearing and it was an uncommon one that would be difficult, if not impossible, to find in Montreal.

There’s little that can overwhelm me, but this did. It put me flat on my back, literally. I’d been working on the bike in the backyard outside the shed and I lay back on the grass and gazed up into the sky, either to admonish or to plea to whichever god was messing with me. It was one of those moments when you can’t even think of your next move. You just have to breathe for a bit and let your emotions settle. The only other time I’ve been incapacitated like this in recent memory was when I broke a bolt trying to get a starter motor out from our old car. It was in the most inaccessible place on the engine and I knew, as I thought now, that I’d be set back weeks. I thought I’d ruined the entire holiday.

I’d been thinking of this trip since my teens, preparing for it since I bought the bike in 2015, and waiting an entire year when Covid kiboshed it last summer. Now everything hinged on whether I could get the bike running again, and I had 24 hours to do it.

What could I do but take the cover off and have a look. I managed to do that without damaging the paper gasket and saw that the bearing was okay; it had just been pushed out of the casing. I took everything up to my little workshop and drove the bearing back in. It was easy, actually. It must be a pretty loose fit, perhaps for hack mechanics like me; instead of damaging the splines, which clearly hadn’t lined up, it pushes out of the casing. I was back in business but still on a tight deadline.

More wrangling and I got the cover back on, this time with the splines aligned. I attached the clutch cable but a pull of the lever indicated now another problem. There was a ton of play! The clutch was not disengaging. Had I missed a clutch plate? Bought the wrong plates, which were not OEM? Was the clutch cable rerouted incorrectly? I put out an SOS on my user forum and went to bed. I had a pretty fitful sleep that night.

In the light of morning with a cooler head, I saw that I could tighten up all that free play with the adjuster on the lever. I had to back it out a lot, but there were still enough threads holding it firm. I was surprised that there was so much difference in height between the OEM stack and the aftermarket plates. If any adjustment were needed, I was expecting it to be tighter, not looser, as the old plates were worn. At any rate, the clutch seemed to be working now, and at 9 p.m., on the night before my departure, I took the bike for a test ride. To my great relief, everything was working well. I’d done a lot of other work leading up to this job, so maybe I’m not such a hack after all.

With the bike finally ready, “all” I had to do is pack. Marilyn was trying to stay out of it but couldn’t believe that I’d left packing for a six-week trip to the last minute. Fortunately, I’ve done this several times and pretty much know what I’m taking and how it all goes on the bike. The only snag was when I went to pack my top bag. I’d wanted to take my Mosko Scout 25L Duffle Bag but quickly discovered that my sleeping bag takes up about 1/2 of it, so I’d have to use my big Firstgear Torrent 70L Duffle. Damn! It extends out over my panniers and partially blocks me from opening them with the bag on. I think either a smaller down-filled sleeping bag or a midsize duffle or both is on my Christmas wish list this year. In the end, the only things I forgot were a wool toque and my down vest, which Marilyn was able to bring on the plane with her.

Final adjustments

It was a late night to bed and a late start in the morning, but at around noon, my wife and son met me on the driveway to see me off. As the bike was warming up, I cranked up the preload on my rear shock and tightened a few straps. I took out my pocket digital recorder and noted the mileage on the odometer. After final hugs and photos, I pulled out of the driveway and was off. The dream was becoming a reality.

If you want to follow along, click the Follow button.

The End of Summer

It’s Labour Day weekend, the unofficial end of summer here in Canada. I haven’t heard any geese migrating south yet, but it won’t be long before I do. Patches of yellow leaves have started to appear, and the temperature rarely climbs above the low-twenties. I’ve zipped the quilted liner into my riding jacket.

For me, fall is usually a bit melancholy, but this year it is especially so since my major summer riding plans remained unfulfilled. In my post 20-20 last May, filled with optimism and promise, I outlined my three major plans: to ride the Hamster Trail in New Hampshire, to ride across Canada and back through The United States, and to improve my off-road skills.

As I write this, the Canada-US border is still closed, so the Hamster Trail didn’t happen. There was no club riding in The States, no DirtDaze Rally in August (at least for Canadians), and there will be no Cromag Campout in September. I miss the beautiful dirt roads of Vermont, the state parks, and the good company of our American friends.

By early July, I knew the cross-country tour wasn’t going to happen either. It’s not that it would have been impossible—at least the Canadian leg—but it would have been tainted by the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. My wife and I did some travelling north of Lake Superior in early July and found Tim Horton’s drive through open, but not much else in the way of food on the road. (Not that I have anything against Tim’s! Their employees are heroes, as far as I’m concerned.) The country was still opening up and some things were open, others not, and I had plans to do research toward some travel writing. All things considered, I decided to postpone that dream another year. I’ve had it since I was a teen, so what’s another year, right?

As for the off-road skills, well, there’s still some time for that. Covid can’t stop me taking my bike outside of Montreal and hitting the trails. I did a ride with The Awesome Players in June, but broke my new shock in the process (doh!) and it took a couple of redesigns by Stadium Suspensions to get that fixed. Then my preload adjuster broke, but thanks to my buddy Phil in Ottawa (aka backonthesaddle), that was fixed. Finally the bike is riding well! It’s sitting higher than I ever remember it, even with the preload at base level, and tracking well over bumps and potholes. In fact, it feels better than ever.

My wife says, “Don’t do anything to it. Just ride it!” and I get her point. So I’ve been doing that, going easy on it with some street riding. I’ve been doing day rides with my street club, The West Island Motorcycle Club, including the Telus Ride for Dad, which raises funds for prostate cancer research. This weekend, riding buddy Ray and I scouted a light ADV club ride in the Eastern Townships, ending up at the summit of Mont Orford.

The summer hasn’t been a complete blow out. I’ve kept busy by doing quite a bit of home reno, including painting the exterior of the house and doing odd jobs not done in previous years because I was too busy riding.

If I’ve been quiet on the blog here it’s because there hasn’t been a whole lot to write about except frustration in trying to get the bike fixed and toward Covid. It’s hard, though, to sound off when my wife and I are safe and have stable income.

I’m tempted to take off for a little solo trip somewhere now that I can. I like to get at least one solo trip in each summer. It’s getting cold for camping, but last year I was brave and did a weekend at the end of September in Algonquin Park. We’ll see. For now, I’ve got a set of Kenda Big Blocks sitting in the shed ready to go on as soon as my wheel weights arrive, and I’ve just ordered a new chain and sprockets. My current set has an unbelievable 35,500 kilometres on it and looks like it could do more, so I’m sticking with the same set-up: a gold DID VX2 chain (which is now upgraded to VX3) and JT Sprockets front and back in 15/47 ratio, which provides more torque and higher revs in the low gears than the stock gearing.

Here in Montreal, we are on the road until December, unless we get early snow like last year. The fall presents some of the most pleasant, beautiful riding as the temperatures drop and the trees turn colour. I’ve never had 60/40 knobbies on this bike front and back, so it will be interesting to hit the trails with the new shock and tires and see how the bike handles. Let’s hope I don’t break anything! While the summer was a bit of a bust, the fall still contains some promise.

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.

Priest Carving copy

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.

Group_ride_1web

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.

Bike2020

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

carlsbad-pants-grey-30

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.