Ready for Anything

In the penultimate post in a series on gear, I discuss what I carry when touring.

The Container of Last Resorts

The first major tour I did was to Cape Breton to ride the Cabot Trail. As you cross the border from New Brunswick to Nova Scotia, heading east, you see at the side of the highway a mini-lighthouse advertising Tourist Information. I naturally pulled off for maps and a rest. In the parking lot, I noticed a burley, bearded, rider on his back beneath his Harley, trying to tighten an oil filter with a pair of pliers.

“Hey, can I help in some way?,” I offered. None of his fellow riders seemed either able or willing.

“Not unless you have a 14mm socket,” was the reply that emanated from beneath the bike.

I rummaged to the bottom of a pannier and emerged with the requested item.

“Here you go,” I said, and handed it down to him.


Every touring group should include at least one ADV rider. Because we venture into remote areas, we have to be self-sufficient, and that means being prepared for anything. Anything. Mechanical problems, medical emergencies, security issues—we need to carry on the bike into the bush the tools, spare parts, first-aid materials, and safety items required to get us back out of the bush.

The basis of my touring kit is my tool roll. I use the Kriega roll because I like the little pouch at the side for all the odds and ends that don’t fit anywhere else.

Kriega Tool Roll

That includes an assortment of hardware and fuses, pipe cleaners, emery paper, safety wire, thread lock, a valve stem tool, picks, and a tool for removing pins from electrical connectors (viewed far right above). The latter contains two tubes of different diameters, one on each end; hopefully one is the perfect diameter to slide over the pin but inside the hole in the connector. The tool pushes the barbs of the pin in so the wire can be extracted out the back of the connector.

I once had a flasher that had a break in the wire inside the connector plug, so I couldn’t simply splice the wire. Every time I put on the flasher, I’d blow the fuse to the circuit that included my dash, so no speedometer, tachometer, and other instrumentation. The only way to fix it, other than getting a new connector and splicing wires, was to remove the pin from the connector using a tool like this. Since then, it’s become part of my toolkit.

Left to right above in my roll is a telescopic magnet, zip ties, various Allen keys particular to my bike, needle-nose pliers, slip-joint pliers, a 1/4″ T-handle, reversible screwdriver (standard/Phillips), 3/8″ ratchet, socket extensions, various wrenches. I like the stubby wrenches from Home Depot because they are lighter—not as light as titanium wrenches, but my wallet is heavier for it. I indulge myself with a ratcheting 10mm wrench.

Why the 1/4″ T-handle? Some of those sockets are 1/4″, but with the Motion Pro T6 adapter, I can use all my 3/8″ sockets on the T-handle.

Where are the vice-grips, you ask? They are in my other tool kit since they don’t fit in this one. As I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t use vice-grips very often when working, but they are handy in a pinch, so to speak (sorry).

Sockets, etc.

In a Dollar Store pencil case, I have my sockets, some hex bit sockets (3/8″ and 1/4″ stubbies), an elbow socket, spark plug socket, a couple of crowfoot sockets (again, particular to my bike), a spoke wrench, and said vice grips (aka locking pliers). I used to carry torx bits with the BMW, but since switching to Triumph, I now carry hex bits.

There’s some redundancy here, for sure. I probably don’t need both Allen keys and Allen sockets, but the keys don’t take up much space, and sometimes one tool is better than the other for a particular purpose.

I also carry:

  • Tubes. I know you can get by with one, the front, and cram it into the rear if needed, but I carry both a front and rear tube.
  • A chain breaker, spare links, and a master clip. I like the Motion Pro Chain breaker for on the road. It doesn’t do rivets like the DID one does, so I have both. I use the DID at home when changing my chain, but take the smaller Motion Pro one on the road with a clip master link.
  • A digital multimeter for troubleshooting electrical problems. Don’t ask me how to use it beyond the basics because I’m still learning The Dark Arts, but I take one nonetheless. I have the Neoteck NT8233D Pro, which is cheap enough to get wrecked while ADV riding but still decent enough quality and reasonable in size. I’ve considered getting a smart meter, but wondered if it would be reliable enough. Anyone have any experience with these?
  • An Arteck battery jumper.
Arteck battery jumper

Tools, sockets, tubes, multimeter, and chain tool all go in Giant Loop Possibles Pouches that attach to my crash bars at the front, helping to keep the bike balanced front to back.

In one of my panniers, I carry a plastic box that contains other items and spare parts (see image at top). The spare parts have gone with the sold BMW so need to be replenished, but they were a spare clutch cable, spare levers, and a spare water pump. If I were doing a RTW tour, I’d carry more spare parts than this, but so far my tours have been in North America, where parts are readily available.

Also in that container:

  • JB Weld Steel Stick, for fixing engine casing.
  • JB Weld Plastic bonder. I’ve use this to fix body panels and broken mirrors.
  • Self-sealing tape. This stuff is amazing and can seal a high-pressure hose.
  • High-temperature electrical tape for wrapping electrical wires.
  • An assortment of electrical connectors, including Posi-Lock, and heat shrink.
  • More hardware, more fuses, assorted copper crush washers, cotter pins, O-rings, velcro.
  • Various gauge wire
  • Gasket maker
  • An extra buckle for my Wolfman tank bag.

Finally, to round out my emergency preparedness, I carry a first-aid kit and bear spray. The kit I put together myself. I took a look at what you get in those prepared kits and it didn’t look like much for the cost, so I bought another trusty Dollar Store pencil case and filled it myself. I won’t go through all that I have in there, but will say the few things you won’t get in those commercial kits:

  • Carbon capsules. Eaten something that doesn’t agree with you? Take two, wait half an hour, take a dump, job done.
  • Arnica Montana. Homeopathy for any trauma to the body.
  • Robax. I have a vulnerable back, which tends to go at the most unexpected times.
  • Antihistamines. These are great for any inflammation from bee stings or allergic reactions.
  • Triple Action Polysporin

These items, along with the essentials I always carry on the bike, round out my touring kit. They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and all this stuff adds up to a quite a few pounds, so I think I’m covered. The challenge is always to find the right balance between taking what you need while keeping the weight down. I’d rather sacrifice some creature comforts like a camp chair, but I rarely sacrifice when it comes to tools and other items needed to keep the bike running (although the camp chair would come in handy if stranded in the middle of nowhere).

I’ll add one more item this winter to my tools: a satellite communicator. I’ve been meaning to get one for a while, and it really is silly to travel into remote areas without one. I’ve considered them all and almost bought a Garmin inReach Mini, but I’m leaning toward getting a Zoleo at half the price. Any thoughts, anyone? I don’t see what the Garmin does that the Zoleo cannot. Am I missing something?

Have I missed anything in my touring kit? As always, your kit is personal to you, so let me know in a comment if there’s something you carry that I do not. Like I said, I’m a self-confessed gear weanie, so I’m always interested in learning about a tool I have to buy. Buying gear is one of the ways we riders in the North get through the off-season, and yesterday I put the Tiger into storage, so I’m all ears.

I’ll wrap up this series in my next post on the navigation apps I use. If that interests you, click Follow and you’ll be notified of it and future posts when they are published.

End of an Era

After 8 years and almost 100,000 kilometres, I pass Bigby on to new owners.

Saying good-bye to Bigby. A final chain lube and I handed over the keys.

The first night of my motorcycle training class, the teacher asked: “Okay, what do we have here? Who wants a sport bike? A cruiser? A tourer? An adventure bike?” Students put up their hands accordingly. I didn’t even know what an adventure bike was yet, but I knew I wanted something that would allow me to explore, and I didn’t want to be limited by pavement. The places I wanted to explore likely wouldn’t have any pavement.

At the end of the evening, I approached the teacher to ask about helmets. What would he recommend, full face or modular? At some point, I must have mentioned that my dream was to travel across Canada by bike. “You’re going to get a BMW, aren’t you?” he said. I guess he knew enough about ADV culture to know that is the most popular ADV brand, thanks to Ewen and Charlie, and KTM’s big mistake in doubting them. And in the end, he was right. After a little research online, I zeroed in on the f650GS as a perfect starting bike—low seat height, not too much power, well balanced, reliable, and easy to ride and maintain.

A quick search on Kijiji turned up one for sale near me on the West Island. It even had hard luggage and a touring screen, all set for cross-country touring. It seemed destined to be mine, and within a few days, it was. Getting that bike has been one of the best decisions of my adult life. It has connected me to friends, to readers, to a country, and to aspects of myself I didn’t know existed.

The first photo of me on the bike, June 2015. Lots of comments on Facebook about my lack of gear, but little did they know I didn’t yet have my licence.

It almost didn’t happen. The bike doesn’t have ABS, and I’ve grown accustomed to ABS in the car during winter when the roads are icy. I thought it would be essential for a new rider and not having ABS was almost a deal-breaker for me. But fortunately, the few people I consulted about my decision were not fans. One distinctly said, “You have to learn how to brake properly without it.”

So I did. I’ve heard of people who use only rear brake. Apparently, Honda mechanics discovered that the rear brake pads of Gold Wings were wearing out faster, much faster, than the front pads, which doesn’t make sense since most of the braking happens with the front. They concluded that Gold Wing riders weren’t using the front brakes, so they developed integrated braking—both front and rear come on, even if you only apply the rear. Smart. Honda engineers outsmarted the riders for their own safety.

My bike didn’t have integrated braking or ABS, so I had to learn how to brake properly. Mostly this meant squeezing the front lever, not grabbing, to load the front contact patch before pulling harder, and using just a little rear to stabilize the bike. I did this every time I stopped, even when cruising along the Lakeshore, at every stop sign and every light, front and rear in correct proportion, so it became muscle memory. Then in emergency situations, which I had, I didn’t have to think about it; the technique came “naturally” and I thankfully never tucked the front end, even once at speed in heavy rain on Heidenau tires in Northern Ontario when I rounded a corner to find someone backing up on the two lane Highway 101.

My first adventure bike rally, Dirt Daze in Lake Luzerne, NY. June 2017.

I knew I also needed to develop my off-road skills to become an ADV rider. I took a course at SMART Riding Adventures in Barrie, and another with Jimmy Lewis at the Dirt Daze adventure bike rally in New York. I joined Moto Trail Aventure mostly for the Rémise en Forme with a certified GS instructor, and the BMW Club of Québec for the same reason. (I actually planned to do rides with both clubs too but that never materialized.) This instruction set the perfect foundation for off-roading, and then it was just a matter of practice.

You don’t even need any dirt to practice off-road skills. I go up to my local church parking lot and do slow speed maneuvers. As Jimmy said, off-roading is all about balance and traction control, so I practiced the balance stuff on Bigby regularly. I also practiced the traction when I could, getting out of the city up onto the dirt roads and ATV trails in the Hawkesbury area. Bigby is a GS, which means Gelände/Straße (off-road/on-road), but I soon learned the limits of the bike. I never learned it street limits; I could lean that bike over and scrape the pedals, even with knobbies on, but I discovered its limits on the trails. The clearance was the biggest limitation, and the front suspension with the 19″ front wheel. It took some superficial damage for these lessons, but I also learnt not to lament the scratches. A fellow rider at my first Dirt Daze rally saw me brooding on my first scratch and said, “You can’t worry about that. It’s a bike.” The matter-of-fact way he put it set me straight.

I also had to learn my way around the engine. Knowing I would be riding into remote areas, I had to know the basics and how to fix problems. As I had with car mechanics, I started with an oil change, then coolant, brake pads, and brake fluid. I bought the bike with 35,000 kilometres on it, so it wasn’t long before I had to do the valves. That service was $1000 at the dealer, just to check them, so necessity was the mother of invention and with my trusty Haynes service manual, I did the valves myself in the shed. (I don’t have a garage, and my poor workspace has been the biggest obstacle to overcome. I’ve lost and found a lot of hardware on the driveway and in the grass!)

Problems at the 2018 Dirt Daze rally. A broken water pump left me stranded for much of the rally. MaxBMW shipped a new pump “overnight” which, due to the remote location, took most of the weekend to arrive, but I got home okay.

The Achilles heel on this bike is the water pump, and I’ve changed that a few times, including once at a rally because I hadn’t done it correctly the first time. (A plastic impeller gear wasn’t installed properly and rattled loose while off-roading.) That was the only time I considered selling the bike early, until I discovered the error was mine and not a fault of the bike. Once done correctly, the pump lasted another 40,000 K until I preemptively changed it before going across Canada.

The other big job was changing the swingarm bearings. That required removing the gas tank and subframe, so basically the entire back half of the bike. The pivot bolt was badly corroded and stuck, and it took two days of troubleshooting and, in the end, two hammers—a ball pane as punch, and a sledge hammer to drive—one on top the other, to get it out. But it eventually surrendered. Yes, I have cursed and praised this bike in equal measure over the years.

Success! Pivot bolt and swingarm removed for servicing. September 2019. Under the tarp at right is the gas tank and subframe. Headphones are for all the whacking needed to get it out.

I changed those bearings as well as all wheel bearings, clutch plates, the shock, rebuilt the forks, re-lubed the steering head bearings (which were in surprisingly good shape so didn’t need to be changed), and have had the dash assembly apart. And in the end, I restored those scratched body panels to make the bike look good as new.

My first trip on this bike was back to Ontario to show it to my dad, who used to ride. I left the day after getting my full licence. The next month I did my first moto-camp down at Loon Mountain in New Hampshire for their highland games. The following year, my first year with full licence, I went to Nova Scotia to ride the Cabot Trail, passing through Maine, Deer Island, and New Brunswick en route. I’ve also toured Northern Ontario, and these tours have led to some paid writing for northernontario.travel. So the bike has become for me more than a past-time. It has taken my writing in a new direction, and that of course refers to this blog too. I’ve made connections and friendships with people online, and met some of them in person during my travels. I hope to meet more of you in the future.

Off-Roading in Cape Breton, July 2017.

I have also met new friends locally in club riding. When I began, learners couldn’t ride without an experienced rider accompanying them, so I joined The West Island Moto Club, and some of these members have become my closest friends. I’ve done some touring with the club, but mostly I do day rides with them, and it wasn’t long before, with the right mentorship, I was leading rides.

One of the first club rides that I led. This was to Ottawa via Gatineau for the Tulip Festival. May 2018.

Some of my favourite riding on this bike has been in the northeastern states like Vermont, New York, and New Hampshire. I’ve ridden the Puppy Dog Ride on it a few times, and some of the Hamster Ride in New Hampshire, and Bayley-Hazen military road. The 650 GS is perfect for this type of light off-roading. I had a 15-tooth counter-sprocket on it for years, which gave it more low-end torque, and there’s nothing like feeling the pull of the big thumper as you climb a steep hill, or sliding out the back end as you round a corner.

Finally crossing Canada, July 2021.

Finally, after developing these riding and mechanical skills, modifying the bike to what was perfect for me, and waiting for Covid generally to be over, I completed my dream of crossing the country, and this bike, 15 years old and with over 100,000 kilometres on it, got me there and back. Ironically, the only issue I had was with a new battery I’d just installed for the trip. But the bike, fully loaded, pulled my wife and me over The Rocky Mountains, and took me up north of the Arctic Circle into some truly remote territory. The bike fulfilled its purpose for me—to learn about motorcycling, develop the skills necessary for adventure touring, and get me over the dangerous first few years of riding. It has been the best first bike I could have had, and now it’s time to pass it on to another new rider. Like me, the new owner has bought the bike before obtaining her licence. I’m sure it will be as good a beginner bike for her as it was for me. The engine is still strong, and I wish them both many safe and happy adventures in the future.

At the Arctic Circle, August 2021

My new bike is a 2013 Triumph Tiger 800XC. The XC stands for cross country, so it’s also capable of light off-roading, and I’ll be taking it on BDRs and other adventure tours. It does has ABS, but being a 2013, it doesn’t have any rider aids, and as I read about the new bikes with throttle control, wheelie control, slipper clutches, and other traction aids, I can’t help thinking about what riders of those bikes aren’t learning. I’m happy to be learning how to control the power of this 94 HP engine properly, just as I learnt to brake properly on the GS. It’s going to take my riding skills to the next level. The blog will be keeping its URL and name in tribute to the bike that got me started and to which I owe so much.

Next season I will complete my cross-country tour by riding the East Coast. I plan to visit Gaspé, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, Newfoundland, Labrador, and the north shore of Quebec including the Saguenay. I might try to ride solo up to Fort George on James Bay “on my way home.” This would allow me at least to set foot in Nunavut. I also plan to ride the Mid-Atlantic and North-East BDRs next summer, if I can get it all to fit. So stay tuned, my friends. The journey continues.

At the Awesome Players sandpit, Hawkesbury 2020

The Essentials

In this fourth post on gear, I talk about the essential tools I carry on the bike.

Clockwise from top left: manufacturer’s toolkit with 17mm stubby hex drive and Motion Pro 3/8″ driver adapter, patch kit, Motion Pro Trail Tool, zip ties, Leatherman Wave+, rags, pump, siphon, jumper cables, latex gloves, Motion Pro Bead Breaker and spoon lever. Centre: OBD Link LX Bluetooth adapter, spare fuses and electrical joiners, MSR tow strap, Mastercrap allen key set.

It’s a constant balancing act: having enough tools to fix most problems but keeping it light. You don’t want to be burdened carrying around stuff you never use, but neither do you want to be stuck somewhere, knowing you’ve left the essential tool or part at home. And then there’s the question of what type of ride you are doing. If I’m riding with the club, I tend to take less, knowing there will be others with some tools and why double-up? If I’m riding solo into remote territory, I take the full works: my tool roll, bag of sockets and drivers, even a container of spare parts. But let’s begin with what is always on the bike, even if I’m just commuting to work 30 minutes along the highway. That’s what is shown in the above photo.

The most common problem you’re going to have is a flat tire, and with tubed tires, you have to be able to get both wheels off. So you’re going to need a big wrench of some kind. For the Beemer, I have the Motion Pro combo tire lever and 24mm socket. It’s a little small, but if you place it right on the nut so you can stand on it, you can remove even the rear lug nut at 73 ft/lbs torque. Into that I place the Motion Pro 3/8″ drive adapter, which enables the lever to drive 3/8″ sockets. For the Tiger, it’s the same set-up but Triumph have a 27mm rear lug nut. Fortunately, the manufacturer’s toolkit includes a wrench with integrated handle so I only needed to buy the corresponding drive adapter and a 19mm hex bit socket (to remove the Tiger’s front wheel).

The Tiger has a captive nut on the left side rear, but for the Beemer, you need a 19mm wrench, which is big and heavy, so I carry a crowfoot wrench for that which I can snap into a 3/8″ drive.

Apparently, the founder of Motion Pro was once asked what tool he would carry if he could only carry one, and he replied without hesitation the Trail Tool.

I carry the Motion Pro Bead Breaker and lever set. They’ve never let me down yet in breaking a bead, and double as levers. I know you can remove a tire with only two levers, but I indulge myself on this one and carry an extra, one of my favourite spoons from . . . you guessed it, Motion Pro.

As you can tell, I love Motion Pro tools. Apparently the founder of that company was once asked what tool he would carry if he could only carry one, and he replied without hesitation the Trail Tool. This thing is amazing. Best of all, it packs up so small, I tuck it under my seat. If you add a few bike specific sockets to it and eat your Wheaties, you can pretty much remove any fastener other than the wheel lug nuts.

I also carry a patch kit, of course, so I can repair the puncture once I get the tube out (Duh!).

Included in my essential toolkit is a Leatherman Wave+, just because THAT IS THE LAW if you are an ADV rider. I don’t use the saw tool to clear any trails, but it’s nice to have a good pair of pliers at all times, and the knives and screwdrivers are also handy in a pinch. I added the ratchet drive that came out a few years ago and a set of torx bits, since BMW are so crazy about torx bolts. Now that I’ve switched to the Tiger, I carry a cheap allen key set because Triumph are so crazy about hex bolts.

If a hand pump is good enough for Lyndon Poskitt to ride around the world for five years, it’s good enough for me.

Yes, that is a bicycle hand pump you see above. I owned the Stop & Go Mini Air Compressor that connects to your SAE battery lead, but it has a design flaw and broke. See RyanF9’s video about that; the nipple pulls out of the hose. Then I looked into the Cycle Pump by Best Rest Products, but at $145 US it would have been over 200 bawks with conversion and shipping! What now? For a pump?! I know it has a lifetime warranty, but at 59, I don’t have that long to live, so I go with the manual pump and muscles. If it’s good enough for Lyndon Poskitt to ride around the world for five years, it’s good enough for me. And beside the pump, you see some cut up socks that I use to protect my rims when I lever off a tire.

I carry a siphon hose, should I or someone else run out of gas, and little jumper cables. I did use these last week, as a matter of fact, on a club ride when someone had electrical problems, but honestly, the easiest way to start a bike with a dead battery is to push start it, assuming it doesn’t have a slipper clutch.

Something I’ve recently purchased is a Bluetooth ODB reader. If you are venturing into remote territory, you really should carry an ODB reader. This was never an option on the Beemer. The proprietary connector on it is round so doesn’t accept third-party readers, and the GS911 tool is something stupid like $900. But with the Tiger, I’ve bought ODB Link LX and use it with TuneECU, an app available for Windows (via USB cable) and Android. The entire kit came to about $150 and provides a lot of diagnostics, including error codes and info from all sensors. You can even use it to remap the ECU! I’ll be using it to balance my throttle body because it tells me that cylinder 3 is a little off. That might be why I was getting vibration in my throttle grip, although that has improved since replacing the air filter. Of course, I carry spare fuses and electrical connectors, and if all else fails, a tow strap.

You see everything above on a changing mat I also carry at all times. You may recognize the Cordura material from my previous post on camping gear in which I write about the bags I made. This is the leftover material and it provides a clean surface to work on while removing tires. You don’t really want to be grinding dirt into your bearings while you wrestle with the tire trailside.

With what is happening in Europe at the moment, those of us who enjoy the safety of civil society have all the more reason to be thankful.

On the Beemer, I use velcro straps to attach the levers and pump to the subframe, and the tow strap tucks in behind the ECU under the seat, with the jumpers and siphon tube on top in a Ziploc. The rest goes in the tail compartment. On the Tiger, there’s no compartment, but everything except the levers, changing mat, and rags goes under the seat. Unfortunately, try as I might, I haven’t found a way to make it all fit, so I have a small bag containing those remaining items in a side case. (Dollar Store pencil cases work well as cheap tool bags.) If I were doing any serious off-roading, which I’m not yet because I still have a road tire on the front, I’d carry those items in a knapsack and ride unencumbered without cases.

This is my set-up for day-to-day and club riding. In the next post, I’ll talk about what I carry when I tour, and then I’ll finish the series by talking about navigation apps. I know I had planned to do all in one, but this is getting long, so I’ll split the planned post up into three.

Am I missing something? How does your essential toolkit compare? Drop a comment below, and if you haven’t already, click Follow to receive word of new posts.

Here in Canada, it is Thanksgiving Monday, so I’ll wish my Canadian readers a happy Thanksgiving and everyone else happy riding and safe travels. With what is happening in Europe at the moment, those of us who enjoy the safety of civil society have all the more reason to be thankful.

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

20200602_121234

“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.

20200603_140149

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.

27037-PX-OPTIMUM-BLACK

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.

20200602_120932

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.

20200605_110918

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!

20200604_200905

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.

diag_y8

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.

20200609_114037

Bigby splayed open to access the valve cover.

20200609_120527

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

20200606_085402

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.

mushroom

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.

stx_front_web_zoom_1

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

20200207_150331

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.

IMG_5313

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.