The Mother of Invention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peggy’s Cove to Fundy National Park

Day 10

At 120 km/hr., Bigbea is buzzing at 5000 rpm. It’s not meant for the Autobaun but the rolling twisties of Bavarian mountain roads. So I usually avoid the freeway. Of the 12 days during my tour, I only devoted myself to the big road twice—once to get through New Brunswick, and this day, because I had somewhere to be by early afternoon.

As I said in an earlier post, I miscalculated (i.e. did not calculate) the distance of my tour so was surprised when I needed to do an oil change en route. The BMW Motorrad (motorcycle) dealership in Nova Scotia has been converted to an auto dealership and services only cars. I think it was someone at that suggested Adriaan’s Cycle Service in Moncton, and the comment was they are nice people, willing to chat about bikes. I liked the sound of that so made an appointment for Bigbea for Friday afternoon.

The shop is named after the woman in this mom and pop and son operation. Adriaan handles the phone and invoicing, and it was clear over the phone that she knows her business. “Do you have the filter?” she asked. I was puzzled, but she explained that many riders carry their preferred filter on tour for just such an occasion. When I asked if they carried synthetic oil, now she was puzzled. “You put synthetic in that bike?” She said they don’t carry any synthetic oil. I wasn’t about to launch into my rationale for synthetic over mineral but said that mineral was fine, I would change the oil again at the end of the season, and I’d be interested in hearing their argument against synthetic when there.

After I saw the lighthouse, I left Peggy’s Cove, went back to the campground, packed up, and headed off, following Googlemaps fastest route, which got me into Moncton shortly after 1:00. When I arrived at Adriaan’s, only Adriann was there. She said she knew I was coming because the men had seen me while trailering a bike that had broken down, I guess on the road I came in on. Their workshop was a sight to behold; it was clear this is an old shop that has seen some bikes.


Yes, that’s an R80 on the right, restored and it looked great. Outside were a couple of other 1980’s-era bikes, which turned out to be theirs. Soon pop arrived and when he heard I was in Cape Breton he got out a map—I don’t know how old—and showed me the routes they had taken. They’d ridden Highland Road too, and I suspect at a time when it was even more rugged than it is today. He’s been servicing bikes for over 60 years—20 years with BMW, over 40 with Honda, and if I’m not mistaken, all from this little garage. I knew Bigbea was in good hands so headed off to find some lunch.

When I returned, the son was just putting the crash guard back on and it was time to refill her. Adriann said synthetic would produce clutch slippage and I’d burn out my clutch. She told me about another customer who had been using synthetic and was surprised when they showed him his clutch, which was badly deteriorated and had to be replaced. Now I’d heard about clutch slippage and have discussed the synthetic versus mineral debate at length in a previous post. It’s a complex issue but Adriann simplified it for me: synthetic is too slippery. It seems that slipperiness is not the same as viscosity, which is how thick or thin an oil is, not how well it lubricates. At any rate, they didn’t have any synthetic so mineral it would be.

I also learnt how much oil to put in. There’s a range on the dip stick with a low, a high, and a middle mark. A parts guy at Motointernational had told me to keep it on the low side, that it was better low than high, but Adriann’s son explained that if it’s low, sometimes in hard riding while off-roading, the pick-up can miss and you can get air in the oil. He likes to put an extra .2 L from the middle mark and showed me where on the dipstick. They also discovered I was half a litre low on coolant. I like to do all my own service on the bike but was glad I paid for this one because I learnt some important things about the bike from people much more experienced than me. Sometimes all the reading and research you can do won’t replace experience.


With the job done and the bike reloaded, I headed off toward Fundy National Park. I immediately noticed a difference in the bike. The clutch had been slipping! Perhaps only because I had been on it all day for the past eight days, I immediately noticed a subtle increase in power, as if I’d gained a few ponies. Sure, shifting was not as silky smooth as with the synthetic, but it was more definite, and I suspected I would get less of those annoying false neutrals I sometimes get when tired late into a ride. So for Bigbea here on in, it’s a good quality regular oil every 4,000 K.

The trip down to the park was short, and when I arrived, a sign at the gate said it was full. Good thing I’d made that reservation. It’s a popular campground. My site, however, was not so great. No wonder it was one of the last available. It was narrow, all gravel, and sloping downhill, which meant I had to back the bike downhill about 30 feet to the site.

Funday Campsite

I’d picked up some Talapia and garlic butter in Moncton and it fried up great in the pan. A little rice and even a caesar salad from a bag kit made the best meal I’d had all trip.

Fundy Meal

The only thing it needed was a beer, so I headed down after dinner into Alma and found The Holy Whale Brewery and this porter.


Next day, the Fundy Coastal Trail back into Maine.



Screw You!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


Yes, that is gasoline sloshing around inside.

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

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


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


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

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

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



The Big Sleep


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up, prepping the bike for winter storage.


Half the Fun

Me under Car

I’m a teacher and so, as everyone likes to remind me, I get my summers off. I often respond by saying that it’s a good thing I do or I’d burn out. By the time the term winds to a close, I don’t want to be anywhere near a desk. I’ll shovel scrap metal before I do anything bookish, at least for a good chunk of the summer. Usually this urge to do something physical takes the form of athletic training or home reno, but this summer I dove into a large mechanical job on the car. I also did some work on the bike. Here are five take-aways I learned from this work.

  1. Be Methodical: When I do a job, I get nervous. Almost every job I do is a first for me, so I’m heading into uncharted territory. I’m worried I will make a huge mistake along the way that will ruin my precious bike or cost me more money to fix than it would have cost to get a professional to do the job. (This is supposed to be cost-saving, right?) Or I’ll encounter an insurmountable snag that will stop me halfway through a job. I’ll have to call in the professionals, and in the case of auto and bike mechanics, that will involve a towing charge as well as the cost of the job. So I often rush. It’s stupid, I know, as a reaction to the situation, and I’ve become increasingly aware of my emotional state as I work and have been trying to slow myself down. This job was so big I knew I had to go slow. Fortunately I saw this video by Ari Henning from MC Garage before starting. In it, he gives three tips for being a better motorcycle mechanic. Take photos. Use zip-lock bags to label and store parts, and use a manual. I’ll add to that to lay parts out in the order they came off. (My front porch smelled like a garage for a good portion of the summer.) This forced me to go slow and methodically. It’s easy to undo bolts and rip the engine apart; the tough part is putting it all back together again. So I used my phone and took a picture of every item before it came out. I used sandwich bags and a sharpie to store and label bolts. I also used masking tape to label cables that were detached. I kept a list of items in the order that they were removed. And I bought and used the Haynes manual, which shows step-by-step how to do the job.
  2. When Things Go Wrong, Don’t Panic: Mechanical work is all about problem-solving. Nothing ever goes as planned or as described in the manual, especially if you’re working on an older machine. Sometimes it’s just a matter of figuring out how you are going to get a wrench in there, but sometimes, as in my case, it’s breaking an important bolt in the most inaccessible part of the engine. When this happens, probably the best thing to do is to take a break. Step back and give a little think on your options. Maybe go online and see what others have done. But if you let your emotions get the better of you, problems can compound quickly.
  3. Mechanical Work is a Workout: People keep telling me these days I look fit. My wife says I’ve bulked up. Okay, I’m never going to be bulky, but I do feel in pretty good shape. There were days when at the end I was physically exhausted. Mechanical work requires strength—not the weight-lifting kind but core and endurance strength, especially if you are working on your back on the driveway using hand tools. You constantly have your arms raised, you have to do a stomach crunch to reach something, just getting in and out from under the car every time you need a tool is tough. Same goes for working on a bike, whether you are wrestling a tire off the rim, or compressing the fork-spring to remove a retaining ring. And since mechanical work is physical, make sure you keep your body happy. Be sure to eat and drink regularly, just like an athlete or you’ll find yourself grumpy, working slowly, making mistakes, and wondering why.
  4. Have a Back-Up Vehicle: 3/4 of the job involves getting tools and parts when needed. I bought everything I thought would be needed before I started, but inevitably s**t happens and you need something. My parts supplier sold me 2 litres of gear oil and I discovered I needed 2.7. I broke a bolt, so had to go buy a tap plus a new bolt. I needed a socket extension, crow-feet socket set, more Liquid Wrench penetrating oil, hardware, etc.. And while I’m on this subject, never trust the parts salespeople; they can give you a bum-steer. Be sure you know your liquids and volumes (from the manual) and, when possible, take the original part that you are replacing. Often these guys (and they are almost always guys) are looking at an exploding diagram of your engine, trying to locate the exact thing you need, or worse, using a text-based database. And it perhaps goes without saying to keep all receipts in case a mistake is made.
  5. Get Dirty: I spent some time at the beginning of the summer reading Mark Zimmerman’s The Essential Guide to Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s a good book (review to come), but to learn you have to get in there and get dirty. Start small and simple, like an oil change, or coolant change. Then challenge yourself and try a bigger job. I did the brakes (actually not that hard) and that gave me the confidence to try replacing the clutch. The other day I changed the oil in my front forks—again, not hard. Most of the time these jobs aren’t that difficult but you just need to have the confidence to try, which comes from doing simple things first. I learned a lot from working on my bicycle when I was young. I used to buy bikes at police auctions, strip them down, then paint, clean, and re-lube everything, right down to the ball bearings. The more I work on my motorcycle, the more I see just how similar to a bike it is from an engineering standpoint, although it was the practical work on the bicycle that first gave me familiarity with tools, problem-solving, and observation of how mechanical things work. Later this fall I’m going to attempt to adjust the valve clearances. I’ve got 40,000 K on the bike now so it’s time. I’ve never done this before, but I’ll figure it out, using my manual and taking my time.

Last fall I did the first service on my bike by changing the oil and coolant to prepare it for winter storage. I phoned my dad to talk about how it went. He told me about when he stripped down the engine on his bike and had it rebored. Pirsig says you should work on your own bike because a lot of mechanics are hacks, which is probably true. No one’s going to care as much about your bike as you, and doing it yourself ensures it’s done right. Pirsig also seems to suggest a moral reason for doing your own maintenance. If the bike is you, it’s your responsibility to take care of yourself and your bike. But my dad had another reason for doing this dirty work. Just before he hung up he said, “I’m glad you’re doing your own maintenance. That’s half the fun of having a bike.”

All About Oil


My wife has a saying she uses to remind me to drink more water. “Water is like oil for your body,” she says. She knows which analogies work for a guy. I’m going to turn that around and say that oil is like the source of life for your engine. Using the best possible oil and changing it regularly is probably the single-most important thing you can do to maintain the life of your vehicle. Most of you probably already know this. Some people don’t. I once overheard a conversation at my garage with a woman who didn’t know she had to put oil in her car or where to put it. She’d let the car run dry and the engine had seized. But not to pick on women, I know a guy who did the same. “Ah, dude. Here’s your problem. There’s no oil in this car.”

Given the importance of oil, it’s surprising there are so many misconceptions about it. I fell to one recently by putting the wrong grade in my bike, based on a recommendation from the previous owner. He said, “You have to put 20W-50 in a motorcycle because it revs high.” So I did. Then I had trouble starting my bike once we got into the cold mornings of late fall and early spring. I started to suspect my cold-starting problems were related to oil, and a user forum referred me to I don’t know who Bob is, but he knows a lot about oil. You will find at this site Motor Oil University containing ten classes complete with midterm and final exams. Clearly, oil is the source of Bob’s life.

The following is, I hope, a fair summary of what I’ve learnt mostly at that site, but also from user forums and conversations with club members as I researched the important decision of what to put in my bike. This should be useful for car owners as well as bikers.

Let’s start with some of those misconceptions:

  • Engine wear occurs when oil breaks down at high temperature
  • Oil grades like 10W-30 or 20W-50 refer to viscosity, or thickness
  • You should choose your oil grade based on the ambient temperature
  • Engines that run hot, like sports cars and hot-rods that have high revs, require thicker oil (this is the one I fell for)
  • You should change your oil when it turns black


Engine wear occurs when the engine gets too hot

Actually, 90% of engine wear occurs at start-up. And sadly, there is no oil on Earth that fully protects an engine at start-up; a good quality oil can only minimize the damage. This is why it’s important never to rev your engine when you first start it, especially in the wintertime. My ex-wife used to get out of bed 10 minutes before her train left the station, then, in -40 Celcius Montreal mid-winter, would race the three blocks to the station immediately upon starting our car instead of walking. Don’t do this. No wonder she’s my ex.

To minimize the damage, you want your oil to be as thin as possible upon starting. So why not just buy the thinnest oil, you ask? Because there are actually two temperatures we have to be concerned about. One is starting temperature, and the other is operational temperature.

The two numbers on the oil container roughly correspond to these two contexts. But that’s about as direct a connection as you should draw, and many people (including Bob) suggest you forget about the numbers and labels for a few reasons. The W in 10W-30, for example—a reference to winter—is a misnomer. It would be more accurate to think of the first number in relation to starting temperature. Moreover, the numbers do not really reflect viscosity because viscosity changes with temperature. For example, according to Bob, a straight 30 oil has a thickness of 250 cS (centiStokes) at 75 F, but 10, the ideal viscosity, at 212 F, the optimal operational temparature.

The second number refers to operational temperature, but all liquid-cooled engines (i.e. most bikes and all cars) have a constant operational temperature of 212 F. Ambient temperature while running is only a consideration if your bike is air-cooled, like many BMWs (but not mine) that have the distinctive look of the cylinder heads jutting out sideways into the onrushing air.

Confused? You’re not alone. Now let’s add another factor.

Mineral vs. Synthetic

There are few more controversial issues amongst bikers than which is better, mineral (i.e. regular) oil or synthetic. The debate in Hell between the fallen angels in Book II of Paradise Lost has nothing on the debates in user forums on this topic. If you want to have some fun, go to a popular forum (I won’t say which out of fear of being banned) and pretend to be a newbie, asking innocently which you should use. It’s like throwing a french fry to a flock of seagulls at a tourist rest stop.

Many people believe the biggest difference between mineral and synthetic oils is that mineral is natural and synthetic is made in a lab. That’s a pretty big difference, for sure, but the more significant one for your engine is that synthetic is “naturally” thinner at start-up, the crucial time when most wear occurs. That is, it does not thicken as much upon cooling as mineral oil. The viscosity of the two are identical at operational temperature but synthetic has the edge on start-up. One point for synthetic.

Another difference is that, for example, a synthetic 10W-30 oil is based on a 30 grade oil and a mineral 10W-30 oil is based on a 10 grade oil. The mineral oil has additives in it that prevent it from thinning excessively as it heats up, and it’s these additives, not the oil itself, that break down over time. So with age, a mineral oil will lose its viscosity. This is why you have to change a mineral oil sooner, about twice as often, as synthetic oil. Second point scored to synthetic.

These additives age even outside of use in extreme temperature. Don’t store your mineral oil in the shed during winter because it will lose some of its viscosity. In fact, contrary to what you might think based on what I’ve said above, Bob says that mineral oil ends up too thick, not too thin, with age. I don’t know why, and now I’m as thoroughly confused as you must be, but thankfully Bob offers this summary, twice, because it bears repeating:

“The synthetic 10W-30 grade oil is based on a heavier 30 grade oil while the mineral based 10W-30 oil is based on a thinner 10 grade oil. They are both similar at operating temperatures yet the 30 grade based synthetic is actually less thick at startup and much less honey–like at low temperatures. This is the opposite of what common sense dictates.”

It would seem that synthetic, in the red corner, is the winner, but wait: my BMW owner’s manual says “Alert: Do not use synthetic oil.”

Ah, there’s the rub

I’ve never seen any rationale for this, not at least from BMW, but there’s some anecdotal evidence on user forums that synthetic oil can produce clutch slippage. Remember your dad yelling at you “Don’t ride the clutch!” when you were learning how to drive manual? That’s because cars have a dry clutch. But all bikes today have a wet clutch, meaning it’s lubricated by oil, the same oil that’s lubricating your engine, so you can ride it all you like, and should, because there are lots of times when you’re between gears.

But because synthetic oil lubricates so well, it can lead to the clutch slipping. Because I’m a Gemini and familiar with the squabbling twins, I like compromise, so ended up putting semi-synthetic in my bike. I only ever experience clutch slippage when I’m really givin’ ‘er, like accelerating on a highway on-ramp, and notice the tac jump but don’t feel the corresponding pull of acceleration. The upshot is that gearing is much smoother, the engine quieter, and (so I presume) the engine less worn. This summer I’m going to adjust my clutch and hopefully that slippage will disappear.

High-Rev engines need thick oil

When I was 18 I worked as a self-serve gas attendant at Sunoco. We had cans of oil stacked on the shelves inside the kiosk and the tattoo boys would pick up 20W-50 for their muscle cars. Now at 53 (next week), I can laugh at them for wrecking their prized possessions. Bob says you don’t need that oil unless you are going to the track, not the bar or corner store (or gas station, for that matter). He says that for all he knows about oil, even in a hot engine, it’s better to go thin than thick. Why?

As I’ve said, normal operating temperature is 212 F. At that temperature, most engines want the viscosity at 10 cS. The thick multi-grades have a viscosity of 20 cS at that temperature. Not perfect. But as Bob points out, when we increase the temperature from 212 F to 302 F, the 10W-30 thins from 10 cS to 3, but the thicker oil thins from 20 cS to 4, only 1 cS different. So the difference in viscosity in a hot engine is negligible while the difference at start-up is huge. If you need any more proof that a thicker oil isn’t worth the cost at start-up, Bob says that F1 cars run a straight 5 or 10 grade oil.

Change your oil when it’s black

No, change your oil when you’ve driven the recommended distance for the oil or when the recommended time has elapsed. (Remember, oil ages even when it sits, so even Grandma has to change it regularly.) There are a number of factors that can turn an oil dark, but that doesn’t mean it’s lubricating less. Don’t believe me? See this page on motor oil myths by Valvoline. You’d think an oil company would want you to change it prematurely, but they say otherwise.

The final answer

What did I put in my bike? I put a semi-synthetic Ester-based 10W-40. This vid by Ari at MC Garage says not all synthetic oils are created equal and to look for one that’s Ester-based. I read that back in the 70’s, Mobil took Castrol to court for advertising its Syntec oil as synthetic. It’s all about the base that’s used. In the end, the court decided that Castrol changed its oil enough to call it synthetic, but if you’re looking to put a top-quality synthetic oil in your car or bike, look for one that has a base of PAO (Poly-alpha-olefin) or “esters” (chemical compounds consisting of acarbonyl adjacent to an ether linkage. Are you listening, my Chemistry colleagues?).

The other goof I made was forgetting to check the oil level at operational temperature. This is contrary to a car, which you check after it has been turned off for at least 30 seconds. When I took the bike out of storage this spring, I checked the level at start-up and, not surprisingly now, it was low, so I added a good litre. Doh! BMW’s have a sump pump system and it’s essential to check oil after at least twenty minutes of riding, with the bike level, pointed North, at a full moon . . .

Fortunately I caught that one before I caused serious damage to the engine. (Overfilling can cause seals to melt, among other problems.) Now I have the oil in it that I want, and at the correct level, which apparently is on the Min. line. I hear from both The Chain Gang and my BMW guy that these bikes don’t burn oil, and it’s better to err on the side of low than high. I think I’m set now for the season, including the fall. That’s good because an oil change on my bike is a full day affair. I’m envious of Pirsig who writes of changing the oil practically while Chris takes a whiz, while on my bike I have to remove half the fairing, the crash guard, engine guard, etc.. But what I pay in labour and cost for synthetic I gain in peace of mind, knowing I’ve got the best stuff known or made by man in the crankcase.