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

Valves!

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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.