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Is there Zen in Motorcycle Maintenance?
Always Working On Bikes
I grew up devouring every piece of motorcycle literature I could find. Of course most of it was in the form of magazines, but I would also stumble upon the oft piece of literature somewhere once in a while. This was typically found in the high school library, as Al Gore had not invented the intertube for us yet. They were typically silly titles about a teenager wanting a new bike. I remember a particular one where the hero had outgrown his step-through Honda and longed for a mighty 250 Bultaco. Yes, they were sappy, but my pals and I were so starved for anything motorcycle, that we would read anything.
Over the years I saw numerous references to Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance” in various magazines. Eventually I got around to reading it. But were it not for long winter nights in Idaho with no cable tv, I would probably have never made it all the way from cover to cover. To say the title is misleading is a large understatement. Let’s just say there is a lot of other heavy psychological baggage within the pages. In retrospect, I don’t think many moto magazine editors who referenced the book actually read it.
Here is a nice quote from the book’s Wiki. While it is not really what I personally took from the reading, it does fit perfectly into today’s lecture. That’s good enough for me. “Pirsig is capable of seeing the beauty of technology and feels good about mechanical work, where the goal is “to achieve an inner peace of mind”. The book demonstrates that motorcycle maintenance may be dull and tedious drudgery or an enjoyable and pleasurable pastime; it all depends on attitude”.
Let’s talk maintenance
When it comes to working on motorcycles, a sharp mind is the most important tool in the box. More often than not, the answer to most mechanical problem lies at the end of a string of well-reasoned suppositions. For those things that you cannot see with the eye, it takes a good line of deduction to determine the most logical problem and solution.
Here is a perfect example. When we were building my 1992 KTM a few years ago, the motor appeared to run properly at first. We tested it at an altitude near 4,000 feet. When I next rode it, nearer to sea level, it was far too lean. I went to a larger main jet to compensate. But the bike still acted lean. The bike ran well and only at times did it show this lean condition. Jetting changes seemed to have little effect on the running condition. This left me a bit confused.
The most logical answer was that it may have an air leak. The most likely location for the leak would be in the intake. In this case we had changed both a reed and spacer block to newer styles. I inspected all of these and could not find a problem. I took everything apart and carefully reassembled the parts.
On the next ride out I did the first real high-speed run on the bike. It took about 5 minutes for the bike to seize. What had happened? Upon tear down we could find no obvious problem. The rings had stuck and lost compression. We cleaned up the cylinder and installed a new piston. With the bike back together and paying close attention, the lean condition appeared again. This time we sprayed some WD-40 around the intake and the telltale fast idle appeared immediately. Yes, it was an air leak.
Taking everything apart, it was still not obvious where the problem came from. Finally I realized that the KTM 200 V-force reed we were using had a slight ridge that was intended to line up on the outside of the cases. As we were installing this on a much older motor, the casting was larger and the ridge sat flush against the case, causing the reed to stand off the motor slightly.
In retrospect, we should have identified this small issue during the original assembly. Second, the bike was clearly showing all the signs of an air leak. But I spent more time looking to the jetting and timing trying to identify the problem. A little better thought process would have saved lots of time and a top end in this situation. Really, I had been on the right track, but had not trusted my instincts enough to follow it all the way through,
In February of this year I did the annual Cameron Steele Hell Ride in Baja. I was just coming off of a rough knee injury and this was my first time back on the bike in about a month. I felt a little timid the first day back riding.
As the ride went on, my knee was doing a little better each day. But oddly enough, I was having a really difficult time riding my 525exc. The entire trip, I never quite felt right on the bike. Worse yet, I could not figure out any issue or reason for feeling this way. The group I was riding with were all fairly fast riders. I seemed to feel right on the edge of my comfort zone the entire time.
This was such a contrast the previous ride. In December when we did the “over the mountains” trip, the bike felt great. I had just gone through most of it, including swapping the new motor, and it seemed nearly ideal for the conditions. Yet by the end of the Hell Ride I was really questioning my choice.
After the ride was over, my bike sat in the garage for a month or so. I let me knee heal and spent time riding the 350. Finally it was time to think about another upcoming ride and the 525 needed service.
After an oil and filter change, I fired it up for a short test ride. I wasn’t to the bottom of the driveway before I knew something was not right. The front tire must be flat. Nope, the tire was fine and that left only one other option, the steering head bearings were shot.
If you have ever ridden a bike with bad bearings, you know that it is a real hand full. How one tiny notch in a bearing race can make such a huge impact on the ride is beyond me. But this story gets better.
With the steering head apart, I decided to change the fork oil. One seal was starting to leak anyway. With everything cleaned and ready to go back together, I decided to pull the shim stack apart, just to clean everything. Wouldn’t you know it; one of the nuts was so loose it almost fell off in my hand.
Well no wonder my bike handled so poorly! It needed service. In this case, one of the problems became very obvious. But it was only by near accident that I found the other one. I guess these are just a couple of more lessons to file away in the motorcycle maintenance drawer.
I am not sure that there is much zen in the garage. But mechanical parts tend to act in predictable manners. The challenge is knowing what those manners are and when to recognize them. With as much riding as I do, the learning process seems to be ceaseless.
Finally, I often assumed that having more bikes would lead to less maintenance. Less riding on each bike, they stay fresher and need less attention. Don’t ask me why, but it just isn’t so. How two bikes sitting side by side in the garage can decide they both need new fork seals as the same time is beyond me. It must be some sort of conspiracy.