Originally published in RoadRUNNER Motorcycle Touring & Travel Magazine. Rain slants down outside my garage as utility trucks scurry about, fixing downed power lines. A fire truck screams past, heading up the canyon to deal with the latest meetup of a car and tree. Meanwhile, a dull glow emanates from my garage shop, like an ember—I’m in there working. This is a day for wrenching, not riding. I flip the directional switch on my old ratchet without looking, spin out a spark plug, and allow it to fall into my palm. I read its color like tea leaves and know that all is well in the combustion chamber, and life itself.
I love fettling my motorcycles, though after 40 years, I still regard myself as a noob. What takes me five hours would take an accomplished mechanic two, at most. And so I lean on age-old methods from the venerable textbook of the hamfisted. These include:
Take it apart and put it back together again. This is also known as, “Oops, I fixed it!” A rough idle on a carbureted bike, for instance, will sometimes yield to the logical discovery of a clogged jet, a bent float tang, or even a fouled plug. But sometimes, it yields to a curious alchemy of all three, which can only be discovered by working on all three at once. This is not valid scientific method, I admit. The disciplined mechanic would say that you should isolate one variable at a time and test each one sequentially, sleuthing out the offending part through logic and deduction. I, on the other hand, am a champion of the full frontal assault. The important thing is that it works, and that I can ride again. I may not be a good mechanic, but I am a persistent one.
Stay in the comfort zone. Occasionally, when wielding wrenches, I enter a place where I have no right to be. If we are talking about simple oil changes, brake pad swaps, belt replacements, valve adjustments or throttle body synchronization—I’m your man. But if the problem involves ABS, CAN bus electrics, a notchy transmission, or big-end bearing issues, I beat a hasty retreat. These are like foreign countries where I don’t speak the language. It’s one bolt too far. For instance, when the ABS pump failed on my BMW R1200RT, I meekly surrendered it to the pros. Not only did I lack the tools—and the competency—but the prospect of malfunctioning ABS struck fear in my twisted little heart. Maybe it’s a form of agoraphobia—some people fear open spaces, but I have a fear seeing too much of my engine splayed out across the garage. Once the cases are split, there is no longer anything that can truly be called a motorcycle. It blows a synapse in my brain.
Move with glacial speed. They say time is money, but when it comes to motorcycle repair, I’m all time and no money. My friend Tom has suggested that I should apprentice at his shop, which of course I would love to do. But I’m certain he would become apoplectic at the glacial pace of my repairs. I would be working on the same oil change at lunch that I started at 8 am. I can guarantee it would be a beautiful oil change—but no one in their right mind would pay me to do it. It’s not that my work is bad; it’s just that you could grow old and die waiting for me to finish.
Consult the oracle. The Interwebs—and particularly YouTube—are the modern-day equivalents of the ancient Greek oracle. Need to know how to calculate shim heights? Wire aftermarket light sets? Cure a front-end wobble? Submit your question in the Google search box, and ye shall be furnished with an answer! There are videos and forums that will show you everything from how to unscrew a spark plug, to step-by-step instructions on how to fix a weepy push rod tube on your ‘60s Triumph.
Document…everything. I have the short-term memory of a gnat. But where there is no power of recall, there is the smart phone. When I go forth into new mechanical terrain, every stage of disassembly is carefully documented, on my phone, and in a notebook. With this degree of documentation, an amoeba could re-assemble the bike.
Pull the ripcord. When things become truly dire, I call my friend Tom, head mechanic at a local dealership. He rolls his eyes with a look I’ve seen before, as if to say, “Oh, you again.” I use this option sparingly, for only the most intractable problems. For instance, Tom got a panicked call the only time that I did something that actually endangered by life: during a routine oil change, one of the rubber o-rings on the filter had come off, and when the new filter was installed, I had two, which promptly blew out once I reached highway speed and the oil pressure rose. A scary, oily event, but Tom knew immediately what had happened. And it won’t ever happen, again. Thanks Tom.
Fortunately, despite such mechanical misadventures, my bikes actually run pretty well. I recently passed 55,000 miles on my BMW, and have done every piece of routine maintenance myself.
On this day, I put the bike back together, twist the throttle, and feel the raw patch under my glove where my knuckle went careening into the nearest sharp part. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder of how I got here. But, having done something for my bike, now it can do something for me. And so we ride. There is joy in the home of the hamfisted.
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