Ham Fists, Low Seats and Toilet Parts

Things, generally, are not well put together.

How we come to know this is the story of our lives.

Or at least my life, anyway.

***

I’ve been spending a great deal of time in the saddle of my pedal bicycle of late.

After medical issues forced the retirement of my normal pedal-pal, Sweet Doris from Baltimore, my bike had sat unused for the better part of several years.

At a certain point, though, Doris decided she wasn’t going to take this forced retirement from cycling lying down. Or actually, it would be more accurate to say that she was going to take it lying down.

Huh?

The simplest explanation was that Doris had been experiencing lightheadedness under exertion, and given that most of our riding is on gravel trails, the effect of that lightheadedness had resulted in a few tragi-comic spontaneous inversions of the integrated bicycle-girlfriend system.

Engineering came to the rescue in the form of one Terra-trike Sportster recumbent tricycle. Folks that we run into out on the road — especially those lycra-wearing, Oakley Blade affecting total bike jocks — assume that the Terra Trike is some form of one foot in the grave geriatric mobile. Offered an opportunity to test ride it, those folks run screaming and closemindedly from the chance, thinking it one step shy of running around wearing a Hi-Viz Team ‘Giant Douche’ Jersey.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I test rode about a dozen of these recumbents, and the Sportster was the pick of the litter — with an Aluminum frame, 27 inch rear wheel, 27 speed transmission, presta valve high pressure tires, top flight componentry, including disk brakes, and a steering geometry that was responsive yet resistant to all of my perverse attempts to induce scary forms of vehicular instability.

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Two features stand out though. One is the memoryfoam-augmented sling pilots saddle, which is almost as comfy as my livingroom Ikea Poang chair. And the second is that if the pilot experiences a momentary loss of balance, it doesn’t fall over.

Quick? Fast? Comfy? Stable?

Sold.

Net/net is that Team Shamieh Bicycling have been trying to whip our sorry asses back into some form of shape now 25 trail miles at a time.

***

Which brings me back to my somewhat more humble bicycle, a sad bicycle that had spent several years sitting in the shed wondering why I didn’t love it anymore.

My bike is a 1998 vintage Schwinn SIerra GS — which was one of the first volleys in the wars of global industrialization. In 1998, Schwinn Bicycles of Chicago, Illinois was in a difficult predicament. Their Chicago plant could not compete on price with an onslaught of Asian competitors. Credit to them — they decided that if they couldn’t beat ’em, they would join ’em. So, in a last-ditch effort to save the company, they closed the Chicago plant, bought a new one in Shanghai, and took their most skilled bicycle craftsmen over to China, and set about training their new employees how to build bicycles as nice as the ones they had built in Chicago.

I can assure you, that in this one thing they were entirely successful. As a younger, motorcycle-less man, I rode bicycles for transportation and even raced with an organized team, for a time. Do not get me started about the Reynolds 531 Raleigh Carlton Works Racer I had stolen from outside my Baltimore apartment. I have seen well made bikes and artisanal bikes, and my Sierra is as nice as any of them. The aluminum welding — which is not an easy thing to do — is as nice as that on any Honda GP Motorcycle. Paint is first rate, and the bike came from the factory with all of the mounting hardware for waterbottles, pumps and panniers pre-tapped and pre-installed at the factory, complete with titanium nitride plated bolts.

It’s a sad testament that although Schwinn was successful in transforming their manufacturing operation and in lowering their costs, they did not end up selling enough bicycles to stay alive as an independent company. The Schwinn bikes one sees today are just decal engineering stuck onto Huffys.

My GS is perfect for the uses I put it to. It is capable and comfortable for trail riding, and is great as a light touring mount.

Which is one reason why, as much fun as the Terra might be, I’ve elected to hang onto this last-generation Schwinn.

***

Well built or not, 18 years and 5 of them sitting in a shed isn’t kind to anything mechanical.

On a recent trail ride, I did something that racing got me in the habit of doing, which is occasionally pulling a brief sprint to pull the heart rate up — just to see what’s in the tank. As I stood up and hit my first big downstroke on the crank, the Sierra took off 40 degrees to the left and headed towards flinging me off a small cliff and dumping me in the Potomac, which runs alongside the trail. I corrected, sat back down, and tried to see what the heck had produced the wonky steering behavior.

As a Hybrid Street/Trail bicycle — It’s a GS, after all — the Sierra had a few components pulled in from the offroad side of the sport — one of them being a rubber bushed handlebar clamp — designed to offer some minimal isolation from big offroad surface irregularities. Sitting on the saddle, I placed some upward pressure on the bars– which promptly came loose in my hands. As I looked toward the bar mount, I could see pieces of the rubber bush abandoning ship and dropping to the trail below. The bushings that had once cushioned my handlebars were now history, producing steering manners that reminded me of a 1970s GM Lead Sled with a worn out pitman arm — you turn the wheel, but nothing meaningful occurs as a result.

Looked like I’d be riding sitting down until I got back to the truck.

***

Given my prior description of the demise of the Schwinn bicycle company, looking up the spare parts fische and heading to my local dealer was not an available option.

So like many old motorcycle problems, this one was going to require a bit of materials improvisation, or what my British friends refer to as ‘A Bodge’.

After getting back from the C&O Canal towpath, and taking the bike out of my pickup, I looked at the handlebar clamp’s suspension bushing system, which appeared to be pretty simple stuff.

The upper and lower handlebar mounts were connected by a horizontal axle which allowed the handlebar to move up and down under shock. The two halves of the clamp assembly were connected via a stacked set of aluminum and rubber disks, with a central allen head bolt to keep the whole stack under compression. Movement of the handlebar was controlled and damped by the compression of one or the other side’s rubber disks. The disks which controlled the bar’s upward movement were located on the front of the damper stack, and it was those disks that had turned to dust from age and repeated abuse.

I pulled out my 5 mm allen socket and removed the damper’s central bolt.

I cleared the rubber debris out of the stack and cleaned the underside of the aluminum disk which retained the rubber dampers. It was pretty nicely made — about 5mm thick with a circle of holes drilled about halfway between the center and the edge — and slightly smaller in diameter than a US quarter.

I thought for a while what material I might have available to make a new damper out of. I spent a few minutes lost in contemplation of the five sets of organizing drawers that line the back of my workbench. Metric, SAE, Home Decor, Electrical…Plumbing.

Plumbing!

In replacing one of our home’s toilet flush valves, it had been necessary to completely disassemble and rebuild the entire commode. The tank unit on this commode is connected to the base with four brass bolts which are sealed to the tank with white rubber gaskets which both spread out the mechanical stress on the porcelain and seal the water inside the tank. The kit I’d purchased had contained more of the white rubber washers than had been required.

I found the small drawer which contained all of the circular plumbing seals — hose washers, faucet seats… and there they were — a half dozen firm white rubber disks, with bolt holes already predrilled in the center.

They were exactly the right size, and the firmness of the rubber looked pretty close to what I needed.

I put the aluminum retaining disk back on the bolt and then strung three of the rubber disks on the bolt underneath it. I replaced the assembly back into the bar clamp and torqued the damper stack back down.

I grabbed the bars and tried to move them up and down. Movement was damped but firm. I rolled the bike down the driveway, swung aboard, stood up on the pedals and then took a few hard sprinting strokes on the crankset.

Just like factory.

With toilet parts.

Robert Pirsig would be proud.

***

Much time lately has been devoted to coming to a mechanical understanding of the household’s newest resident motorcycle, Finn’s Buell Blast.

The first milliseconds of my Blast test ride, I remember being completely gobsmacked by how hard it had been to get my feet up on the pegs once the bike starting rolling — how little legroom had been available.

“They can’t really think being pretzeled like this is a good idea.”

Turns out, unsurprisingly, they didn’t.

Remember that the Blast’s rasion d’être was to serve as a trainer for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Beginning Rider Courses taught at Harley Davidson dealerships. And much angst and anxiety for new riders associates itself with saddle height and the ability to support the bike when stopped.

Short form, they cheated.

In looking at some Blast photographs and web info about luggage solutions I realized that a small percentage of the Blasts I was looking at had a flat saddle, rather than the dished one fitted to Finn’s. The Blast, it appeared, had been available with a standard and a low saddle option. And about 90% of the Blasts in the universe had the low saddle fitted.

The standard saddle height was 27 1/2 inches from the pavement.

For comparisons sake, that is about 4 inches lower than the saddles on my airhead BMWs.

The low saddle cut a full 2 inches off the standard saddle height, to come in at a whopping 25 1/2 inches off the pavement.

No wonder the bike felt a little cramped, and steered something like a demented go-cart. The overall center of gravity of the bike/rider system was somewhere headed toward Briggs and Stratton minibike territory, giving it a wicked quick roll moment. Moving the rider and his or her mass upwards two inches was going to be positively transformational — both in terms of handling and of ergonomics.

A quick perusal of E-bay showed a burgeoning market in Blast standard saddles — with ratty take offs clocking in at about 80-100 dollars.

A fast phone call to my new favorite Harley Davidson dealer revealed that the HD parts operation had OEM new ones, sealed in box for $118.

It should be noted that were this a saddle for one of my BMWs, that number would be five times that figure.

So I got a new one.

***

A few days later, after blasting the LT down to Rockville at lunchtime, and bringing the new saddle home via Bungee Express, I took the required two minutes to swap it onto the bike.

Unlike the existing saddle’s smooth Naugahyde cover, the new one had a nice, waffle textured pattern in the cover. Buell had also updated the design so that all of the corners that I saw frayed or torn on the used E-bay saddles now had a hard plastic molding protecting those locations.

Buell might have joked about not being proud of their Blast, but they never stopped improving it until the production line stopped.

The new saddle was clearly wider, taller, and had done away with the narrow wasp waist where the old saddle and tank came together — the new saddle wrapped around and on top of tank where the old one didn’t. It looked a lot more supportive, a lot more comfortable, and a lot more finished.

Looks didn’t lie, either.

A quick throw over of the leg confirmed everything. Things which had seemed slightly wonky about the Blast before — handlebars that seemed too high, footpegs that felt too close — now seemed — right.

Finn took the Blast out for a test blast shortly thereafter, and his experience confirmed what the test leg had surmised.

“Soooo much better, Daad. Turn-in makes so much more sense. Handlebars not so high …and I can see out of the rearview mirrors, too….”

The standard saddle was how it was supposed to be — the low saddle had been ‘a fix’ that was an aberration — a ‘fix’ that messed up much of the design.

***

As far as Finn’s Buell Blast goes, we’re very nearly done going through all of its maintenance items.

One of the compelling reasons for choosing this motorcycle is because of the ease of maintenance that was designed into it.

Change oil. Replace Tires.

That’s it.

Which brings us to — Blast: change oil.

Some things require the laying on of tools because of poor materials choices.

Some must be fixed because of poor design choices.

And others cause us grief because of poor assembly or prior maintenance practices.

You’ll see very shortly which this one is.

***

In theory, the Blast should be “Thee Easiest Oil Change In Thee World.”

The Blast’s single has two rubber hoses clipped behind the left passenger footpeg.

To change the oil, warm the bike, put your drainpan under that peg, and remove the two rubber plugs from the end of the two rubber hoses, and allow the oil to drain from the motor and oil tank.

It has rubber plugs. It doesn’t even have a drain bolt.

Remove and replace the filter.

Stick the plugs back in the lines and fill the oil tank with a quart and a half of 20w50.

Pie, right?

***

So Finn went for a short ride to warm things up, and upon his return, we stuck the Blast up on its swingarm service stand, and pulled the two plugs and dropped the rubber lines into the drain pan.

I moved around to the front of the bike, and eyeballed the bike’s standard, automotive type spin off cartridge oil filter.

(Funny detail — Finn drives a 2007 Toyota Corolla and this 2002 Buell Blast. Both vehicles use the same Bosch Oil filter. Really.)

I got a good grip on the filter with my hands, and applied an enthusiastic amount of torque to the assembly. Then a little more enthusiastic amount.

Nothin’

The underside of most stock Buells is a place which contains a fair amount of muffler. The Blast is no exception. The Blast’s oil filter sits over a special recess in the underslung muffler designed to let one access and replace the filter.

That recess provides enough space for my nice spring loaded oil filter socket.

Or enough space for my ratchet socket driving handle.

But not enough space for both.

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<Insert select bad words of personal significance here.>

I briefly looked at what would be required to remove said muffler.

Two bolts securing the pipe to the exhaust port.

What could possibly go wrong there?

And two very large bolts that attached the muffler body to the bottom of the engine cases in what — in a normal Sportster — were probably the motor mounts.

There had to be an easier way than pulling that exhaust.

Had to.

So I got some rubber cut from an innertube, got Finn to hold the bars and apply the front brake, and hauled off with 110% of the torque that I could muster. I kept it up as long as I was able.

Still nothin’.

Maybe a dent in the cartridge from how much force I was applying, but still nothin’.

So the arms race commenced.

I grabbed a small chisel I had and laid down to apply some impact and edge torque to the steel ring at the upper edge of the filter. Being careful to keep my impacts away from the very substantial filter mounting flange, I eventually got a good bite into the steel and administered a few solid hits.

More nothin’.

I pondered a spell.

Two things occurred to me.

This ‘can’t remove the oil filter thing’ had happened with almost every used vehicle or vehicle I had started servicing I had ever owned. It was savage flashbacks all over again. It almost seemed possible that The Mechanic Formerly Known as Ham Fist had somehow, against all probability, been working on this motorcycle, too.

Didn’t anyone but me know how to properly install a damn oil filter?

The second thing was more horrifying.

Remember that Finn’s new Blast was obtained showing less than 1800 miles on its odometer.

The previous owner had made a passing comment about changing the oil once. Perhaps significant in those remarks was the lack of any mention of the filter.

It was not beyond the realm of possibility that this filter was the factory installed filter from 2002.

!

Now there is the ‘Nuclear Option’ for removing cartridge oil filters. One just spears a long screwdriver thorough the metal cartridge, and hauls off on the driver like it’s a breaker bar.

But that really does seem like an utter desperation move — you’re deliberately taking a motorcycle that is together and running, and destroying something as a route to fixing it. You really have to be totally out of options for this to look good to you.

Think Pooh. ThinkThinkThinkThinkThink.

I know now that HD enthusiasts have special ring-shaped filter wrenches to work into these snug spots, but I didn’t have one at the time.

Then I remembered my strap wrench.

The strap wrench is a long length of nylon web strap bonded to a square steel bar. The web can be wrapped around an irregular object, and then tightened around the steel bar, which can be torqued using either a breaker bar or socket.

I have one because it is the recommended tool for inserting and torquing the aluminum intake venturies into the heads of my R90S.

So I got the strap wrench, one of the chrome steel breaker bars out of my BMW toolkit, and once again assumed the position lying on the ground beside the Blast. Finn steadied the bars, applied the brake, and I started winding the strap up and getting the system torqued up.

After achieving theoretical maximum tension, I held the bar tight for fifteen, then thirty seconds.

“Dad — it’s — mooooving”

Sure enough, the small bright groove made by my chisel could be seen slowly crawling leftward. After another 15 seconds of applying more crunch it finally broke free.

Ten minutes later, the Blast had a new filter, fresh oil, and was back on the road.

***

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And so we take tools in hand.

We take up tools in anger over the way mechanical things have failed us — either through design, abuse, or the simple ravages of time.

Maybe its wrong of me to see this in moral terms, or in the context of human fulfillment, but I do view it in those ways.

Where else in life can one pick up a tool, apply analysis and some directed force, and have everything rendered effectively perfect?

If they made a shop manual and a torque wrench for the human heart, it would have been the first thing placed in my now substantial and still growing toolbox.

This kind of simplicity, clarity and closure exists in no other realm.

It doesn’t exist in my chosen line of making a living.

It sure doesn’t exist in interpersonal relationships.

But give me a mechanical problem, a socket wrench, some inspiration and some toilet parts, and I can set everything right with the world.

 

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