Perfect Circles, Perfect Spheres

They say something is happening, but you don’t know what it is….

Do you, Mr. Jones?

I’d been having an extended motorcycling Mr. Jones moment.

My K1200LT had been displaying this odd symptom, which only manifested itself when the bike was being operated in stop and go traffic — at or below a walking pace.

Now normally, I make extraordinary efforts not to ever operate this motorcycle at anything short of Warp 3, but reality sometime has a way of intruding.

On a recent trip, I’d gotten stuck in an unspeakable Interstate Highway backup, which had me riding the clutch and walking the bike along for the better part of three hours. I’d noted the odd behavior previously, but it hadn’t really been intrusive and was not detectable at speed.

What the bike had been doing was sending this odd sensation through the bars at under a mile an hour — it felt, for all the world like somebody plucking the high G string on a bass guitar — a little ‘Boing’ would be sent through the bars.

I’ll freely admit being a little obsessive over the operating condition of my machinery. If you think about well more than 1000 lbs of bike and rider in an 80 mile an hour corner being managed by that wheel, you’d be obsessive too.

I mentally went through the list of things I thought it could be. The folks at Fredericktown Yamaha — that have made a cottage industry of mounting and balancing the many tires I consume — had previously called my attention to what they thought was a slight wave in the rim likely created by a DC pothole.

“Keep an eye on that”, they told me, “If you start getting abnormal wear in that spot you’ll need to repair or replace the wheel.”

Only somebody that worked in a Yamaha shop would ever suggest that one should replace an OEM BMW forged wheel.

I have purchased running motorcycles for less than the MSRP of that wheel.

Anyway.

That rim was a possible cause. The bike’s original front wheel bearings — at 92,000 miles — was also remotely possible. And there were a few possible maladies of the front brake system — transfer of pad material to a rotor, or a rotor gone subtly potato chip shaped – that might also cause this weird pulsation. The bike was rock solid under heavy braking, though, so that seemed remote.

I obsessed about it. I had the bike at least half a dozen times up on my trolley jack — front wheel hanging up in the air, spinning it by hand — looking for run out in the rims and rotors — feeeeeeling the bearings, feeling the brake drag.

I had lots of ideas.

I had no pattern I could discern.

 

***

 

So I took the bike off the road.

I ordered a new front tire, as mine was well worn. I ordered a front bearing and seal set. And set about to find a reputable wheelsmith.

 

***

 

Fortunately, the District of Columbia contains a volatile mix of really unspeakable paved driving surfaces combined with folks that have a compulsive need to spend incomprehensible amounts of money to make people look at… their cars. When a new wheel for your Lamborghini costs more than my K1200LT, people will figure out ways to fix them.

TAS Wheel and Machine appeared to be those guys. Their online reputation — Google ratings, Yelp reviews — was 5 stars all the way. They specialized in automotive exotica, but went well out of their way to make sure folks knew that they were comfortable and qualified to work on motorcycle wheels as well. They had positive feedback from both racers and Harley riders, both of whom have been known to be particular.

So I called them, and asked if they’d be willing to work on mine. They were.

I asked a few questions about their process, and what kind of levels of accuracy they were shooting for and were usually able to achieve. The numbers they provided were right in line with or slightly better than the BMW spec. They were also able to check the run-out on my disk rotors as well.

So I resolved to pull the wheel, and to set everything up front straight.

 

***

 

So of course, Finn’s Buell Blast decided, as it had several times before, that Today Was A Good Day to Die.

It seems, that in their choice of materials, the Buell Men had not blessed The Blast with the highest specifications. The steel used in its exhaust header, for example, could not deal with the thermal stress of being operated in heavy rain — which, of course Finn had done with startling regularity. Blasts abused in this unfeeling and unkind manner all protested by turning their headpipes into loosely amalgamated but unconnected steel fragments — with predictable effects on their drivability and throttle response.

I find it difficult to explain, but in motorcycles, as in human medicine, there are protocols for triage and care.

And a motorcycle that will not run is entitled to care before a motorcycle that will run, however badly. A corollary of that principle is that one should never electively start to disassemble another motorcycle for service when one is already apart. It’s probably more of an irrational superstition, but having parts of multiple disassembled motorcycles sharing the same workbench gives me the willies. This irrational fear is probably protecting me from continuing to buy more old motorcycles, so I’ve become rather fond of it.

So while Finn’s Single sat in the shop with the stock exhaust stripped off, a rag stuffed in its exhaust port, and an aftermarket exhaust system and a pile of carburetor parts headed inbound somewhere in the UPS system, my LT just sat in the Doctor’s waiting room, reading a complimentary bad magazine, and waited to be the next patient under care.

 

***

 

When, after the passage of some time, The Blast brapped down the driveway, having found a few brand new operating characteristics, it was time to return to my problem at hand.

I got the bike up on the jack, pulled the front wheel, threw it my truck and headed for Laurel.

 

***

 

While halfway across the parking lot at TAS, I was greeted by Brett, one of the two brothers that run the shop, who offered to take the wheel from me with a work-gloved hand. While I normally neither expect nor receive this kind of white-glove service, I didn’t feel right rejecting the kind offer of assistance, especially given I had the new tire in my other hand.

Once inside the shop — which was well lit, open, organized and neat enough to serve as a TV cooking show’s working kitchen — Brett introduced me to his brother Brody, who immediately set about grabbing a wheel balancing stand to triage my Bavarian patient. While he was jigging the wheel into the stand, I spent a little time gawking. In the business end of the shop, on a truing stand was the largest Performance Machine chromed Torque front motorcycle wheel I have ever seen — it was at least a 23 inch rim and maybe bigger. These day’s ‘Big Wheel’ Customs are all the rage around DC, although there are apparently no rough surface benefits to running such a large tire size, despite what your dirt bike buds and physics class may have told you.

With a few turns and a dial gauge Brody confirmed the existence of the slight wave that had offended the guys at Fredericktown. But as he looked at the tire itself, he frowned.

“Look at this”, he said. “That bulge and divot? You definitely had a belt shift or fail in this tire’s carcass. Scary.”

Once again, I proved to be not half as smart as I thinked I was.

During all the consternation and obsession over hard parts, I’d completely overlooked a much simpler explanation.

The tire.

D’oh!

Anyway, after making some biker small talk — showing off two wheeled baby pictures and such — I filled out a work order which authorized the guys to straighten the wheel, and to repaint it if they thought it necessary. As they worked with a lot of BMW automobile wheels, which are nearly identical in construction and even the spoke pattern, they already knew the drill and had the proper Wurth wheel paint to perform the service.

All in all, Brett and Brody struck me as the most pleasant, professional and competent guys I’ve had the pleasure to do business with in quite some time.

It was time to get back in the pickup and head home to wait for their call.

 

***

 

Back in the shop, I had my Motion Pro bearing removal tool, my heat gun, and my hammer at the ready, while the bearing sets rested comfortably in my freezer. I considered labelling them with a Post-It Note reading “Do Not Eat”, but concluded it probably wasn’t necessary.

I did take one of my small brass calipers to check the brake pads while everything was apart. My SBS organic pads — which come out of the package with 5mm of friction material, still had a solid 3mms remaining, so they would last through another front tire and could be reused.

The TAS Men checked in about 4 days later to ask when I could swing by to pick up the wheel. I was busy at work, but Sweet Doris From Baltimore was bored that day, so was happy to take a trip in her truck to Laurel.

After work that day, I went back into the shop, and pulled the wheel’s grease seal, and used my snap ring pliers to remove the substantial snap ring that held the wider of the two bearings in place. I took a few pictures of the hub so I had clear photos of how deep the bearings sat in the hub.

Then I took collet and driver in hand, and, after having blown some heat into the wheel hub, removed both bearing sets and the spacer which sits between them. It was a little fiddly to get the collet solidly installed in the bearing’s inner races solidly enough to drive them out, but after a few tries the bearings hit the top of the steel workbench with a satisfying thud.

After cleaning up the hub’s interior, I heated the hub again and grabbed my hammer, a 1 1/4″ socket, and the larger of the two bearings out of the freezer.

If you’re wondering why I was keeping BMW wheel bearing sets in with the frozen dairy treats, it’s because the wheel bearings are an interference fit, and combining a hot (expanded) hub bore with a cold (contracted) bearing makes the process of fitting the bearing far less difficult.

I dropped the bearing into the bore, applied a little hammer, and watched as the bearing moved down towards it’s seat. I understood that when the bearing seated one would be able to hear the high pitched ringing changed to a deeper thunk when the bearing seated. Being not entirely sure my ding had thudded, I gave it one more strike just to make sure.

In retrospect, that last hit was ill advised.

As I pulled the driver our of the bore, the bearing’s seal popped loose, trailing lube.

That bearing was toast.

Some folks enjoy salty language. If you are one of these people, for whom expletives serve a stress reducing purpose, feel free to supply your favorites and I’ll enjoy their benefits by proxy.

Me, though, I just felt very small, and resigned myself to a fast recovery from my own lack of skills, and a few more days without use of my motorcycle.

 

***

 

Upon close inspection, the problem was pretty obvious. My socket — a normal 1/2 drive — was a thinwall, that was just a tad too small to make solid contact with the bearing’s outer race. An impact socket, with thicker walls, would have been perfect.

My choice was to admit defeat, and seek professional help to complete the job, or take a gut check, and prove that I was smarter than aluminum.

After a few permissible moments of depression, I began to think that maybe, just maybe, I was smarter than aluminum.

I went back to Amazon, found a single replacement bearing, and another addition to my suddenly growing collection of Motion Pro motorcycle tools — this one a motorcycle bearing driver kit.

Finn has a thing for stickers — he’s hoping to completely cover the outer surface of his electric bass case — and between All Balls and Motion Pro, this job was really working out for him.

 

***

 

The next day, the bearing driver showed up in the mailbox. My confidence rebounded — the tool was clearly well made, and allowed me to match outer face drivers to correctly sized and interchangeable inner race alignment collets. With this tool, there was no drama about the ability to correctly install these bearings.

The bearing though, was proving to be a tad trickier. The major Los Angeles-based bearing house had, despite having said the bearings were in stock, cancelled my order upon discovering they weren’t.

Having struck out getting the bearing, I swallowed more pride and called All Balls Racing, whose web site said they were not shipping orders this week because they were moving the business.

Surprisingly, a Customer Service Agent picked up their extension on the second ring. I gave here my order number and described what had occurred.

“This is NOT a warranty request. The product was fine. I am an idiot and I broke it. It is MY fault. I just want to purchase the single bearing from the kit rather than the entire kit.”

The CSR at All Balls basically thanked me for being an honest idiot, and then goodwilled me a warranty replacement over my protestations.

The bearing was in my mailbox at lunchtime the next day.

 

***

 

My second attempt — armed with the proper tools and the knowledge born of the wrong kind of experience — went far more smoothly.

Ten minutes of heat gun and hammer later, the wheel had new bearings and seals correctly installed.

 

***

 

A few hot sweaty minutes later, the wheel was back on the bike, and the brake calipers and fender reinstalled.

I rolled the bike down the driveway and rode at walking pace to both ends of the block and then headed back into the driveway. The LT was rolling smooth, with no sign of the former low speed symptoms.

I went inside to grab a jacket and helmet, and see if Finn wanted to go for a ride.

 

***

 

Trying to keep a K1200LT and a Buell Blast together on the road takes a little effort. Thinking of the LT as if it had a three speed transmission helps make that a little easier.

As we headed down MD 383 out towards Burkettsville, my motorcycle had been transformed. Any any speed between zero and sixty miles per hour, the front end of the LT was glass smooth — the vibration was utterly gone, the front end suspension seemed more settled and was clearly tracking the pavement more accurately, and as I transitioned the bike from side to side, the transition from one side of the tire to the other was dead rigid, rock solid.

A few brief blasts up to higher speeds felt dead planted and utterly stable. A few hard braking tests were rock solid with no pulsation whatsoever.

Perfectly round rims and round tires combined with perfectly spherical bearings made this bike ride like a two wheeled version of a big Mercedes Benz — feeling like it was carved from a single piece of alloy, compliant, comfortable, and like it would willingly do anything the rider asked of it, for as long as that rider might want to ask it.

For the next hour or so, Finn and I criss-crossed The Valley, trying to keep away from the pop-up thunderstorms that were coming in from the west, and enjoying our newly repaired steeds. The new authority of the Blast’s exhaust note — courtesy of the recently installed Jardine exhaust — allowed me to keep track of Finn’s position on the road behind me by ear — was something I found strangely comforting.

Keeping my eye on him in the rearview continued to demonstrate his comfort and competence in the corners — he never put a wheel out of place.

We finally came back to the shop, having never encountered any of the rain out on the road.

“Good ride, Snorky?”

Great ride, Pop.”

Perfect.

 

Venting

Man, have I got some stuff I really need to get off my chest.

I know you know what I mean.

It starts with the small stuff that gets under your skin — worn shoelaces on your boots, bits of software that don’t work and have never worked, the endless number of people who you don’t know who are happy to call you to ask for your money on the phone.

And if it was only the small stuff, that would almost be OK.

But it’s not the small stuff, it’s the big stuff, and its got everyone that I know in a constant state of fully clenched and ready to blow.

I mean, look around you.

I’ve never known a time when there was so much on the line, with so little sensation of which way it was going to go.

But that’s really not what I really meant to talk about, it just has a way of creeping in.

***

“Dad, I got a problem with the bike.”

“Oh? What kind of problem?”

“It doesn’t run.”

“That seems kind of non-specific. How doesn’t it run?”

“Well, it had been backfiring, and it seem like it’s always going to stall.”

“Does it get better or worse when the bike warms up”

“Neither. It sucks all the time. It got so bad last time I didn’t think I was going to make it out of the parking lot. I parked it.”

“Ok. I guess we’ll have to get it back to the shop and see what’s what with it.

Do you think its ridable enough to make it home?”

Keep in mind that the ride home bisects the most trafficked roads of the whole greater Baltimore-Washington metro area. If you have doubts about power delivery it might not be the right mission profile.

“No way.”

“Ok, then we’re going to need a Plan B.”

***

Plan B came in the form of my new good friends at U-Haul.

U-Haul, it seems, makes Serious Bank from Motorcyclists That Like To Trailer Motorcycles.

And while I have always been of a bent to avoid joining that club, I think there is some sort to ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card when the motorcycle in question cannot move under its own power.

At least, that’s my rationalization and I’m sticking to it.

Anyhoo, the nice folks at U-Haul mave designed a rental trailer whose only job is to move motorcycles. It’s a 5′ x 9′ all-aluminum utility trailer, with a built-in loading ramp an a neat front wheel chock that is part of the trailer’s structure.

About 5 minutes on the laptop reserved one — in real-time, on a Sunday afternoon — located in Gaithersburg about halfway between Jefferson and College Park.

If you’re in a Jam with a motorcycle that won’t motor, its hard to imagine a more convenient way out, at least if you own something with a trailer hitch.

***

While I waited for U-Haul to call me back to confirm, I called Harley-Davidson of Frederick. HD of F — it should be observed — is the only motorcycle dealership that I know of that is cheerfully open seven days a week. This feature has already saved a few Sundays and Mondays for me and the Blast already.

I had a list of parts that followed my lines of thinking given very minimal available troubleshooting information. One or two, or maybe three things was going on here. We were either running crazy rich or crazy lean.

The statistically least likely thing, and hence not worth buying parts for, was that the Blast’s teeny weeny electronic ignition box had tossed it.

The crazy rich option would involve the predicted death of the electro-mechanical auto choke unit, and I already had parts for that.

If you were willing to move past that then we were wither dealing with a completely clogged carburetor — which also seemed unlikely, given that the bike had been running reasonably well immediately before it’s untimely mid-stroke demise, or with a fuel system that wouldn’t flow any fuel — which was either a clogged petcock…

or Venting.

Now I have been driven beyond the bounds of distraction by fuel systems that wouldn’t flow fuel.

The Blast, fortunately, is a bit more modern motorcycle, with better coverage from its Internet user forums. User forums which thoroughly document the frequent failure of the tank’s venting system, whose key component is an EPA-mandated rollover valve that has been known to cut off flow when the system was demonstrably straight up and down and in no way rolled over.

So I ordered a complete set of carburetor jets — slow speed, main and needle — a tank petcock, some vent line and a rollover valve. A rollover valve, it should be noted, that has had its part number superseded by a redesigned part at least five times, according to Shell, the HD of F counterperson.

You may or may not find that noteworthy, but I did, anyway.

HD had three of the six parts in stock — the others would be available in a day or two.

5 minutes after I got off the phone with HD of F, U-Haul called me to confirm that the trailer was available, so Finn and I grabbed our jackets and headed for the pickup.

***

Fast forward to a parking lot outside College Park.

Finn tossed me his keys. I threw a leg over the Buell, turned on the fuel, and hit the starter. The bike fired on the third stroke, and came right up to its high idle.

It was enough to give one a false sense of security.

I blipped the throttle a few times. The first two times, we got response, and revs. The third time we got boggage. When I let the throttle go, it stalled in deterministic and terminal sounding way. I waited a few seconds and tried the starter again. The bike fired, stumbled and quit.

“You were right. Never would have gotten out of the parking lot. Let’s load her up.”

***

Back at the shop, The Blast took up a spot on its swingarm stand, with my LT temporarily exiled outside to the driveway.

The next afternoon, when the opportunity presented itself, I test fired the bike on the stand. The previous pattern repeated, except when the bike first started to stumble, I reached forward to the fuel cap latch, flipped it open and pulled. The cap didn’t want to come out — there was vacuum in the tank. A bit of a more determined tug liberated the cap, and three quarters of a second later, the engine returned to full song.

Venting it was. Gasoline engines don’t run well when they can’t get any, apparently.

***

A day later HD called to let me know they had received most of my order, but were short three of the carb internals — those would be coming in in a couple of days.

I swung by on the LT at lunchtime, and resolved to find the hour or so it would take to drain and refit the Blast’s fuel tank.

On my way back inside I yanked the Blast’s wierd-alice conical air filter — a reusable dry gauze type. I grabbed a small tin container, and set the filter in dishsoap to soak inside in the worksink.

***

When the weekend rolled round, it was time to make this bike run.

The Buell’s fuel tank is on the less complex end of the modern “how-hard-can-we-make-it-to-remove-this-motorcycle-fuel-tank” spectrum.

I know this, because my K-bike is all the way on the other, wrong end.

A single 10mm bolt and the oil dipstick retain the tank’s plastic cover.

Two more 10mm bolts under that cover and some cylindrical rubber bumpers get you down to the single screw on the fuel line and your tank sitting happy on the workbench.

Somewhere along the line, I inherited a little Black and Decker Workmate folding workbench and lightweight vise. It’s an ingenious little thing, with the two halves of the worksurface driven and located by two hand operated jackscrews.

For a job like this, its perfect.

I opened the surface of the Workmate all the way up, and sat the tank on it so that the petcock sat between the halves of the table.

I grabbed the gas can for my lawnmower, pulled the filler neck off it, and sat a funnel in its place. I opened the tank’s petcock to ‘Reserve’ and then just let time do its magic.

While it was draining, I removed the old tank vent line from the frame, in preparation for its replacement. Predictably, an attempt to blow air through the line produced — in addition to giving me ‘HighTest Breath’ — wholly unsatisfactory results.

One of two things was going on. Either this was another one of those ‘dang bugs’ stories — with a spider having engineered an effective blockage of the line — or it was observable manifestation of the apocryphal stories about modern alcohol-laced fuel turning soft fuel system bits to mush — with the line having melted and welded itself internally.

Either way, the tank hadn’t been able to flow fuel, and with no fuel, well…

My thoughts were that if one bit of rubber had possibly been mushed, then all of them were suspect, so we’d clear out everything so we wouldn’t have to back here for say, another 15 years or so.

Fortunately, I had a really good mental image of how all of the tank components worked, because when one of my son, Apprentice Architect Finn’s professors assigned a cutaway drawing — of anything the student chose — Finn had drawn this.

v__d72f

The shop manual might be good, but for me anyway, this was way better.

I’ll never quite understand why the Blast’s designer’s did this, but they did. The fuel tank’s rollover valve stem is just long enough that — once the vent fitting that retains it is unscrewed — it is too long to be removed from the tank unless the tank’s cap retaining ring is removed first.

Which, if you think about it for a second or two, represents a bit of sleight of hand, both to disassemble and to put back together.

No matter — I managed to remove the top ring and get the old rollover valve out without dumping it into the bottom of the tank. My shop manual indicated that the rubber seal and tank ring needed to be coated with a thin layer of Hylomar aviation sealant.

Two things occurred to me concurrently as I was looking at the disassembled parts in my hand. The first was that I actually had some Hylomar, because as an impressionable youth I had been (unwillingly) instructed by Ted Porter, who had impressed upon me that using anything else for several critical BMW Airhead assemblies constituted some kind of wrench malpractice. The second was that these parts weren’t the original factory parts — someone had replaced this valve before — because the sealant was nowhere in evidence. And that the person that did this clearly didn’t know Ted, because they didn’t have any Hylomar.

After a very thin coating was applied to the rubber seal, I replaced the rollover valve and carefully retightened the eight allen bolts holding the top ring in place. I reinstalled the valve’s top fitting on the outside of the tank, making sure to point the barb to the 11 o clock position so it would be able to accept the rubber vent line.

I then removed the two phillips head screws that held the petcock to the bottom of the tank and removed it. The petcock’s nylon screening looked very discolored when compared with that of the new part. Being easily amused, I giggled a little at the sight of the ‘Made In Italy’ script on the petcock’s valve handle. As someone wrestling with a motorcycle that was inexplicably dealing with niggling reliability issues, this is just the sort of confidence builder one needs, eh?

A new o-ring, and retorquing the two phillips heads yielded a fuel tank whose entire fuel flow path was now completely new.

I took a few minutes to look at my laptop to check the shop manual to see how the fuel vent line was supposed to be routed. The routing was fairly elaborate – following the left side of the oil-in-frame backbone, crossing in front of the carb and then ending inside a frame recess in the frame’s rear section. While probably a good idea in terms of protecting the vent from road debris or water, it did make me wonder about how good an idea it might be to have fuel vapors hanging out in close proximity to the battery and fuze blocks.

Of course, that hadn’t been how the line I had removed had been routed — it had been routed down the front frame downtube so that it exited near the riders left footpeg –a spot that was prone to sucking up water or debris from the roadway. I took a few minutes to thread a new vent hose in the factory position, engaged the OEM frame ties, verified that the hose wasn’t kinked or pinched, and then cut the front to length.

I replaced the tank on the motorcycle, and reattached the fuel line, hold down bolts and the tank retaining bumpers. I replaced the clean and dried gauze air filter, snapped the airbox closed, and replaced the plastic tank cover. I refilled the tank with about a half gallon of fuel from the lawn mower gas can, waiting a few seconds, then checked the new petcock and o-ring for leaks.

Dry as a bone.

I turned the fuel tap to ‘Reserve’, waited ten seconds, and fingered the starter.

After three or so Whoooomps, the big single lit up and came up to a solid high idle.

Starting, though, had never been the problem.

I gave the bike some gentle throttle, verifying that we had response, and working to get some heat into an engine that had been sitting for more than a little while.

After a few minutes the autochoke came off — causing some minor drama as the carb’s internal enrichment port was slooooooowly closed. The Blast’s single took up an even slow idle — smoothly taking blips of the gas — and continued to do just that and nothing else.

Which, considering the relative scarcity of that a few minutes before this, was beginning to look like progress.

After a few minutes of running on the stand and giving her an occasional blaat of throttle and then letting the engine idle, there was no sign of the fuel starvation that would have formerly rendered the Blast dull, lifeless and inert.

It was time to get this little bike off the service stand, out of my garage, and tested on the road.

***

It didn’t take more than ninety seconds to be absolutely sure that something significant had changed with the Blast.

Where it had formerly been a tad fluffy off the bottom, but pretty good when the revs came up, now it was …almost punchy.

Ok, well that might be overblown, but drivability was much improved, and opening the throttle was definitely fun and encouraged you to do that some more.

***

I ran the bike through a few more heat cycles over the next couple of days, and except for the rough moments each time the autochoke finally closed, the little bike was running like a champ.

Now I’d have to look for an opening to get it back to College Park.

***

Saturday came and Finn was using every communications medium available to him to let the Home Office know how much he’d really like to have his motorcycle back.

Call it an opening.

Of course, it would a sunny 35 degree day opening, but an opening is an opening.

Doris hopped in the pickup and headed towards Finn’s place while I layered up for the ride.

This is one of those days where a good fleece top and an Aerostich suit can make 50 plus miles of what could be uncomfortable pretty comfortable.

I also had a new pair of cold weather gloves to break in, so this seemed like an opening for that, too.

***

The Blast started pretty well, especially considering the overnight low had been just under 20 degrees F.

As I rumbled up into Jefferson, I remembered I’d been wondering how far this bike would run before hitting Reserve, now that it would actually flow fuel.

Whereupon, three quarters of a mile from home, and showing about 80 miles on the trip odo, I promptly ran out gas, and turned the petcock to Reserve.

I wouldn’t have to wonder anymore.

After a brief stop at Jefferson’s BP, to purchase $4.51 of premium fuel, I pointed the Blast over Mountville Road, cutting across the southern end of Frederick County to miss Frederick City traffic and use a few miles of backroad dancing to make sure the little bike was running fully on song. Mountville and Maryland 80 are both delightfully technical, with lots of grades and corner combinations to string together. With the Blast’s 500 single up in fourth gear it was eager to carry momentum, turning sharply in to each corner and torquing out in a single cylinder machine gun symphony.

Singles are cool.

Apologies to Dr. Who, and to bowties.

After merging on to Interstate 270, it was clear that the bike had been subtly starving for fuel long before it had failed completely — this had been a problem that had been degrading slowly for a very long time. Before the fix, the Blast hadn’t really made usable power in top gear until about 75 miles per hour — post fix there was good power from about 63. Rolling fourth gear on at lower highway speeds actually produced a reasonable rush of power.

34 horsepower doesn’t sound like a lot, unless you’ve been spending some time riding the same bike around with it making 27 for a while.

I’ll also admit that BMW S and LT fairings make one spoiled when transitioning to the Blast’s tidy flyscreen — its hard to imagine how doubled over I’d have to get to gain any coverage from that. Still, other than two or three numb fingers on each hand, and a couple on each foot, it was a pretty nice day and a pretty nice ride.

Greenbelt came up a bit too fast, really.

Finn seemed glad to see his motor.

We locked the Blast up and headed out in search of a burger.

***

The next day I was reading my Sunday paper, when I heard my phone vibrate.

A text from Finn.

Just took the bad boy out for a spin. Feels much better. Better acceleration from a stop and it doesn’t feel like it is sucking wind just to carry me lol

Nothing I didn’t know.

The things that make us worried and sad can be complicated and seemingly impossible to straighten out.

But the things that make the riders among us happy can be the simplest things in the world.

Castrati

When one has old motorcycles, one gets in the habit of not letting things go.

Letting things go is to surrender to entropy, and that way randomness and oily, rusty, non-functional wreckage lies.

This mechanical wreckage puts me in mind of how I’d look with similar mileage and neglect.

So you don’t.

Or at least I don’t, anyway.

These things can be substantial. Or strangely trivial.

But when they break, I fix them. Because one is a freak, but two is a trend.

I’m so not into entropy.

 

***

 

I was out riding the Slash 5 a while back, enjoying my favorite one laners out in the farm bottoms.

All was sunny, green — boxer drone omnipresent — I was in the zone.

My green reverie was dispelled by green and yellow menace — a big boy John Deere lawn tractor being operated with boundless enthusiasm and questionable situational awareness.

Tractors are not uncommon hereabouts, so my tractor interaction and avoidance skills are well developed and frequently exercised.

Most of them, though, are great big slow moving things which are pretty easy to detect and, except for their operator’s visibility challenges, behave in pretty predicable ways.

This one, though, was small, quick and had the distinct appearance of one that was being operated in top gear and at full throttle. While most lawn mowers — and despite the John Deere green livery, this was just a very big lawn mower — turn when they reach the end of their lawn to make the next cutting pass, this one was flaky.

It might make the customary turn. Or it might just blast straight out into my path and end up requiring its owner to replace its pretty yellow seat.

I don’t use my horn very often, but when I do…

So I resolved to announce myself, and pressed the Toaster’s left button, bracing for the customary gut punch percussive report of the trusty Italian-made Fiamm dual horns.

“Wheeeeeeze-bleep….”.

That couldn’t be right. So I pressed it again.

“Bleeee…wheeeze…..”

Sigh.

Being a recovering Catholic means one carries a lot of really bizarre images around in your head.

Upon hearing my horn, or more precisely the lack thereof, the image that flashed across my mind was…..’Castrati’.

In Catholic liturgical music, the most delicate soprano voices are provided by Choir boys who today serve their faith in this way until they hit puberty, and their voices crack.

But it didn’t always work that way.

In modern times, we’ve (mostly) concluded that one’s life and future family win compared with one’s expression of faith. But at one time if you sang beautifully enough, that choice went the other way. You’d get….altered … for Jesus, so that your voice could continue to sing his praises, and your life, well….

So cut back to the button, where my expectations were of power, of ‘A Fullness of Sound’.

I expected Pavarotti.

I got a 43 year old choirboy.

 

***

 

Fortunately, and likely not because of my thundering horn, Deere Man noticed me, and braked to a stop before entering the road.

The potential for our paths to intersect having been reduced to zero, I rolled back on the throttle and sped on up the road.

 

***

Back in the garage, troubleshooting was pretty straightforward.

Standing in front of the bike, I cupped my hand over the low tone horn of the low/high pair, inclined my head toward my hand, and pressed the Toaster’s left button.

No problem there.

I repeated the drill with the high tone horn of the pair.

I was treated to a comically pitiful and failing bleat.

Yup. That’s your problem right there.

I went into my office and Amazoned up a Fiamm ‘Freeway Blaster’ high tone horn.

 

***

 

Fast forward several days, and my postman provides me with the horn.

That evening, I popped it out of its plastic clamshell and learned a thing or two. Unlike my existing ‘Made in Italy’ horn, this one was made in a plant in Cadillac, Michigan. It was missing the cute chrome grille that probably hasn’t been made for 25 years. And it was designed to operate with two wires, not the ‘hot and frame ground’ method used by my antique example. To allow it to be used, the Fiamm guys had included a nice pre-wired terminal and jumper which would work in one terminal applications. After a few moments unsuccessfully searching for some “+”s and “-“s, I reviewed the minimal documentation, which stated that the horn “was not polarity sensitive”.

I walked out to the garage, a pulled a 10mm wrench out of the tool chest. I spun the nut off the existing horn, pulled the wire terminal off and removed the horn. When I went to drop the old horn in the shop trash — how many miles had this thing seen since 1985? — a full two tablespoons full of dirt fell out of the horn’s mouth.

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I had prewired the jumper inside, so wired up the hot wire, tightened up the nut and was done — total elapsed time about 25 seconds.

I pressed the button.

The walls shook — we had Pavarotti, The Mighty Hammond Organ and The Mormon Tabernacle Choir all at once.

It might be a Cheezy Physics Trick, but it is a good one.

Each of these two horns is audible, but by itself nothing special.

But put two of them together, and the interference patterns made by the two selected notes create the kind of din you really want if someone is trying to kill you with their vehicle. 1+1 equals the sonic equivalent of the 5:19 to Moline.

Entropy temporarily vanquished. Bring on the John Deere Lawn Tractors.

Snowmobile Parts

I’d kind of hoped that Erik Buell was from someplace in the Great White North.

Someplace where there are polar bears, and everybody call their snowmobile their ‘sled’.

Because if it was I’d at least have some way to understand the context for a recent brain puzzler that had my cerebral wires leaking smoke for the last couple of days.

But he’s from Pittsburg.

So I don’t.

 

***

 

I guess I could be underthinking this.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility that there might be a snowmobile or two in Pittsburg.

Your odds there have got to be better than Atlanta or Miami, say, but it’s not likely there are a lot of sleds there, compared with say, The UP of Michigan or oh, The Yukon.

So its possible that in his youth Erik Buell had some form of foundational internal combustion experience with a snowmobile, but its a longshot.

 

***

 

So why the hell am I so hung up on snowmobiles, you ask?

Can’t tell you how glad I am you asked that narrative-advancing question.

I’ve continue to have frequent SMS and cell phone conversations with offspring Finn on the subject of his Buell Blast.

Lately he related to me that the bike ran poorly once it was warmed up, which is a behavior that likely links to the performance of one of that motorcycle’s electromechanical oddities, the ‘autochoke’.

Remember that the bike’s design purpose was to be a training motorcycle, and that anything which could be done to make the bike fool- or in this case rookie-motorcyclist-proof should be and was, if possible, done.

One of those things was the ‘autochoke’.

The theory was that when cold, the enrichener circuit defaulted to open — allowing extra fuel into the intake stream. As the engine warmed, an electrical current was applied to a wax inside the body of the ‘autochoke’. As the wax heated and melted, the piston and needle would move up into the carb body and close the enrichment port, and the carburetor would then run through its normal pilot and high speed circuits.

Hot wax? What cockamamie designer came up with this Rube Goldebergian method? For what application? What ever happened to solenoids or switches? What could possible go wrong with such a strangely non-determanistic and complex mechanism?

Other than everything.

When I’d been having The Blast inspected for Maryland registration, I remember talking to the Inspector at Harley Davidson of Frederick as he went through the bike .

He had been fairly unrestrained in expressing how unusual it was for one of these motorcycles to come into his shop completely unmolested and functional.

“Man, everything is here and everything works. Brakes are good — shock and fork are good. Heck, even the ‘autochoke’ works. That never happens.”

I remember thinking to myself that this piece of data was going to be important at some time later.

If those things ‘never’ worked, it was only a matter of short time before this one joined them.

 

***

 

It was, apparently, that time.

After what is now apparently a lifetime of working on complex systems, I have developed a couple of foundational principles.

One of them is never to use a complex solution where a simple one is available.

And easy operation aside, a cable that works has got to be better than a rube-golderbergian gizmo that sometimes works and othertimes, well…

So I couldn’t be the first person down this road, and certainly not the first to fix it.

 

***

 

My first thought which is normally my best one, wasn’t here.

The first thought was that somewhere in the Harley Davidson parts catalog were parts that could be repurposed to do this simple thing.

You know — “Find the cable and mount from a Sportster, and see if they can be made to fit.”

The Blast’s ‘Autochoke’ Carb had been built around the thing — it used a different body, and the orifice in the side of the body where the autochoke sat was the size of a US 5 cent piece.

The Sportster cable and linkage would not work.

Well, the problem could be solved with HD parts — Just take the whole carb from a Sportster, swap that in there, and Bob’s Yer Uncle.

Seemed like an excessive solution.

If I was going to toss the whole carb, we’d be looking at a Mikuni Flatslide, but, well, money.

So with that idea shot, I suspected that at least one of my Fellow Blast Enthusiasts had surely figured it out.

Maybe a few decades on the Internet BMW Riders List has spoiled me to expect that the community has completely figured out absolutely everything before I even knew it was wrong, but the BMW guys and Blast folk are not operating on the same plane.

The Blast folk did have a suggested fix, but the solution wasn’t pretty.

The Blast Forum solution involved massive Dremel MotoTool destruction of the existing plastic electromechanical abomination, and getting a cable to move the large diameter slide that had formerly been moved or not moved by the expanding wax. It looked unreliable, not strong, and like something that — were it to break when you were out on the road somewhere — would leave you worse off than you’d been before, with no way to recreate the fix.

I didn’t like what I was seeing — it didn’t look like any of the Blast Enthusiasts — and there ARE Blast Enthusiasts – had actually come up with an elegant solution.

It was ON, now.

 

***

 

It was time to put on the race face, and do some top speed runs on the Google Machine.

First gear had me searching on manual choke conversion kits.

Second gear had me finding a lot of such kits being sold by motor scooter shops in convenient places like Liverpool and Stuttgart. These shops show pictures of the kits, but no application or installation data.

Third gear showed these kits were for the seemingly two most common scooter carburetors — a series of DelOrtos, and a Keihin CV.

The Blast has a Keihin Constant Velocity carb.

Fourth gear had me looking for Keihin CV Manual Choke Conversion Kits. There was a big cluster of hits on ArcticChat.com. ArcticChat, fortunately, is not a service for lonely singles above the Artic Circle, but rather, the enthusiast forum for owners of Arctic Cat snowmobiles.

Top gear on Arctic Chat showed me pictures of one of their Keihin carbs and its ‘Autochoke’. There was a picture of a replacement autochoke. Chubby rounded bit of ivory plastic… It looked familiar. As the revs climbed towards redline, an image search on their autochoke led me back… to the Blast forum.

<Sound of Very Large Relay Closing>

Where, I had kept asking myself, had Erik Buell or one of his design minions come up with the idea for this ridiculous non-simplification of engine starting technology?

Snowmobile parts.

Freaking. Snowmobile. Parts.

The Arctic Cat dudes and dudettes had similarly described sled motors that started well when cold, but ran like crap when warmed up. The autochoke seemed to have too many failure modes — whether though failure of the wax/heat mechanism, or wear that caused the plastic plunger to bind — that rendered the system dull, lifeless and inert in much less time than it took the rest of the machine to fail.

They had adopted a conversion kit made by an outfit called HOCA Racing.

You can obtain one of those kits from our good friends at Amazon.com.

 

***

 

After the UPS man left, I found myself examining the Hoca Choke Conversion Kit.

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It’s really a very elegant, very robust, and completely mechanical solution.

The kit contains a machined steel plug the same diameter as the autochoke’s body. The plug has a groove with a meaty o-ring seal, and a machined shoulder that seals to the carburetor body. The next kit part is a machined retaining bracket that engages the plug’s shoulder and its drilled to accept a small screw that engages that retaining hole used for the standard autochoke. The steel plug is threaded to accept a cable sleeve, complete with slack adjusters and locknuts. Finally, the kit includes a replacement for the carb plunger that activates the enrichener jet, a spring and a cable, complete with knob and retaining hardware.

With a few minutes of tank removal, some screw spinning, and one new 5/8 hole in a side cover, The Blast will be much better off.

The members of the Blast board have helped me to learn a great deal about the operation of this not quite simple enough little motorcycle. I’m looking forward to writing up the parts sources and being an information source for them rather than an information consumer, for once.

Now I need to figure out whether this is going to be another toolkit-packing roadtrip to College Park, or whether the Blast itself will get to take another little roadtrip back to Shamieh’s Shop.

While we’re in there we’ll prolly pull and clean out the pilot jet, as well as clean the OEM air filter. Hopefully this will be enough to get the little feller running crisply, and will keep me from having to consider replacing everything intake with a Dan’s Performance Intake Kit.

blast-intake-kit

Another one of those foundational principles we’d been talking about is that stock equipment is almost always best.

Well, except for chokes, anyway.

I’m not ever going to argue that I’m a better tuner than the guy at that factory that had prototyping equipment, exhaust gas analyzers and a dyno. I’ve seen lots of examples where ‘performance parts’ reduce performance.

Both the intake tract and the stock exhaust on the Blast’s engine appear to be highly engineered. I’m kind of fond of the typical underframe Buell exhaust, too — it does a good job of keeping the big cylinder’s more obnoxious bark under control, while still letting the rider hear the low exhaust tones.

My gut tells me that modifying either the intake or exhaust on this bike will result in less drivability — flat spots, poor throttle response. Might be able to re-jet your way out of it, might not. Worst case is that you end up with an obnoxiously loud bike that only runs great WFO — a thing, it should be noted, is a tad incompatible with operation in a modern urban environment.

You might be able to ride the bike that way for a while in the city, just not for very long.

Nevermind, that being inexplicably Scots at heart, I’m having a hard time contemplating spending $250 to upgrade a $900 motorcycle.

So we’ll see if we can get what’s there working perfectly and predictably.

Finn’s Blast was supposed to be a transportation appliance, not a lifestyle.

Not that that’s ever worked before.

The Other Half

I’m beginning to feel like the Pied Piper — it seems like motorcycles just find their way to me, and then just follow me around.

The latest moto-child at the end of this little parade is a 2004 Kawasaki ZZR 600. The ZZR belongs to Cameron — Daughter Wallis’ Boyfriend — who, after a long period of unrelieved motolust, found this bike — low mileage, low purchase price — sitting out beside the road wearing a ‘For Sale’ sign. At the time, he was actually headed to look at another bike he’d found on Craigslist, but this one seemed like more motorcycle for less dollars, so it followed him, and by inference, me, home.

Bikes like this are a missed blessing — with an odometer reading equating to far less than 1000 miles a year, this was a motorcycle that had spent most of its life just sitting.

The ZZR was Kawasaki’s rebadged version of the first generation Ninja 600. After a substantial redesign resulting in Ninja V 2.0, Kawasaki had taken the first generation machine, equipped it with a slightly more rational seating position, a set of bungee hooks, and a sticker that said ‘ZZR’, and told people it was a sporty standard and kept selling it right along side the new, more track focused Ninja, only for a lot less money. For folks that didn’t want to go racing, the ZZR made perfect sense.

Did I mention that the ZZR is one of the last carbureted Kawasaki motorcycles? A carbureted motorcycle that had no choice but to be filled with the swill that passes for modern pump gas, and had spent its whole life sitting waiting to be ridden.

It didn’t take the Great Karnak to know the question was “What motorcycle will need a complete carb service?”.

 

***

 

I’ve been ragging on myself about my lack of skills and experience in working on Finn’s Harley-Davidson based Buell Blast.

My skills working on modern Japanese motorcycles, while non-zero, were certainly in that same reduced-capacity zip code.

Cam had described to me the bike’s operating character — would only idle on choke when not fully warmed up, stumbling idle, and wouldn’t take throttle until half open, and then it was bog, stumble, unridable blast. He fired it at the end of my driveway one evening, and the idle sounded like a box of rocks in a cement mixer. Awful.

This was a story I was sure I’d heard before.

Sweet Doris From Baltimore’s little moto-riding brother, Eric, had ridden a Yamaha FZ-1 of identical vintage and a parallel development story — v1.0 supersport — in this case the R1 — repurposed as a sporty standard while sold alongside Supersport 2.0. Eric had told me tales of that bike — also the last of the carbureted bikes — going back to the dealer 4 or 5 times — before it died an untimely death — for carb cleaning and replacement of its pilot jets. His frustration was palpable — couldn’t those guys get it right? — but the problem was, at root, not ham-fisted mechanics but a chronic design flaw. Microscopic pilot jet orifices driven by EPA emissions testing-driven lean running conditions combined with alcohol laden motor fuel meant that even the slightest evaporation or varnishing of the fuel in the carbs reduced the jet orifice sizes just enough to keep the bike from running. And it could happen over and over again.

Cam’s little problem clearly fit the same pattern.

I told him to order the parts I figured we’d need — pilot jets, spark plugs, an air filter, a fuel filter, an oil filter and fresh motorcycle oil. I figured that with one good afternoon we could set the ZZR aright.

 

***

 

I figured wrong.

Cam came over one Saturday afternoon with two bags full of parts obtained from Frederick’s local Kawasaki dealer, so I rolled my LT out of the garage, and positioned the ZZR in the large space thus vacated, in the implied operating theater in front of my rolling toolbox.

 

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I strapped on my mechanics gloves and we dove right in.

We pulled the saddle to access the tank mounts. Three bolts, one fuel gauge connector and one clamp later, the ZZR’s tank was sitting in the fuel tank cradle on top of my workbench.

Ten 10 mm bolts later, the top of the airbox came off.

And that was when, as my British are won’t to say, things began to go pear-shaped.

I pulled the foam air cleaner element out — it was visibly crumbling and in bad shape — and Cam made a face. He removed the new air filter from the bag — his new one was clearly shorter from front to back than what was in the bike.

I told him to call the dealer, and have them check the number, and see if they had the correct filter in stock.

While he spent some time on the phone, I continued removal of the ram-air-equipped airbox and worked my way towards removal of the rack of 4 downdraft Keihin CV carburetors. 4 clamps later, the rack was off the head — flipping them upside down in place was sufficient access to get to the float bowls and jets.

It was then that I began to understand just how bad our local dealer’s attention to detail might be.

I put down my tools and went over to Cam, who was still on the phone.

“Have them check the rest of the part numbers on your order. If they effed up the filter they probably effed up the other parts too.”

Sure enough, the pilot jets were also wrong. The dealer, despite having been told the year and model of the bike, had referred to the parts listing for the 2004 Ninja, not the 2004 ZZR. The spark plugs and oil filter just happened to be shared between the two models.

This bike was not going back together today.

I hate it when an easy job turns into days or weeks waiting on parts.

 

***

 

Having told the dealer to order the correct air filter and jets, Cam and I set about to do what could be done in the absence of parts. We pulled each of the carb float bowls. Each of them showed some varnishing and staining — blasts of carb cleaner and shop rags and cotton swabs had them all looking factory. We cleaned up the throttle butterflies, CV slides, float bowls and hosed down the main and pilot jet orifices with carb cleaner and then buttoned things up loosely to await the arrival of the required parts.

My collection of I.T. Tech Vendor giveaway tiny screwdrivers was not really adequate for removing the varnished up pilot jets — the further delay would allow me to finally replace them with a proper tool.

Putting four new spark plugs in the motor was unremarkable, except perhaps for how far down beneath the cam covers those plugs were.

With the bike in parts all over the workbench and garage, the afternoon beer sure didn’t taste like victory today.

 

***

 

The following Friday, Cam went back to the aforementioned dealer. They slid a small bag across the counter with 4 of the correct pilot jets.

“Where’s the air filter?”

The befuddled counterman cut into a stream of Hummina-Hummina-Hummina.

After a quick check of the parts computer, it was revealed that our erstwhile professional had reserved the remote inventory for Cameron, without exactly having ordered it.

Cameron is, if nothing else, a good human being, who departed the shop without directing animus or personal violence against said offender, who was now on the verge of making a simple motorcycle tune up last three full weeks.

In his shoes, I would have likely expressed myself in potentially unfriendly ways.

I will mention in passing that there was a time when I seriously considered emptying my garage of all of its BMWs in favor of purchasing a KTM Adventure from this self same dealer.

My gratitude that this did not come to pass likely knows no bounds.

 

***

 

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Back in the garage, Cam and I put the new screwdriver to good use.

I’m pretty sure I hadn’t remarked on it before, but if you are the daughter of a hidebound motorhead, bringing home a boyfriend named Cam has to earn you some kind of extra points.

Anyway, since it was at the absolute bottom of the open engine bay, the old fuel filter — eeech! — was popped off the Kawi’s fuel pump, and a new clean one popped on.

Then I’d draped a worn out white polo shirt across the frame rails, to ensure that any tiny parts that tried to make a break for it would be stopped cold on a clean white surface.

With the correct pilot jets and tool steel screwdriver in hand, removing and replacing the pilots went quickly.

After about 15 minutes of close order work, we flipped the carb rack back over, pulled the shoprags out of the intake spigots, revealing the absolutely tiny intake valves, and remounted the carbs to the bike’s cylinder head.

I replaced the carb rack’s choke cable and holder, reattached the feed line from the fuel pump, and then took the lower half of the airbox in hand.

During this entire little operation, I’d been remarking on how small and tightly packaged everything on this 4 cylinder 600 cc motor appeared.

Now, an applied illustration of the effects of this presented itself.

Removing the airbox had been absolutely trivial.

Reinstalling it, though, not so much.

The Kawasaki’s airbox was one of the ram-air type. It was held in place by two flange headed bolts in the rear that attached it to a plastic panel which connected the four carburetors together. In the front, it was supported by large rubber ram air ducts that fit inside the large diameter spigots at the front of the airbox.

Finding the correct vector and rotation to get all that stuff to magically realign proved, well, elusive.

After several runs at it, I could sense that rising panic that tends to occur when something that one’s brain knows is trivial starts to temporarily seem to be impossible.

All of a sudden, everything became darker still.

Not metaphorically, as one would assume, but literally.

We’d been having unnaturally warm autumn days hereabouts. These unnatural conditions tend to be short lived, and subject to sudden and violent change.

And while that observation is intended here to be literal, it may have metaphorical applications as well.

A cold front had swept across the mountain ridge that sits between my garage and Buddy Al’s house, and the sky went black, the wind picked up, and the rain began to hammer down, all in a matter of seconds. I only noticed this when the first big raindrop hit the bottom of the Kawi’s airbox.

Operating, as we were, in the open garage door to take advantage of the light and extra space to walk behind the bike, it became immediately necessary to close to door to keep the bottom of the sea and the ZZR’s intake tract logically separated.

After popping a work light in place to replace the lost sun, Cameron, who with his very slight build — more suited to ramming one’s arms down plastic pipes — managed to get the intake ducts realigned.

Two bolts were run down, and the airbox was back in place.

Cam and I agreed that even without the air filter, we’d test fire the bike just to make sure we were on the right track.

By the time the top of the airbox, with its ten bolts and small internal ram-air birdy catching fence, was tacked back in place, the rain had passed, and the sun was back out. We rolled the garage door back up, backed the bike back out, and then set the fuel tank back into place and attached the fuel line.

Really. A little chain link fence downstream of the filter to catch errant ram-air inhaled birdies.

Really. A little chain link fence downstream of the filter to catch errant ram-air inhaled birdies.

I did the honors.

I turned the key, half expecting the fuel pump whine I’ve come to expect from my fuel injected motorcycles. I didn’t get it.

I set the choke lever on the left handlebar, and pressed the starter. Unsurprisingly, the engine rotated through three or four full crank rotations before we had enough fuel and air in the places where fuel and air needed to be before the Kawi fired, and the bike came up to an immediate 2000 rpm high idle.

I rolled off the choke and it immediately died.

Ok.

On the second attempt, I left the choke in place for a few seconds while the engine warmed. I tried to open the throttle with the choke activated, but with this carburetor, the throttle was essentially useless while the enrichener was on.

After about thirty seconds, I rolled the choke closed in stages and the engine stayed running, although the idle was still noisier than I thought optimum.

The ZZR, like many inline 4s, has an idle adjustment knob on top of the left side transmission case that connects via a cable to the center of the carburetor rack. I gently rolled the knob open until the butterflies began to open, and dialed in a 1200 rpm idle speed. This seemed better, but wasn’t perfect. I couldn’t put my finger on what wasn’t right now, but later all would be revealed.

As the engine finally began to get some heat in it, I was able to drop the idle speed lower, and the engine began to respond to opening throttle as it should — instead of the former bog, choke and gasp, I was now getting smooth throttle response from idle — the engine would smoothly add RPMs, swinging the tach upwards to 4 and 5 thousand on opening throttle. I was confident there was more — the ZZR revs to 14K — but don’t routinely redline motors on the stand.

After a cold, rainy afternoon, a properly running bike seemed like a major improvement.

As Sweet Doris from Baltimore called us in to a warm meal, Cam and I decided that the rest of the work — oil change and air filter — could wait until the MIA airfilter finally showed up.

 

***

 

Have I ever mentioned how mental unfinished motorcycle jobs make me?

Consider it mentioned.

At lunchtime Monday, I slipped out into the garage, and pulled the belly pan from the ZZR. Unlike my KLT, where removal of the lower fairings is an exercise in excessive fasteners, the ZZR is simple and fast. A very visible gold anodized phillips head screw unhooks a belt band that allows access to all the other fairing fasteners. One screw on each side and two screws at the rear of the belly pan allows one to remove the entire lower fairing. Total elapsed time — about 3 minutes.

I started and rewarmed the motorcycle until I could feel some heat in the engine and transmission cases. I then slid a pan under the engine and pulled the drain bolt. After a few seconds I also got a wrench on the filter and pulled it as well.

While standing there with oil draining I noticed the service sticker on the rear of the tank — “Oil Change Volume with Filter Change — 3.4 US QTS”. I had previously remarked that the engine appeared overfilled — there had been no space visible at the top of the sight glass.

With oil still pouring out, the level in my drain pan had now gone past the level normally associated with a change in my Ram Pickup. Who ever had serviced this motorcycle last had dramatically overfilled the crankcase — the dealer had sold Cam 5 quarts of expensive synthetic racing oil and the OEM instructions clearly called for less than 3.5 — what was in my pan was looking like 5.

Coincidence? Who knows?

There is only one Kawasaki dealer near this small town.

I headed back into my office to complete the day’s work while the engine fully drained, thinking perhaps I had uncovered the last clue to why the bike had been exhibiting such awful idle and off idle performance.

 

***

 

After dinner that night, I went back into the garage and pulled the new oil filter out of the box. Because of all the confusion, I’d checked all of the part numbers myself, just to be sure that we had the right parts and would have no more problems. The Kawasaki OEM filter that I’d removed didn’t have the correct part number. Size was roughly right, but it was not the correct filter for this engine.

Whoever had been maintaining this motorcycle before we got here had apparently been a little weak on details.

I oiled the gasket on the new filter and torqued it to specifications.

I cleaned up the drain bolt, torqued it to specs and put 3.4 quarts of new oil into the motor.

I wiped off my hands, turned the key, set the choke and fired the engine. After only 5 seconds or so, I dialed the choke off and the engine went to about a 1300 rpm idle. I used the adjuster to dial it back to 1000 rpm, which was dead even and rock solid. What was more significant were the qualities which were no longer there — a whole bunch of noises and rattles that had been there previously — cam chain noises, the sound of the crank weights slapping oil — were all gone. Throttle response was also markedly improved — quicker, more linear.

After shutting her down, the oil level showed up right in the middle of the sight glass.

I started to think that this roadside refugee — with a little care and attention to detail — was going to turn out to be a really nice motorcycle after all.

Now, as soon as the MIA airfilter showed up, this bike was going to be back out of my garage and on the road.

 

***

 

Tuesday afternoon, the dealer finally called Cam to tell him the airfilter had arrived. Also Tuesday afternoon, one of Cam and Wallis’ friends gave birth to her first baby girl.

Oh, Joy?

I have visions of Cam in the hospital room with the new little family, air filter in his jacket pocket, smiling weakly and thinking to himself “Stupid Baby.”

I’ve had the good judgement not to ask him about it.

 

***

 

After Baby Girl Frenzy abated just a little, Cam appeared in the garage bearing a Kawasaki OEM Replacement Parts bag.

We pulled the tank again and spun the 10 bolts out of the airbox cover. I have a trick little Bosch rechargeable 12 volt variable speed drill that accepts socket drive bits. Given the tool’s precision – speed control is very granular and linear — controllable at minute rotational speeds — and its nicely featured torque clutch — it makes jobs like this much faster than with a traditional ratchet. I might check torque with a traditional torque wrench for critical fasteners, but for jobs like this, or on body panels, it’s a winner.

One of my rare concessions to modern technology.

I had Cam clean off the plastic frames that support the top and bottom of the two stage foam filter. Another case where Al’s Cheap Trick of using brake cleaner — my garment factory skills identify this as aerosol dry cleaning fluid — useful stuff — had everything bright and shiny double quick. The service manual for the bike — Thank you, Internet! — specified that the new filter had to be oiled. We followed the manual to the letter — soak rag in motor oil, pat top surface of filter.

Airbox lid went back in place, tank back on, fuel line connected and clamped in place, and three bolts run down.

Cam put the saddle back in place, turned on the fuel petcock.

We rolled the bike out into the driveway. I grabbed my old Bell 500, and threw a leg over.

The bike fired perfectly on choke, which I was able to roll off almost immediately. I rolled down the driveway and headed for the circle two houses down from me at the end of my street. Immediately the bike went fluffy, started not taking throttle, and quickly expired.

My mental tach headed toward redline. Felt like no fuel. It WAS no fuel.

I felt for the Kawi’s funky bodywork-integrated petcock.

Squint.

Cam had brought the bike in with low fuel level in the gas tank — a thoughtful move if one is going to spend a great deal of time taking said tank on and off — like in this case, which we did multiple times.

I rotated the petcock from ON to RESERVE, waited 5 seconds, and hit the starter.

“Wheeeeee….” Angry Bees.

I gave the bike a little gas, let out the clutch, and whizzed up Westport drive. I rolled out of the gas, toed the shifter and got a solid and precise shift to second. I trolled around the block, giving and taking some gas — this ZZR felt great.

I’ll admit I expected to feel cramped, but even with the high pegs the position was nicely balanced — I was even able to do feet up U-turns in the width of my street first try, no problem.

Coming back towards the garage, I did that thing that bikers do — don’t let on for a second like you wouldn’t, mate — where I gave the red machine some enthusiastic throttle. I could see where with the room to get some RPMs up, this was going to be a fearsomely capable machine. It was small, taught, precise.

I rolled the motorcycle back into the driveway, killswitched it and swung back off.

“This is going to be just fine, Cam. Go get some clean high test in this thing.”

I’ve never seen a man smile so hard, get into armored gear so fast, or say ‘Thank You’ so many times in such a short interval of time.

With a press of the starter, the red bike rolled to the corner, grabbed second gear, banked left and split.

I heard the ZZR go up through the gears — its distinctive angry bee inline four shriek as it broke into its rpm midrange — 8 grand or so gone with 6 more left — as it headed up the state highway towards the BP station in town.

I’d been hoping I’d get the chance to take a more thorough ride on the machine, but hearing it disappear into the distance, I suspected that was going to be a while before I saw it again.

 

***

 

Wallis was kind enough to let me know that Cameron got home safely later.

Later that week.

Good to see I’m still a positive role model for the young people I know.

Even if I’m not exactly sure how Wallis feels about that right now.

Half a Harley Mechanic

I don’t know about you, brothers and sisters, but lately I’ve been finding myself doing more than a couple of things I was pretty sure I would never do.

I feel like Rolling Physics Problem is inexorably constructing its own cosmology — its unique internal laws of its own energy, space and time. And one of our foundational laws of time is that the future simply can’t be foreseen.

This means a lot of things surprise me, when perhaps they really shouldn’t.

I’m really coming to embrace that it pays to be flexible.

 

***

 

Having firmly established the complete absence of validity of anything I might have ever thought about my future self and existence, I was pretty sure one of those things I would never do would be to own a Harley Davidson motorcycle.

Now don’t get me wrong, fellow riders. Don’t assume any malice or deficiency of character where none exists.

I’d love to have one of those lovely XR1200s that buyers ignored from a few years back. All of the V-Rod series of motorcycles, with their Porsche-designed engines, were one chassis and suspension transplant away from being really compelling motorcycles.

I’d like to own a VR1000 or an XLCR, but as flexible as I might be, I am also short of disposable income.

And cheap. A deadly combination for a Gentleman of Fine Discerning Motorcycle Tastes.

All that aside though, nothing HD currently sells from the showroom floor really does anything for me, at least not enough to sign a note on one.

So I just didn’t see myself owning one.

And if you, on the other hand, totally dig the machinery that Harley Davidson makes, and how it makes you feel, that’s cool, man, and I can totally see why you feel that way.

But it doesn’t do that to me, so I just couldn’t see it.

And not being able to envision owning one, meant that all of the Bar and Shieldy goodness that is how these motors work and how one tends to them had been unexplored blank space in the universe inside my head.

I had absolutely zero interest, cause it was information I was simply never going to use. End.Of. Story.

 

***

 

Whereupon I purchased my son Finn’s Buell Blast.

On only the thinnest of graspable technicalities could one argue that the Blast was somehow not a Harley Davidson. If, however, your thesis was that The Blast was a half of one, then you …had nothing.

Half a Harley?

Those that do know about such things claim that the Blast and a Sportster share no common engine parts, but the eye tells a different tale. In development Mr. Buell did what the HD-owned Buell and Harley itself always did — start with the bits they already had on hand and put them together in different combinations and improved them from there.

The lower engine case is cast aluminum, and shares the shape and basic dimensions of the modern 1000 cc Sportster motor. Where the Sportster has two cylinder base plates machined for a pair of air cooled cylinders, the Blast case simply has one — the front one, to be specific, inclined at approximately the same angle as the Sportster’s V. The back one…well, it’s gone. Or not there yet. Or something.

Considering that Harley had not made one of its own singles since 1934 — Aermacchis and DKWs badged as HD’s don’t count, ’cause I say so — this was a pretty traditional way of solving the company’s small displacement problem. And, for good measure, not even an original way — BMW, Vincent, Indian, Ducati and no doubt countless others, just buttoned up one or two of whatever jugs they had lying around at the time to make a single and twin of the same basic engine architecture and parts.

Buell being Buell, they had improved the stock components for better flow and balance and anything else they could hot rod, but the basic tooling was the same. Where the 1000cc stock Sportster twin makes something like 52 HP, the 500cc Blast Single makes 34.

So anyway, as the new proud owner of Half a Harley, I was going to have to play catch up on how this corner of the universe did things.

 

***

 

Before Finn and the Blast departed for College Park, I’d paid dearly for all of my hard fought Harley ignorance.  I’d figured out oil changes and spark plugs, brake service and tires. The bike had even received some small degree of farkelage, with some actual rear-view mirrors, a wired-in mini Battery Tender, and a set of soft bags.

Post decamp a soaking wet and shivering cold Finn had rediscovered gravity   and had bent some small stuff that had to be replaced. Finn had also said while the bike was on its side it had been spitting out small chunks of black rubber from under the tank. I was pretty sure I knew what those were.

So I became determined to further confuse Harley Davidson of Frederick, who are likely starting to wonder why my R90S is always parked in their lot. While there I picked up a shift lever toe peg kit, and a set of the rubber gas tank isolators, which had been visibly trending toward entropy when Finn and I had been in there last.

When I got home I looked at the new shift peg, which, in a major failure of design, didn’t have a wrench flat on it anywhere — kinda hard to torque or detorque, for that matter, when there is nothing to hold onto. Given that the one on the bike had been gravitationally customized, and is supposed to be secured by red LockTite, I imagined a part that might need extreme externally provided motivation in order to be removed. A butane torch and Vice-Grips went onto the tool pile.

Unlike many technicians, I elected to actually read the documentation that was inside the parts bag. The installation procedure stated that the enclosed peg was a retrofit repair part for several models which it listed. The procedure went on to say that if, however, it was to be installed on a Blast, that the hole in the shift lever was 1/8 too shallow, and that a 5/16s tap would be required to install it.

I’ve got a lot of tools.

None of them, however, are taps.

I placed my selected tools, new parts and swingarm service stand into my wagon, and headed for College Park via a short pit stop in the hand tool department of my local Lowes.

 

***

 

When I got down to Finn’s place I gave The Lad a big hug, and then he helped me unload the mobile bike shop.

He picked the bike up off the sidestand, and grabbed a handful of front brake while I positioned the swingarm stand and levered the bike up in the air to render it ready for wrenching.

As a BMW guy, I now fully appreciate just what a luxury a bike with a center stand really is.

I’d made the same trip down a few weeks previous to help Finn replace a leaky carburetor boot that was causing some wonky running. All of that work looked like it had stood up and kept fasteners tight, which isn’t always a given with this motorcycle.

I got down on one knee to inspect the shifter peg which had been customized by Finn’s little run-in(s) with too much gravity and not enough friction. He had done a pretty passable job of unbending the bent — looked pretty serviceable actually, to an old cheap man’s eye. It had looked inexplicably rough — the shift rubber was split and had been neatly ziptied back on — before this had happened, so I had no problem with fixing it right.

It was an Internet style laugh out loud moment when I realized that the existing shift peg was actually backed out about a thread and a half. I grabbed it with my hand and it moved. Looked like I wasn’t going to need that torch. Actually, I guess we were more lucky it hadn’t vibrated out and fallen off.

I passed Finn the vicegrips and had him back the bent part the rest of the way off. He handed it to me when he’d finished and I placed it beside the newly purchased part.

The old and new parts were identical — even in the threaded part of the peg. The part we were replacing, therefore, was not the original factory peg, which was about 1/8 inch — remember the documentation? — or about a thread and a half coarse threads shorter. Looks like someone hadn’t received the memo about tapping the extra threads in the shift arm.

It also looks like when Blasts fall over – which apparently happens a lot – they land on their shift peg, with consistently repeatable results.

I chucked up my nice new Dewalt tap, and gently cut two more threads into the shift arm. A little LockTite, a little ViceGrips and we could cross this little problem off the list.

That wrapped, I pulled the tank vent and tank cover, which is held on place by a single bolt, and by the oil dipstick, which sits in the oiltank in top of the frame just behind the steering head.

With the plastic inner tank laid bare, I removed what little was left of the rubber tank mounts — little rubber cylinders that slide over steel rods that protrude from either side of the steering head to position and retain the tank.

The new tank mounts needed a little more coercion than I would have preferred, but they eventually were persuaded into place. The tank cover and vent went back on, and the Blast came back off the work stand.

I swung a leg over, turned the key and lit ‘er up. The Blast fired on the second stroke, and responded well to throttle, spinning up smartly on the gas. I let her idle for about thirty seconds, and then blipped ‘er again to make sure the goofy thermal choke disengaged.

For what it’s worth, if anyone knows of a good bodge to replace the thermal auto-choke on one of these bikes with a good old fashioned choke knob and cable, please speak to me.

Because Finn’s apartment complex is still mostly empty, the parking garage is also mostly empty. The uppermost floor, where we were working, was completely empty. Really large unbroken expanses of empty concrete pavement make certain motorcyclist behaviors more likly to occur, so they occurred here.

I took a couple of large throttle opening runs up and down the floor, being somewhat surprised the little beast would lighten up the front wheel with a little leading throttle and some clutch modulation, and drinking in the noise in the semi-enclosed space.

I rolled the bike back into Finn’s space, leaning it onto the sidestand, and killswitched it.

It was time to head for the diner down the street, and get some breakfast food for dinner and joke and cut up some.

 

***

 

Back at work the next morning, I reflected on how comfortable I was becoming working on the Blast.

Maybe this Half a Harley Mechanic gig wasn’t so bad after all. Check back to see how I feel about it after a primary case oil change and clutch adjustment next spring.

Right about then an incoming text lit up my phone.

It was Cam — my daughter Wallis’ boyfriend.

He was asking for help cleaning up the carbs and tuning up a 2006 Kawasaki ZZR600 he’d picked up on Craiglist a few weeks back. It was a carburetted motorcycle that had spent most of its life parked, so it likely needed some pilot jets, oil, air and fuel filters, and some spark plugs. Cam had called up our local Kwacker dealer and they’d asked for almost as much for the work as he’d spent on the bike.

I went over the parts he would need, and told him to bring the ZZR by when they came in.

Looked like I’d have half a Kawasaki mechanic to round out my half a Harley mechanic by this time next week.

 

Separation Anxiety

My ability to foresee my future is subject to several rather significant limitations.

Starting with the limitation that I just can’t in any way do that renders the other limitations less significant.

Anyway.

I have a long list of things that I would like to indulgently spend a great deal of time doing because of how much I would deeply enjoy them.

On that list nowhere does it appear that I should love to spend hours upon hours ministering to a small motorcycle with a powerplant consisting of exactly half a Harley.

So, both predictably and surprisingly, here we are.

 

***

 

I don’t know where the time went, really.

When we bought the Blast home for Finn, there was still a foot and a half of snow left in the shaded parts of my front yard from this year’s DC-area snow-related disaster, ‘Snowzilla’.

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What was that, six months ago?

Hell, I remember the night Finn was conceived like it was yesterday.

What was that, 19 years ago?

I keep getting ahead of myself.

 

***

 

When the Blast was acquired, one of the reasons for its selection and acquisition was that Finn was expected to use it to navigate the University of Maryland’s College Park Campus, where he would enter their Architecture School in the fall.

Finn remarked, when we first toured the campus, that U Maryland’s campus appeared to be roughly fifty times the size of the town of Jefferson, where he’d grown up.

For an 18 year old country kid, it was a bit of a shock.

In observing how transport worked or did not on the campus, it became clear that the folks that had easy access to mobility and parking were the ones on two wheels, and the smaller the better. I kept seeing blond preppy coeds on pink or red Vespa-style scooters and they uniformly looked like they hadn’t a care in the world.

A car parking permit ran 5 Franklins plus a semester, and that pass was a license to hunt but no guarantee of success — parking was sparse on the campus and citations were frequent. The main parking lots were at the back of the campus where access to the rest of campus was so remote that one might have to grab a bus to get to your class from your car. A car at College Park was, in short, like the frog with a bicycle.

The motorcycle or scooter permit runs about $80 a semester, and every major building on campus has a small dedicated moto-lot behind the building. Those lots run about 20-30% utilization — you can always get a spot.

The Architecture building has 18 motorcycle spaces located beside its loading dock off the Studio level of the building.

Even Finn’s Momma Sweet Doris From Baltimore didn’t need to be sold on the idea.

It was as plain as the nose on each of our three faces.

 

***

 

So at one point a few weeks back I found myself contemplating the Blast, and trying to think of everything it would need if it was going to become a truly useful engine and exist without drama far away from the confines of Shamieh’s Garage and Decrepit German Motorcycle Museum.

It was going to need its brakes flushed and serviced, and a spark plug, as both were likely OEM factory 2002 Original Equipment.

The OEM rearview mirrors were a joke — their selection was based, I suspect, more on their ability to support the bike when it was dropped on them on the training range than it was for any consideration of seeing things behind the bike. And with 34 horsepower, seeing thing behind the bike is material.

It was going to need some sort of luggage, to allow the transport of lunch, of a book or two, and a bag or two of groceries. It was going to need some sort of U lock. The bike had come with the normal complement of absolutely zero tools. And since my charger was staying here, it would need some form of battery trickle charger for use in the event of Snowzilla’s return.

It turned out, unsurprisingly, that it would also need a new battery, which it considerately requested from within the comfy confines of its garage.

The brake service, given the bike’s compact and naked design, required more time to get my Bleeder down from its box on the garage upper shelf than it actually required to perform.

The spark plug,  a nice new NGK, replaced what really turned out to be the OEM Harley Davidson plug that had been in there since the first time that motor was started in 2002. Getting the tank off to access the plug — given that it had never been off before — was a bit more baroque than pulling the /5’s tank, but then again everything else is. The difference in the bike’s throttle response and overrun behavior post plug was as dramatic as anything involving a Blast ever is.

For bags I played specsheet junky, as is my wont. Space is kind of at a premium on a motorcycle with 16 inch front and rear wheels. I ended up ordering a set of Ogio soft bags — they appeared to be the right size and shape, and had some cool features like a two inch expansion zipper and built-in hidden rain covers.

When the bags came out of the UPS and were fitted, my fettler’s brain was spinning at high RPM.

On cruisers, soft bags are always accompanied by a fender mounted bracket that keeps the bags from swinging inward into the spinning bits.

On the Blast, that interface was far more limited, but not totally impossible. I realized that the Buell’s unusual subframe structure placed the passenger pegs in exactly the correct position so that a strap run over the top of the frame and between the passenger pegs would effectively close off that space. One Helen@Wheels packing strap mounted under the bags, and the front bag strap under the saddle and the rear strap on top of it yielded soft luggage that was solid and effectively locked in place. As a bonus the Ulock we procured fit like a glove in the small compartment inside the lid of one of the Ogio bags.

Putting a tool kit together for a Blast is a non-trivial excercise, given that the bike was assembled from both metric and SAE versions of the parts bins, making identifying the proper wrench sizes a matter of some unnecessary drama. A trip to the Harbor Freight catalog yielded a combo Metric/SAE wrench set which would be filtered down to the sizes required, a multibit screwdriver, and adjustable pliers, and some allen wrenches.

Undersaddle space is at a bit of a premium, and trusty BMW vendor Kathy’s Journey Designs made the only tool roll compact enough to fit in the space.

I also ordered up a miniature Battery Tender trickle unit, which came complete with a weather-capped connection pigtail that could be wired to the battery and left hidden but accessible wherever the bike provided cover. These things are so sanitary and efficient I found myself wondering why none of my motorcycles had them.

I thought of silly details — a top up quart of oil, a small shoprag. Into one of the softbags went my Grandfather’s – Finn’s Great Grandfather’s — rolled steel Connecticut-made funnel that was the only one we owned narrow enough that would allow us to add oil to the Buell’s in-frame backbone oil tank.

So these little projects consumed much of my time — evenings, weekends. It didn’t feel so much as racing a deadline as it did that as long as there were projects left to complete that this motorcycle, and more importantly, its rider, wouldn’t yet be ready to go.

So I wrenched on, not so much in hopes of finishing but in the hope against hope I actually never would.

 

***

 

But I did finish, a day or three before Finn was scheduled to move his clothes down to College Park to move into his new place, and get ready for the start of school.

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Both Finn and I put miles on it, making sure all the new additions had a chance to go past acceptance test or infant mortality failures.

The bike was starting well, running well, stopping well, and was as ready as it was going to be.

Now we were going to have to see what we could do to get me ready, if such a thing was possible.

I’d hoped that Finn and I would have had the chance to take a longer trip this summer. Events like the difficulties we’d had finding him a place to live at school, lousy weather and illness had conspired to see that that hadn’t happened.

Doris and I discussed me moving the bike down to campus, since all of the available routes involved at least 60 miles of threading the middle of the DC-metro area’s most congested interstates. We ended up with them taking a stationwagon load of clothing and personal effects down to College Park in the morning, with me planning to ride down and catch up with them when I’d finished with work for the day.

 

***

 

That day, would of course turn out to be a total end to end frenzy of continuous meetings that never gave me so much as a minute to think.

I have a vague memory of Doris and Finn waving to me from the house’s front door as they headed out towards our Ford. Several hours later my phone finally hit the proverbial cradle and I finally had a moment to consider my little journey.

Finn had remarked to me at one point that he really wanted to wash his motorcycle. As the Blast had been spending more than its fair of time being wrenched upon and serially disassembled it did look a tad greasy and a little the worse for wear.

Being a motorcycle of very very little surface area indeed, it took me all of 15 minutes to pull out a hose, a bucket and perform the miracle spitshine.

The Blast looked more confident for the effort. An effort which Finn would no doubt appreciate.

The day was another in a series of those DC Summer Days. It was right around 90 with a relative humidity of about 70%. I got my favorite pair of Sidi City boots — an unlined leather boot that breathes pretty well. Mine are on their second life, courtesy of an old Italian cobbler that works out of Damascus, Maryland — he put on a set of Vibram soles meant for Law Enforcement Officer boot applications which has rendered them totally suitable for my usage.

I grabbed some mesh riding pants, my Vanson ventilated jacket, and chucked a drinking water bottle full of ice and a little water into one of the Ogios. I locked the front door, buckled in, and headed for the BP up in town.

I wanted to make sure I had a full fuel load for my extended journey. I was glad I had finally removed the lawyer-placed “Do Not Overfill The Tank” Ikea-style warning graphic sticker from the top of the tank because it allowed me to feel a whole lot better as I willfully and gleefully overfilled the tank with an entire gallon of premium fuel. I figured since my immediate intention was to go straight out and consume fuel at the maximum rate allowed by physics that whatever small problem that overfilling might entail was going to be a problem that would be of very short duration.

After that very brief delay I was rolling up the ramp onto US340 and ‘Dynamometer Hill’ that leads out of Jefferson. With a full fuel load and some heat in the engine I slowly rolled the big single through each of its gears towards the east and the Interstate.

 

***

 

It’s funny how making progress is just somehow different on big single. While things happen objectively somewhat more slowly there is an inexorable torquey quality to the way revs and road speed inevitably build.

Riders I talk to assume the Blast isn’t really suited to road speeds.

I explain to them that it’s geared seemingly impossibly high, with 5th gear being useless until well above 70 miles an hour. It really finds a comfy spot in top at 77-80 miles an hour. Which really isn’t bad for a sub-400 pound motorcycle with little tiny wheels.

Finn has put on a little over 1200 miles since we brought the bike home. With just over 3K showing on the clocks I can’t help but get the feeling, beating down the highway, that this motor isn’t really fully broken in yet, still feeling tight and not yet freely spinning. I’m here to do my bit in seeing it gets there.

 

***

 

Having made it east of Frederick I headed up I-70, happy for some open space in traffic — everybody’s headed west in the afternoon — and the air moving through the venting in my gear.

In the zone in top gear I was free to let the mind wander.

I can’t believe that Finn, everybody’s buddy, kid most likely to wander off into stand up comedy had essentially already left home, his sister and brother having gone before him. It will be spookily quiet back in Jefferson, with all of our children and their friends and their lovers eerily missing from our space and from our life.

I can’t believe our littlest one will be living on his own, near a huge college campus, working on learning his own art and trade, with this motorcycle to carry him around.

That he will leave that place an architect — which is good, because I already strongly feel I will need a smaller new home.

I can’t believe that much time has gone, with three lives started and into full flight.

It will be somehow sad, a time of change, with Doris and I alone with each other again. We put everything we had into our children, and although I’m not silly enough to think we’re ever done, we’re mostly done with setting their course through an uncertain world.

I have no doubt Doris will cry when we have to drive home.

Me, I can’t cry because I can’t see in the dark with tears in my eyes.

 

***

 

The Blast gets more comfortable the longer it spends at speed. I lope across I-70 then pick up Maryland 32. 32 cuts through former farm country — a two laner with no traffic lights — a shaded relaxing 50-60 mph run though fields and woods. I cross greater Columbia and cut towards I-95, where I Blast up onto the US East Coast’s Maine-to-Florida monster mother road. It’s probably just before 5 o clock and while congested, its moving, and I even spend time — amazingly — left lane passing and working through traffic down the road. While there’s not much available up above 80 I never feel like I’m a sitting duck, never feel exposed on this or by inference, I suppose, any road.

When we hit the DC Beltway, the world predictably ends.

Volume spikes amazingly and traffic slows to a crawl. In the stop and go the Buell quickly demonstrates an unsuspected strength. Its lightness and silly torque mean that it rumbles along off the throttle, rolling at silly slow speeds and never needing the brakes. Where my BMWs are a handful this bike is a laugh — practically threading traffic with both hands folded behind my head.

In the lanes to the left of me were two high strung performance critters — a big dude on a custom painted copper-colored Suzuki Hayabusa and a member of the Vanity-Tagged-More-Money-Than-Sense-Club in a brand new winter white colored Ferrari 458 Cabriolet. I can’t possibly imagine a single place on earth where either vehicle could have been more impractical, more uncomfortable and more out of place. If you love a car the way a 458 deserves to be loved, this is the last place on earth you would ever take it.

I could see Busa-dude eyeing me, wondering what that miniature sportbike was that made this traffic look easy, when his shoulders and clutch hand were already well along in their burn.

After a few miles of the slow roll, Kenilworth Avenue came up, and I finished my run — about 65 miles in all — down to the entrance of Finn’s new place. I got into the empty parking garage, and ran up the ramps to the fourth floor where he lives. I’ll admit that gassing it going up the garage ramps made me come to understand why The Motor Company will never die.

I pulled up next to my Ford, kill switched it and shed gear as fast as I could.

I put my leathers, gloves and helmet in the back of the wagon, and downed much of the water from my bottle.

I walked around the Buell to make sure it was still buttoned up and shipshape after having been blasted across the state but I needn’t have worried — everything was cool. I’d need to put my faith in Eric Buell, Willie G and the Motor Company that this machine would continue to look after our precious son.

 

***

 

The rest of the evening was kind of blur — some diner food, some groceries, and some driving around, trying to find the best routes to school.

And before Doris and I knew it, we were dropping Finn off and back together in the Ford.

“I can’t believe he’s all grown up, Greggie. He hade fun of me for crying in the car most of the way down.”

“I can’t believe it either, Girlfriend. Don’t get me started, too. Somebody here’s gotta be able to see.”

In my Ford on the dark highway I felt strongly the fabric of time. My hand holding Doris’, with a blank page for our future — waiting, expectant.

 

***

 

I spoke to Finn on the phone the next evening.

“Took the bike over to campus today, Pop. Parked in the architecture lot and got my student ID and my parking pass. This bike is perfect for this — I’m not going too far and I’m not going very fast. I love this motorcycle. Thanks for setting me up, Dad.”

“No problem, Snorky. Ride safe. Learn good. Somebody’s got to design me a greener smaller house.”

Doris and I have done everything and all we can for him. We will miss him in ways I cannot imagine and cannot describe. May he have nothing but blue skies, trailing winds open roads and smooth pavement ahead of him.