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.

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.

wp_20161102_14_49_50_pro

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.

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.

 

Harp Hill and Harmony

I don’t know about you, but I am just not feeling it these days.

I can’t remember a time when my spirit has been under so many concurrent manifestations of psychic and emotional assault.

I have never really been into all black motorcycles, but all of a sudden I know where those riders are coming from.

‘Cause black is how it feels, man.

 

***

 

Last week the firm for which I work had the end of their fiscal year. Instead of the usual celebration it was a funeral.

And funerals sort of require that at least someone is departed.

So a fair number of my fellow workers involuntarily departed to satisfy that requirement.

Don’t let people tell you that it feels better to have been kept on, cause its different for everyone.

Did I mention this the third time this year?

 

***

 

For the entire summer, this part of Maryland has been lacking for rain.

In the last six days, we caught up.

More accurately caught up, did the slingshot pass coming out of the slipstream and then won going away.

Six days of gutter rattling, gully washing, roof pounding, pissing off Booosy my cat constant rain.

Is the sun ever going to come out?

 

***

 

Have you turned on your television news lately?

If you have not, please take my well-intentioned advice, and under no circumstances should you do that.

You will thank me, of that I am certain.

I was educated in a tradition which required that those with the skills should serve the greater good.

That those with the skills to lead, for example, should seek that opportunity.

Apparently, that memo was not widely circulated.

Of this dark thing, we shall speak no more.

 

***

 

I got a series of texts, pictures, and a phone call from one very cold, very wet Finn who had just discovered just how insistent gravity can be when you and everything around you are soaking wet and slippery.

Freaketh out not, Finn’s Manifold Adoptive Uncles and Aunties, as this Physics Lesson was learned at 0 miles per hour, and resulted in no injuries except perhaps to pride. Regardless of how it happened the net result was a Buell Blast lying down on its left side to take a brief nap in the parking garage of Finn’s apartment.

Twice.

It would figure when the poor kid was trying to get in a rhythm living away at school that Nature and Physics would conspire to provide a another minor bummer.

And after a brief conversation about how he was likely not the first person to whom this had happened, I pointed out there was a very good reason his old man had put that slip joint pliers into the tool kit that Buell hadn’t provided.

To wit: Anything that can be bent, can, within limits and with a little luck, be unbent.

And that this was a skill that, once developed, was likely to be used more than just this time.

So Finn set to unbending, and I set to renewing my friendship with my local Harley-Davidson Parts Counterman, to seek a more permanent solution.

Hey, if the whole economy goes loose in the rear end, I can now put One Half A Harley-Davidson Mechanic as a skill on my resume.

One never knows what the difference might be between making it and not, eh?

 

***

 

Maybe the difference might be just a slice of one sunny day.

Sunday saw Sweet Doris From Baltimore (SDFB?) headed off to one of the cluster of wedding and baby showers that seem to be happening now.

After some puttering around, and having an egg, I pulled on some armoured mesh riding pants over my cargos, grabbed my Vanson and headed for the garage.

The whole point was trying to blast out the funk I was in, so I made sure to get out of any riding rut I might be in, too.

Having not been that way for a while, I headed for the mountains of the North County.

 

***

 

Just past Middletown, Harmony Road breaks East towards the Catoctins.

Harmony is a little dance of road, starting with a series of gentle esses, then a series of lovely 90s. With some heat in the Boxer, the noise riding the throttle between 4 and 6 K, rolling off on entries and picking the bike up with revs on the exit, was just racetrack electric.

An observation: Human beings respond negatively to six days of rain. Gnats and mosquitos, in contrast, do not.

I have been routinely bugsplatted.

This, on the otherhand, was something else — insect carnage on an unprecidented level.

Harmony Road crosses US40 — The National Pike — and works its way, one sweeper at a time, up the back side of the Catoctin Mountains. With the S running 4th gear with the revs just below the engine’s best power it was an exercise in road reading — leaning over and back smoothly and just straightening out the road’s gentle curves.

Harmony drops one off in a little village that sits by Catoctin Creek. It has a name that I’ve forgotten and that Google doesn’t know. The intersection ranks as one of the screwiest and most dangerous ones that I can think of, at least from the perspective of a Motorcyclist. Harmony Ts into Maryland Route 17, which immediately — IMMEDIATELY! — breaks 45 degrees left to go across the bridge over Catoctin Creek. Upon exiting the short bridge one encounters another T — with Harp Hill Road breaking off gently up the hill to one’s left, while 17 comes in from a Sucker-punch invisible 110 degrees over ones right shoulder — and the view of the highway is blocked from the bridge by its Jersey barrier sides.

Attention should indeed be paid — a mistake here would be ugly.

But assuming you survive the intersection, Harp Hill is just a treat — it clings to the right side of a mountain stream Valley with amazing green views of the Valley’s farms stretching off to the right below you. One rides curves of the rising land on the way up — negotiates a kind of ‘reverse carousel’ with a crazy uphill grade on the exit — and then crests the ridgeline and rides the curves of the falling land on the way back down to where the road enters the Town of Wolfsville.

From Wolfsville one takes Stottlemyer Road, which continues to wind its way North down a gentle ridgeback, with the road taking you though forest shade and open farmland. Stottlemyer runs into Maryland 77, about two miles down the road from the American Legion Camp where the local BMW Club has always held its rallies.

I’m not going that way today, though, and I cut eastward down the face of the Mountain towards Thurmont. There are a few spectacular corners that run through the massive boulders — souvenirs, no doubt of some long-gone glacier — that fill the forest here. There are also too many tourists here to see the Catoctin National and Cunningham Falls State Parks, so I quickly jump back off 77 onto Catoctin Hollow Road, heading for the deepest of our deep woods.

Once clear of the Cunningham Falls State Park Lake Area, Catoctin Hollow quickly turns rough, with limited sightlines, as it runs though small farms that have probably sat on that mountain since the late 1700s. There are a lot of very large trees very close to the road. It’s the sort of road one rides with one’s weight on one’s legs, staying light in the saddle to clear bumps and to steer by selectively weighting the pegs.

I remember right then, my favorite navigational accident, and make the right onto Old Mink Farm Road. Old Mink Farm looks like nothing — a one laner that looks like it could be a glorified farm driveway — the type of road that you head down and end up having to come back. Mink Farm Road, though, takes one to Tower Road, the Frederick Watershed, and Gambrill State Park — a more or less straight shot down the mountainous backbone of the county, though its deepest forests, through Bear County, and straight back towards home.

In the deepest part of the Forest, the road goes into Wilderness preservation areas, and where there is an ‘Ecology Retreat Center’ and a Quaker Church Camp, the road goes back to being unpaved. These ancient Maryland mountain roads are a mixture of clay and crushed limestone, which after six straight days of deluge, are now an interesting riding surface. About 95 percent slick wet clay mud and 5 percent F-150 swallowing water filled chuckholes. It’s a road that keeps one’s throttle hand honest and demands ones’ full directional attention. Another road that dictates some form of horsemanlike riding standing knees bent. That road also likely explains why almost no-one come up here, so I have to be glad for that.

After about 4 miles of traction school, Mink Farm Road comes back to pavement where it changes to Tower Road, and then the fun really begins. Tower Road is uneven in a way that shakes out one’s suspension — short bumpy straights separated by serial switchbacks and then the whole thing repeats. For about 15 miles of Forest one can imagine oneself in the old public road Raceways of Europe. Just one’s bike and the road and all the hazards yours alone to manage. The S is in its intended habitat here — wheels at both ends moving/working — with the aeromotor bark and drone of the motor echoing back from forest around me.

It it really so far from here to the Nordschleife?

 

***

 

Like all time this time also goes by too fast, and I find myself back in my own South Middletown Valley — I’m cutting up Broad Run Road towards my town and my home — winding fourth gear out to 6000 before ringing the shift into top and running WFO towards the last sweeping curve before town. The S shows what it has pulling hard as 90 and 95 sweep past. The old thoroughbred touches the ton before I have to give throttle back to set for the turn.

Through town we gently troll — cooling off and shutting petcocks to drain the fuel from carburetor bowls. I roll up to the garage entry, shift into neutral and roll the throttle once — then twice. The carbs seem well balanced — response is even and swift.

Is there a bit more top end noise than perfect? Perhaps.

But when I’m as old as this motorcycle is in motorcycle years, I hope a little top end noise is all I have to worry about.

As long as this motorcycle and I both keep starting well every morning, and get to take rides like this one every once in a while, then maybe there’s just no room for the blues.

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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.

 

The Ridge

I’ve been fixing things that aren’t broke.

It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to anticipate how that’s been going.

Now maybe to describe these things as ‘aren’t broke’ is being charitable.

Maybe they ‘aren’t broke’, but they’re not working perfectly, either.

In the days before digital control of everything — where stuff either works or it doesn’t – I believe we used to refer to these efforts as ‘tuning’.

The whole notion that ‘works’ is a continuous analog sliding scale starting at “doesn’t work”, moving on through “works, but works really badly”, to “works OK, but could be better”, to “works pretty good, but isn’t perfect”, to the goal of “Angels Sing — Motor Nirvana” is an idea that has a tough time making the transition from analog to digital controls.

In this world, how my engine runs with .012 inches of spark plug point gap and 2 extra degrees of spark advance and how it runs with .014 inches and 4 extra degrees of advance is for me to evaluate and accept or deny. Maybe software developers deep within the bowels of Original equipment Manufacturers are looking at parameters like this on dyno runs, but if you own a modern motorcycle, and don’t own a copy of your manufacturer’s Engine Control Module Software Development Kit, these micro-adjustments are unknown to you — I might as well be asking you about the detailed processes required to select the next Pope.

If the perfect is truly the enemy of the good, then the perfect has been my hell-bent foe for these last two weeks while I tried to take an R90S that was running well and turn it into an R90S that made the angels sing.

 

***

 

The last time I replaced an ignition point set on this motorcycle was likely 1999. Because the bike is equipped with a Dyna Ignition Booster unit, the point sets only run at 5-12 volts instead of 15,000, so damage and erosion due to pitting is reduced to nearly nothing. Nearly nothing, it should be noted, is not absolutely nothing, and, over long periods of time, like, for example 15 years, both the cam rubbing blocks and the miniature axle of the point sets both wear until their function deteriorates so that it can finally be detected from the saddle.

Having delayed that inevitable as long as I could, I finally decided to set things right.

A lot, it seems, has changed since 1999.

The most significant change, in this context, is that Bosch has stopped making points for BMW motorcycles in their German factories.

I can understand why this has happened, when their target market has been reduced to, well, me, and maybe you, buddy.

Putting aside the possibility that maybe, given my bike’s lack of collector value, it might be time to hang it the hell up and convert it to an electronic ignition, I set about trying to locate an ignition point set that wasn’t entirely made of finest cheese. Besides, that upgrade line of inquiry is very dangerous ground, because once one begins to think that way, the logical conclusion ends up heading towards tossing the whole bike out and replacing it with a Kawasaki 650 Versys or Honda Africa Twin, either of which requires virtually no fettling and just needs being ridden.

Clearly a subject for another time.

Anyway, I located a reproduction point set from a vendor that over time has earned my trust. I disconnected the battery, popped off the front engine case, and gapped the new points.

After setting the gap at the recommended nominal .014 inches, I discovered that even with the points plate set at full ignition retard, the overall timing was still about 4 degrees advanced over specification.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this. The issue is that the points rubbing block that rides on the ignition cam is a few thousandths thicker than specifications, making adjustment to stock timing nearly impossible. As the rubbing block wears, though, the timing retards, so over time the timing will converge back to the desired value. So I set a slightly narrower point gap — which also retards the timing — buttoned the cases back up and went riding.

After 3 or 4 hundred miles of road time, the bike started to run badly, and on one trip, it felt like I barely made it back to the garage. As the bike quit at the top of the driveway I was pretty sure I could hear a faint squeak coming from the front of the engine.

I was pretty confident that I knew what I would find when I took the cover off this time.

Back when they made points, Bosch always provided a tiny capsule of specialty grease to apply to a felt pad that lubricates the ignition cam. Well, now that Bosch doesn’t make points, they don’t make the cam grease either.

I hoped that a felt with 41 years worth of grease worked into it would be close enough.

I hoped wrong.

I now, for your amusement, recommend that you go to the Internet and attempt to find some Ignition Point Cam Grease.

I’ll wait while you do that.

What’s you have no doubt found are several references to these products with “Out of Stock” messages.

The grease, unsurprisingly, is as endangered as the ignition points themselves.

A phone call to my local NAPA store — home to shadetree, pickup truck and dirt track car mechanics everywhere — yielded the fact that they have a long enough institutional memory to know what the blank I was talking about.

For anyone encountering this same issue, NAPA’s ML-1 moly lubricant – which isn’t available on their web site — is specially formulated for just this application. Those nice folks will sell you a 7 ounce tube which, by my calculations, should last me for the lifetime of about 120 BMW motorcycles. Which means that I have about 118 more motorcycle lifetimes than I will ever need.

If you come up short I’ll be glad to share mine.

Anyhoo, I asked the nice folks at NAPA to get a tube transferred in from their warehouse, and then I’d ride (a different motorcycle) over and pay them a visit.

 

***

While that was going on I spent some time in deep contemplation of spark plugs.

The spark plug in question was for Finn’s diminutive Buell Blast, which, if experience was any guide, likely still had the OEM Harley Davidson branded sparkplug threaded into its cylinder head that was placed there when it was built in 2002.

I went to NGK’s web site and found the recommended stock plug for the Blast. I don’t know whether this is true of the Sportster engine upon which it is based, but space must be at a premium in those cylinder heads. I would have fully expected the bike to use a 7/8th inch refugee plug from a Chevy 350, but instead found it used a diminutive 14mm miniature plug.

While I was mucking about in the NGK application finder, I checked the OEM plug for my S. What I discovered was that one day, many years ago, when I had walked into an auto parts shop to obtain some replacements for the Champion plugs I was using at the time, the counterman was out of stock on the Champions I used, and crossed them to an NGK number. That NGK number, it turned out, was actually one heat range colder than the recommended plug.

Net/net — for some time longer than a decade, I’d been using the ‘wrong’ plug in both my airheads. Now tuning being as much art as science, I’ll share that in my /5, the 7 heat range plug looks just fine when one takes a plug reading. In the R90S, though, with its accelerator pump carburetors, the plugs always look a little more carboned up than optimum, and now I understood why that was.

Turned out NGK also made a ‘tuners’ version of the plug, with a U shaped electrode and a grooved center, which I’ve found actually makes a better flame front in this engine. I’ve also tried their fine wire platinum plugs, which barely work at all and foul quite easily.

So I had the NAPA guys pull 8 of the proper plug for installation and spares when wrenching time came round.

 

***

 

After riding the LT over to the Brunswick NAPA on Saturday morning, I rolled the S to the sunlight in the mouth of the garage, disconnected the battery and pulled the front engine cover.

My powers of visualization had been correct. The points block had worn beyond rapidly, to the extent that they were barely opening on the cam.

Upon reflection, I don’t know how I had gotten home on that last trip out.

I regapped the points, massaged some ML-1 into the cam lube felt, and soaked a clean rag with some additional to pre-lube a thin film of the moly onto the advance unit’s cam surface. I checked the timing, which was still marginally overadvanced but closer to stock, buttoned up the front cover, and installed the new plugs.

If one believes Airhead Yoda Snowbum, the only proof of excessive spark advance is pinging under load, only the road would have the answer.

 

***

 

The road did have the answer, and the answer was the Heavenly Choir. Alternate US 40 headed up to Braddock Heights is an 11/10th mountain road, with a series of great switchbacks and sweepers going up a series of steep grades to the ridgeline at the top of Braddock Mountain.

Braddock Heights is likely the only memory of British Army General Edward Braddock, who used the ridgeline road to move his army, which included a young officer named George Washington, towards Ohio for an engagement during the French and Indian War. That engagement ended so badly that the troops needed to bury the General, who had been ambushed and targeted by a brigade of Indians and French scouts, in an unmarked grave in the middle of the road so that they could not be easily tracked in their hasty retreat. All things considered, it was a matter of some luck that the young Lieutenant Washington survived that campaign.

Going up to the Heights, the S was fully warmed up and in full song. Throttle response was instant — either at low revs or high. Pre-ignition tends to be a bigger problem in Airheads beneath the torque peak at lower revs, but low or high this was a happy engine.

My work here was done, and done well, Citizens.

At the top of Braddock, I turned left onto Jefferson Boulevard, with the intention of heading into the Valley and from there back home. As I turned onto Cherry Lane to drop back down the ridge and into The Valley, what I saw just took my breath away. I instinctively reached to the right handlebar, killswitched the bike and coasted into the grass.

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I write all the time about The Valley. I ride there almost daily, and hope that my words paint a picture that people can carry with them. We’ll leave aside whether I am successful or not in that endeavour, because these images, grabbed on the fly with the cel phone in my pocket, paint a literal picture that goes at least one level beyond what your imagination can likely provide.

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Below, with the sun setting on the Valley’s opposite ridge, was Jumbo’s Farm, one of the larger and more prosperous agricultural operations hereabouts. Knowing that my work had restored my precious motorcycle to full function is a full hearted feeling that is difficult to adequately describe — it’s an example of mind over material.

This view, though, was one of those Nature in Her Perfection illustrations. It doesn’t matter what faith you may or may not profess, but creation, whether at the top of a pass in Glacier National Park, or three miles from your garage, can still be absolutely awe-inspiring.

This bike, and her biker, were completely happy in this green and shining moment.

The Battlefield Boys

Burnside Bridge Road — which runs alongside the Antietam National Battlefield — is one of my favorite motorcycling roads anywhere.

Burnside Bridge is technical, tricky. Much of the time you are in the dark shade of dense forest — shade which camoflages the next apex and the one beyond that. The road is tight — too tight for a modern supersport — and unforgiving, with crumbling rock faces on one side of the road and a quick drop into Antietam Creek on the other side.

Getting it right is all about rhythm and all about restraint. Too much throttle on one corner entry will screw your next five.

Its a road that I have almost always ridden alone.

Those alone roads, though, are starting to see me running in formation, rather than as a lone wolf. My youngest son Finn — as he builds riding skills and experience — accompanies me more and more often, and so begins to learn the many secrets of the the rider’s roads.

Last Sunday was the first time in many weekends where we had run out of renovation projects in my daughter’s newly bought home. Sweet Doris from Baltimore had been called away to Remote Western Maryland for a memorial service for an aged great aunt. This left me with some time to go after some terroristic vegitation that had been threatening to eat my house entire.

A good hour or two with some Lithium Ion powered clippers left me feeling like I could check off the ‘accomplishment’ box for the day, and I showered up and then stuck my head down the stairway to the basement where Finn and his monster computer spend a lot of quality time.

“Hey Snorky! Whacha doin?”

“Studying for tomorrows physics test.”

“Feel like taking a break? Wanna go for a ride?”

“Yeah, man.”

“We won’t be long. Besides, you can consider this a lesson in applied physics”.

“Cool.”

So we geared up, gassed up, and turned Finn’s Buell and my R90S towards some tasty roads.

 

***

 

Finn has been riding that Blast pretty much every chance he gets. The weather hereabouts has been inexplicably mild and inexplicably dry, which, if you’re a motorcyclist, seems strangely like some sort of personal favor that the diety of your choice has phoned in just for you.

With Finn enrolled in summer college classes, about half of my days start with a 500 cc single alarm clock, as he rolls his bike into the driveway and heads for his early morning class.

As academic motivation goes, this is something I can wrap my head around, anyway.

He’s also started ‘getting an ice cream’ in the evenings, too. Some of these ice creams, I suspect, may be obtained in, say, Denver.

Like Father, like Son.

 

***

 

So with his growing confidence also goes my declining sense of anxiety about his road skills.

Now, the rates of change may not be fully synced — I suspect his confidence is growing faster than I’m able to relax about it — but never mind that.

At most stop signs and at the end of most rides I’ll ask for a debrief and specifically ask if there was any element of the last ride that has caused any discomfort or concern.

I know in my first six months in the saddle — most of them on my departed CB750/4 — I spiked my adrenaline more than a few times.

If Finn has scared himeself on the road, he has yet to answer my question in the affirmative.

So this ride, I resolved to push a little more backroad challenge in his direction than I had perhaps done previously, so that his growth as a rider can continue.

 

***

 

So we swept together down Broad Run Road — out towards our old home in the Valley, out towards Burkittsville, and the roads around the Antietam Battlefield.

Broad Run is a barn-burner of a road — with longer sightlines, huge grades, and higer speed open corners.

I’ll cop to winding a few gears out to get some heat into the R90, and then having to chill out so that Finn could tighten back up.

The road changes to Gapland Road, and we continued smooth carvng and dropped into Burkittsville.

At the stop sign in town, I talked through the next couple of moves.

“We’ll run up Gapland Road to Gathland State Park. There are always spacy tourists up there so we’ll back it waaaay down. Just over the top of the ridge I’ll make a tricky right into Townsend Road. Towsend is crazy tight, bumpy and stuck between hedgerows. Leave lots of following distance, stay right on the entries and ride your own game.”

Finn gave me the Thumbs Up.

The run up Gapland is a lovely road — two switchbacks allow us to climb up the ridgeline that separates the Middletown Valley from the valley where Antietam sits. Challenging climbs with good visibility uphill corners — motorcycle heaven.

We cleared the park and cut right on Townsend and headed down into the green.

I did my job as road captain and pointed toes at areas of washed out gravel that had come down from the hillside during the last heavy rains.

I spent just enough time watching Finn in my mirrors to not compromise my own spatial awareness. He looked comfortable and confident out there — managing his entries and exits with the throttle and using virtually no brake at all.

At the blindest spot in the road the requisite Escalade appeared right on cue — both Finn and I had enough room to the right to keep it from becoming in any way dramatic.

After a brief dogleg up MD 67 we turned up Trego Road together and headed for the battlefield.

 

***

 

The advice provided … leave space, ride your own game … Finn followed both and kept following.

My lines on Burnside Bridge are pretty aggressive… I like to enter late and turn harder. It uses more of my tires and makes me feel like I’m riding, even if I’m not carrying speed.

Finn is a tad more practical — earlier entries and ending up further away from the centerline. I havn’t seen him end up wider in a corner than he intended to, although, truthfully, Finn’s Blast is so agile a handler I’ve never been able to do anything — even when trying — that made it feel like I was using even 10% of the bike’s cornering potential. The combination of low mass, 16 inch rims, a set of Pirelli Diablos, and a fairly wide handlebar means the Buell changes direction instantly and authoritatively.

But in the tighest most technical stuff Finn was rolling off for entries and powering back out.

The boy just looked…. comfortable out there.

 

***

 

It is at this peaceful juncture that I feel I should share with you my newfound, irrational and all encompassing, all consuming total fear of kayaks.

Kayaks? What the eff is Greg on about, here?

Saturday the entire extended family had been in chaotic, frenzied motion. The day had started with most of the family in transit to my buddy Jimmy’s, to make an appearence at his daughter’s high school graduation shindig before heading over later to see an outdoor Violent Femmes concert at Flying Dog Brewery.

It was shaping up to be a very good day.

And because the Universe abhors lack of balance, it decided to throw in something perfectly awful right out of the gate so on a whole the day would kinda balance out.

Heading up US 340 toward Frederick, Saturday afternoon traffic in both lanes came to a screeching halt.

It took very little imagination to see what had happened.

In the middle of the left lane of the divided highway was a bright yellow kayak.

Just beyond that was a guy dressed in black who was hobbling around in circles. Past him was a gory series of skidmarks and scrapes in the pavement that ended at a puddle of oil and moderately newly customized early 2000s purple and white Triumph Bonneville.

I positioned my station wagon to protect him and got out to make sure he had whatever help he needed.

He’d been riding in a proper moto jacket, jeans and sneakers. The jacket had expired saving its occupant. Everything below that hadn’t done quite as well.

“Effing thing came out of a truck. Had no time. They took off, the fuckers. Didn’t even stop.”

He was understandably torqued, and maybe a little concussed, too.

I saw his helmet sitting in the grass. It had a nice long crack visible in the top and back of the shell.

Maybe more than a little concussed.

We got the bike out of the roadbed and then checked in with a lady who, upon reflection, was wearing a set of hospital duty scrubs. A Pro, who had been frantically making phonecalls.

“Look Man, do you want my wife to run you up to the Hospital? We have a truck if you need it to get the bike taken care of….”

“Nope,” said the Pro, “EMTs and the Ambulance are en route. Sherriff is inbound. His friends are on the way with their truck. Thank you, but we’re good.”

The Pro got Triumph Boy a seat in the tailgate of her Blazer, and we found a hole in traffic and headed off towards Jimmy’s.

We did have a fair amount of fun later, but the image of that Bonneville taking air on the other side of that kayak and coming down and tumbling kept coming back.

It was an image that was hard to shake.

 

***

 

Burnside Bridge Road runs for much of its length alongside Antietam Creek.

In the summertime Antietam Creek is a water recreation wonderland. The creek draws waders, tubers, canoists, and tons of kayakers.

Kayaks.

As we got to the landing beside the creek entry and the Bridge, we came up on a pickup with four plastic kayaks in the bed.

If Peter Parker has Spider Sense, and Luke Skywalker has the force, I have MotoSight.

I can’t really explain it, but on a back road with cross traffic, for example, if a vehicle is coming to one of the cross roads, I somehow know it before I see it.

I don’t question it. It has kept me and those that ride with me safe.

Now in the case of one truck four kayaks my MotoSight was just messing with me.

“These kayaks are not going to kill you. But you know they could.”

Thanks. Thanks a lot.

Fortunately, Four Kayaks took the pullout to get down to the creek, leaving Finn and I to roll into Sharpsburg.

“How’d it feel out there, Finn?”

“Great road. Except for the kayaks.”

 

***

 

We rolled Maryland 34 back to Boonesboro — more Kayaks! — and then picked up US 40 Alt to head back toward Middletown, and home.

I described the run over the mountain to Finn as we sat at the light.

40 Alt is an old, old road, with crazy decreasing radius banked switchbacks on the descent on the other side.

Its great fun once one figures it out, but finding a good line through takes either observation or a little luck.

In truth, bikes have much easier time negotiating such corners than a car ever would, but it just looks a little intimidating.

We gassed it up over the mountain, working the throttles and the edges of the tires, and sliced through the switchbacks and then through the hills and sweepers down in to Middletown, through the tight stuff on Picnic Woods road and before we knew it we were home.

As Finn killswitched it and popped off his helmet, he was beaming.

“Great ride, Pop.”

 

***

 

Right or wrong, it is true that men don’t have a lot to say.

Even when, if the situation demands it, that a lot maybe needs to be said.

Now I’d like maybe to talk with my son, and share with him whatever what passes for wisdom I’ve managed to find.

To talk about how short and precious life is, and the meaning of love, of music, of art and of poetry.

But, if being men, we can’t manage it, at least with a sunny day and some motorcycles, we can speak to each other without saying a word.