Tuesday 16 June 2020

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Mechanics

After another fraught week remote working in a pandemic working twice as hard to do half as much, I was at it again all Saturday morning before finally springing free for the afternoon, but I had a lot to do and I was already off-kilter from a two hour meeting.  I walked into my happy place (the garage) after once again spending too much time trying to work with people badly through screens (one of the joys of a pandemic is WAY too much screen-time) and went about reassembling the Tiger, which was causing anxiety by occasionally not holding an idle and stalling.  

The Tiger rebuild began poorly.  I couldn't find one of the two retaining bolts for the spark plug top I'd taken off the week before.  In the days between taking it apart and waiting for Amazon to get its finger out and deliver new spark plugs, the bike must have been jostled in my too-small garage and the bolts rolled off the head where I'd evidently left them.  I know better than that.  If I remove fasteners I usually put them in a container in groups or loosely reattach them to where they came from so they'll be there when I come back.

While that was going on I got Lloyd's message from Mostly Ironheads saying that I could bring the Fireblade in for a safety, so I cleaned up and got it over there for that.  He has some fantastic projects going on, I've got to see if he'll let me do another round of photos - that shop is half working garage, half motorcycle museum.  (He did let me do another round, they're here).

Back in the garage I was now frazzled with things going on in multiple places and the Tiger rebuild frozen by a lost bolt.  I found a replacement, but doing things half-assed means doing them for way longer than you need to.  It makes me feel like I'm my own make-work project.  I was angry at myself and swearing as I put it back together.  I took it out for a ride in the clearing afternoon weather (it had been threatening rain all morning), but the intermittent stall still happened, even after all the pain in the ass parts ordering waiting during a social distancing slow down.

I put the Tiger up on its stand and figured I'd take a run at it again the next day.  Then Lloyd called saying the 'Blade was all good except tires - so now I have to try and find some tires, in a pandemic (I did, Revco is fantastic).  I brought the Honda home got into a ridiculously complicated plan for suspending it so I could remove both wheels at once.  The end product looked more like a roof mounting for a sex swing when I finally gave up on it and locked up the garage for the night.


The next day I spent the morning brain storming ideas for a work project and then finally got to the garage mid-afternoon.  My mind-set was completely different this time.  Instead of being weighed down by worries from a meeting, I was buoyant from just having thought my way out of them.  In a good mood and with the importance of keeping my shit organized clearly at front of mind, I went about fabricating chocks for the front wheel of the Honda and attached them to Jeff's motorcycle stand.

They worked a treat and before I knew it the CBR was suspended and the wheels were off.  The brakes were pretty grotty, so taking it all apart, even if the pads and rotors do all meet MoT safety standards, wasn't a bad thing.  The music was playing, it was a cool, sunny afternoon and I was getting shit done.

As I disassembled the Fireblade, I was Sharpy marking parts, taking photos and batching fasteners together so I can find everything when I reassemble.  I've been mechanicking for too long not to do this, but a callous disregard for shop etiquette gave me the result I knew I deserved the day before, but not this time.  The jigs we create make the jobs we do possible, and vice versa.

What had taken me twice as long to do badly the day before, took me a fraction of the time to do better the next day.  Instead of spiralling into anger and frustration, I was in the zone.  Problems still occurred, of course.  This is mechanics where I'm dealing with immutable reality, I have to bend because reality won't, but rather than succumb to those problems I was agile and adaptive.  I can hear the sound of one hand clapping when I'm in the zone like that.  It feels effortless and completely engaging.

The Honda was sorted so quickly I turned to the Tiger and began the astonishingly fussy job of taking the fuel tank off (again).  What was tedious the day before became a matter of minutes the next day.  With the tank and air-box off (again), I looked over the idle control valve under the air-box and discovered one of the tubes going into the back of it was loose.  I cleaned up all the connecting and ensured they were tight and put some gasket compound on the rubber gasket to help it seal where it was squashed.

The whole thing went back together again equally quickly and the bike started and ran, so I shut it all down and cleaned up (some more good shop etiquette I'd been ignoring).

I'd gotten two days of work done in one, but it didn't feel like it.  Disappearing into the garage is one of my favourite things to do, but doing it when you're frazzled and fraught can mean you're bringing a lot of negative energy in with you.  That negativity can make you ignore best practices you'd otherwise follow and might result in simple jobs becoming much more frustrating than they need to be.

Just like when you're riding, you need to find your inner zen when wrenching.  Not only will it make you a better mechanic, but it'll also make the work itself a joy.


A couple of days later I was working through week six of the Science of Well Being course I've been taking and it went over the state of flow and how it induces a sense of happiness.  There is a lot of research into flow states, especially in terms of peak performance in sports, but any complex task, from painting to mechanics, will offer that moment when you're balancing your skills with your situation in a way that's so engaging you forget yourself.  That's actually what you're doing in a state of flow, you're so immersed in what you're doing that you don't have any mental acuity left to self realize.

Sony's mission statement:  what a place to work that would be!
If that doesn't clear it up for you, maybe the TEDtalk by the guy who invented the concept of flow will:

Sunday 14 June 2020

One Tight, Not Too Tight

Now that the CBR900RR Fireblade project is sorted and on the road, I'm finding myself doing what the original intent was in getting it:  learning from a different type of motorcycle.  Unlike the heavy industry Kawasaki Concours, or the SUV of motorcycling Triumph Tiger, the 'Blade was built to a different design brief. The other bikes were over engineered heavy to last, but the the Honda is a feather.

That philosophy is at odds with the heavy handed git who owned it before me and managed to maintain it into such a state of disrepair that it kept it off the road for years.

From the rear brake cylinder that was assembled backwards and over tightened, to the over tight wheels and the slipping clutch I've just adjusted to actually be at spec rather than over-tightened, I'm finding the Honda was a victim of a heavy hand and unsympathetic mechanical inclination.

When I was a teen my dad was talking me through a head gasket repair on one of my first cars.  We weren't minted, so the only way I was driving was if I could keep an old car on the road; mechanical training was an implicit part of vehicle ownership for me growing up.  As we were tightening the head back on he made a point of talking me through the bolt pattern - always tightening opposite bolts so it would seat evenly, and then said something that I've never forgotten as we started tightening down the head:  "always one tight, not too tight."  I guess the guy who abused this lovely piece of Honda engineering into years in a garage never got such good advice.

Mechanical sympathy is an important part of maintaining any machine, but especially a motorcycle, where if you are cack-handed you can end up seriously hurting yourself when it breaks.  In that way, motorcycle mechanics are a lot like aircraft mechanics, it's a do it right or it can go very wrong kind of situation.

Part of that sympathy is taking the time to understand what the engineers who designed the machine want you to do in terms of looking after it.  In the case of the CBR900RR, Honda would like you to leave 10-20mm of play at the end of the clutch lever - this one was set so you could strum it like a guitar string.  This play is to ensure that the clutch fully disengages when you let go of it.  An over tightened clutch cable means it's always set to be slightly pulling and engaging the clutch.  Making it too tight isn't just a failure of the hands, it's a failure in thinking that wounds the machine.  In this case, the over-tightened clutch cable explains why the 'Blade was slipping RPMs when I opened it up.  A sympathetically tuned motorbike will give you a purity of interaction that allows you to more fully understand the machine.  This is one of the reasons why I value technical fluency so much, it puts your ability to operate technology into focus in a way that the technically ignorant will never realize.


Meanwhile, in the land of Tim where he's trying to keep a 17 year old European and a 23 year old Japanese bike rolling during the perilously short Canadian riding season, the Tiger's stalling when hot continues.  I've ordered a replacement air idle control valve from Inglis Cycles, who have once again exceeded expectations during a pandemic by sourcing the part from Triumph in the UK and getting it to me in about a week.

One of the nice things about the Tiger is that it's fuel injected, so all that carburetor management is taken care of, but the evil end of computerized fuel injection is that after seventy six thousand kilometres it's finally gone wrong, and an electronic system like that can go wrong in a lot of different ways. 

I'd never gotten into the Tuneboy Software that came with the Tiger (the original owner installed it along with a Power Commander), because if it ain't broke, don't fix it.  But now that it's broke, I got going on it the other evening.  Getting into the bike via a computer was pretty cool.  The software is Y2K retro-hip and the connection was straightforward.  The 20+ pages of instructions weren't really needed (I'm handy with computers).  Windows 10 automatically recognizes what you're plugging in (back in the day, WinXP would have needed drivers installed), and the software is responsive and quick to connect.  It occasionally drops connection, but unplugging it and plugging it in again resolved that each time.

The compact disk (told ya, Y2K hip!) had all of the stock maps for my year of Triumph Tiger 955i engine on it, so I saved what was on there in case it was some kind of cool specialty map the previous owner had worked out (dude worked at a nuclear power plant, so don't underestimate his tech skillz), and then I flashed it with the stock numbers, which took about 20 seconds and returned a confirmed result.  There is a slight lag, but otherwise this is easy to use stuff.

I then played with the diagnostics tool for a bit, hoping for some data that will help me isolate the hot idle stalling fault.  The software says there are no errors (promising that this is that mechanical failure then), and the only thing that looks out of place is a strange return on the engine temperature.  It seems to read accurately and then show -40, even when the fan is coming on, but if the fan is coming on and the temperature gauge on the dash is reading normally, I suspect this is something to do with how the software syncs with the on board computer rather than an actual fault, but I'm going to keep it in mind.

The problem with an idle fault on a fuel injected bike is that the engine management system is taking in data from a number of sensors and using it to balance engine activity, like idling, based on that information.  I've got the mechanical component that regulates idle on the bike incoming, and I hope that resolves the issue, but what I fear is that it's something else, and with these complex electronics systems could mean that anything from a dozen different sensors or relays to a loose or broken wire.  With any luck, it's that idle air control valve and I'm back on the Tiger... and the Honda, just not at the same time.

Motorcycle Destinations: Mostly Ironheads In Elora, ON.

There was a time when every motorcyclist was also an amateur mechanic.  Getting your hands dirty was the only way to keep early motorcycles running.  We're over a century into the evolution of the motorized bike now and, as in all places, digitization has taken over.  Modern mechanics are now called technicians and have to be as adept at communicating with the computers on a modern motorcycle as the old school types were at diagnosing a mechanical fault with their senses.  Both are complicated, but in quite different ways.  There are obvious advantages to modern bikes in terms of efficiency, ease of use and dependability, but motorcycling is inherently a compromise in convenience, and many of the iconoclasts who escape the clutches of automotive transport to ride in the wind question the replacement of human skill with automated assistance.

Back in the day the motorcyclist themselves performed many of the tasks that a modern day technician does, so what was left to the old school mechanic?  What you'd typically find in a pre-war motorcycle repair shop looked more akin to a machinist's bench than the antiseptic, electronically focused diagnostics bay of a modern day garage.  That ability to manufacturer your own parts and diagnose problems without computer support, using only your senses and your hands might seem simplistic and archaic, but it was nothing of the sort.  There is a secret art to working with pre-electronic, analogue motorcycles that trips up many modern technicians who, while adept in leveraging digital tools to diagnose digital machines and replace parts, struggle to diagnose and repair mechanical faults.


If you're into restoring older machinery, this vanishing skill set is hard to come by, but I'm fortunate to live near one of these rare, independent, locally owned shops.  Lloyd Gadd is the owner and operator of Mostly Ironheads in Elora, Ontario.  With decades of experience in mechanics, he approaches motorcycle repair old school.  His shop is part machinists, part mechanics and part historical ode to The Motor Company.  Lloyd focuses on older Harley Davidsons, but as the name of the shop implies, it's not an exclusive focus.  Lloyd is also a qualified mechanic who can do everything from MoT safeties to changing a tire.

I was in there most recently getting last winter's Fireblade project safetied, and in the process Lloyd's prompt service got me looking at a better way to do motorcycle tires that will save me a significant amount of money.  While I was over there I also did a round of photography to give you a sense of what goes on in this old school shop.

Multiple engine rebuilds of air cooled Harley twins were ongoing in this small but dense workspace.

Unlike like most modern shops that simply refuse to work on long term mechanical or machinist driven repairs in favour of high turnover/quick to repair parts replacement, Mostly Ironheads will actually machine parts and rebuild a motor from the ground up.

It's a whole other level of mechanical commitment when you are prepared to turn your own parts out.

Lloyd has a number of customer projects on the go, and also makes a point of collecting older and vintage parts.  If you're fan of Harley Davidson you should make a point of riding up to Elora and checking out what's on hand - in many cases you'll see parts that are so rare that you may never have seen them before, even if you're into classic hogs.

Lloyd told me the story of a 1950s Harley racing motor he'd come across.  Only one of the two heads is accurate, but he's on the lookout for a replacement - though seven decades old serviceable racing parts don't survive well, as you can imagine.  When he has this rare piece of motorcycling history back together it'll be one of the few remaining complete Panhead racing motors in existence.  You might think that's a one off, but not in this shop.  Even if you're not into HD, this place is an ode to moto-mechanical history and worth a stop.  Air cooled bikes have an aeronautical aesthetic to them that modern bikes often miss.

The machining needed to sort this head out is impressive.  It had worn down below spec so is now being built back up and reground to specifications.  When you can machine your own parts, you're as much an engineer as you are a mechanic.

 Being a restorer, Lloyd is always on the lookout for parts, and the shop is an ongoing work in progress, with parts coming in and getting sorted and stored until needed.  Previous customers, online and estate sales and various other connections like the Harley Owners Group mean Mostly Ironheads are able to draw in older parts, often found in boxes of 'stuff' that get dropped off.

Lloyd mentioned a customer who dropped off a box of stuff while clearing out space at home.  In the process of going through it they discovered an unopened complete carburetor assembly still in the original factory packaging from the mid-sixties!  There is a joy in bringing a piece of history like this back to life, and the joy is alive and well at Mostly Ironheads.  If you're in Southern Ontario, it's an easy ride up north of Guelph to the shop.

This is that racing motor - one of the heads is incorrect, but the rest is intact and very rare!
 These are the cam lobes for that racing head compared to a typical one.  Not only is the racing cam lobe lighter with hollowed shaft, but it's also heavier duty in terms of strength.  Here and here are good primers on cam profiles if you're curious.  Whereas the right side regular cam is designed for long term use and efficiency, the more radical racing came on the left is designed to stay open longer, rev high and produce more power, though it wouldn't idle well, get good mileage or run smoothly.  But when you're aiming for all out speed, you'll put up with that just so you can wind it up and go.  You're unlikely to see mechanical history like this anywhere else in Ontario.

In addition to the restoration work going on, you'll also find an eclectic mix of older, finished air cooled Harleys ranging from customized choppers to more standard rides.  If you're into older, air cooled machinery, this will really float your boat.

Lloyd's area of interest extends from post war bikes all the way up to the last of the air cooled, carburettor fed bikes.  If you're into graphic design, you'll see everything from post war art deco to sixties and seventies disco and eighties futurism in the logos and bike designs.

There are some core elements to Harleys (like v-twin engines), that evolve slowly, but design wise they're much more in tune with their times than you might have assumed.

Tuesday 9 June 2020

Rubber Maths

I've looked into the savage world of motorcycle tires before.  Way back in 2016 I got fixated on customizing the rims and putting new rubber on the Kawasaki Concours, and got introduced to the expensive nature of buying half as many tires that wear out way faster.  That first time left me with a $500 bill for getting 2 Michelin Commander sport touring tires installed and left me wary of the expense.

More frustratingly, I ended up using the Counteract balance beads anyway because the caveman weights used on a traditional balance machine still left the wheels with a wobble, so that $500 bill ended up being even higher, though it did make me feel way better about using those beads - they work better than weights and a technician half paying attention to the balancing machine.

In 2017 the Tiger's tires were getting tired, so I was once again at Two Wheel trying to get in for service (they suggested a one month wait was likely that time - local car tire places really need to look into this market).  At that time they were pricing Michelin Anakees at about $420 for both, with another $100 for installation which was only the tires because if I wanted service within a week instead of a month I had to remove the tires and bring them in myself.  With taxes and incidental costs that crept in on the bill, those two tires ended up costing me almost seven hundred bucks, and I had to take the damned rims off and put them on myself!

Fast forward to 2020 and supply chains are in tatters (not that they were that good a couple of years ago).  After trying to contact Two Wheel and getting no response to multiple attempts, I started looking elsewhere.  No local tire companies do motorcycles - you're missing a market there everyone.  Motorcycle tires wear out quickly, get replaced often and cost more!  The only motorcycle focused company that could be bothered to raise a response was Revco, who were responsive and delivered the tires quickly and efficiently, even beating expectations I'd have had pre-pandemic.  If you need motorcycle tires in Canada, Revco can and do deliver!

Where am I at with costs this time around during a pandemic?  Counteract Balance Beads were just under thirty bucks, the two tires were $126 & $155, so the whole bill came out to $310.  I'm at $360 including taxes and delivery.  Lloyd at my local independent motorcycle shop, Mostly Ironheads, installed them for $100, so now I'm at $460 for this round of motorcycle rubber.  That's 35% cheaper than my last pre-pandemic tire buying experience.

Just out of curiosity I looked up the same Michelin Anakee tires I put on the Tiger three years ago that ended up costing me $500 just for the rubber.  They're starting to square off and have a fair number of kilometres on them, so an over-winter tire change is likely this year.  On Revco three years later they're $382 delivered with taxes, or 24% less expensive.  Even Lloyd's newly updated shop costs for installation at Mostly Ironheads are less than dealer costs in 2017, and are done in a day with the same amount of fuss (I still have to remove the wheels).  I'd be at $482 ready to roll when it cost me $700 three years before.

I know where I'm going and how I'm getting tires fitted from now on - and I'm even supporting my small, locally owned shop in the process.  The only thing preferable would be my own tire installation machine, but I can barely fit in the garage as it is, so that'd only come after a house move.  With the deficit in service around here, maybe I should just be doing motorcycle tires out of my garage anyway.

Bike History, Ancient Rubber & COVID-proof Supply Chains

Ontario gets you to buy a vehicle history when you transfer ownership.  The main reason is to make sure you're not buying something with an existing debt on it, but I like it for the history lesson; you get a good sense of a bike's life from that list of dates and owners.  I'm the third owner of the Tiger.  The first one owned it for most of its life.  The guy I bought it from owned it for a short time (I think it was his first bike) before passing it along to me.

The Fireblade's history also tells a tale.  In July of 1996 it was sold to a guy in West Hill, Ontario (part of Scarborough in the east end of Toronto).  He sold it to McBride Cycle in Toronto (Percy's name is still down as the owner on bikes they brought in then) less than a year later in May of 1997.   McBride Cycle moved it on to a guy in Mississauga two months later in July of 1997.   The previous owner to me bought it in April of 1998 and owned it up until his divorce when he gave it to his ex as part of their separation.  It then sat with her through the divorce until her new boyfriend dropped it off for me last September, 2019.  Timeline wise, the owners of this bike have lasted:

  • 10 months
  • 2 months (dealer)
  • 10 months
  • and 21 years, though it looks like it was unused for most of the last decade of those.
I'm the 5th owner of the bike, and if I hold on to it for more than ten months I'll be the second longest owner it has had.  This 23 year old Japanese super model only has twenty-five thousand kilometres on her and sat unused for long enough that the petcock that metres fuel out of the tank failed and flooded the engine, then it sat broken in a garage.

This Honda is a 'supersport' bike with 'hypersport' tires, meaning they're soft, grippy and don't last long.  I once heard a story of a guy who used to drive his supersport bike to twisty roads in his van, ride it hard for a couple of days, and then open up his van and change to new tires using the tire mounting equipment he kept mounted in there.  Heavy handed riders can burn through a set of these types of tires after a single track day.

Lloyd at Mostly Ironheads measured the depth and determined that the 'Blade needed new tires to meet safety requirements.  I've got the 'Blade raised up in the garage at the moment and had a good look at the tires today, and found these:

But the numbers didn't make sense to me because I've never had a bike with tires made before 2000.  Tires after the year 2000 have a four digit code printed on them showing the date of manufacture, so you know if they're getting stale (rubber goes off over time).  If you see a 3507 stamped on your tire after the DOT designation it means they were manufactured on the 35th week of 2007.  But the 'Blade's tires show a 038 on the rear and a 395 on the front.

Pre-2000 tires only had a 3 digit code on them.  The first two are the week and the last one is the year, but you get to guess the decade, which is why they updated it in 2000.  If I'm reading the Fireblade's tires right, the rear was made in the 3rd week of 1998 and the front was made in the 39th week of 1995.  The tire model is a Bridgestone Battlax BT56F, and they were kicking around in the 90s.  It appears the "Blade's tires are well over 20 years old.

Sorting out tires during a pandemic should have been a real headache, but it was another COVID19 supply line success story.  I fired out requests to Two Wheel Motorsports, my local dealer, but they couldn't be bothered to respond.  I also tried to reach out to all the local tire stores and not one had the tech to do motorcycle tires.  I tried other local bike shops, but once again, radio silence.  It's like some people just don't want to make money during this situation.  Perhaps getting handouts from the government is all they need.

The only reply I got was from John at REVCO.CA, an online tire company out near Ottawa.  He was straight up with me, saying that they can usually turn around an order in a matter of hours, but it might take up to a week right now.  What convinced me to spend nearly four hundred bucks with him was his responsiveness and openness, so I ordered the tires.  REVCO outdid themselves, delivering the tires within 48 hours.  Fortunately Lloyd at Mostly Ironheads can install tires, but not balance newer rims (he focuses on heavy metal from the 20th Century with spoked rims, not racing alloy rims).  It wasn't a worry though because Revco also had Counteract balancing beads, which I'm a bid fan of.  I removed the old fashioned balancing weights, installed the beads on the new tires that Lloyd installed on Saturday morning, and the 'Blade feels like it's walking on air, wearing her first new pair of shoes in over two decades.