Category Archives: Workshop

It Was a Horse, After All


When you hear hoofbeats in the street, look for horses, not zebras.

— Unknown

Endurance, my 2000 BMW R1150GS, has been sitting reproachfully under cover on the back patio for months now, waiting for me to get her back online. I’ve been taking more guilt trips than road trips, it seems.

I’ve been out on Terra Nova but the rest of our bike fleet has been down. We took Linda’s 300cc Vespa in for a tune-up and new tires and her Yamaha Vino 125cc scooter in for new tires and valve stems.

I saved the BMW for last. I bought yet another battery, washed off the dust and most of the cobwebs, and got to work.

Then I turned the key and pressed the start button. The engine fired up but idled rough. I shut it down and tried to think. It had been quite a while since I had it going but I’d put Sta-bil in the fuel tank before winter and I couldn’t recall any problems the last time I’d had it running.

My only answer was that the fuel had gone bad so I started making preparations to pull the tank and empty it. It’s a multi-step process; you have to unbolt the tank, disconnect various fuel lines, and the wires to the fuel pump (which is inside the tank).

This was going to take a while. I hadn’t fully removed the tank since installing the crash bars way back in 2000 at Starbase Reno.


Throttle cable, seated and unseated.

I was preparing to disconnect the fuel lines when I had a thought: the starboard throttle cable. It’s a quirk of the BMW fuel system — the cable can slip out of the knurled housing and desynchronize the engine.

So I looked and there it was, the cable was unseated. I moved it back into place, checked everything else, and tried the engine again.

She started up and purred like a kitten. A little thing like that. Another lesson learned.

Another Damn Battery

Pulling the BMW battery. Cody is always willing to help.

Took the Yamaha out for a fresh tank of gas, put Sta-Bil in, got on Endurance, the BMW, to do the same thing, turned the key and … nothing.

Even the dash clock was blank. “All right,” I think to myself, “I’ll charge up the battery.”


Once connected, the clock numbers reappeared but the charger stayed red, even after an hour, then started to get warm. So I pulled the unit out of the bike and tried to charge it again on the workbench. Same thing.

The BMW needs a new battery.

It’s my own fault – I’m just not riding it enough. I’ve taken Terra Nova, the Yamaha, for our last four long-distance rides and occasionally to work. The BMW is just sitting there, waiting.

I replaced Endurance’s battery back in May, I think, with a low-end Yuasa from the local dealer and thought it would be sufficient. And now, through cold weather and prolonged inactivity, it’s expired.


Like motorcycle tires, motorcycle batteries, the decent ones anyway, aren’t cheap. But you have to use them, otherwise the tires will crack and fail and the batteries will go dark.

So on our drive down to Myrtle Beach for comp-time vacation, we ended up stopping at Morton’s BMW in Fredericksburg where I bought an upper-range Odyssey. I’ll take it home and install it aboard the BMW with many apologies and a promise to take it out more this year.

Resurrecting ’Em

Don't let them sit too long.
Don’t let them sit too long.


I flood the carburetor. ‘For God’s sake, start!’ I mutter. ‘Don’t give me any trouble. It’s too hot to wrestle with you now.’

One kick and she starts. ‘Oh, you lovely machine.’

— Ted Simon, “Jupiter’s Travels”


I’ll cop to it upfront: I let our bikes sit too long this winter. It’s an awful, inexcusable thing to do to a motorcycle.

But three of the four forgive me, and it’s only Endurance, my 2000 BMW R1150GS, that won’t respond. The battery has gone bad, I find.

In Jessup, Maryland.
In Jessup, Maryland.

So I rabbit off to Bob’s BMW in Jessup, Maryland, and get a replacement battery, engine oil filter and oil. Saw a 2015 R1200GS Adventure for $22,000.

Back home, Endurance accepts the battery and fires up on first try. Terra Nova, the 2012 Yamaha Super Tenere, is fine.

Just a quick charge.
Just a quick charge.

Linda’s 300cc Vespa GTS cranks over readily and starts easily, but her Yamaha Vino 125 needs a battery charge. After that, it’s no complaint.

Endurance has more than 92,000 miles on the clock and is due for a major tune-up. I’ll take her up to Bob’s in a week or so. Then it’s time to start planning this year’s ride.

Points of Reference



I’ll be the first to admit I have too many books. They’re in every room in the house: bedrooms, office, family room, living room and workshop. Everywhere except the bathroom.

With a few exceptions, the ones in the workshop are special purpose. It’s there I have my reference books for all our vehicles, including the motorcycles.

Those reference works are security blankets. They’re a holdover from my early teen years, where bicycles were my entryway into the world of mechanics. Too young for a driver’s license, I loved bikes and the freedom of travel and promise of adventure they provided.

The bicycles – especially my first 10-speed – were a prelude to motorcycles, of course. They were my vehicles of discovery, my very own Santa Maria and Mayflower and Susan Constant. I recall getting the same thrill of anticipation when buying my BMW R1150GS in 2000 as I did when I got my Fuji S-10S in 1975.

My high school friends and I learned to work on our 10-speeds. Tom McCray and I can still joke about the satisfaction (and amazement!) we got when we figured out the last mystery and learned how to adjust the rear derailleur to hit all five cogs in the freewheel. It was like we were freaking magicians, man.

DSCN0612A lot of that knowledge came through books. I still have ancient copies of the books we used; one of them is “Two Wheel Travel: Bicycle Camping and Touring,” which still has grease stains on the illustration across pages 90 and 91 which helped me rethread a chain around the jockey and tensioner cogs of a derailleur.

That’s a really great book, by the way, and the authors wrote a helpful companion book devoted to motorcycles. “Anybody’s Bike Book,” by Tom Cuthbertson is another great bicycle reference, with excellent drawings and clear directions.

When I finally started driving, I discovered one of the best manuals of all time, “How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, A Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot,” written by John Muir with illustrations by Peter Aschwanden. That was the book that convinced me I could do it, I could wrench on my Bug and on other things.

DSCN0618Even though I seldom consult them these days, I still keep those books around. Muir’s manual is just down the shelf from all the motorcycle references crammed into makeshift shelves in the workshop. I pull out those books whenever I pick up any tool for the motorcycles. I check what I’m doing because I don’t want to make any expensive mistakes.

I leave oil stains and scribbled notations on pages for future reference. Sometimes those marks and smudges remind me of past labor on machines, the way I can look at the page 90 illustration and recall working on my AMF Roadmaster in my father’s garage decades ago.

That’s the security of manuals. Working on the bikes, I may fumble about, but the manuals bring me back. And all of those pages led here.

Tools for Tots

This is what they gave me...
This is what they gave me…

Spend $6,000 to $20,000 on a new motorcycle, any type, any brand, it doesn’t matter – dig out the tool kit they give you and you’ll be astounded at the piss-poor quality.

These days, it’s less of an open secret and more of a joke at how cheap manufacturer toolkits have become. They’re giving you fewer tools and the ones you get are made of low-grade metal, stuff you can practically bend with your hands. They’re the equivalent of children’s toys. And they come in these horrid little vinyl pouches that are more flimsy than a ketchup packet.

On one hand, it’s a way for manufacturers to save money. Or perhaps they figure you’re just going to go buy your own set of Sears Craftsman tools anyway. Japanese makers are notorious for it, but most of the others are just as bad. BMW has gotten worse. Harley gives you nothing.

Cheap tools are usually made of inexpensive alloys, while good tools are made of steel, which is stronger and less likely to bend or deform while you’re putting pressure on them.

Then there’s the manufacturing process itself, the way metal is shaped into a tool. Cheap tools are usually made by casting, which is heating metal until it’s liquid enough to be poured into a mold. Better tools are drop-forged, a process of hammering or pressuring hot metal into a die. These tools are stronger with more precise tolerances – your drop-forged wrench is less likely to slip off a stubborn bolt head, for example.

At any rate, onboard toolkits are important, especially if you travel any lengthy distance on a motorcycle. You have to carry a set of tools to fix any reasonable trouble that may occur.

...this is what I'll use on Terra Nova.
…this is what I’ll use on Terra Nova.

Say you’re out riding and one of your mirrors shakes loose. You stop to tighten it, only to find you need a 14mm wrench. And you have exactly one combination wrench in your little vinyl bag, a 10mm and 13mm. No adjustable wrench. So you screw the mirror back on as best you can, but now it’s pointing at the sky. And it’ll stay that way until you get a 14mm wrench or its equivalent.

What most riders do is assemble their own kits. We go through the bike and note the fasteners – hex head, Allen head, Torx – and rabbit off to Sears or Home Depot or Lowes or (if you can afford it) the Snap-On truck down the street.

That way, you know you’re covered. Ideally, you calculate need against weight and you carry enough tools to do regular maintenance on the road. You keep the tools for special jobs at home.

Some companies, like Cruz Tools, offer kits that contain decent tools in durable bags. I’ve used these on occasion – Terra Nova will have a kit originally meant for a BMW GS – but I’m always fussing with and swapping out the contents, making sure I have what I need.

Cobbling together your own kit is costly and time-consuming (who knew I needed a 27mm socket for the axles?) but it’s worth it for peace of mind.

Or I could just carry this.
Or I could just carry this.

But it’s curious how the discarded cheap tools hang around your workshop, stuffed in drawer or on a shelf or something. And they’ll stay there for years, because you can’t throw them out because, even though they’re cheap, they’re tools, you know?

Cloistered With the Bike


I finally got around to changing the engine oil and filter on Endurance today, she was badly overdue and I was feeling guilty for not getting to it sooner. In addition to that routine job, I’m tinkering with the sidestand – the thing you’d call a kickstand on a bicycle.

The sidestand had loosened up during our ride to Montana last August and was letting the bike lean over farther than normal. With all our gear piled on it, the lean angle looked kinda scary. It held up okay during the ride, though.

My shop is small, only 8 x 15 feet. It’s crowded, but there’s enough space to work on one bike at a time. All my tools are there and it’s brightly lit and heated.

I put in RaceDeck tiles a few years ago which really helps. The wall behind the main workbench has photos from past rides and a U.S. map with our cross-country routes highlighted.

Even though I’m not mechanically inclined, I get satisfaction from working on the motorcycles. (The bicycles, too, come to think of it.) Even something as simple as changing the oil is gratifying; you feel closer to the machine and a little more competent by doing the job yourself. And, as my good friend and mechanical wizard Andrew Virzi says, “it just seems to ride better after you’ve changed the oil.”

And Cody is always ready to help.
And Cody is always ready to help.

Wrenching in the workshop reminds me of a scriptorium – the workroom in which medieval monks copied and bound their books. I lay out the tools, throw in a CD, open a Mountain Dew or Arizona Ice Tea, and get to work. When I’m cloistered in the workshop, the day passes quickly.

While My Final Drive Gently Weeps…


I bought Endurance, my 2000 BMW R1150 GS motorcycle, new from Sierra BMW in Reno, Nevada, in January 2000. It was the perfect bike for what I wanted: lots of power, room for two-up riding, comfortable for long-distance travel.

I made small improvements over the years – a Corbin saddle, PIAA 510 driving lights, Ohlins shocks – and was totally happy with her, to the point of planning to buy BMW again, when it came time to get another bike.

Until August 2012.

A bit of backstory is needed here: BMW Motorrad successfully advertises its bikes as high-mileage, reliable, go-anywhere machines. But some BMWs have an Achilles’ heel, a failure tendency for their final drives – the collection of shaft and gears (instead of chains or belts) that transmit power from the transmission to the rear wheel. It’s a design flaw that BMW has never officially admitted, but has instead quietly addressed through a series of upgrades.

Compounding the problem is that BMW’s dealership network is spread mighty thin.  It has only one dealership in all of Montana, for example. So if you have a serious mechanical problem, you’re seriously screwed.

I learned of this a couple of years after the purchase and kept an eye on mileage, since the drives tend to break down roughly every 40,000 to 50,000 miles. I had my first service in September 2004, with 47,000 miles on the clock.

At the beginning of 2012, Linda and I decided on an August ride to Glacier National Park in Montana – a long way from Washington, D.C. At that point, Endurance had racked up a little more than 86,000 miles and I knew it was time to get her final drive serviced again.

Early in the year, I took her to an independent mechanic in Virginia who is highly regarded (almost legendary) in BMW circles. He did the work, replaced worn-out parts and gave me an expensive bill, which I expected.

Endurance in Montana.
Endurance in Montana.

As summer drew near, I prepared the bike for the ride, expanding the carrying capacity and adding spare fuel bottles and whatnot. A little more than two weeks before we were due to leave, I was checking the underside of the bike and happened to run my hand around the bell housing of the final drive. It came away wet.

I stared at it, dumbfounded, thinking, “no, no, no…” and I pulled the rear wheel to find the rear seal had blown. I couldn’t believe it. Still can’t.

I had to get it fixed quickly, otherwise the ride would be impossible. I couldn’t take it to the independent since he was too far away. A nearby dealer was able to squeeze her into its service schedule and they replaced the seal and some other parts and again I got an expensive bill. Did the independent screw up or miss something? There’s no way for me to know.


Endurance ran flawlessly during that trip, but my cautious faith in BMW, admittedly shaky to begin with, died completely. I’ll keep the BMW and maintain her as perfect as I can, but when I ran across a new 2012 Yamaha Super Tenere on the floor of a Falls Church dealership, I bought it.

Following my predilection for naming my bikes after Antarctic exploration ships, I call her Terra Nova.

Pack It Up

It drives me crazy, but we always take too much stuff when we travel on the motorcycle.

I take too much because 1) I try to be prepared for every eventuality, and 2) I lack the self-discipline to pare down the gear to the minimum.

Motorcycling is a minimalist endeavor because you don’t have much space. Packing light is essential for two reasons:

Weight: The bike becomes difficult to handle (especially in parking lot maneuvers and tight turnarounds) if it’s too heavy.

Packing and unpacking: What a pain in the ass. You know you’re hauling too much stuff around if you have a tankbag, duffel bag, and sidecases filled.

“You travel better when you don’t have things to pack, unpack and repack,” advised Noyes Livingston in Iron Horse magazine a few years ago.

Part of the problem is I ride a BMW motorcycle, which is not supported by an extensive dealer network. So I end up carrying a lot of stupid things like spare relays.

And spare wheel spokes! The bike is a 2000 1150 GS, which has spoked wheels that are anchored to the rim of the wheel (not the center) which let you run tubeless tires.

One of the rear-wheel spokes broke on a trip to Cleveland, and the three dealers I contacted did not carry spares — “we can order them for you. Take about a week.” I offered to buy some from one dealer if he’d give me a spoke off a floor model, but he wouldn’t do it.

So much for helping travelers far from home.

So now I carry 12 spare spokes, 6 for the front, 6 for the rear, since they’re different sizes. And there’s a tire pump that runs off the motorcycle battery, and a small battery charger. Tire patch kit. Spare headlight bulbs and fuses. Electrical wire and some hardware. Baling wire and duct tape. Quart of oil. It’s ridiculous.

The heaviest stuff goes in the two sidecases, which fill up fast with all this stuff.

That leaves us with the tankbag, which usually has stuff you want to get at quick, like cameras and spare gloves and a first-aid kit and maps and sunscreen and whatnot.

The duffel bag has the clothes, which are a real pain, because you try to anticipate the weather you’ll be riding in, which is impossible if you’re going across the country because no matter what time of year you’re traveling, you’re going to be too hot or too cold.

My cousin Shannon is a first-rate motorcycle traveler — everything she needs for a two-week trip fits into a small backpack that gets strapped to the back of the bike. Two small saddlebags carry her tools and spare parts.

I’ve gotten better at packing over the years but I still need to improve.

The Next Bike

Everyone who rides motorcycles is dreaming of their next bike.

It doesn’t matter if we have the money or not, or even if we’re serious about buying one. We’re always looking for the next one, stopping in at dealerships on the weekend, leaving through magazines at Borders or eyeing a machine on the street that catches our attention. They don’t even have to be new.

We’re insatiable.

There’s a correlation between the time one goes without a new bike and the desire to acquire one. I bought my bike in January 2000, so I think I’m due, even though my BMW R1150GS, now with 79,000 miles on the clock, has been dependable and comfortable and I have no thought of giving her up.

I’m looking at a couple of bikes now, sort of daydreaming about them: a Kawasaki KLR 650 and a BMW R1200R. The off-season for riding is often a good time to buy.

The KLR is like my GS because it’s considered a dual-sport machine. The R1200R is like the one we rented in Vienna, Austria — the perfect road bike.

So I’ve tried both, though the KLR I was on belonged to a friend in Arizona and the ride was short, just around the block a few times. It felt good.

The KLR has received much praise as a motorcycle you can ride around the world. With just a little modification, it’s capable of long-distance travel over a variety of terrain. On freeways, it’s not the best — it has about 50 hp and a single-cylinder engine, so it’s working pretty hard at highway speed. It’s not meant to carry two people for long distances, at least not very comfortably.

The R1200R is meant to stay on pavement. The Vienna bike was comfortable and powerful — about 108 hp, if I recall correctly. You could ride all day on that bike and still feel pretty good at the end of a long day. It has fuel injection — a quick twist of the throttle and you’re gone.

The BMW is about twice the price of the Kawasaki, though.

Prices aside, thinking about the next bike is like thinking about your next long ride, a delicious planning process, filled with maps and penciled destinations. Anything seems to be possible.

Three Things That Worked


You get really finicky about your gear when you ride a motorcycle.

Small things can quickly turn into big discomforts. You can’t carry a lot of stuff, so you have to pick and choose and make sure you get it right, because chances are you’ll find out it’s not right when you’re a thousand miles from home and can’t replace it.

Three things that worked during our Washington-to-San Diego ride in 2008:

Fieldsheer unlined deerskin gloves
In hot or cold weather, good gloves are a must. The fit must be perfect; too tight and your hands will feel as if they’re in a vise, too loose and the material will bunch up between your palms and the handgrips and be really uncomfortable.

The deerskins were perfect for hot weather. I bought a pair of natural brown ones because I liked the material so much. I don’t know much about leather, but I like the feel of deerskin. It’s soft and sort of molds itself to your hands, no matter where your hands are — throttle, brake, gas pump.

Buff headwear
Better than bandannas, Buff makes lightweight cloth tubes that are commonly worn around your neck as a scarf. But you can also roll them up and wear them as headbands, or as doo-rag hats, or as a facemask, bank-robber style, if the wind is too bad.

I wore mine as a scarf and even though the jacket was open, I didn’t feel as battered by the wind as I did without it.

These are water containers you wear on your back and let you drink through a hose and bite valve while you’re moving on the bike. California was miserably hot on our way home and we stopped at a sporting goods store near San Bernardino, looking for something to provide relief. Linda suggested the 2-liter Camelbak and I got one, and it was a godsend. We ended up filling it with ice which slowly melted during the day so I had cold water whenever I needed it. Perfect.