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What it's Like to Crash a Motorcycle

“Damn it. John Burns thinks I’m a dick.”
That was one of the predominant thoughts going through my head as I slid down a Florida highway at 60 mph back in March.
It’s weird how the mind works. Time slows in a crash. Every tiny image burns into memory, so your brain can replay it over and over and over at night for the next who knows how many weeks.
In the moments before I crashed, I was riding the Harley-Davidson Street Rod along County Road 34 in central Florida. I’m not sure which county. The accident report simply records it as “County Code 61,” but the internet can’t agree on which county that is. Maybe I was in Indian River County; maybe I was in Suwannee County; maybe I was in Flagler County; I don’t know. I guess it doesn’t matter; I was somewhere. The road passing through that somewhere was long and straight – not the sort of place where one usually crashes – and the weather was perfect.

“My God, I am so happy,” I was thinking. “I am so incredibly lucky to be here – to live t…

The 12,000-mile service

The before picture. Note the open Haynes manual on the ground.
Let me just say right off the bat that I don't begrudge anyone earning a good wage. Life is hard and if you can earn enough money to make it just a little bit easier on yourself and your family, then more power to you. Especially when the thing you do has intrinsic value, like teaching or curing illness or fixing cars/motorcycles. Often when we see discussions of motorcycle maintenance and repair we fall into the trope of portraying mechanics as Shylocks.

This is silly. My brother is a mechanic (a), so is one of my very best friends, and I've hung out with plenty of other guys and gals from all sides of that world: mechanics, auto body technicians, painters, tire guys, and so on. They're just people who, like any right-thinking individual anywhere, want to make a good living doing stuff they're good at. If you're being critical of that you need to consider whether what you're actually feeling is jealousy.

As a side note, kids, take it from your ol' pal Chris: Consider a career in auto tech. I have a bachelor's degree and master's degree from one of the top universities on the planet. In my particular degree, it is ranked first. My brother, meanwhile, has just one semester of community college credits to his name. Annually, he earns four times more money than I do.

All of this said, however, I hate giving my money to mechanics. And any time I can avoid doing so fills me with a joyful sense of accomplishment. This past weekend provided just such an opportunity. The Honda's odometer hit 12,000 miles recently, which, according to my owner's manual, meant it was due a service. I'll admit my original inclination was to take it in to a garage, but in flipping through my Haynes manual it occurred to me that there was not actually a whole lot to do. I decided to tackle the job myself and set aside the money for the 16,000-mile service, when I definitely will take it to a mechanic because that job involves valve clearances.

Replacing the air filter.
In researching what, exactly, I would need to do for for the 12,000-mile service I came across a handy list of all the work my local Honda dealership, Thunder Road, undertakes:
  1. Replace oil
  2. Replace oil filter
  3. Check fuel lines
  4. Check throttle operation
  5. Check idle speed
  6. Check cooling system
  7. Check secondary air system
  8. Check chain wear and adjustment
  9. Check brake fluid 
  10. Check clutch fluid
  11. Check brake pad wear
  12. Check brake system
  13. Check light operation
  14. Check tire depth and condition
  15. Check wheel bearings
  16. Check suspension
  17. Check bodywork condition
  18. Road test
  19. Lube locks
  20. Lube pivots

The good folks at Thunder Road will charge you £130 (US $220) for all that. If you read between the lines, of course, really all you're paying for is an oil change with the addition of having a professional do a thorough version of the pre-ride checks you're supposed to be doing every time you ride (b), as well as spray a few bits with lubricant. Remove the £50 cost of a new oil filter, 5 litres of oil and a can of GT-85, and you're paying a mechanic £80 (US $135) for his or her time. As I say, I don't begrudge anyone a good wage; it's nice work if you can get it. But, you know, I'm happy to avoid being the one to pay for it. Meanwhile, in addition to all of the above, I also:
  1. Replaced the air filter
  2. Lubricated the clutch cable
  3. Adjusted the headlight alignment
  4. Replaced the switch on my heated grips

The Oxford heated grips my father had bought me for Christmas had gone kaput only a month after having them badly installed by a Penarth mechanic. A while later, in chatting with a mechanic from Fowler's of Bristol, I learned that a common problem with that particular model of grips (version 8) is that the switch is prone to shorting out.

"Just throw in a new switch is what I'd do," he said.

With the seats and side fairing removed.
The fact he said this without suggesting I take it to his shop to get the work done made it sound really easy. And, I suppose, all things considered, it was. A kind of "really easy" that took me several hours to accomplish, but that's probably more to do with the fact that I am an idiot.

All told, the work took me three hours from start to finish, and that included roughly half an hour of experimenting with adjusting the seat's height.

It's a fair bet it would have only taken a professional mechanic one hour to do all of the above work. It's an equally fair bet he or she would have charged me for at least two. Total up the cost of parts and service, and I suspect I would have been looking at a bill of somewhere around £250 (US $420). By doing the work myself, it cost only £80.

Though, I will admit it was stressful. Taking apart the fairing and lifting the gas tank was causing me to suffer little panics as I thought to myself: "There is no going back from this. You will have to put everything back together. And you will have to put it all back together before you run out of daylight." (I have a very tiny covered area to store my bike but I have to work on it outside.)

It was a time-consuming and surprisingly delicate process that involved gently nudging free dozens of little things that you wouldn't expect to be so fragile on an object capable of going 150 mph. It is certainly something to store in my brain for the next time I'm hurtling down the motorway: "Hey, remember how this thing is held together by super-easy-to-break trim clips and pegs? Stuff you could break with your fingers? And now it's being hit by 90-mph wind. Contemplate on that, motherhugger. Wheeeee!"

I mean, good lord, are planes held together like this? Next time I go back to the States I may choose to swim.

Replacing the switch for the heated grips.
But, I suppose, because things are so fiddly it is comforting to know that I am the person who dealt with these things. It being my motorcycle, upon which I ride, I inherently took great care in every little thing. An example of this came when replacing the switch for the heated grips.

When I had paid someone to install them, he had simply stuffed the excess wiring up under the tank. Re-doing the work, I now took the time to neatly zip tie things and meticulously wrap it all in gaffer tape. If the switch shorts out again I will know it is because that version of grips is crap and not because putting wiring in a rat's nest just above the carburetors somehow led to a fault.

I will know when I ride that each of the bolts and screws and clips and pegs on the bike were checked and rechecked to make sure they are secure. I will know that the person who did the work didn't cut any corners, didn't say: "Yeah, well, that's good enough."

And the feeling of accomplishment from having done all this work myself is immense. I am not by nature very mechanically inclined. There is some fault in my brain that I very quickly get confused and upset by stuff that is childlike in simplicity to people like my brother. When I'm able to overcome that, though –– when I'm able to strip away bits on my bike, rewire things, and put it all together again –– I feel so incredibly proud.

Jenn came home just as I was clicking the final bit into place. I pointed with glee and said:

"Look, babe. I just spent three hours working on the bike."

"It looks the same as it always does," she said.

"Exactly," I said. "I did it right."


–––––––––––––––––––


(a) I feel the need to go out of my way to tell you how much I love my little brother. Ignoring the fact that he is awesome and funny and could kick your ass, I estimate he has saved me several, several thousands of dollars in car repair costs over the years by either doing the work or very patiently explaining to me –– in simple terms so I can understand –– how to do the work myself.

(b) Though, in fairness, who really does all that every single time they ride? 

Comments

  1. Once you get to working on other parts of the bike, you'll get a good idea of what tools you'll need carry on a road trip.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Legitimate question: Would you drag along a torque wrench for a 1,000-mile journey to be able to adjust the chain if necessary? I can't decide whether that would be a dumb idea.

      Delete
    2. A torque wrench? To adjust Sash's chain on her Ninja 500, I brought two sizes of crescent wrenches, which I could use for a wide variety of things.

      Delete
  2. High five! It's great to be able to stand back and say, "I fixed this myself."

    ReplyDelete
  3. Chris:

    You were brave and luckily you didn't have any spare parts left over. It's a sense of accomplishment to know you did it yourself. I have also had to do some repairs outside in the lane, and the worst part is having to go and get parts that you didn't know you needed, and then with no vehicle to use, and get it done before it got dark

    bob
    A weekend photographer or Riding the Wet Coast

    ReplyDelete
  4. When it comes to valve clearance/carburettor balancing time, give me a call if you want. I've got all the tools and i'm not far.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Yeap, I'm far from being a full fledge mechanic... but I have about $10K worth of tools. Have the repROMs manuals for all my BMWs, and only go to a mechanic when:
    a - don't have a particular tool critical to the job
    b - the job far exceeds my capabilities (like precision welding or machining)
    c - I'm too tired or lazy to do it and I think it's trivial

    For everything else, I have an inherent distrust of mechanics. Most of them where I live, do not give a flip about your machine. It's hard enough, even for me, the owner, when doing my own work to be exceeding orderly, and by the book. Imagine what a mechanic that does the same thing over and over...

    Same goes for Doctors, those I immensely distrust. Bio-mechanics... I'm so glad I've taken my bio-machine very few times for repair or maintenance.

    So, yes. I get a huge sense of accomplishment and self-worth when doing my own work. Actually, when having beers it's not enough to de-stress, I fix things. That makes me feel I am not wasting my talent as an Engineer, I can actually figure things out still now...

    ReplyDelete
  6. Chris, what a great write-up about your maintenance experience. I've always been too intimidated to do much work on my car or bike. My hat is off to you for doing it and doing it well. Congrats on a job well done. Now it's time to ride!

    Cheers,
    Curt

    ReplyDelete
  7. The more you work on things the easier it gets too. For example, by the third time you have the fairings off you'll not likely need to look at a manual first to remember the order the fasteners come out. By the fifteenth you're chucking the bolts in a heap on account of knowing which ones go where by feel.

    ReplyDelete

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