Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Summer 2014 Wrap-Up

Despite the best of intentions, the 2014 riding season turned out to be somewhat anti-climactic.

Don't get me wrong -- it wasn't a bust by any stretch. I finally made it to Valdez, I got the Yamaha running well enough to put a few hundred miles on it, my wife and I participated in the Christmas in July charity ride, and Sue Zuki (the Strom) turned 30...thousand miles, that is ;) Unfortunately, I ended up trailering the Strom back from Valdez, the Yammy ended up with a pretty serious mechanical setback, and this year's Ride to Hope turned out to be the Ride to Girdwood due to some seriously foul weather.

Valdez: If you're in Alaska, whether living here or visiting, don't wait 25 years like I did -- it's really gorgeous through Thompson Pass and Keystone Canyon, easily one of the prettiest places I think I have ever been:
On the downside, I heard some odd noises from the rear wheel upon reaching Keystone Canyon on the return to Anchorage. Fortunately, my wife had driven our RV while I was riding the Strom, so I pulled the bike onto the trailer that my wife was pulling behind our RV, rather than riding all the way home. Oh, did I mention that it was pouring rain and bitter cold on the way to Valdez, but warm and sunny on the return trip? Adding insult to injury, the noises I heard in Keystone Canyon turned out to be nothing worse than a loose chain guard that had flopped over onto the chain, so the chain was lightly rubbing on the inside of the chain guard (sigh...) Despite the bad weather on the way to Valdez and the mechanical mishaps on the return trip, I honestly can't wait to go back again -- hopefully all the way there and back next time, lol.

Ride to HopeGirdwood: Then, there was the Ride to Hope, which turned out to be the Ride to Girdwood, due to the extremely inclement weather:
I typically ride rain or shine, so even though I was cold and uncomfortable, I wasn't going to say anything when we stopped in Girdwood to fuel up before heading the rest of the way to Hope. be completely honest, I was not at all disappointed when the group decided to pull the plug on the ride. They headed back to Anchorage, while I snuggled up with a latte at the espresso shop there in Girdwood ;)

XS750 Project: Arguably my biggest motorcycle accomplishment this summer, I also got my XS750 Cafe Racer project running well enough to put about 800 miles on it, including a run to the bike show at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer.

Mechanical Gremlins: However, I didn't log nearly as many miles on my bikes this summer as I usually do, which I blame on persistent mechanical problems this year. Much as I hate to admit it, the V-Strom is starting to show some signs of its age. First, the front tire is nearly worn out, which is good because I <expletive deleted> hate the Continental Trail Attack tires I put on it last summer for the ride to Seattle. I've already replaced the rear with a Shinko 750, and I plan on doing the same thing to the front tire this winter. In fact, the front tire washed out on me once on my driveway this summer, leading to my first drop at any kind of speed, and destroying one of the fog lights I had hung on my crash bars a while back. I've already worn out the chain and sprocket I hung last summer (!), so I've got a replacement in the garage, waiting for me to get a chance to swap them out. And finally, the valves have started chattering a bit, telling me it's (well past) time to pull the plastic, remove the heads, and shim the valves. I'm not looking forward to that. I'm also starting to think that I should probably replace the battery (it's started acting a little less peppy than it used to be) and the brake lines (Suzuki recommends every four years; I'm at five, and I really want stainless steel lines, anyway).

Ok, no problem. The cafe-nated XS750 is running, so I should have been able to take the Strom off-line to work on it, right? You see, I spent most of the summer tracking down a problem where the Yammie would run great for 20 miles or so, then would start running a little rough, would lose power, and then would die completely. I finally identified the problem as a plugged fuel vent, caused by my attempts to fabricate a new fuel cap gasket of silicone rubber last summer, and solved the problem (both of them) by buying a brand new, $25 gas cap -- money well spent!

Once I finally had that issue solved, I turned my attention to fabricating the bump-stop seat, which is 90% done now, although I'm not completely happy with it (it's heavy, a little rough in places, and the paint job looks like crap). I've also been trying out how to rework the exhaust system without paying a small fortune ($350, more or less) for a MAC 3-into-1 exhaust kit, which looks a little chintzy to me. I'd rather try to weld up a complete replacement, although I'll need to step up my welding skills to do that...and it's going to cost a lot more than the MAC. Finally, I've had the high-idle problem with the carbs all summer, as well. Trust me, you haven't lived until you've sat in traffic at a red light on a Yamaha triple with a blown-out exhaust system screaming at 4000+ RPM, lol.

Ok, so I spent a little while tweaking the remaining bugs out of the Yammy, some of which I still haven't completely eradicated, but it's still rideable, right? Ummm, no. On the ride to the Palmer State Fair, I blew the head gasket, and was only able to ride back home because a friend there loaned me a quart of oil to replace some of what leaked out all over my left leg and the engine case.

As a result of these mechanical issues, I didn't make some of the other trips I intended this summer. I skipped out on a group ride to Kennicot Mine, a number of group rides with the charity group that I'm in the process of becoming involved with, and I also blew off my hopes to ride to Nabesna this summer.

Project Plan: Needless to say, I've got a winter full of projects planned out for both bikes while the snow flies here in Anchorage:

Project Bike Dependencies
Head Gaskets Yamaha None
Valve Shim Adjustment V-Strom None
Carburetor Cleaning Yamaha None
Chain and Sprocket Change V-Strom None
Remove Starter Yamaha None
Finish Cafe Racer Seat Yamaha Match gas tank paint?
Exhaust R&R Yamaha Better Welding Technique, lol
Stainless Steel Brake Lines V-Strom None
Upgrade Regulator/Rectifier to Modern Yamaha None
Shorai Battery Both V-Strom: None;
Yamaha: Regulator/Rectifier Upgrade

Should be enough to keep me busy over the winter, lol. If I can get the first six items taken care of, I'll be content. If I can replace the V-Strom brake lines too, I'll be happy. If I can get the exhaust system repaired and/or replaced, I'll be ecstatic.

Friday, August 15, 2014

XS750 Project Part 25: On Rat Bikes, Abandoned Projects and Moving the Soul

I took an English class in college that was easily one of the biggest wastes of time in my entire college career. However, there was at least one grain of wisdom that the English professor teaching (ahem...) that class left with me: "A work of art is never completed," she said. "It is merely abandoned." Her point, of course, was that you can spend an entire lifetime rewriting, editing, altering, adjusting and perfecting your writing -- or any other art form, for that matter -- and there will still be something else in that work that you feel you can make better. Eventually, however, most artists (writers, painters, sculptors, whatever) grow tired with a particular piece of work, and move on to a new project.

Likewise, I have reached a point in my cafe racer project where, even though I know full well that the project is not complete, it is at least at a point where I can pull it out of the workshop and start enjoying it.

Don't be misled; it's still a rat bike in every sense of the word. The seat is a 1/2 inch thick sheet of foam rubber crudely carved (more or less) into shape and held on to the metal seat pan with bungie cords. The exhaust is shot and falling apart. The bike still idles at 4000 RPM once it has reached operating temperature, although I've got a lead on what needs to be done to fix that (thanks, Gatlyn!). The instrument cluster is dented, the triple trees are faded and rusting, and the idiot light panel is cracked and off-kilter. Nevertheless, it is at least ridable now, and I've been commuting around town on it every chance I get.

As I've said before, the V-Strom has been a great bike, and I am really glad that I bought it. It's rock solid, bulletproof, and as reliable as a bike can be. I've put just shy of 30,000 miles on it in the five summers I've owned it, and I fully intend to ride it into the ground; I don't expect that I will ever sell it.

However...have you ever had an itch where it doesn't matter where you scratch, you can't quite seem to reach it? You scratch here, but it's a little too low. You scratch a little higher, but that's not quite it either. You scratch to either side, but still miss the itch. Desperate now, you scratch all over, but every time, you get close...but not quite there. That's what the Strom has been like. It's a great bike, and I really enjoy riding it, but there's still something inexplicable that's missing when I ride it.

Then there's the Yamaha. Now that I've got it running, I think I've finally found what the V-Strom was missing: Character. Soul. That invisible, unquantifiable, visceral feeling of rightness that you can't explain to anyone else, but that you know and recognize the second it's there. The V-Strom is fast enough; in fact, I've ridden it about 10-20 MPH faster than I've (yet) gone on the Yamaha. It's a lot more comfortable than the Yam. I rode the Strom from Anchorage to Seattle and back, a round trip of 5,000 miles, at least according to the odometer (which, admittedly, includes commuting while in Seattle); the longest round-trip I've made on the bike I've named "Miami" ("My Yammy," lol) is 60 miles...and then I was a little stiff for two days afterwards! The Strom has never, ever stranded me anywhere (although I did trailer it back from Valdez this summer after what turned out to be a non-event -- the chain guard had loosened and was rubbing on the chain, but I thought it was bearing problems again), but I've had to call for a ride home once already while out on the Yammy, and I had to stop and troubleshoot on the side of the road once after the engine abruptly died on me. The Strom is more nimble, turns quicker and is more responsive to body language than the Yam. It also is lighter, has more range, carries more cargo, is more versatile, and starts with the push of a button every...single...time whereas the Yamaha is a cranky, cantankerous, kick-start-only machine, etc., etc., etc.

Yet somehow, despite all of the logical, rational, practical reasons why the Strom is a better bike -- and it is, no doubt about it -- the Yamaha still elicits more smiles per gallon than the V-Strom. When I want to unwind, it's the bike I gravitate towards, even in its present, unfinished state. When I close my eyes and picture myself shedding the stress of the day, the vision in my mind's eye is me astride the Yammy. The Strom transports the body, but the Yamaha transports the soul.

And in the end, that's why I ride. There's nothing logical or rational or practical about it. It's about feeding the soul and feeling alive. Both bikes fill needs that I have, so both bikes will continue to be ridden. Sometimes the mission will be practical, and I'll take the Strom. Sometimes the mission will be emotional, and I'll take the Yam. And if one or the other bike is down for maintenance, at least I won't be caging it during Alaska's all-too-short riding season ;)

Friday, June 20, 2014

XS750 Project Part 24: Brakes Working but Engine...Not So Much

For the second year in a row, I tried to have the XS ready for the Ride for Hope, a charity ride in which I like to participate. The cruiser crowd is usually well represented at the Ride to Hope, with a few large-displacement touring bikes in attendance as well. My Strom is typically an odd duck on this ride, as the Ride to Hope usually conflicts with the Dust to Dawson ride, and the ADV crowd usually opts for the D2D. No surprise, since Hope is only 80 miles from Anchorage -- barely a warm-up for ADV types. However, 80 miles would be a good run on a cafe racer, and I'm anxious to show off the XS, so I've been busy swapping out parts and trying to get the XS finished up in time for Saturday's (June 21) ride.

First, I found a pair of front brake calipers on E-Bay for a reasonable price, and managed to swap the new seals and stainless steel pistons out of the original calipers into the new E-Bay brakes. After a false start (I ended up needing to disassemble the calipers and take a brake hone to the cylinder), I finally got a pair of front brakes that no longer leak -- a major accomplishment, considering how many ways I've tried to repair the old calipers first. I wasn't happy with the stainless steel brake lines that run from the splitter to the calipers themselves, so I also ordered slightly longer Goodridge brake lines, and new bleeder check-valves (supposedly, they only allow fluid out, greatly simplifying the task of bleeding the brakes).

I also reworked the tail/brake lights and turn signals. I ended up cutting a few inches off of the metal seat pan to stiffen up the tail light/plate mount, since the old one seemed a bit flimsy and was too easy to bend.

I also spent some time working on a fiberglass seat and cafe hump to fit over the metal seat pan. After sculpting a gorgeous, work-of-art cafe hump out of florist's foam (if I do say so myself, lol), and laying up a couple of layers of fiberglass over the foam, I test fit the seat on the bike, and noticed that the hump was way too high for the lines of the bike. Over the winter, I found a post over at Bike Exif that describes the lines that make a good-looking cafe racer. The seat hump I had designed violated both the "Height" and "Swoop" guidelines in that post. I'm at least as much a rebel as anyone else, but...there's a reason those guidelines work, lol. I ended up taking my Lowe's dozuki saw knock-off to the hump, cutting it down so that it no longer looks out of place with tank on the bike. Unfortunately, there's still more finish work to be done on the seat before it's even close to being done.

Next, I replaced the stock vacuum-operated fuel petcocks with manual parts from Mike's XS, which solved the problem with fuel leaking from the tank. After several test runs in the driveway, then a quick ride in my neighborhood, I was satisfied that the petcocks were no longer leaking, that the carb floats were set correctly, and that they shut off the flow of fuel to the carbs properly once the float bowls filled.

Despite a persistent problem with idle on the bike -- once it warms up, it idles at 3500 - 4000 RPM and I can't figure out why -- I rode the bike to work one Friday morning. It started acting a little odd while sitting in traffic at lunch time, but ran great on the way home a few hours later, making me think that the engine was just getting a little too hot while idling at 4000RPM with no airflow over the engine. It is an air-cooled engine, after all. I installed new NGK BPR7 spark plugs while troubleshooting the high idle, mucked around with the idle mixture setting and idle adjust screw, but the bike still idled at 3500+ RPM. After reading everything I could find on-line about high idle on a carbureted motorcycle, I decided to add some Sea Foam to the tank, and run the bike on the highway for a while. As you can see in this video, the bike ran like a champ...

...until it abruptly stopped running altogether. After sitting on the side of the road for 10-15 minutes, I managed to get the bike restarted and limped back about two miles towards home before it died again. This time, I couldn't get it to start again, and I haven't been able to start it since (grrr!!!)

So, back out to the garage and more troubleshooting. I connected my ohmmeter to the primary leads of each ignition coil and measured the resistance. According to the fine folks at Yamaha Triples, the primaries on the '77 XS750 should measure 4 ohms +/-20%. I measured 6.5, 5.0 and 6.4 on coils 1, 2 and 3 respectively -- that's 62%, 25% and 60% out of spec, respectively. Then, I measured resistance from the primary to the output of each coil. Per the spec, that should be 11K ohms (+/-20%), and I measured 10.4K, 10.2K, and 10.5K on each coil, which is well within spec. Just to verify my tests, I also tried sparking from a plug to the engine ground while kicking the kickstarter -- it sparked, but didn't seem particularly strong. After testing the coils, I ordered replacements and new spark plug wires from Mike's XS as well as new points and condensers from Bike Bandit. We'll see if the makes any difference, but for now -- for the second year in a row -- the XS isn't quite ready for the Ride to Hope, so I'll be riding the Strom again. But at least *it* has heated grips! :)

Saturday, May 24, 2014

ADV Pulse Survey -- Rebutting the ADV Stereotype

Just completed a survey over at ADV Pulse about whether or not so-called "Adventure" and/or "Adventure Touring" bikes are the SUV's (read "vehicles for poseurs who like to pretend they are more rugged than they really are") of today. I can't answer for anyone else, but I've taken my Strom -- certainly not the most off-road capable ADV bike on the market -- to some pretty rugged unmaintained roads...:

...even if I do ride it on pavement or maintained dirt/gravel roads 90% of the time:

One question they didn't ask, but I wish they had, is "would you spend more time off-road if your bike had features that made it more capable off-road?" (my answer would be yes). For example, if my Strom had a longer travel suspension, a little more ground clearance and a lower c.g., I'd probably be a lot more adventurous on it. Yes, that raises the question, "so why didn't I get a KLR or DR650?" to which I would reply, "because it's a long way on pavement between places I wanted to visit in my home state of Alaska, so the Strom seemed better suited for the type of riding I would typically be doing." Additionally, while the KLR is, by all accounts, a very capable bike, it was just lacking the excitement factor I wanted in a motorcycle. While my Strom might not be as capable as the KLR once the pavement ends, it gets a lot more smiles per gallon on pavement than I expected from the Kawasaki.

That, basically, is the essence of the "Adventure" motorcycle paradox: manufacturers build motorcycles that meet the "90% of the time needs" of motorcycle riders (i.e., pavement-oriented), while "Adventure" riders like myself dream of the 10% of the time we are going some place really cool (i.e., unmaintained 4x4 trails and such). However, because the bikes we own are strongly biased towards the pavement, we don't explore the really cool places as often as we'd like. Manufacturers see that most "ADV" bikes rarely travel off-road, and continue to bias their "ADV" offerings for the street. Wash, rinse, and repeat as required.

You can see this with the newer bikes being introduced to the market. The BMW 1200GS is the flagship of the Adventure Touring world, but honestly, how many of us would really take a 600 pound, $20,000+ dollar motorcycle on a rugged trail where the likelihood of dropping and damaging the bike is extremely high? Yet all of the major manufacturers are introducing bikes that are more like the 1200GS than the DR650 or KLR650: Ducati's Multistrada, the new KTM 1190, the Triumph Tiger 1200, Yamaha's Super Tenere are all strongly road-biased. Honda's two "Adventure" bikes and the new Suzuki DL1000 V-Strom are "Adventure" in name only.

Ideally, I'd like something very similar to the Husqvarna 650 Trail or the Tenere 660 (not available here in the U.S., @#&$%!!!) but with a twin-cylinder engine. Since it doesn't exist (and the Triumph Tiger 800XC wasn't available in 2010, when I bought my bike), I settled for the best compromise I could find at the time, a 2009 Suzuki DL650. Because it is a compromise, I don't spend as much time on rugged trails as I would like.

If only the manufacturers would build a small, light, off-road capable twin for the U.S. market...

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Early Season Ride up to Hatcher Pass

When I was a child, my family lived in Northern Japan. One of our frequent day trips was to drive to the Towada Mountains, a volcanic range of mountains, one of which had a caldera lake, with an absolutely spectacular gorge carved by the Oirase River which flowed from the lake to the ocean below and to the east. To this day, it's one of my favorite places on earth; perhaps my very favorite, even. I remember traveling up into the mountains near the caldera lake one winter afternoon, and being amazed. The snowplows had done an amazing job of keeping the road clear -- but on either side of the road were vertical walls of snow towering way over our heads. It was an impressive sight, to say the least.

So, when a co-worker told me he had recently tried to drive over Hatcher Pass between Willow and Palmer, Alaska, and had run into walls of snow that sounded like the ones from my childhood in Japan, I decided I needed to take a trip out to Hatcher Pass to see it (again) for myself.

My co-worker had driven up from the Willow side, and maybe the Palmer side was just a little warmer and received a little more sun than the Willow side. Or maybe, I just waited too long to head out to the Pass. Whatever the reason, I didn't find ten-foot-high walls of snow on either side of the road, but it was a great day for a ride, anyway. The weather was beautiful -- warm, sunny, mild winds -- and the trees were just starting to bud, filling the air with the delicious aroma of spring (cottonwoods are a pain in the backside come mid-summer, but they smell wonderful in early May!). Even though the snow wasn't as high on the sides of the road as I expected, there was still too much snow near the summit for either the Pass itself or Archangel Valley to be opened yet...which is not at all unexpected, as the Pass usually doesn't open until around the 4th of July. Nevertheless, if you are visiting Alaska by motorcycle (or even by car), I'd still recommend a trip up to Hatcher Pass, if you find yourself in the Mat-Su Valley. Like the Towada Range in Japan, it's one of my favorite places to spend a sunny summer day.

Friday, February 14, 2014

XS750 Restoration Project Part...I Don't Remember Anymore -- Shock Upgrades

It's been a while since I've last updated the XS750 project pages, mostly because it's been really cold in the garage and I've been lazy ;) However, a week or two ago, I replaced the (ancient) stock rear brake line with a Goodridge braided stainless line that I picked up from Bike Bandit. Even better, yesterday, the slightly longer (330mm vs. OEM 320mm) Hagon 2810 shocks I ordered finally arrived:

Installation was a breeze:
Pull the old shocks...

Shocks removed...

Left side Hagons in place...

...and the right side.

That's it! I now have a little more clearance between the wheel and frame.