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Smell the Roses

Many of us with older BMW Airheads already appreciate the slower pace our bikes sometimes demand of our touring.  What I mean is, given the choice, I would rather ride a secondary highway instead of a four lane monster like the 401 in Ontario.  I’m not implying my Airhead CAN’T keep up with the 130 kph traffic on that road – my bike would happily do, and has done, that speed or higher all day long – I’m saying an Airhead is almost too refined for that kind of speed-for-the-sake-of-speed pace.  Maybe it’s also the fact the all of the cars on Highway 401 seem ignorant of everything else around them and riding a motorcycle only makes a person more likely to get killed while out for a leisurely ride.  Ontario also has some of the worst drivers in the world, but I digress.

Where I’m going with all of this is, although the 401 and its ilk are fabulous transportation corridors for serving the movement of goods throughout the economy, they don’t make for the most enlightened rides.  I once rode my BMW R80 from Kitchener to Ottawa and back in a single day (a total of about 1000 kms) to more or less run an errand.  I was forced to use the 401 in order to navigate that huge distance in the shortest amount of time.  I can tell you that I remember absolutely nothing about the scenery, the weather, the food I ate, or people I met along the way.  This is because, in that same order, there is no scenery at 130 kph, all of my concentration was used to stay alive amongst the cars so I didn’t even notice weather, I ate at various roadside fast food chains, and there was no time for talking to anybody at any time.  Measured against another trip of roughly equal distance – or any distance really – where I actually enjoyed the scenery, ate decent non-chain food, stopped at interesting spots for regular rests, and perhaps made conversation with some locals, that trip to Ottawa was a complete waste of time.


A few years ago I finally pledged to ride a bit slower, never eat fast food, and stop whenever I saw something interesting to look at or take a picture of.  This methodology is horrible advice of you need to cover a lot of ground fast, but is absolutely the gospel if you want to enjoy the journey you are on.  I used to make a big deal of having a destination to ride to, as if that were the purpose of the ride itself.  Now I sort of know where I want to go but make a lot of decisions along the way, often taking cues from road signs indicating historic sites or natural wonders or good restaurants.

The picture above is one such example.  It was taken on a side road near Paris, Ontario.  That’s my son beside the bike.  I had ridden to Paris from Kitchener a zillion times and never stopped at this particular side road before.  This time, because I was out with my son and riding a bit slower, I noticed a sign for a historic church just before entering the town of Paris.  I swung the bike around and set off down the road toward the church.  Turns out it was built way back in 1845 in a style and with techniques found only in that area (little tiny, fist-sized rocks in perfect horizontal rows).  No longer used (a ‘new’ church was built beside it in 1927) it is now a memorial to the local pioneers.

This quaint little story isn’t a subliminal message from Tourism Ontario, and it’s not sponsored by the Traffic Police in hopes of making you ride your motorcycle more slowly.  I still take my bike out for cornering-eating high speed snorts all the time and enjoy the hell out of it.  I’m simply trying to relate that there is a lot of merit in enjoying your Airhead for the comfortable, plodding touring machine that it is and making the ride the destination instead of just going somewhere on a motorcycle.  Choosing to eat in mom-and-pop restaurants also forces you to stop and absorb the journey a little deeper than you might have otherwise.  Also, this helps you not get fat from eating nothing but take out hamburgers all summer long.

Stop and smell the roses this riding season.  It’s not easy, but practice will make you better at it.  Before you know it, you’ll discover some treasure of a spot only a few kilometers from where you live (I found an abandoned brick yard once!!) and you will be taking your friends back there again and again.

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Motor Skills

This post has nothing to do with BMW Airheads.  In fact, it really has nothing to do with motorcycles at all.  It’s about a vintage clock.  If you’ve never seen inside a vintage mechanical clock or watch, you should.  Even better is a mechanical clock or watch that is actually working.  It truly is a marvel of engineering and mass manufacturing.  Pictured below is an Elgin Grade 562 8-Day A-11 clock from 1942.  These clocks were mass produced for the war effort and were installed in almost everything that flew for the USA as well as being issued to many ground vehicles like battle tanks.  Elgin alone produced about 350,000 of these movements (the working part of the clock) and there were many other manufacturers who made a version of the same thing for the US Government.  I can’t imagine how many of these clocks were produced in total for the war effort and, like most items made during that time, they were all ultimately disposable.  Every day that military equipment survives in battle is a gift.  Another mind-blowing example of military expenditure.


This particular clock belongs to a friend of mine.  He got it from his dad and it’s been hanging around the family for 50 years or so.  The clock was ‘working’ but didn’t keep the correct time and would stop every little while.  Being interested in all things mechanical I offered to have a look inside to see if there was something obvious gone astray.  With nothing to lose, my friend agreed.  What a good friend because, although I am pretty handy, I am NOT a watchmaker or clock maker or maker of anything at all.  I really just wanted the challenge.

Without describing every detail here, I did take the clock completely apart, cleaned it, and put it back together.  It went back together and now works!  This sounds simple – took the clock completely apart, cleaned it, and put it back together – but there really isn’t anything simple about the process at all.  NOW I understand why there is such a thing as a watchmaking apprenticeship and watchmaking schools.  It truly is a skill that needs patience, understanding, and fine motor skills.  Most importantly, one must know what one is doing and WHY in order for something like a watch or clock to be brought back to working condition.  Is this much different than working on our precious BMW Airheads?

Like the Elgin Grade 562, the engines that power our motorcycles are a fairly simple example of the species.  The Elgin tells only the time and doesn’t trouble us with dates or months or, if you can imagine, moon phases.  Our type 247’s, with their pushrods and air cooling, also don’t trouble us with complications unessential to the task at hand.  The BMW Airhead – the very archetype of motorcycle longevity – will go on running year after year and will do so with only the slightest maintenance.  But it does need maintenance.  Like the clock, which was built to be cheap, robust, reliable, and maintainable, our BMW Airhead engines need someone to help them through life.

I had never cleaned a vintage time piece before.  It was difficult.  In the end it was courage that pulled me through the process.  If I didn’t know what I was doing at a particular moment, I’d stop and do some research.  Sometimes the work would stop for days.  If I thought I was pushing the limits of my skills and tools, I’d stop.  I bought many new tools along the way.  Courage.  I had the courage to fail at repairing the clock and, instead, in the end I succeeded.  It could have gone the other way.  I could have botched the whole affair and ended up with an exotic paperweight, but I didn’t.

If you’ve never set your own valves or changed the pushrod seals on your bike, give it a try soon.  Buy the parts you will need.  Read everything you can about the operation.  Go for it!  Remember we are all pre-wired with courage, and using it to repair your beloved motorcycle is as good a place as any.  Dare to fail!