Friday, December 25, 2009

Tread Life Is Making A Pit Stop

It’s been a year and a few days since I tripped and fell face-first into the blogosphere. Before then, I wouldn’t have used the word blogosphere; now I have a summer house there.

I started this blog because the market in the print media for my kind of work is shrinking. I’ve already written about how the very medium through which you’re reading this is largely responsible for that, so I won’t try to reanimate the dead horse. Suffice it to say I have seen the future, and is it virtual.

Tread Life was originally conceived as a sort of online resumé for anyone who might want to hire me to do paying work. But over time TL has become something more, a place for me to unwind and write the kind of things I want to write, as opposed to the things that might earn a buck.

It’s been good practice; every good writer writes almost obsessively. It’s also been good for me to expand my horizons and poke my nose into topics that wouldn’t have interested me previously because there was no market for them.

At the same time it must be acknowledged that you, the reader, have played a vital part in the process. Based on the comments you leave, and the emails I get, TL is more than a venue in which I can muse, rant, wonder, posit, and bloviate without fear of some editor standing over my shoulder, suggesting this post is a bit too harsh, or that post might piss off some of the readers.

So thanks to all of you who read this stuff. Next year I plan to liven up the mix a bit, with product spotlights, interviews with industry people, and maybe a travel story or two. I’m also going to see if I can scrounge together the equipment to make videos and post them on YouTube.

For now, however, Tread Life is going on a break, mainly because I don't figure many of you plan to spend the holiday season on the computer. Also, I feel another novel coming on, and I want to fool around with the outline some more before I get started on it.

So have a happy whatever it is you do this time of year. I’ll be back in 2010, and I hope you will, too.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Why Are Motorcycles So Hard To Work On?

I drove into town this afternoon to the Honda shop to pick up a bottle of coolant so I can finally put the V-Strom back together after the Great Valve-Adjustment Fiasco of ’09. While I was there I went around back to talk to the mechanic, who has done all of the work on my bike that I haven’t done myself, despite him working for a Honda shop and me riding a Suzuki.

He was sitting on a stool beside a lift on which sat the filthiest old quad I’ve ever seen. There was so much mud caked on it I wasn't sure what brand of quad it was. I joked that it was nice when the customers cleaned their bikes before they brought them in for service. He said this one wasn't bad, and I should see one of the really dirty ones.

I congratulated him on having the patience to sit there all day and work on mutts like that quad, because it had taken me three weeks just to adjust the valves on the V-Strom. He knows me well enough to realize I wasn't talking about three weeks of eight-hour days, but rather an hour here and an hour there, often with several days between those hours to wait for parts or let my aching knees and back recover.

We got to talking about how hard it was to work on some bikes. I told him some of the horror stories the V-Strom valve adjust had generated, and he trumped every one with a tale of his own about newer Hondas, especially the sportbikes, some of which are so compact that you have to remove the injector bodies to adjust the valves.

On the drive home I thought about this, and wondered when and why motorcycles got so hard to work on. When I started riding, it seemed like you were practically expected to do your own maintenance. BMW motorcycles came with toolkits so complete you could almost strip the bike down to the bare frame by the side of the road. Even low-dollar Japanese bikes came with a little blue plastic bag crammed so full of tools you could never fit them all back inside once you took them out.

Now? Not so much. Some of the test bikes I’ve ridden in recent years came with a spark-plug wrench, a screwdriver, and three wrenches made of steel as hard as old cheese. Harleys, which for years had a reputation for stopping dead due to factors like a change in humidity, still don’t come with tools of any kind.

All I can figure is the manufacturers don’t want me messing with the bike at all. That’s understandable, I guess, in the age of emissions standards and corporate liability, but dammit, if that’s the way they want to play it, they ought to make sure every shop selling their brand employs mechanics who can use tools for something other than scratching their asses.

Some years back, I stopped by a Suzuki dealer to ask about a valve adjust on the bike I was riding at the time. The only guy in the shop looked about 20, and had on a T-shirt with the name of some heavy-metal band across the front. He was holding a torque wrench the way a monkey would hold a violin.

This did little to instill confidence in his mechanical ability. Still, I was already there, so I asked him if he’d ever done the valves on the model of bike I had, and he said, “No, but I’ve done the valves on my CBR600, and that’s the same kind of valves, right? With the little round things?”

I thanked him for his time, rode away, and did the job myself. It only took me two weeks back then. I guess I’m slowing down in my old age.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Motorcycling Lessons Learned

On one of the forums I visit now and then, someone started a thread by asking for responses to the question, “How old are you and how has your riding changed, or has it?”

I jotted down a few things that came to mind right away, then the more I thought about it, the longer the list got. This was my answer:

I'm 57 (for a couple of months more), and I’ve been riding for 41 of those years.

Yes, my riding has changed.

I no longer ride at night.

I no longer have to be the first guy there.

I no longer care about anyone's pace but my own.

I no longer try to keep up with anyone who passes me.

I no longer feel the need to prove anything to anybody.

I'm 100 percent ATGATT. (For the uninitiated, that’s an acronym for “all the gear, all the time,” “gear” being riding gear—helmet, armored jacket and pants, gloves, boots.)

I'm convinced that most motorcycles need much bigger and brighter taillights.

I'm intrigued by big scooters and sidecars and I don't care who knows it.

It's more fun to ride a small bike as fast as it'll go than it is to ride a big one way too fast.

It's more fun to stop for coffee or to stretch and sightsee every 50 or 100 miles and arrive in time for a late dinner than it is to ride 400 miles in one shot and get there by lunchtime.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Lord of the Ring-Dings: Return of the King

No Elves or Orcs in this version, but a Wizard does battle with a shrieking, fearsome, and deadly fast four-cylinder beast from his past.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Inside Lines: Loud Pipes Equal Terrorism?

"'Instead of honoring noise terrorism, our representatives should protect us from the awful noise of Harley riders,' said George Atwood, a Noise Free America member from Milton, Wis."

Here inside the spacious Tread Life compound, the roar of Harleys on the highway down the hill can be heard clearly, and loudly, and often. It's annoying as hell, it turns the non-riding public against all the motorcyclists who don't have crippling inferiority complexes, and there's no real excuse for grown men and women to behave like a pack of five-year-olds whose clueless grandparents gave them drums for their birthday. Still, comparing obnoxious dimwits with loud pipes to fanatics who randomly blow up people is a pretty big leap.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Alex Zanardi, Roll Model

On September 15, 2001, Alex Zanardi, a veteran Formula 1 and Champ Car driver, was merging onto the track after leaving the pits late in a race at the EuroSpeedway Lausitz in Germany when his car spun and veered onto the racing line. The car driven by Alex Tagliani T-boned Zanardi’s car, splitting it in half and severing both of Zanardi’s legs above the knee.

After a long recovery, Zanardi continued to compete in cars specially equipped with hand controls until the end of the 2009 World Touring Car Championship season, when he announced his retirement from racing. His next goal is to qualify for the Italian handcycling team and compete in the 2012 Summer Paralympics.

According to report on Axis of Oversteer, last week Zanardi put in a few laps of Monza on a BMW HP2 modified with an automatic transmission, a brake splitter, and supports for his artificial legs.

The next time you go for a ride and feel like turning back because your ass hurts a little, or you're too cold, or too hot, just think about Alex Zanardi, fearless and legless, bending that HP2 around Monza at a buck-sixty.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Reevu Helmet: Eyes In The Back Of Your Head

With the stock mirrors on most bikes falling somewhere between marginal and useless, seeing what's going on behind you is a challenge. Here's the most promising take on increasing rearward vision on a bike since the Visor-Vu. Read more about it here.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

V-Strom Valve Adjustment: Welcome To My Nightmare

I make it a habit to do all the work I can on my bike using only the tools in the toolkit. If there’s a routine job I need to do that requires a tool I don’t have, I buy the tool and add it to the kit.

Some jobs, however, render that plan impractical. For example, I’m in the middle of a valve adjustment on my V-Strom. By “in the middle” I mean I just completed the rear cylinder, and am ready to tackle the front one tomorrow.

To do this job using only tools that fit on the bike, I’d have to add a shim set, a torque wrench, a tube of gasket sealer, a shop manual, a two-foot-long socket extender with a universal joint at both ends, half a bottle of Tylenol, and a phrasebook of blistering profanity with which to excoriate the motherless pinhead who designed the bike so as to require the removal of the tank, the fairing, the air box, countless tubes and hoses and electrical gang plugs, the radiator, the rear brake pedal and master cylinder, the seat and seat bracket, the right-side passenger peg bracket, and several square inches of skin from my knuckles just to check—never mind actually adjust—the freakin’ valves, a task the manual has the balls to call “routine maintenance.”

I am consoled to a small degree by the knowledge that the valve clearances on 650 V-Stroms don’t change that much as a rule. I checked mine for the first time at 14,000 miles, and they were all in spec, though at the very lower end. Now, at 27,000 miles, I have found one tight exhaust valve in the rear cylinder, and the other three valves right where they were last time I checked them.

Now the front cylinder is all that stands between me and the road. Barring any catastrophes on the way to exposing its mysteries, I’ll have everything buttoned up by New Year’s Day, in time for a long-distance rider lunch run up the coast to Florence.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Speed in Super Slow Motion

The problem with speed is it happens so fast you can't see how neat it really looks. This video shows cars and bikes going really fast, really slowly. Nice soundtrack, too.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Harry Hurt, 1927-2009

"He was a bulldog at finding the facts and making them public even if some people were unhappy when the facts he reported didn't support their pet theories."

Read more here.