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Motorcycle Gearheads in Action
by Howard Ziff     6/28/09

For some years I have been a regular participant in what is called the Jampot Rallye.  The Rallye was conceived over 32 years ago by a bunch of motorcycling enthusiasts who particularly fancy the Matchless and AJS marques.  Each year they would gather in western Massachusetts, in the tiny hamlet of Washington, at an old resort, the Bucksteep Manor, with their now ancient English bikes and lots of good cheer, an ample supply of spare parts and the requisite tools to install them.  

This year I attended in the company of an old biking friend, Greg, with whom I have been riding and enjoying a wide array of male pursuits over decades.  Greg and I both ride big BMW bikes because we like the reliability and the handling.  And so it was that we set out on a Friday morn in late June to join our biker buddies for a glorious weekend of riding the marvelous twisting roads of western Mass and southern VT.  

As we approached our destination, Greg seemed to be lagging behind and fiddling with his machine.  We got to Bucksteep after a very slow ascent up Washington mountain and parked our bikes, signed in and began to greet all our friends whom we hadn't seen since the last Jampot a year earlier.  Along the way I happened to question Greg about why he'd lagged behind as we came up the hill and he remarked that his bike was acting oddly.  Well, what better place to diagnose and treat an ailing motorcycle than in the presence of a hundred committed gearheads (or is that a hundred gearheads who  should be committed).

All bikers think about their mechanical and electrical talents.  They want to maintain their bikes in peak condition and often dive into the maintenance process with particular glee.  All have gapped plugs, changed oil and filters, adjusted points, balanced carbs and such.  Many have fixed transmissions, pulled out clutches, and performed far more challenging engine procedures.  So it came as no shock that when we mentioned the issue of Greg's bike having a problem, every available gearhead  was eager to lend a hand, for we all aspire to a high mechanical calling, as bikers who are one with their machines.   . 

We assembled on the Bucksteep tennis court to examine the patient and diagnose the problem:  Greg described the problem as a kind of drag in the rear wheel.  So our gearhead nutcases all opined, it could be a brake issue, or a rear differential or maybe a bearing.  One of the whizkids, Brian,  suggested we feel the hub of the rear wheel to see if it was warm, and indeed it was very hot. Is there any oil in the rear end, asked one brilliant.  Yes, plenty of oil. So maybe the heat could mean that the brake  was hung up in contact with outer hub surface and friction was causing the heat.  Peter thought it might indicate a seized bearing in the rear differential and the friction of the stuck bearing against the shaft was heating up the rear hub.  All conceded, however, that merely standing and observing would not advance the diagnostic process.  We needed to do a dissection of the rear end in order to know if the patient would live or die. 

So, the gathered gearheads, out in rural Western Mass undertook to get out their toolkits and have at the patient.  And that was without anesthetics!!!!  Tools appeared from every quarter:   lug wrenches, screw drivers, pliers, box wrenches, fly wheel pullers, indeed, the whole 9 yards of tooldom.  Remember, here we have great mechanical wizards all combining their vast experience in paroxysms of diagnostic bliss. 

Disassembly of the rear end first required removal of the rear wheel.  Our heroes struggled with this simple task, grumbling at the difficulties presented by nuts and bolts long locked into place.  Eventually, the wheel came off and the rear end was open to attack.  Swift action by our legion of experts produced the rear end for inspection.  Immediately we recognized that the braking elements were all in order, eliminating that possible source of the problem.  It appeared that the gear that was turned by the vaunted splined shaft (a classic feature of BMW bikes for almost a century) was stuck and would not turn.   This produced a conclusion that we had a bearing problem...a frozen or seized bearing. 

Well, what is the remedy, asked the bike's owner?  Our team of lug nut worshipers offered the following:  we could disassemble the hub further, remove the offending bearing and obtain a replacement, but we did not have the machine shop tools required to execute this alternative;  we could find a functional rear end and just switch our ailing rear end for a healthy one.  Since we already had the bad part out, it would be a cinch to put a replacement in, right?

So now we had to turn to the procurement side of the repair process.  Where, on a Saturday, in rural, remote Western Mass are we going to find a proper replacement part for our cherished patient?  Well, says Peter, we can call Ray Becker.  He has a barn full of old Bimmers and probably is just brimming with proper replacement rear ends for our bike.  The call is made, the part described and we are lucky:  Becker has the part, a rear end for an '82 airhead.  Now Mr. Becker's shop is 20 miles away in Monterey, Mass and our procurement team speeds off to retrieve the replacement.  All are delighted when we see that the part appears, on cursory inspection, to look just like the part we removed from the patient.  Now we are ready to resume the transplant procedure.  20 miles back to the tennis court and a discussion of the proper procedure for reinstallation of the rear end ensues.

During this process I happen to be sitting at a table with both parts in front of me.  I look at the failed part, and somehow it looks just a tad different from the proposed replacement.  Hmmm.  I point this dissimilarity out to the now failed geniuses yearning to master the task of reinstallation.  All are aghast.   No one speaks.  Embarrassment appears on every face.  How could our gearhead com padres fail to notice that the parts were different: one was set up for a drum brake and the other for a disk brake.  Neither could substitute for the other. 

By now it was clear that we needed to challenge Mr. Becker  again.  So we called and explained our difficulty.  He said he had other rear ends that would likely work for us so we set off a second time to obtain our required element.  20 miles there and we found that the Becker inventory was not quite up to our needs.  Unfortunately he didn't have a matching part (this time i brought the failed part along for comparison.  So it was 20 miles back to announce our defeat. 

And what were we to do to solve Greg's broken bike brouhaha?  Well, right down the hill and a mile south on route 8 stands the Mohawk Garage run by a world class mechanic, Peter Talebach, who has constructed and raced all manner of motorcycle art.  Indeed, if we weren't gearheads overcome with motorcycle repair mania we would have solve the crisis immediately and simply by first, rather than last, resorting to Peter's ministrations.  The bike now sits there, awaiting his loving attention.

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