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Motorhead Memo: Tinker toy

By Kip Woodring

My friend looked at me and smiled. “Fifteen minutes, huh?” He didn’t look too convinced.

“You betcha,” I mumbled. “Just a matter of fresh spark plugs and a carb adjustment… I’m sure. A minor tuneup’s all.”

Two hours later, as I sat surrounded by three (count ’em—three) sets of fouled plugs and a pile of carb parts, he took a long drag off his smoke and smiled again.

“Fifteen minutes, huh?”

This was over 45 years ago, but I remember clearly the watershed epiphany… at that very moment realizing that I was a fiddling fiend, a tinkerer, a “Motochondriac,” a sap who can’t leave well enough alone… call it whatever you’d like… the disease has no cure. Hell, it wasn’t even my motorcycle!

Motorcycles are dangerous. You know that; everyone from your mother to your barber and back again has told you so, time and time again… since they first found out you were interested. But what you were never told, until now, is that there is one aspect of motorcycling much more dangerous than trivial things like, for instance, crashing. It’s this damn disease that infects bikers without regard to sex, race, color, creed, age, IQ, instinct or brand affiliation. It’s rarely fatal… it’s worse!

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Motorhead Memo: Tinker Toy

Remember British parallel twins? Two strokes? Machines made elsewhere than Europe, America or Asia prior to 1970? Yeah… that bad!

It begins innocuously enough, and in its early stages can actually be considered almost a beneficial parasite… quite beneficial. After a novice biker overcomes the initial and traditional fear of adjusting anything on the bike, they enter the “social” tinkering stage. There they learn that, no, the motorcycle will not explode if touched lovingly with a tool, be it wrench or screwdriver or something more serious. A surprisingly common fear, though mostly unfounded.

I say “mostly” because the same friend referred to earlier did blow up a Suzuki T500 during one of his tuneup attempts. (Up until that time, a feat thought to be impossible.)

Thing is, this is as far as the disease usually progresses in normal, logical, sane motorcyclists, thus acting much like a vaccine, protecting the biker from far worse infections. (Like DIY overhauls and buying special tools.)

Some folk aren’t so lucky and continue to sip the curiosity Kool-Aid, delving ever deeper into the unfathomable inner workings of motorcycles. Major maintenance—replacing wheel bearings, rebuilding (Ahem!) carbs, installing cams and the like—begins to suck up time previously spent on more sophisticated pursuits, such as watching baseball games, downloading apps, cleaning the house or actually conversing with the wife/kids/dog. At this point the afflicted will usually acquire a name, such as “Freak,” “Nerd,” Gearhead,” “Goofball,” and/or those I cannot allow you to see in print. For our purpose here, we’ll use the term “Enthusiast.” Motorcycle enthusiasts are understandably popular with their friends, all of whom ride, because they will tinker with their friends’ bikes too. Usually at the drop of a hat or a cough from a muffler… whichever comes first. It’s “fraternity” time… “You bring the problem—I’ll bring the tinkering!”

Up to this point, Motochondria is still quite easily mistakenly diagnosed as a harmless and useful addiction to all things mechanical on two tires. Then comes the third and extremely severe stage, one where you simply can’t stop. The victim becomes completely obsessed with “refining” their bike, to the point where they spend more time “improving” it than riding it. Much more!

Terminal sufferers have been known to waste an entire Saturday morning on nut-ball projects like adjusting ignition timing to suit the octane rating of race gas they bought on Friday night. A clear indication that “close” is never close enough. Only perfection will do!

This is where this addiction/disease begins to intrude on Reality (no TV required). No longer an enthusiast to friends, we now have a full-blown Fanatic! They enjoy long rides, while the fanatical Motochondriac stays in the garage… flow testing spare heads or changing fork springs. (Stuff purchased by said fanatic intending to match the performance promised in magazine ads, “just in case”!) Sadly, by now a formerly recognizable standard garage has become a monument to “Thingamajiggery”—vacuum gauges, spray cans, hand tools, spare sheet metal, boxes of parts, rolls of fuel line, cans of nuts and bolts, etcetera—crowding between stacks of spare tires, motorcycle posters, solvent tanks, a grinder (or two), a glass bead blaster and possibly even a small lathe. Every attempt being made to duplicate a real machine shop, as well as cram too many motorcycles into whatever tight spaces, might remain. Vastly more moto-pit than man cave!

In a way, it’s good that the afflicted has someplace to retreat to for a “fix,” since by now the spouse is stone silent, but stays in the house for the sake of the dog and UPS deliveries. Now, no time remains to work on friends’ motorcycles, because there’s always the pressing need to adjust, repair and replace… everything… on their own motorcycle(s)!

With the (former) garage already stuffed to the gills, the next question is what to do with all those “great buys” still out there, unprotected, unloved and with a subliminal siren’s call to possess them? Resistance is indeed futile and, before you know it, there are machines everywhere in the yard supposedly to be “fixed up and sold”—though the latter rarely happens. More likely, they become “winter projects” existing, perpetually partly disassembled, in a sort of mechanical retirement that may or may not ever see them on the road again… let alone during an actual riding season!

Finally, in a desperate attempt to legitimize the symptoms and moderate both agony and ecstasy that have arisen from the disease, the victim steps over the line that separates Kansas from Oz in a motorcycle universe, completing the transformation from once-innocent biker into a species of social deviant known as “Motorcycle Shop Owner/Employee.” Ironically, it is here, in what would seem heaven to the total Motochondriac, that our poor victim at last gets a punched ticket to board the reality bus. After only a brief time, the affliction is forced into remission by customers who won’t pay to have their bikes tinkered with or perfected. Instead, they want them fixed—and soon, preferably yesterday!

Having opened motorcycling’s answer to Pandora’s box, the victim is then swallowed up in a sea of details—almost none of which has a damn thing to do with feeding the affliction. Completely boring, mind-numbing minutia—parts back orders, bounced checks, “buddies” wanting deals and worse—leaves no time or energy at all for the tinkering that started the whole thing in the first place. In fact, the formerly compulsive wrench-spinning perfectionist begins to find excuses for not tinkering, particularly after shop hours. Our victims start slipping out the back door to meet the family for a quiet dinner and/or occasional rendezvous at a secret, special place every chance they get. Precious Sundays (or Mondays) are increasingly spent supervising the children’s soccer practice or going to a matinée movie, maybe even taking a long nap. In effect, our Motochondriac starts to revert to (almost) normal human behavior, albeit a human who runs a motorcycle shop. With titanic struggles between flare-up and remission, this can go on for years, perhaps even decades.

I repeat: there is no cure for this disease. The victim finally retires or sells out and one bright sunny day shortly afterwards, decides to clean out the accumulated thingamajigs and attempts to reclaim the garage. Ha!

Realizing with a shock it’s been quite a while since the machines have even been touched, Motochondriac decides go for a ride. Just a short one—for old time’s sake. To do that requires installation of a new battery. Naturally, the oil needs changing too. Gotta check the air pressure in the tires. When was the last time the clutch was adjusted? Those cables are looking pretty dry too. Hmm… better dust off some tools… it’s time to improve things a bit.

Maybe that ride should be to a friend’s house. One who likes to tinker. Shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes, huh?

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