Unnecessary Evil?

All Rights Reserved © 2012 Thomas W. Day

In a recent long, sometimes emotional, occasionally irrational discussion about the superiority/inferiority of belts, drive shafts, and chains, the comments from a few of the MMM regulars illustrated how much we humans dislike maintenance. It’s messy, it takes time away from riding and other more exciting activities, and it is boring. At my age, maintenance is also painful. Getting down on my garage floor to inspect low-lying components like the chain, oil-drain and filter, wheels and tires, and practically everything below the height of the seat is a gamble. After every service interval, there is a good chance that I’ll be squalling, “Help! I’m a turtle and I can’t get up!”

I teach a class called “Studio Maintenance I.” In the class introduction, I introduce the concept of maintenance to people who have often never touched a tool and describe how that practice effects a recording engineer’s performance and economic success. That discussion breaks studio owners’ maintenance attitudes into three basic categories:

  • Maintenance is something I only do when things break and I can’t get out of calling a tech.

  • Maintenance is something I do to prevent equipment from failing at critical moments.

  • Maintenance is what I do to add value to my studio’s sound quality and reputation.

I think you can apply those statements to motorcycle maintenance with a little modification.

Maybe it’s because my life was permanently altered when I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Maybe it’s because I worked as maintenance tech, manufacturing and design engineer, manufacturing manager, and tech services manager for more than half of my life. Maybe it’s because I have a mental disability that prevents me from walking by broken stuff without feeling a compulsion to fix it (Unless it’s plumbing. I hate plumbing.). Whatever the reason, I can’t help but think something vital is missing in a culture (or cultures) that does not feel the need to do basic maintenance. 

One of the key consumer features of all modern products is the disposability of those products. Most electronic devices are completely impractical to repair under all conditions. Car dealer service techs regularly yank an in-warranty motor and replace it with a whole assembly rather than fool with complicated diagnostics and repairs. Years ago, I discovered that motorcycle manufacturers dump their inventory of critical spares as soon as those parts cost more to store than they make from sales. When I reviewed the Honda 2011 Honda VT1300CT Custom Interstate last fall, I was astounded to see that Honda had entirely scrapped the idea of a tool kit because they considered the entire motorcycle to be “not user serviceable.” Because of the market that bike was intended to “serve,” their other assumption was that those users would be too incompetent and lazy to perform the most basic maintenance.

That’s a pretty strong statement Honda and others are making about us. If they are right, we’re not far from losing our right to claim we are a “tool using” species. No Wilbur, tapping “whr r u” on your smart phone does not mean you are either a tool user or smart. There is a pretty good chance that Honda’s bet will backfire on them, too. One of the activities that has formed and inspired the best young engineers and budding scientists is learning how to maintain machines or all sorts. If motorcycles become maintenance-free, in a few years the fools who mismanage the world’s manufacturing companies may find there is no one who can actually build them. If we were to wait for an MBA to build something useful, we could be stationary for centuries. In fact, just before we all starve to death, it’s possible that the world might discover that scientists and engineers are the primary “job creators” worldwide.

Knowing enough about our machines to recover from the average minor breakdown is an absolute necessity for anyone hoping to make use of an “adventure touring” bike. You aren’t going to suddenly develop those skills after your bike tosses off bits of your “maintenance free” drive belt after the rear tire spits a small rock into a pulley. In fact, if you aren’t already in the habit of doing fairly major maintenance, you won’t have the necessary tools available to repair the simplest problems on the road. One nasty side-effect of doing your own maintenance is accumulating a collection of tools. Unlike the sometimes-small odds that you’ll experience headaches, birth defects, insomnia, anxiety, and/or tremors with prescription medications, you will contract tools if you do maintenance. Owning tools isn’t evidence that you are a tool user, but not owning them proves you aren’t one. 

I can’t disagree that cleaning and lubing a chain is sometimes an unrewarding task. Checking and adjusting modern bucket-and-shim valve lifters is about as exciting as homework. Balancing injectors or carbs is mundane and uninspiring. For some of us, just cleaning a bike is painful. Carefully looking over every fastener from the footpegs to the wheels to everything holding the motor together and to the frame is the kind of work many of you would assign to the step-child you want to leave home first.

You can argue that you can’t have a major mechanical problem because you never ride more than fifty miles from home. There is some truth to that. You pick your poison and you live or die with the results. Lucky for me, most days fiddling on a bike in the garage by myself is the best part of the day. Rolling out of the tent early in the morning and going through my maintenance routine is part of how I figure out how the rest of the day is going to go. When I stop for food or fuel, I go through a similar checklist while the bike is warm and the tires are hot. At night, before I settle down for the evening I have a different schedule of things to check. When all of those processes are working right, I ride almost fearlessly. I feel closer to my motorcycle and more like we’re in this together. When something screws with some or all of my routine maintenance, I am clinging to the bars worrying about what is likely to fall off or blow up until I stop and do the work.

Your mileage may vary. Apparently, it likely does.

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