Reader’s Stories: The Albatross

I suppose that some bike stories are either too convoluted or just too damn long to tell. In the interest of everyone’s sanity, we’ll forget that my father has ridden bikes for as long as I can remember, that I’ve always wanted a bike and all the other seminal factors in this obsessive little tale.

It truly started last summer when my brother was doubling me on the back of his XS650 up to a farm for the long weekend. It was, of course, a beautiful sunny day and a great trip. We, of course, also took a minor spill in some gravel on a weird corner. After the slow speed get off, we checked the bike, our gear and ourselves in that respective order. With the minor scuffs lightly lamented and the bike in perfect working order, my brother promptly offered that I take it for a little spin down a farmers drive. This was either good anti fear medicine, or he was sick of listening to me bitch about crushing my smokes. Either way, the result was that I needed a bike.

Within weeks I had taken the motorcycle riders course and began searching out a good cheap used bike. The main stumbling block in my quest seemed to be the second qualification. Cheap just didn’t seem to be an option, and being definitely not rich, it was the most important. I was ready to give up the search and spend the winter saving when an acquaintance, who was leaving the country, had to get rid of his 1982 Suzuki GS750E. After considerable lying from the previous owner, and blatant naivete on my own part, we settled on a price of $500.

The bike, hereafter known as the Albatross due to both it’s size and symbolic nature, had two practically new tires. I suppose that ends the list of attributes unless you consider an appearance that guarantees it against theft an attribute. The fact that it didnât run seemed a minor setback. The point was that I now had wheels and as my boss said “You’re nobody until you’re burning fossil fuels!” I got hold of the service manual, a new battery, borrowed tools and within a week the old beast was running. The thrill of turning an inanimate and perhaps over large paper weight into a living, working piece of machinery was almost as great as the looks on the faces of my friends who never believed I could make it run.

Within another week I had it certified, insured, plated and on the road. At this point we can still use the adjective cheap to describe the Albatross because it had mostly required elbow grease. However, if one considers their time as being of value then the issue quickly muddies itself. Yet, there are those who enjoy beer in their free time and as such the albatross was keeping me out of the bars. In this regard the bike was actually making me money. From here on one needs a very complex calculus to determine the actual cost of the bike.

Now, I wonât say that the bike was running perfectly, but it suited my needs. I always had something to work on, and eighty percent of the time I had semi reliable transportation. Over the space of about six weeks my confidence in both man and machine grew as did the distance of the trips I would make. After I figured out how the carburettors worked and got a few foibles fixed, I figured the bike was safe enough to join my brother and a buddy on a road trip to Peterborough. I think I would have been right if Peterborough had been fifteen kilometers closer to Toronto. About five minutes outside of town the engine started to make a rattling and knocking sound in the mid to high revs that I had never heard before. The fact that I had never heard it before isn’t surprising, it was the looks on other peoples faces that lead me to borrow a pick up and load the beast into the back.

The effect of driving one’s broken motorcycle home in the back of a borrowed pick up in the rain while listening to crunchy old Zeppelin tapes can be very depressing. Depressed or otherwise, I was determined to fix it. I had a minimum of ten friends and a mechanic listen to the bike. I didn’t care whether they knew anything about motors or not. I wanted opinions. I imitated the sound several times over the phone to my father, took a few compression tests, and the resounding consensus called for a top end overhaul. After studying the service manual (makes great bedtime reading), I started the ratchets a spinning. This time I had my own tools and the Fall was deep upon us, so time had become less of an issue.

The top end turned out to be rather perplexing for one reason only. Everything was covered in a thick sheet of carbon or grime, but nothing appeared to be totally out of place. The valves, all sixteen, came out, got inspected, cleaned and put back into a now shiny clean head. The sleeves were honed and cleaned, and the rings were replaced just in case. The pistons didn’t look too bad once they were cleaned up as well. The exhaust cam seemed a little worn, but there was no way that it was capable of the kind of noise I was hearing.

All in all the engine needed work, but there were no tell tale signs as to why it was unhappy. Until one day …. I was peering over the guts of my engine and inadvertently pulled on an entrail known as the third cylinder connecting rod. It seemed to pull up a quarter inch higher than all the rest. In fact, the others didn’t pull at all. I was pretty sure that I had found the problem. With the top end now rebuilt, I had no choice but to go deeper.

I have to admit to being a little freaked. I knew that the crank was serious business. My bedtime reading had taught me that the bottom end was something that you were glad you didn’t have to do. When in doubt call Dad. Dad says “The bottom end is the same as the top, there’s just more bolts.” He neglected to mention that the bottom end is connected to everything else that is commonly called a motorcycle.

As the story goes, winter was now upon us, the garage was unheated and I was the proud owner of a myriad of labeled Ziploc baggies, oil stained cardboard templates and I had engine parts stuffed into every warm corner of the apartment. It’s difficult to imagine why the girlfriend and I were breaking up. For various reasons of cost, that complex calculus of parts, time, beer not drunk and anything else you might want to factor in, the cheapest option turned out to be a used crankshaft with connecting rods included. The last crank and rod having been injured in the process of pounding a big end bearing into oblivion. There is then the mandatory month and a half wait for crank bearings while they are either shipped from Japan or hewn from a block of raw kryptonite on Venus. As I said, time was irrelevant until the snow started to melt.


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