One of the great joys of riding a Kawasaki KLR 650 is making fun of people who ride BMWs: “You paid what, for what? My bike, with luggage, cost what you just paid to change your spark plugs!”
The trusty KLR, everyone agrees, has deficiencies (it’s slow, underpowered, spews smoke, sounds like you put gravel in the oil pan instead of oil … I could go on) and it might not be pretty, but it always gets you there. Always. Besides, if it does break down, you don’t need a laptop to fix it, wink, nudge.
And so, when my KLR broke down in Calgary this summer, and my girlfriend arrived on her BMW F700GS to tow me to the nearest mechanic (using a length of pink paracord), I found myself rather reticent. Elle didn’t say much either, but she had a spring in her step and she wanted a lot of photos that day.
A week later, the old KLR struggled to start when I picked it up from the shop, but it sounded okay after warming up. Was that a little sputter I heard? No. I’m sure it’s fine.
To mitigate the risk of another breakdown I chose to test the bike in a controlled environment, setting off with Elle on a 10-day tour of remote gravel roads through the Canadian Rockies.
“I’ll bring some paracord,” said Elle.
“And don’t forget your laptop,” I wanted to say, but I just gritted my teeth instead.
Yeah, remote gravel roads on newly-repaired machinery may not seem like a brilliant idea, but I’m not really known for brilliant ideas. Anyway, it’s a KLR. It’ll always get you where you want to go. Always.
The bikes hummed over Highwood Pass, a smooth strip of pavement that climbs southeast from the Trans-Canada Highway through Kananaskis County, Alberta, to an elevation just below the tree line, and where pockets of snow often survive the brief summer. Carrying my camping gear, and at these elevations, the only thing that changes on my bike when I crack open the throttle is the sound of the engine. Just absolutely pinned, I could maintain the speed limit. Elle, astride her BMW, didn’t notice any elevation gain except for the scenery. I could see her in my mirrors, the fake red ponytail atop her silver helmet flapping in the summer breeze.
Finally, my engine gasped with relief as we topped out and began a gentle decline toward Longview, Alberta. We stopped at a lonely gas station along the way, just as the attendant was locking up. She stuck around to let us fuel before leaving us in the golden light of a warm Alberta evening.
We watched hummingbirds flit about as we took a little time to stretch and have a snack. From here, we planned to ride south along the forestry trunk road, “Highway 940,” just over 100 kilometres of gravel, to Coleman, near the boundary with British Columbia. Other than struggling in the thin air of a high mountain pass, which was normal, my KLR seemed fine.
“We should be in Coleman in a couple of hours,” I said, staring down the road. Smoke from the vast forest fires that plagued BC and Alberta all summer tinged the mountain air a dusty orange, and this evening was just the same.
Elle is a capable rider, having twice ridden from Canada to Panama, and once up to the Arctic Circle in Alaska, but she prefers hard pack to loose gravel. She’ll never complain and she’ll never back down, but she rides at her own pace, standing on her pegs.
“There are several exit points on this road that could take us to pavement,” I assured her. But really, I was just making myself feel better. I had ridden this stretch before. For a gravel road, it’s well maintained. It winds through the foothills and Rocky Mountains of southern Alberta. It’s just that I still had a bad feeling about the reliability of my old bike.
“And anyway,” I added, clearly for my own benefit, “we have all our camping gear with us. So if we run out of time, we can just find a place to spend the night.”
I shot off down the road ahead of Elle, tracing a squiggly line with my back tire as the KLR pulled hard through the dust. Funny. My bike is cumbersome and slow on the highway, but I could still travel at about 100 km/h in these conditions and it felt fine. I just had to pick my line and stick to the wheel ruts of all the trucks that had gone before.
Soon I had the road to myself. I knew Elle wouldn’t mind. Whereas my riding style caused many “Oh crap!” moments, whenever I pulled over to thank my lucky sprockets, I’d soon see Elle, steadfastly trundling along, standing on her pegs, red ponytail slapping off her silver helmet.
Then I’d shoot off again. “Oh crap!” Etc.
I relaxed my pace as I approached a bridge over a clear mountain stream. This would make a nice spot to pull over and click of a photo of Elle, I thought. As I squeezed in the clutch and coasted to a stop, the engine sputtered and cut out, but when I pressed the starter, it fired right back up to a smooth idle. I never took the photo, because the brief engine failure distracted me; when Elle came rolling by; I gave her the all-clear sign. She carried on and I soon caught up and passed her.
Now and then, even at speed, I’d depress the clutch to see what the engine would do. Sometimes it held, and sometimes it stalled. And it seemed to be getting worse. It began to sputter like I had the choke on. When I broke down in Calgary, it seemed like a fuel problem. I knew the petcock didn’t work properly – it didn’t portion out reserve fuel – so, like a Neanderthal mechanic, I simply dropped the bike on its left side to splash extra gas where it needed to go. That often works if the bike is truly low on fuel. (It’s also a great excuse if you tip over in a parking lot. “What are you laughing at? I did that on purpose. I’m just out of gas.”)
That didn’t solve the problem there, though. I’d removed the seat and gas tank, unscrewed the sparkplug, grounded it, and checked for a spark. Yep. All good. The plug looked old, and the markings on it suggested a lean mixture of air and fuel, but otherwise it seemed fine. I was carrying a spare plug, so I changed it anyway.
After that, the bike ran fine – for about 20 minutes. Enter Elle with her pink paracord and a humiliating tow to the mechanic, foot peg to foot peg. The shop diagnosed the problem as a faulty spark lead and, after patching it up (no, not replacing it), they declared the bike mechanically sound.
Yet here we were, sputtering down a gravel road. We stopped at the first exit point. A short gravel ride east would lead us to the pavement of the “Cowboy Trail,” Highway 22. Conveniently, the little spur would also kick us out very near the acreage where Elle’s parents live and we could reconsider our options there.
Then again, just as we pulled up to the junction, my bike decided to behave.
“It’s running fine now,” I shouted to Elle over the engines. “We’re probably about half way to Coleman (we were not) and besides, there’s another exit point farther south if we need it. Might just have been some bad gas that worked its way through.” (It was not. And also, is it ever? No.)
We opted to continue south toward Coleman. All along the way, it was sputtering performance punctuated by bewildering moments of perfect functionality. Again, arriving at the nominally safer option of a short retreat east to pavement, we carried on south.
We rode past a firebase bustling with firefighters in yellow coveralls. There were heavy-duty diesel trucks idling by the road, and cumbersome Bell 212 helicopters and the like, their rotors spinning to a slow halt as they shut down for the evening. I had lived and worked at this base over a decade ago, but I was too distracted by the situation for nostalgia. All I wanted was to arrive in Coleman before dark, find a place to sleep, and figure out what to do in the morning.
More sputtering, faltering, and stalling ensued, but we did eventually reach the destination. I landed ahead of Elle because, in moments where my bike seemed fine, I sped like mad in a race against the setting sun. When I arrived in town, I pulled in the clutch near a graveyard and, fittingly, the bike died. Soon after, Elle came lumbering along. The red ponytail on her helmet was, like me, limp, lifeless, ready for this day to wind down into a peaceful night.
The next day could have broken us: the relationship between me and Elle, the relationship between me and my KLR, take your pick. But Elle played it perfect. She was neither obsequious, nor indignant, nor abrupt. She was a parts runner, sounding board, sympathetic observer, and consultant. She seemed happy and content, but not exultant because my bike had failed and hers had not. In other words, she kept things in perspective. We were safe. We were dry. We lived in Canada. And we were slightly delayed on our motorcycle vacation. Are you complaining? And, if so, why?
After trying various fixes, including fuel additives and pulling the bike apart right down to the various components of the carburetor, I admitted defeat. In hindsight, it was probably the patched-up sparkplug lead after all. Also, somewhere along the way, a breather tube had been misrouted from the gas tank to the carburetor. I had definitely done it the last time, just mindlessly putting things back where I had found them, but who did it first? Who knows, but I sure didn’t notice the error in Coleman.
Elle called her parents, who arrived a few hours later with their little pickup truck to rescue us. After loading the KLR, we all retired to the local pub where I had a few pints to … well, there’s no reason for it. I just had a bunch of drinks.
By then it was twilight. Elle’s parents went on ahead of us. We geared up after dinner, Elle doubling me back to her parent’s acreage, her red ponytail slapping me in the face as we went. With several pints in me (and a few shots), I may not have been the ideal passenger. I made inappropriate stabs at the controls on Elle’s bike, and at Elle herself. Maybe I grabbed her helmet and shook it a few times. I can’t remember. But there are photos on my phone that suggest that I should probably apologize to this long-suffering woman.
We arrived at Elle’s parent’s house after dark. We made arrangements to drive the truck with my KLR to my friend’s house in Bragg Creek. He could fix the bike, he reassured us. In the meantime, we’d drive to Canmore, where the journey originally began. There, we’d pick up my other motorcycle, drive back to Elle’s parent’s place for her bike, and continue on our journey to BC.
Fortunately, I had a spare motorcycle. The next morning it started right up. That’s the great thing about a 1982 Honda CB750 Custom – it might not be pretty, but it always gets you there. Always.
Jeremy Kroeker is the author of Motorcycle Therapy: A Canadian adventure in Central America, and Through Dust and Darkness: A motorcycle journey of fear and faith in the Middle East. He is also the editor of Motorcycle Messengers: Tales from the road by writers who ride.