Tuesday, June 13, 2017


What feels like a very long time ago, I scored a neat peanut tank off an early Evolution Sportster with the idea of renovating it for my previous Sportster.

When that bike was stolen, I wondered what I would do with all the stuff that was left over in my garage: two seats, a windshield, brake pads, oil filters, assorted spare parts, a complete luggage set and two full sets of bodywork, including this tank.

I thought it would all be sold, but thankfully my new Sportster arrived before I had the time to get it all organized.

So, I can finally get this done, and after much deliberation I have also decided on a color: a delicious and thirst-quenching candy lime green, mmmh........

Obviously, before getting to the pretty bit, you have to deal with the filthy guts. There are several tank treatment products out there, but generally they consist of a de-ruster, followed by an epoxy coating.

I have done this a few times before on metal and fiberglass tanks (no need for the de-ruster with fiberglass, the revolutionary new material of the future!) so I was more than ready to do this one too, however, due to a series of circumstances, someone else did it for me... and I'm glad they did!

I must acknowledge Nico for having done, by far, the best job of sealing a tank I have ever seen.

Just take a look at this photo to get a sense of how smooth and flawless it turned out. Wow. Lemme tell ya, I'm gonna enjoy looking at that every time I fill up.

As far as I'm concerned the only decals that should go on this tank are the iconic '5', the part number being 14343-92.

They are huge, complex pieces of art, with the 'Harley-Davidson' almost in the background, leaving 'Sportster' to play the lead role, in what is an absolutely gorgeous script.

The number 5 is there to showcase a seriously important upgrade to this model, i.e. the five-speed transmission. I know of no other instance where a gearbox was deemed to be such an important feature that the manufacturer decided to put it on the tank, right next to make and model.

In a sense it's like when watch manufacturers put "23 jewels" on the dial.

I was able to find these decals as NOS, but they were dizzyingly, shamefully expensive. I get the feeling they are hard to find, and I can't imagine they'd be easy to reproduce (copyright issues aside).

It's off to Toni now, for wizardry and alchemy. A pilgrimage to his hermitage is always an interesting experience.

This tank plays a big part in making '86-'03 Sportsters such narrow bikes: if you look at it from the top, the sides of the tank drop down almost perfectly vertically, keeping the bike slim. Overall, the tank is not even wider than the yokes... and remember that on this bike the front end is sometimes referred to as the Narrowglide!

Toni worked his magic so fast it made my head spin: only two days after I had left the tank with him, a raven, pitch black but with traditional hot-rod flames on his plumage landed on my balcony and delivered a small parchment scroll, then before I could even read it, it flew away, leaving a trail of night-blue metalflake dust as it flapped his wings, silhouetted against the scorching hot midday sun.

The message was inscribed in some sort of ancient runes, which I don't read, but somehow I understood them to mean "dude, your tank is ready... come by"; then the scroll caught fire and I held in my hand this dark red flame and watched it, utterly captivated as if under a spell, as it turned orange, then a strange yellow-green I had never seen before, until no sign of that message was left. Inexplicably, the fire didn't burn me at all.

When I got there he was busy shredding it on his Fender and I took a moment to appreciate the tunes and also to just look at how stunning this thing turned out:

I know, right?!
Some of you may remember having seen this color before, it is indeed the same green as used on Witold's OIF Firebird Scrambler and it was just too good to pass up.

Toni showed me what he mixed to get this shade just right, and explained the two-part process; first a metallic green base layer, followed by a pearlescent tone halfway between green and gold yellow.

It's the sort of color that your brain tells you can't exist, yet somehow there it is. I later realized that it is in fact the same strange yellow-green I had seen when the raven delivered the Wizard's summon.

That second coat gives this color that mesmerizing golden shimmer when the light hits it just right, but it's something you can only see out of the corner of your eye; the second you try looking at it, it's gone and all you see is that fantastic metallic green. Knowing how much of that second coat to spray is of course a matter of extreme skill and artistic sensibility that I doubt can be learned. Some people just have it.

Look how beautifully this turned out:

Just as a closing thought, I have to wonder, was the raven really just Toni in raven form?!

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Nice (luggage) rack!

Marcellini strikes again, this time with a super-beefy aluminum plate that slots onto the GS's original luggage rack to provide a wider, flat support for a large waterproof bag (like this one for example):

I really like the way these dudes work, everything they've made for us is built to be functional as well as well proportioned. This plate is asymmetrical because of the high-level exhaust, which also dictates that the panniers themselves are different sizes; when it all comes together though it works and everything is centered. It makes sense when you see it.

The guy has a nice Paralever GS PD, it's tricked out but subtly so. You may notice the silencer, optional kickstarter, the same left-hand pillion footrest support we have on ours, and let's not overlook that this thing is dual-plugged, and it has twin discs at the front:

If you take a closer look at the twin disc set-up, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this is an all-original BMW set of parts, and to some extent you'd be right... except as far as I know you can't get a left-hand fork slider with caliper lugs for this fork. So, how did he do it? I'll see if we can do the same on our GS, so if it works out I'll tell you...

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The levers of power.

The other day when I serviced the Sportster, I went over the front brake and you can imagine that I operated the lever quite a lot as I was bleeding the system and testing repeatedly to make sure it was working.

As I did that, I noticed something that had escaped me at first: the brake lever is not an original part. It may look like an OEM part but rest assured, it is not. The first tell is the chrome finish: completely sub-par and not correct for the 1200S anyway. If you look at the clutch lever you'll see that it is polished, not chromed. And this brake lever has a different angle to the top of the "blade" compared to a standard item (I presume this could be seen as being more ergonomic).

I'm trying to make this motorcycle look (and perform) the best that it can, so I'm not going to ignore a detail like this. I was able to find a new matching set of polished levers that while not original, are very close to OEM standards, here's a comparison (left is the new one, right is the annoying one I'm taking off):

I would like to thank a person who shall remain nameless for his or her own protection, for smuggling these parts over to me; much appreciated.

Fitting them was very straightforward (because everything on these motorcycles is very well made), and the ones I took off can be put into the "road kit" as emergency spares. Let's hope I'll never have to use them.

While I was at it, I inspected the clutch cable, cleaned it and applied a generous amount of grease to the end fitting: this is very important because although this cable is much stronger and much longer lasting than what I'm used to on my other bikes, if it does fail (whether the strands break or whether the cast aluminum fitting itself seizes and snaps) there is no real way to fix it by the roadside, and even if you carry a spare cable you still need a fair number of wrenches and tools to replace it.

As to why this was not the original brake lever, I think I know what happened here: one of the previous owners must have dropped the bike and the lever snapped off. This could also explain the repair that was done on the right-hand side footrest:

I have seen this happen on many other Sportsters, and it is known to be a bit of a weak point, so I didn't think much of it when I first saw the bike (the dealer didn't offer an explanation when I asked him about it), so it's possible this all happened at the same time.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Fiastrone trip.

hoo, boy... where do I even start with this one.

Le Marche; this is a story of a time of turmoil, opposing forces, and great upheaval. But also one of a common, unspoken language of camaraderie, friendship and roadside fettuccine.
Those who know it can still ride motorcycles with no drama and have the sort of good time that seems to escape so many people these days, so caught up are they with politics and pointless power dynamics; the poor fools.

After the debacle that was putting "Corsicaworld" on indefinite hold for various reasons (and just to be clear, totally unrelated to the aforementioned poor fools), this came as a welcome reversal of fortunes.

I had started thinking about this trip a good while back and organized what turned out to be a really cool weekend away, counting on the fact that my friends would want to go ride (a reasonable assumption, you'll agree!). But some bad mojo got in the way and I ended up alone, or so I thought.

Disappointed though I was, I decided that if on one hand no longer having friends to go ride with would be close to the worst thing that could happen, on the other hand the absolute worst thing that could happen is that I stop riding altogether, so, I decided to go anyway, by myself.

There is a saying in Italian "meglio soli che male accompagnati" (better alone than in bad company) and that's what I thought as I learned that no one was coming. And just as I was done thinking that, three other people showed up on three old-school choppers and we all rode away together.

This, more than perhaps any other recent trip I've been on over the last couple of years, was a return to a way of motorcycling from a simpler, purer time with just a hint of nostalgia and rose-colored glasses all 'round.

Look at those deathtraps... lemme tell ya, those fellas ride those things hard. Had I been on a similar machine I don't think I'd have been able to keep up. Well done gentlemen.

I found a new place to go see, planned the routes, and found a rather special campsite. Those who came all had a good time, and I think it could be something we could do again at some point, definitely one to keep in our roadbook.

This whole area was badly affected by a series of strong earthquakes less than a year ago. Besides from the tragic loss of life and the obvious, devastating damage to buildings and entire towns, there is also a more insidious type of damage, creeping through the sprawling countryside: so much of the road infrastructure has been affected, and repairs are going to take forever. We came across several roadblocks and just beyond them you could see piles of boulders, sometimes collapsed bridges, gaping cracks in the road... all fairly unsettling.
Re-routing became a real orienteering test, but we managed. I really hope this place recovers fast.

Here's a few more photos, thanks to everyone who came along and here's hoping those who stayed home can go ride next time:

Saturday, June 3, 2017

1200S: service time.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: The mid-90s Sportster is the best kept secret in motorcycling.
It is a solid, smooth and dependable machine that can easily run for 20-odd years of constant use with only the most basic maintenance; this is proof that it is a remarkable motorcycle.

What I'm doing here is just a regular service, nothing special.
With the engine warm and adrenal glands still pumping, I quickly drain both the engine and transmission oils:

There is no engine plug to be wrenched out, no washers or gaskets to replace. All you do is pull out the dedicated drain pipe and you're done. Easy.

I also remove the oil filter with this nifty tool and clean the mounting flange:

Why don't all oil filters have the same "fluting"? It would make life a lot easier: one tool, fits all filters.
This is the time to inspect the oil pressure sensor intake point and make sure it's thoroughly clean.
Do not overlook this component on any machine that's clever enough to have one, as it could mean the difference between spotting a problem early enough to save the engine, or total and utter mechanical mayhem.

A new filter goes on (primed as much as possible and with a little oil smeared on the rubber gasket as always) and fresh engine oil is added to the tank. Don't forget to secure the drain pipe before you do this!
Top up as needed after the first short ride and you're done. By far the easiest oil change procedure I've ever known.

Now, that said, there is something else you need to do here, which is very important: after you've replaced the oil filter and filled the oil tank with fresh oil, and before you run the engine, you must allow a small amount of new oil to drain out of the drain pipe once again. This is to avoid any air bubbles forming within the lubrication circuit, which could then potentially reach the oil pump and cause cavitation. Cavitation is bad for anything spinning in a liquid, it doesn't matter if it's a food processor mixing pancake batter, or a nuclear-powered submarine hunting those damn commies in the dark depths of the abyss; or an oil pump in an engine.

Some people may get all upset about the fact that you can't flush all of the oil from the crankcases (because there is no drain plug in the crankcase itself) and that there will always be some old oil that remains in the engine. First of all, it's clearly not a problem, but if that really bothers you, there is a thing called "the scavenger" that allows you to waste some perfectly good oil and possibly damage some hoses, just to satisfy your OCD. Whatever.

I've been using the extended version of the oil filter (the standard item otherwise comes flush with the crankcase and is much neater, visually) because it carries and cools a little extra oil, which can't be a bad thing. It also makes access for removal much easier.

Both the standard and extended filters are also available in flashy chrome. Why Harley, why?!

As for the transmission fluid, it is a mineral based oil that is shared between the gearbox and primary chain. Does that mean that dust particles from the clutch end up in the gearbox? I don't know, but the whole system clearly works a treat, as primary, clutch and gearbox have always been very dependable on my previous Sportster and on this one (yes, there is a problem with this particular gearbox, we'll get to that).

Before you drain the transmission oil it's probably best to wait 10 to 15 minutes to let it all collect at the bottom of the case.
There is a drain plug at the bottom of the transmission case that you can undo with a conventional ⅝ wrench, or with an allen key.
With the drain plug cleaned and back in, I put the bike on my trusty jack to keep it level. Incidentally, that drain plug has a magnet in it, so I really wouldn't worry about any shavings reaching the gearbox under normal operation. I found just a negligible amount in this case, all seems in order.
As I watched the transmission oil collect in the catch pan, I noticed what at first I thought was some emulsion, not unheard of for this type of thing. However, towards the end it became obvious that this was just plain water. How did it get in there? Probably through the primary chain inspection cover, which I found wasn't seating properly. Yet another reminder to always go over every inch of a second-hand motorcycle: you're gonna find something to fix.

At this point you can then remove the clutch cover and slowly refill with fresh oil through the primary chain inspection cover; you'll know you've reached the level when you can see it at the bottom of the clutch basket. If you decide to do this, be aware that there is a large rubber seal for the clutch cover and you should have a replacement ready in case yours is starting to look a bit tired (though chances are it will still be perfectly fine). Also, be careful when undoing or refitting the torx head bolts: surprisingly, these don't have the same bulletproof quality to them that almost anything else on this bike does.
To be fair, you could simply drain the oil, and pour one quart in through the small inspection cover like I did without bothering to check the level. I'm sure it's spot on, the engineers who made this thing knew what they were doing.

While you're at it, check the tension on the primary chain; in my case the primary chain had just the right amount of slack so I left it alone.

Just look at that luxurious hardwood floor, what a garage I have! (come on, it's linoleum.)

And speaking of engineers and primary chains, etc. you may have noticed more than a passing resemblance between the triplex primary chains of a Norton Commando and an evolution Sportster, as well as their diaphragm spring clutches. I once read somewhere that they were designed by the same engineers, first for Norton, and later for Harley-Davidson. Cool huh?
This may sound blasphemous to some (my dad included, probably!) but I've often thought that the evolution Sportster is what the Norton Commando would have been, if it had continued to be in production. Ah, to think of what could have been...
Anyway, back to the service.

I highly recommend this video on the matter, there is more than just practical how-to in there: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=64icxikYvO8

Next up, the front brake: I mentioned that when I took a test ride the first time I went to check out the bike, I noticed a problem with the front brake and I had asked the dealer if they could sort it out before I collected the bike.

Because the lever had a huge amount of "travel" before the pads actually engaged, it just felt like the system needed to be bled and refilled, nothing crazy.

The guy said they would take care of it, but when I went to collect the bike they hadn't done anything, and started giving me excuses like "oh, it'll fix itself once you start using it". Bullshit.

So, keeping in mind that if you want something done right ya gotta do it yourself... I went ahead and did this myself. Unfortunately I don't have any photos as I was pressed for time when I did it, so you'll have to take my word for it.

The inside of the reservoir was just filthy, it looked like a swamp, with algae and other weird vegetation growing in it. There were reptiles and assorted amphibians, buzzing dragonflies and spiders, all living in this thriving microcosmos, that should actually have been a front brake reservoir. The level was low and the brake fluid itself just looked unhealthy.
So, using a Mytivac handpump, I took my time and fully drained the lines, spent ages cleaning out all the gunk, then refilled with fresh DOT 5 fluid.

Whereas most disc brake systems you'll come across "run" on DOT 4 fluid, Harley-Davidson uses the silicone-based DOT 5. It's harder to come by, it's more expensive, but it does not absorb moisture, can run hotter than DOT 4 and does not damage paint if accidentally spilled.

I like the Mytivac as I find it easier to control than an air-compressor assisted type; it works perfectly and generates an impressive vacuum.

With the reservoir thoroughly cleaned, fresh fluid and the lines properly bled, I knew that part was done, yet the problem persisted. If this sounds familiar and you're having the same problem, the culprit is likely to be that the calipers have accumulated dirt on the pistons, which can no longer retract fully, or move in and out as they should.

A quick fix is to spray brake cleaner from a high-pressure can, you'll probably end up using all of it but it is worth it. Have a look at this video to get an idea of what's happening: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EaslIKLdEE8

If you have time, it's better to take the calipers completely apart and give everything a good clean, inspect all components and replace any that might be damaged.

In my case the brake cleaner definitely helped with the pistons, but the real problem is with the two retaining pins for the brake pads (not to mention the fact that when I took them off I discovered that the pads had not been fitted properly and that's also why they were binding):

Under normal circumstances all these pins do is hold the pads in place and don't interfere with their movement, however as you can see below, mine were showing some wear so I cleaned them with some very fine sandpaper until I got them nice and smooth. The bottom one is as I found them, the top one is after I cleaned them:

You need a ¼in. 12 point (or triple square) socket for this, just in case you're wondering what size the pad pins are.

With everything clean and back in place, the front brake now works properly and much better than before, I'm happy with the result.

I also checked something else just to put my mind at ease, given the shadiness demonstrated by the dealership; the front brake master cylinder is marked 11/16, this is specific to the 1200S that has twin disc brakes. Single disc models carry a more relaxed 9/16. That of course all refers to the size of the bore and piston:

There is still one problem on this motorcycle, and that's the gearbox. Specifically, something that many other Sportster owners have come across (and fixed!): the symptom is an unpleasant, sometimes violent juddering or jerking, accompanied by a gut-wrenching clunking and grinding noise just as you take off in first gear.
As soon as you shift into second (and all other gears) it's fine, smooth, predictable. Downshifting is equally fine and, incidentally, there is nothing wrong with the clutch: no slipping or dragging.
So, this is strictly a gearbox problem. 
Again, I had noticed this immediately during the test ride, told the dealer and asked them to fix it before I collected the bike. I was told that they had recently replaced fourth gear and that what I was feeling was simply the new gears "bedding in". 
What. The. Fuck.
I don't know what's more insulting, the obvious lies and lack of customer care, or the assumption that I wouldn't know what I'm talking about.
Never mistake a dealer for a friend, regardless of what they're selling; all they care about is getting your money.
Anyway, I haven't gone into it yet as I haven't had time, but what I suspect has happened here is that the dogs between 1st and 3rd on the countershaft have become worn and are no longer able to keep engagement when subjected to the insane amount of horsepower coming from the engine. Pardon me, motor.
There is no fix for this other than replacing the gears, so, I'll eventually get around to doing this.

Given the general lack of care shown by the dealership, I'm looking at everything I can reasonably get into, just in case I spot anything else that needs attention. Something that should never be overlooked is the spark plugs, especially on twin-spark motors like this one, where "the other" plug is, by necessity, a little harder to reach (even though on these "Thunderstorm" heads the engineering solution is as simple as it is brilliant). My friend the German had warned me about this, and said that they're often neglected precisely because they're hard to reach. All the more reasons to go check.
Off comes the tank, there's just no other way around it, but this is easy guys, this is not such a pain...

You need a proper deep-well spark plug socket to get at the plug's hex, obviously, and it would be preferable if it were one of those (like Honda's) that have a rubber insert to grab the spark plug and help you lift it out. However, this can be done just as easily with a piece of rubber pipe, again, not exactly hardship.
These are the plugs as I found them:

I'd say it's a good thing I checked, definitely time to replace them. Yes, one broke as I was trying to get it to budge. They were fucking TIGHT and I just cannot comprehend why anyone would apply that much torque to a spark plug in an aluminum head. Idiots!
This had already happened on my previous Sportster, although that was partly my fault for not having the correct socket, but still, ya gotta wonder what's going on there. The workshop manual does say to apply some lubricant (not motor oil) so I'm taking extra precautions and using a thin coat of anti-seize to hopefully avoid this sort of problem in the future.
Anyway, I have a strong suspicion that these were the original spark plugs and that they were never replaced at all. If that's the case, that's one more lie the dealer told me when he assured me that the bike had been serviced. Whatever, I knew full well what I was getting into, I just wanted the damn motorcycle and I knew I was going to do things myself and do them properly.

And here are all four new spark plugs in their fire-breathing glory:

The gap is supposed to be .040", I checked them with a feeler gauge and only had to adjust one very slightly, not bad for being straight outta the box.
I want to keep an eye on these, I'll check them again soon to make sure it's not too lean in there. What I'll probably do at some point is take the carburetter off the bike, give it a thorough clean and inspect everything.
And finally we can move on to the valve clearance; except that this awesome machine has freaking hydraulic lifters, so you never have to worry about this, how cool is that?