Thursday, 22 November 2012

About the bikes

Is there such a thing as an ideal bike for a trip? No, probably not as there are so many variables that no one bike can do it all. And in any case, the bikes that we chose to take were probably - on paper at least - exceptionally unsuitable for the trip we planned to do. Yet our decision was actually quite sensible and was based on recent experience and a wish to be involved with as much of the environment that we would be passing through as we possibly could. Neither of us ever intended this trip to be about bikes or gadgets; we just wanted ride to Ulan Bataar, and see everything that we possibly could, even if it took a while.

Originally, we were going on different bikes. I had intended to do the ride on my Yamaha 250 dirt bike, and Nadine on her BMW 650ST, but we were both so impressed with the capability of the Honda C90s that we rode down to The Gambia a few months before, that we started to think about smaller machines.

The Gambia trip was already an established trip to donate Honda C90s to health workers at a hospital to help them reach patients living in outlying villages, but as C90s were getting scarce, four people on that trip trialled new Chinese 110 copies of the Hondas, and we were very impressed with their durability and simplicity. We had also seen at first hand the problems that the copies had, modifications that were required, and most importantly, how to service them.

Chinese 110cc copy with two Honda C90s in Africa
Taking new bikes meant not having to fix wear and tear problems or replace parts. And having the same model of bike as it meant only one set of tools, the same spares, and learning how to fix just that model. Neither of us were interested in speed or gadgets either - which was just as well as these bikes had neither - but we just wanted to ride and do stuff for as long as our money and time allowed, so slower was good.
So we bought two brand new scooters still in bits, and set about assembling them. That gave us an added opportunity to learn about them as we did so, and alter stuff from the start, rather than have to adapt things that were already in place.

We had a stroke of luck when it rained heavily over the Easter weekend, and actually managed to get ahead of ourselves with planned modifications. On the advice of Tony at Riders, we rerouted the wiring loom, which is located under the fuel tank.

For some reason, the factory squeezes the loom through a part of the frame where it chafes against the fuel tank and eventually rubs through. So we took the whole thing out and replummed it through a bigger gap, thus reducing the risk.

The wiring is not generous, so options were limited, but after a bit of fiddling, we managed to get it to where we wanted it.

Tony also suggesting adapting the side stand cut out switch. This switch works backwards in that it cuts out when depressed against the frame as the side stand is lifted, but because of where it needs to be, it is
vulnerable to bashing or breaking. And as we knew we would be riding off road most of the time, then it made sense to remove it before it broke and prevented us from starting the bikes. But we had to bridge the look by joining the cut bare ends to complete the circuit.

The wheels were next on the list. We had learnt on the Gambia trip, that gaffer tape on the wheel rims was a very effective means of cutting down on spoke damage to the tubes.

Snapped spokes were something that was high on the likely list, so we removed the new tyres off, binned the paper thin rim tape, and bound each rim with several layers of gaffer tape, before replacing the tubes and tyres.

Nadine's bike was ready first, and it fired beautifully but refused to spark; we suspected dodgy caps and /or leads   but it still refused to play a even after we changed those both a few days later. After much head scratching and some spot on advice from Peter Darke ( Darke Cycles, Sunderland and a riding mate from the African trip), we pinpointed the non starting to a dodgy kill switch. Again, this was a backward switch which worked when the circuit was competed, so we cut the wires and insulated the respective ends. We eventually removed both kill switches because it was so easy to accidentally lean on them and then wonder why the bike wouldn't start. But we only learnt this the hard way, after Nadine spent half an hour trying to push start my bike in Greece and swearing like a trooper at the bike and me.

We also replaced the two bolts that hold the engine in the frame. The Chinese ones seemed OK but Honda ones are made of better quality steel, so we dropped both engines out and slipped Japanese originals in, just to be sure.

Those were the only running modifications that we made, although we adapted a couple of things too. Nadine built a mesh cage around the headlamps to reduce the chances of it getting smashed by stones or during falls.

A sheet of garden mesh and some garden wire from B&Q in Wimbledon, a bit of bending a a few holes dremmelled into the headlamp casing, and it was ready to go, and at a fraction of the price of Touratech c versions. I think it cost  about £8.00 to make two. And we opened the headlamp and rear lamp casings and  put bathroom sealant along the seams to reduce vibrations and damage to the bulbs. This worked quite well.

We also extended the luggage rack, using a length of steel wardrobe rod cut into four lengths, and then jubilee clipped together and onto the proper rack. It was only ever intended to carry volume rather than weight, but was actually surprisingly strong, and we lashed the spare tyre and fuel cans to that. Oh and we screwed four eyelets onto the leg shields and used Rok straps to secure a sleeping bag, stashed in a drysack to keep it dry, and wired the number plate onto the frame incase it snapped off ( this happened twice in Africa) so that we didn't lose it. We had a spare just incase because crossing borders or just roadside place checks without number plates can be a right old nuisance, and a good fining opportunity for enterprising police along the way, so it is well worth avoiding.

We were dead chuffed when the bikes worked, if a bit surprised too, but it was surprisingly easy. Type approval came a few days later, but the most frustrating bit was waiting for DVLA to assign registration numbers so that we could get plates made up. That took so long that in the end, we only managed to clock up 27kms before leaving for the trip. But it was Ok, and we ran them in as we went, taking it steady for the first  500kms,  which got us to Luxembourg.

As far as luggage goes, we took minimal kit. We each had two small ex army ammo type panniers on the inside of the leg shields, and we carried spares, tyre pump and tools in these.  Then we each had two larger ex army webbing panniers lashed together, waterproofed and slung across the luggage rack. Our gear was in carrier bags inside as well, and I think the whole luggage system cost us about £40.00 each. Everything had to fit into those or it got binned - apart from our tents which we tied onto the rack.

The first farkling session was in Luxembourg where we changed the oil; we had emptied the Chinese oil out as soon as we started building the bikes as it was very thin and very swarfy, and replaced it with good 10w40 oil. We also adjusted and oiled the chains and removed the kick start arms from both bikes. These are really useless and allow very little room, even for small feet. But we kept one just incase, and later used it in Kazakhstan when Nadine's electronic ignition failed and deep sand made push starting impossible. Both exhaust guards came off too - useless pieces of metal.

By Salzburg in Austria, the engines felt like they were running well, and we were getting a comfortable, if stately, 40-50mph (70-80kmh) with ease, and they were also very good on fuel. Even in pricey old Western Europe, it was only costing us  eight euros to fill both bikes, and we were getting about 100kms each for that.

The bikes kept going well although the exhaust on mine started to rattle. The collar was loose despite the bolts being tight, and at first I thought some baffles had come loose inside. But it didn't affect the performance of the bike, but just made my arrival very noisy.

The first puncture of the trip went to Nadine - front pinch puncture due to hitting some roadworks a bit too hard. But we fixed that ok, and without taking up any of the offers of help from locals. It was nice of them but we were OK.

The next major servicing session was in Sarajevo. We had access to a garage at the hostel so we stripped the bikes down and worked on them.

I took my rattley exhaust off but the problem seemed to be a loose connection between the collar and the cylinder head, although the studs were tight. So I made some cardboard gaskets from a cereal packet and that did the job. In fact, they held good all the way to Turkey I think, where they eventually caught fire and singed my leg.

Nadine's throttle cable had worked loose, and we removed the whole headstock and plastics off to repair that as it had snagged inside. There was a slight panic when she dropped the tiny clip that holds the needle in at the carb end, but we eventually found it ok.  We also fixed a rear puncture there - my bike.

A few days later, and the rattle was back on my exhaust. By now we were in Croatia and had clocked up 2500km, and it was time for another oil change. Unfortunatley, during that service one of the  exhaust studs snapped off and so we had to clamp it to the cylinder head with a super large jubilee clip, which did the job, but it  did nothing for the noise.

We carried on to Albania, where mine needed its clutch sorting, as well as the rear lights and indicators. I wasn't too worried about the indicators which had not been right since about Belgium, but despite various efforts to replace bulbs, clean contacts and check wires, we had not been able to fix. But by now we were in countries where nobody uses them anyway, so it didn't matter.

The brake lights, however, we a different matter.  Nadine's bike was running fine, although a bit rich, and she usually needed petrol before I did, so we just fixed what we could before we left for Greece.

In Istanbul, we were hosted by some local bikers who run a club, and help visiting riders. Mehmet and his pals were really nice blokes, very welcoming and generous, and just all round good people. Their club house had a workshop and tools, which they put at our disposal, and also gave us a hand to fix stuff that we couldn't do, like drilling out and replacing the broken exhaust stud.

We stripped the bikes down completely there and gave them a full service. There were several broken spokes on my rear wheel which were very fiddley to replace but we did it ok. That proved a useful lesson as later on it the trip we would have to do it again, roadside and in baking heat, whilst being watched by fascinated locals.

Nadine's bike was OK though. We did an oil change on both, greased the chains and took her brakes apart as they were juddering slightly, although intermittently. We thought it might be corrosion around the cam that pushes the shoes outwards, so we cleaned it off and it seemed to do the trick.

A few days later further east in Turkey, my bike started to leak oil. We had stopped for petrol and were wiling time away while a thunderstorm passed overhead, and noticed oil dripping out of the bottom of the engine. But no hole or gap could be found, so we tightened everything up, topped the oil up and set off, only for it to happen again. But this time, the bike steadily lost compression too, and thus  power, which mean far from romping along at a blistering 70kph/40mph, I was reduced to a smoking 40kph/20mph.

Mehmet from Istanbul arranged for somebody in a local town (Kastamanou) to help us) and we managed to limp there very slowly and were taken to a mechanic, who fixed the leak for us. Or so he thought.

The oil was coming out of the head where the exhaust pipe attaches, so it seemed like a gasket problem. They were replaced, but the same problem occurred again two days later, then another three times, by which time we were in Sinop, northern Turkey.

There was clearly something structurally wrong with the engine but it wasn't something we could see, and never did manage to find even when much later, we took the whole engine apart and inspected it carefully. The gaskets were good, as were the casing seals. But retrospectively, we think what probably happened was when the exhaust stud was drilled out in Istanbul, the drilling went a bit too deep and weakened the cylinder head so that as the bike ran and pressure built, the weakened wall was subjected to higher significant pressure, which eventually caused it to fracture, and as the whole thing heated, the fracture expanded, forcing pressurised oil to spurt out and drip down to the bottom of the engine where it found its way out through the exhaust port.

I decided that a new engine would be the best idea as repairs, although very cheap by western standards were costing us money and we didn't really know what the extent of the damage was. And we also wanted to be sure that the engine would be ok, the further east we travelled. However, getting a new engine proved impossible because there wasn't one available locally, and the mechanics, although lovely and very helpful, wanted to repair mine rather than replace it, and would not be persuaded otherwise. It was definitely a 'you're girls and we're men - we know best' moment and we had to give in.

In the end, they sent the cylinder head back to Istanbul for repair, but when nothing could be done, a new one was sent back on the night bus and they fitted that instead. Inspection of the old one revealed extensive wear and tear around the exhaust port and some bad pitting inside the casing. It could have been a bad casting from the factory, made worse by the rattling and then oil pressure problem; who knows. There was nothing we could do, so we just set off again, hoping that the repairs would help. And they did, although the bike still needed regular oil top ups.

Nadine's clutch then started to play up,  slipping and not pulling the bike along properly. Her bike had always been meatier than mine, but mine was now pulling away from lights and uphills far better. She could catch up eventually, but it was more of a gradual build up than acceleration. We tweaked the clutch ourselves and did take it apart once on a garage forecourt, but although we had a puller, we were unable to loosen the screws that held the plate casing on. They must have been done up with a compressor gun in the factory as they were budging for nobody. On future trips, an impact driver is a must.

But true to form, and just as she was getting really fed up, we stumbled upon a motorbike workshop. It was right on the coast and near to the Georgian border, and amazingly was open - on a Sunday- and we only noticed it because it had two tatty old motorbikes leaning against each other out front.

What a lovely bloke Musa was too. It was just a one man band, and eventually and with the help of a man who lived next door, we managed to explain to him what was wrong with the clutch. He took it to pieces, removed the plates which he said were rubbish, despite being brand new ( Chinese and bought in Kastamanou) and replaced them with some heavier duty jobs. That did the trick and the clutch was OK for the rest of the trip, albeit with a bit of adjusting now and again, but that was something that we did oursleves with a screwdriver and spanner.

As we moved eastwards and the roads got rougher, the bigger wheels and the lightness of the bikes  really made a difference. They were easy to ride over the bad road surfaces and also negotiate roadworks, steps, verges and fields, potholes, rivers and craters with ease.

Although we both ride bikes as our principal means of transport, both in the UK and in Australia, the whole point of this trip was to see as much as possible, using bikes to do so, rather than go on a bike trip and see stuff in the process. I don't think either of us ever regretted taking the scooters rather than bigger bikes because we  had agreed from the start that this would be a pottering along trip, seeing what happened from day to day. As long as we kept going, looked out for each other and stayed safe whilst still pushing the experiences we were accumulating, then that was ok. No daily mileage quotas, no average speeds, no set rules, other than be in the right country with the right visa at the right time.

After Turkey, the bikes kept more or less running as they had been since being fixed in Sinop. Oil still dripped from my bike, but it got no worse and I just topped it up every time I refuelled. It was an expense we could have done without but then living was so cheap and we were wild camping most of the time so we had no accommodation costs, that it really didn't matter that much. And when we had to go through border posts, I stuffed a rag in the leak to stop it dripping onto the concrete and attracting attention and fines.

We did daily checks and adjustments of course. Tyres, brakes, lights, nuts and bolts, but had no problems there. We both had a few broken spokes, mostly in rear wheels, but that was hardly surprising given the extreme rough terrain we were riding daily. Fortunately, the spoke replacing lesson in Istanbul had taught us what to do and we ( particularly Nadine) got very good at it. And when we ran out of spare rear spokes, we moved  stronger rear spokes around and interspersed them with smaller weaker front spokes to spread and reduce stress on the wheel.

The valves caused a bit of a problem on my bike, and that was something we were unable to fix, although we did pinpoint the problem by eliminating other possibilities and tracing things back logically. But again, the mechanics in Astrakhan wouldn't believe us because we were girls, and we had to wait for several hours while they poured over the bike before announcing that they had identified the problem -  the valves. Zzzzzzz.......... I think it was probably the inlet valve but to their credit, they did replace them and that bit of the bike at least, worked fine from then on.

Punctures were something that we expected to be dealing with daily, but although we did have them - about ten in all, five of which were in one day-  we had surprisingly few, given the distance we rode  the surfaces we encountered, and the fact that we rode most of the way on stock rubbish Chinese road tyres. Retrospectively, what we should have done was to have replaced the existing tubes with heavy duty spare tubes, and taken heavy duty spares with us, rather than rely upon standard tubes.

We patched when we got punctures, and they held good apart from when we reached Kazakhstan and the heat generated by friction, as well as the 44 degree air temperature in full sun was too much for the glue, which it wouldn't allow to set. We just couldn't get repairs to set sufficiently to retain air once we got the bike back on the road. It was very frustrating and quite demoralising, but there was nothing much we could do.

Luckily, our last repair in our one good tube held up, and even that had been mended before, but using ordinary bicycle repair glue rather than the supposed heavy duty motorcycle grade Slime glue that would not set.

Tubes are heavy and bulky so it wasn't practical to take a pile of spares, and the Slime glue was supposed to be good. It had no upper heat limit, but it failed just when we needed it most, and was surpassed by a nondescript tube of nothing glue from Wilkinsons. Mad. Perhaps we would have had even more punctures had we not taped the rims before we left; who knows.

Despite the mishaps and the daily wear and tear en route, both of the bikes made it to Ulan Bataar, a journey of about 9000 miles/13000kms. That in itself is incredible for two town bikes of dubious build quality. But they lasted, and they lasted well. The frames were good, the engines were mostly good
( apart from described here) and even the rubbish tyres held up; both front tyres lasted all the way without much visible sign of wear, and the back tyres were changed in Russia for better grip, although they still had life left in them. We had no major cable, sprocket, chain or brake issues, and much to our surprise, and despite the extreme bashing we gave these bikes, they worked just like they were supposed to. Would we take them again, now knowing what we know about the terrain, the heat, the problems? Yes, definitely. Without hesitation.