Friday, 28 September 2007

Mechanic Ramayana

Even more on biking, read at your own peril.

My mechanic is an ex-racer.

While this statement may conjure up visions of grandeur on his part, and grandeur by association on mine, things are far from such a pretty picture. And while i do admit that there is an inordinate difference in the the depth of my theoretical and practical knowledge on automobiles, and that theoretical knowledge is not of much use when your second gear refuses to engage, i also think that mechanics are highly overrated. Maybe it's because i get overwhelmed by their depth of practical knowledge and my brain switches into simpleton mode. Either way, the point is that our combined knowledge has done but scratch to improve the well being of my bike, which incidentally is my pride and joy.

Initially my contribution to this pride and joy was to keep it shining through rigorous application of spit and polish, and spend sweat and tears in keeping it serviced. and sweet fuck-all apart from that. i've said this before and i'll say it again, the first few months with a bike are a period where your feelings for it turn from love to one of invincibility. you and your bike are the a-team on the road, the one to challenge your supremacy is yet to be born. of course, you hastily correct this rather shortsighted view after your first encounter with one of the mechanic breed. The first time i needed to go to a mechanic was, yes you guessed right, after an accident. The accident itself did nothing to my feeling of invincibility except enhance it since i escaped without a scratch, but the bike wasnt so lucky and needed a mechanic. Now theoretically i could replace the headlamp assembly, but i wasn't so sure about the practical part. I was still madly in love with the bike, we were sorta like newlyweds, so me taking it apart was analogous to me performing open heart surgery on my wife, despite the fact that headlamp replacement was more suited to a nose-job analogy. Another characteristic of this situation is that you're so in love that you run around for second opinions etc., and no expense is spared to get your love back to good health. I, unfortunately, did the same.
I ran around to four mechanics asking their opinions, and predictably (in retrospect), got four different opinions. one told me i needed to replace my fork. Since that was a rather expensive proposition, he was easy to strike off my list. Another said it's ok, just change the bulb, the whole assembly is expensive, change it when u put in for more serious repairs. Of course, the urge to keep my bike shipshape meant that he was easy to cross out of the list as well. Of the remaining two, i dont recall much about their opinions, but i based my choice on the fact that one of them was a racer and the other wasn't. So i chose him to nurse my bike, and theres started my saga.

From my perspective, mechanics were put on earth to rob innocent bikers of their money. This is not specific to any mechanic, i hold this as a universal truth. The old breed of mechanics who loved your bike more than you did, dont exist anymore. The kindly old man with a boxful of tools in a dilapidated shed has been run over by the much resented march of civilization. Even service centres in villages these days have hydraulic workbenches that lift the bike to an ergonomic height, and multi purpose electric tools that change heads mechanically so the mechanic need not waste time switching from a spanner to an allen key. But this change, unfortunately, cannot be equated with a rise in quality. Your average mechanic has become more educated yet dumber, better paid yet greedier. Half the repairs on a job sheet are routinely overlooked at these places, basic thing like oil are never checked, and some of the more unscrupulous ones swipe new parts from bikes and replace them with damaged ones. And being rather naive, i was not prepared for this labyrinthine world. Multiple service stations authorised by the maker of my bike proved disappointing, and each damage hurt me and my pocket and yet never got fixed. The only consolation was that this was true for service centres of all the major bike makers.
So, with my trust in these shaken, i returned to the fold of the roadside mechanic. Sought out the racer chap again after months, and started giving the bike to him. He seems like a good man, speaks good english which is a relief since i cant make sense of Kannada, and behaves more like a racing team manager than a mechanic. Which was nice initially, since he figured with a single look at me that i ride fast and race pretty much everyone from every red light, and he started giving riding tips. And my riding definitely improved, especially cornering skills. I was elated, i began what i called 'riding on the edge of capability', noting down speedo readings at difficult corners and trying to best them the next time around. Of course, this was meant to invite more accidents, and sure enough, they happened. That's when i figured that the racing outfit he imagined to be running with me as lead driver was a GP team, to him, from an expenses point of view. And here I was, thinking of something like a SriPerumbudur track team :P Anyways, after the first crash, he gave me a list of stuff to replace. Some didnt even look relevant. When i asked him i got a lecture about racing safety, and i meekly agreed to replace them. More crashes followed though, and i became acutely aware of the fact that i might not be able to afford his services. But then, sentimental fool that i am, i had taken a liking to my 'coach' by now, and not wanting to jeopardize my racing 'career' i decided to look for alternatives. I went to a big service station again. and returned back to my mechanic just as fast, since those service station types still hadn't cleaned up their act.
But then i started having all sorts of doubts. The invincibility phase was long since over, and i knew the limits of my bike, so i decided to see the limits of the mechanic. i wanted to know if he was the kindly honest chap he came across to be. So using my theoretical knowledge i'd badger him with questions designed to trap him, yet all i accomplished was further doubt in my mind and no concrete answers either way. I started hitting below the belt and asked him to show me the parts he claimed to have replaced, which he did, yet i suspected they could have been from some other bike and that i might as well have thrown my money away. Finally, i snapped. That happened one day when i was riding to office, and the bike ground to a halt. The wheels were stuck, and wouldnt budge. Something to do with the gears i imagined. Since i wasnt too far from his shop, i took it to the mechanic. He gave me a detailed list of repairs needed, including changing shifters for my gears. he quoted about 3 grand for it, and i flipped. I gave him a piece of my mind and told him what i thought of his proposed 3 grand bill, and told him to just get it barely roadworthy at the cheapest possible price. He warned me that might lead to worse gear problems, and i told him i'll cross that bridge when i come to it. He got it done for a grand, and i rode off quite pleased with myself for having put my foot down and having saved a pile. If only i had done this earlier, i would have saved a lot more. He does good work, as i've come to know, i should just have checked him from swindling me. This thought strengthened further in my mind for the next three months, and the bike ran perfectly, as if to vindicate me.
Until i lost my second gear one day. I took it back to him, and stood there while he dismantled the engine. He showed me where the shifter had been eaten into by the gear, where gear teeth had broken off and ruined other gears. I stood there dreading an i-told-you-so speech, wishing the earth would swallow me up. Cos he did tell me all this the last time. And it cost me 6k this time. Humbled, i paid up and without a word he gave me a half-grand discount. I took the bike and made a mental note never to mess with mechanics again. Thats when he dropped the bombshell, something you'd never expect a racing manager to say. "take it easy for the next 1000km, son", he said "dont push beyond 60." My jaw was scooping dirt from the road as i drove, nay, inched back home.

Last count, i've done 81 of the 1000 prescribed kilometers. I'm never gonna make it.. aaargh.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Evolution of a Biker

More on biking, read at your own peril.

What does it mean to be on two wheels? What is that thrill, that essence of biking that is supposedly so great that biking is often equated with nirvana? Why did Che Guevara set off on his old leaky Norton 500 instead of say, hitchhiking or catching a bus? More importantly, did the bike play a role in the making of the revolutionary?
These and a lot of other questions often pop in my head ever since I started riding. And they pop up exactly after the needle goes past eighty (dad, in the unlikely event that you're reading this, read that last word as forty). I guess that there's a certain stage after which driving goes on to autopilot and these philosophical questions come to mind; for me philosophy started coming easy after 4 spills, 5000 kilometres and eighty kilometres an hour. I admit its not the best of situations for deep thought and that one should rather focus on the riding then, but these are the questions that eventually led me to think of my own growth as a biker, and later figure that i fit the average learning curve as well.
It usually starts with love. When I was about fourteen or fifteen and the CBZ came out,i fell in love. First with the CBZ, then moved on to loving other bikes. I didn't have one then, and spent my time drooling at the bikes of my elder cousins and their friends. But back then, i knew I'd be on one as soon as life, finances and such permitted.
Like love tends to do, you move on from drool-your-glands-out puppy love to finding your true love. Mine happened at an automobile expo in Delhi. The bike had been around for a while, but i saw a guy who had painted it in castrol colours and i was hooked. I knew i had found my true love. And I bought a Karizma. and that's where things get funny.
From love, most bikers move on to invincibility. Blinded by love, the bike to you is faultless, it can do no wrong. And since most bikers at whatever stage in their biking life consider the machine as an extension of themselves, by definition the rider can do no wrong as well. Yes, i am admitting on the record that like a lot of other bikers, i had my highly-likely-zip-splat stage as well. So you climb on in the morning, roar off into the road riding on the edge of capability, both yours as well as the machine's. This is where a lot of bikers end up making life threatening mistakes. Some learn and see the light, others remain stuck in this phase forever never realizing that you have to acknowledge limits before pushing them.
Those who get past here start realizing more about their machines. By now its usually clear that the bike is a machine too, and no matter what you think of your ride, its not infallible and can let you down disastrously if it so fancies. You begin to understand each part, what they are capable of, and how they can fail. And suddenly, freak accidents where tyres come off or forks break for no apparent reason dont seem so freaky anymore. And as it sinks into you that the machine is not perfect, you tend to realize your shortcomings as a driver. That you are not rossi or abe, and that you need to stay within your limits of skill to be able to push them. That trying to ride beyond your capability might mean you are throwing your life away. This is usually the longest stage. You could pass it in weeks, or you may be stuck here for years. I'm still stuck i guess.
I don't really know what lies after this. Maybe the next stage is where all those nirvana references come from. Maybe thats where you finally get all the ego and stupidity out of your system and become truly one with your ride. Like i said, i dont know and i'm flying blind here. But i do know that I still have moments of biking stupidity which tell me that i've still not graduated to the next level.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

An Honest Ode..

This one's about my bike, so u might want to skip it.

Its been over a year now since i got my bike, and while its rather premature to bill it an old soldier and write a sentimental ode, its probably the right time to look honestly at it and find out why i like or not-so-like it. As you can see, i still can't hate it. And that's not just because i've bought it, no. Right after i'd gotten it i had written about the same topic, only i was rather smitten by it then and had lost my objectivity and was crowing about it. Today i hope to take an objective look at it. As i set off writing this, I'm still prone to lose my way and objectivity again. In which case I'll try again a year later. For now I'll look at those not-so-good aspects first.
Like all bikes its got hundreds of little problems that are unique to it. Unique not to the make of bike, but to the individual bike itself. Mine has met with fifteen accidents (1 major, 3 worthy of note and 11 minor) in the space of the last one year. The major one has left its mark on the bike, with stability problems cropping up at high speeds sometimes. Then there are irritating problems like the right-hand driving mirror that keeps coming loose, the silencer bolts coming loose at the cylinder end, the rubber padding on the insides of the fairing that just refuses to stay in place etc. These are all minor irritants. Its probably what happens in a marriage as well. just like you look at other people's lives to figure out how they're coping, i look at other zmas in parking lots to see if they've got the same problems. Nyet. These problems seem to be mine alone. But i dont grudge the bike for these, for these are far smaller than problems i've seen with others.
Then there are the problems common to the make of bike. I know only of three. One is the silencer, the next is the cam tensioner chain, and the third is mileage. I've been spared by the silencer problem, in a way. The increase in noise due to the K&N filter I had installed overwhelms any rattling the silencer can muster. Not that it rattles much anyway. But i agree that the rattling is a blemish on the stock zmas which are rather silent, since sound is one thing HH didn't bother to design. I have a loose cam tensioner chain that creates a throaty rattle as we drive along. Its a problem that the company wont even give a guarantee on after replacement, i.e. even if I replace the tensioner there is no guarantee that it wont repeat. Noise aside, this is not a big problem since normal driving is unhindered.
Mileage is the third problem. If i look at the trade off, which is a high voltage commute to office everyday and the occasional high speed long drive, i don't mind shelling out for the petrol. The numbers could have been better though. No matter how much you convince yourself, you have doubts whether other similar bikes are giving their promised paper figures which are miles ahead of the purported figures for my bike. I mean, i honestly accept that i get only 24 kilometres to a litre on my bike in the city. Other zmas claim even 40 on online forums, but the owners i've met in real life admit to 30. This bike is probably breeding a lot of liars and idiots in this country i suppose. True, i told my dad it's gonna give me 50 to a litre, but then that was to get the bike. I've been more or less honest about my figures after that.

Whats the greatest posiitive about this bike? One word. Reliability. No matter what the problems, no matter what the road throws at it, this bike was meant to run. I have so far not had a single occasion where the bike was rendered immobile due to any problem, except for accidents and punctures. Whatever be the issue, it has not let me down before reaching a service centre. I drove a 500 kilometer road trip while it was leaking oil. I badly wanted to go on that trip, and i knew that i should have fixed it before leaving. But i also know that no other bike would have given me the confidence to just leave and take things as they come. With regular topping up of leaked oil she did fine on the trip.
I had an accident that left the bike drowned in four and a half feet of storm sewage, along with a couple of other bikes. I fished it out of the water and pushed it a quarter of a kilometer to dry land where the other bikers parked their vehicles and went home for the night, while i could revive her ans ride back home on it with minor hiccups.
It can take punishment on a regular basis, with nary a whimper in protest. Take my commute to the office for instance. Its usually an adrenaline packed high revving drive with a couple of fast straight stretches and a few noteworthy corners. If i beat the morning traffic its a full speed dash to office, and if i dont its a low gear high rev traffic dodging exercise. Either way, i couldnt have asked for a more reliable ride, for she has yet to let me down. Even when I was having serious trouble with a chain that was stretched loose from all the stunting, the bike plodded along to the mechanic's where i could get it repaired. The bike is not designed for offroading, but took 3 kilometres of high speed offroading daily for two months and the only problem was that of the silencer coming loose, which was something i could fix myself.

And then there is looks. I know looks are subjective, but then i still like the zma over the new pulsar flagships, simply because it looks as heavy as it is. It does not look dainty, it looks firmly planted, and each time i ride this makes me place my full trust in its inherent stability. The pulsar might be just as stable, but i sure dont trust it. And i sure wont trust it to stand by me when i eventually do bangalore-mumbai nonstop. The zma has been my steed of choice, and a year later, i think i made a good choice.