So I’m putting my faith in a BMW F 800 GS to realise a long-held goal of riding around the world in 2017. Wanting to know more about the bike I’ll be totally relying on for thousands of miles in all conditions, I recently completed an Adventure Maintenance course as part of preparing my bike for this forthcoming journey of a lifetime…
Your modern motorcycle is a masterpiece of design and engineering, capable of helping you realise your dreams of long-distance adventure and global travel. But what happens when you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere and it grinds to a halt. What next?
I remember a memorable conversation with an Austrian guy called Felix Bergmeister who spent several years riding around the world on his R 80 GS. He’d just got out of Burkina Faso and escaped a civil war where the military was fighting against the police. Having crossed the border to Togo, he went to the first fuel station to fill up with petrol. After he got back on the bike and hit the ‘start’ switch, suddenly smoke and fire was everywhere. His electrical system had decided to melt down due to a faulty start relay, which had basically fried the electrics. This would normally be a big problem but with the old air-cooled GS being so simple he could repair it in Togo by ripping a cable out of an old abandoned car and just wiring the whole thing up again.
I remember feeling in awe of this resourceful guy and wondering what I’d have done in the same situation. Since then of course, bikes have become increasingly complicated with electronics, canbus systems and ECUs offering us access to some amazing features like traction control, electronic suspension adjustment and programmable ABS, but as for working on these motorcycles yourself – or fixing them in the back of beyond – is this still possible?
Perhaps surprisingly, there is still a lot of servicing, preventative maintenance and running repairs that you can do to any modern bike – even those that you might think can only be plugged into diagnostic systems to keep them going. Furthermore, the good news is that all these hi-tech advancements have improved reliability no end, so the chances of a failure are a lot less than before.
So by my reckoning, I owed it to myself to know more all the things I could do for myself on this marvel of modern motorcycle technology, which is why I booked myself on an Adventure Maintenance course run by the top BMW mechanics at the Off-Road Skills centre in South Wales. I didn’t want my lack of specialist skills to hold me back on my forthcoming trip, so learning as much as I could about the bike that I would be putting 100% of my faith in would surely be a Good Thing, right?
It’s an old cliché, but failing to prepare is the same thing as preparing to fail in my book, and I didn’t want that to happen to me. Judging by my initial conversations with the group of blokes in their 30s and 40s who rocked up to the Woodlands Business Park on the edge of the unpronounceable town of Ystradglynlais on a murky October morning, we all shared similar ambitions. Almost all were GS owners who were somehow intimidated by their bikes – and wanted to do something about it.
And who wouldn’t want to get to know their bikes better? In my view, when you take the ‘clothes’ off any modern bike and start poking around, you can really appreciate not only the decades of engineering evolution that has got us to the point we are now, where seriously advanced technology is available at a realistic price, but also the amazing design process where it’s all squeezed together into an aerodynamic and ergonomically efficient package of dreams and potential.
Split into two small groups of five, we were allocated a technician to help us unravel the mysteries of modern BeeMers, and our workshop ‘donor’ bikes included the quite different 800cc parallel-twin and 1200cc boxer GS variants, ensuring all owners’ bases were covered. Neil, our instructor, started off by gathering us around and showing us some of the essentials we needed – things like liquid metal putty/epoxy for on-the-road repairs; the BMW puncture kit; a mini-compressor and jump-leads for tyre inflation and dealing with flat batteries; tyre levers; various pliers; a leatherman tool; gaffer tape; lockwire and a decent rag for cleaning up, or laying out your tools in the field.
With a lot of knowledge and expertise to compress into a one-day course, we first learnt how to check, remove and change brake pads, check, adjust and replace spokes, and the importance of visibly marking torque settings on the bike, as there isn’t going to be space for a big wrench in your ‘essentials’ kit – or panniers.
Front wheel removal then came next, where the sequence of calipers, pinch bolt and spindle was important, as is noticing which side the ABS sensor is on, so that you don’t put the wheel back on the wrong way. Interesting and useful tips were offered throughout, such as cable-tying your wheel spacer to the spokes, so you don’t lose it or kick it away by mistake – or putting the bike in gear while loosening off the rear wheel, for obvious reasons!
We were warned about water crossings, shown the position of the air intakes and what to do if you think that you have allowed water into your engine. Essential information that could just save your bike from going up in smoke, or worse, but perhaps the most important piece of advice was to avoid crossing deep water unless absolutely necessary, especially if you can find a bridge a few kilometres further down the trail.
Repairing punctures was the next topic covered in detail, as these are the most likely to stop you in your tracks. We covered how to repair tubed and tubeless tyres, and had the pleasure of drilling a hole in both types to simulate a nail entering the tyre. Learning how to protect the rims, and use the bike’s weight via the side-stand to ‘break the bead’ was more effective than standing or kneeling on the sidewall. Reseating the tyre was more difficult, with correct rotation, lubing techniques and effective tyre balancing all discussed in detail.
One thing was sure: repairing and changing tyres is something that needs to be practiced in the comfort of your workshop or garage until you are comfortable with doing both front and rear. Don’t wait until you are in the arse end of nowhere late at night in the middle of a storm – because you can guarantee that’s when you’ll get a puncture!
For the afternoon session, we switched groups and were in the care of Evan Davies, a highly experienced mechanic who has built several BMW Dakar race bikes for Off-Road Skills Chief Instructor Simon Pavey over the years. Evan dispelled some of the myths about electronics before dispensing invaluable advice about old-fashioned bump-starting, then moving on to effective jump-starting from a suitable 12-volt source. He explained which components should be regularly checked for wear during a long-distance ride and then showed how to check chain and sprockets, measure freeplay and adjust chain tension correctly.
Fluids were then discussed, including the different types of oil, when and how to check levels and how to drain and refill. The same went for coolant, with access to the reservoir requiring the removal of seven screws and the side panel on the 800 GS (note to self: take some spare screws on my trip because they are easily dropped!).
Throughout the course, the ‘hands-on’ approach encouraged us to learn through structured practical sessions and all the guys enjoyed getting their hands dirty, supporting each other with various on-bike tasks. Questions were actively encouraged, as the discussions that followed allowed the technicians to pass on many of the tips and tricks they have learnt over the years from riding, racing and crossing continents on adventure bikes.
This shared inside knowledge is what, ultimately, will hopefully give me the skills, knowledge and ability to carry out emergency repairs and keep me moving across all six continents in 2017 and beyond. The course has given me the confidence to spend the forthcoming winter getting to know my bike even further, from the comfort of my garage of course, so that I can build up the ideal adventure bike specific tool kit, specially adapted for my needs. This toolkit and the skills acquired will hopefully get me out of many a tight spot on my travels.
Now armed with this knowledge, and the owners’ manual, I’ll be spending those long winter evenings in my basement, increasing my understanding of the GS and how it works, so that I can travel with confidence on my round-the-world adventure. If you’re planning a similar trip, or even if it’s the last thing on your mind, you can’t fail to benefit from this excellent course run by genuine enthusiasts.
Give the team at Off-Road Skills a call on 08000 131 282 for details of 2017 dates, or visit www.worldofbmw.com for more information. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll see you out on the road…