Shop as Sanctuary
Note: This article was originally published in BMW Owners News.
The rain is slanting down, and I can hear the wind howling through the cul de sac where I live. I fling open the garage door, and branches fly past as if hurled by some malevolent pedestrian. Small rivers of leaves and debris rush past the end of the driveway.
I put the BMW RT up on its centerstand, don my work smock, flick on the overhead lights, and crank up the dented and abused radio that has adorned garages in the half-dozen states where I’ve lived over the years.
It’s shop time. After all, what better thing to do on a rainy day?
I’ve performed this same service four times on this bike—which just passed 24,000 miles—and dozens of times on the pantheon of motorcycles that has punctuated my life since I was 13: minibikes, sport bikes, standards, dual-sports, Yamaha enduros with thimble-size pistons, ailing Triumph twins that spit flames out the exhaust, vintage restorations. I have divined the insides of every one, often with great pleasure. As a teenager, I sometimes pulled the cylinder head off an aging two-stroke just to view the piston crown—for the 20th time—as if some great mystery would be revealed there. I have brought 40-year old motorcycles back from the grave, cured their ailments and oil leaks, repainted and polished them until they have made grown men weep with the remembrance of what was.
I have also had my share of disasters: dropping small parts down spark plug holes, unceremoniously snapping off bolt heads, and rounding out slotted screws. I have sent bare knuckles careening into the nearest sharp object with frequently gory results. I’ve watched improperly secured metal parts careen off the grinding wheel with the speed of a 22-caliber bullet. And the worst: I’ve assembled an entire motor and found some critical internal part lying forlorn on the shop floor.
I’m an amateur, after all, and prone to amateurish blunders. (I’m happy to say they’ve become more infrequent, or perhaps just less ruinous, over the years.)
Thankfully, I’ve also experienced the opposite: the elation of pressing the button (or prodding the kick-starter) and having a solid year of work culminate in the wonderful pop pop of a freshly assembled motor springing to life. Yes! She runs!
There is a certainty in shop work: the certainty that, should you use the right diagnostics, and do the work properly, the bike will run better, smoother, faster. There is also the certainty that bad diagnostics, and poorly done work, will result in blue smoke, frightening noises, roadside unpleasantness, and embarrassing calls home for aid. Don’t ask how I know this.
When it goes right, the tools fall easily to hand, their texture familiar and sure. (Some of them, like my standard 3/8-inch ratchet, I’ve had since my teens.) Today it goes easily: I pop off the BMW’s valve cover and expose the valve train, which carries a sheen of fresh, honey-colored oil. I set the clearances, install the gasket, and torque the bolts crosswise, in small increments. I attach the throttle body synch tool, fire up the motor, and tweak the cables until the mercury columns rise in perfect harmony. I install the body work and fire up the motor one more time. The revs rise smoothly, then fall again, the idle even and sure.
It’s been a while since I flushed the brake fluid, so I remove the tops from the reservoirs, and attach a hose to each bleeder valve. I loosen bleeders and pump the levers, going back and forth in rhythmic fashion, until what comes out of the hoses flows clear.
Next, I check for leaks all around. Thankfully, the underside of the bike is dry, as is the floor. I clean and wax everything for good measure, tidy up the shop, and head for the shower. Later, after dinner, I’ll go back out in the garage, a glass of wine in hand, and just stand there in a state of slightly stupid admiration. I’m glad there is no one there to see me. I’m smiling.
What I’m experiencing transcends the interface of hard metal parts and hand tools. When this occurs, the shop becomes sanctuary—like riding itself, it’s a place of solitude and adventure. Like riding, there is risk, vulnerability, a near-constant process of education, and occasionally pain.
There is an inexplicable intimacy with a mechanical thing that is cold and crude and revealing and adventurous all at the same time. This ritual is not separate from the riding—they are the same experience.
In fact, now that I think of it, the shop might just be the second best way to spend a day.