Staring at the sea

Two figures are pushing a shopping trolley across a bleak, sunless landscape. The woman is looking listlessly ahead in the hope of spotting Viggo Mortenson. She remembers that afternoon, in the Good Old Days, when he stood in front of her at Fortnum and Mason buying an extraordinary amount of tea.

Tea. If she thought very hard she could remember tea.

“What did you do during the Great Coronavirus Lockdown, Highwaylass?” the child asked.

“Well, Ambulatory Foodstuff, I did what I always do. Bought a vehicle that seemed like a brilliant bargain and then had to take it to pieces because there was a problem.”

The wheel fell off the shopping trolley.

The woman sat down in the road and searched her pockets for an allen key. The wheel would go back on, they would lurch forward, and the next day would be just like this one.

Yes, gentle reader – the Coronavirus Special is still in pieces. After lengthy research into the best places to attach the clamps to the W650 frame, including asking a Very Kind bike dealership in Wales to take some photos of the W650 outfit they had innocently listed for sale on eBay, Operation Refit the Chair began last Friday and ground to a swift halt.

A sidecar wheel should have a camber towards the chair.

Not be leaning drunkenly about 5cm towards what would be the kerb if we ever get on the road again.

The internet reveals that this happens a lot on Velorex chassis as the factory were a little slapdash in their welding and weren’t too careful about fixing the shock towers perpendicular to the tubes.

I have Chassis B that I got on a day trip to Basingstoke. Chassis B has different problems than Chassis A but it does have a more upright shock tower. I took it to the workshop that does all my wheel bearings as I am too feeble to do my own. The plan was new bearings, fresh paint, carry on from where we left off on Friday. Martin had a good go with hammer and drift – even pausing to get a bigger hammer – but they are rusted solid. A quick swop was not, therefore, in order.

I tried a halfway house of just swopping the swinging arm. This didn’t start too well either.

Although the nut came off the lower shock absorber bolt quite easily the bolt itself refused to push through. I am less daunted these days and spent a determined half hour with PlusGas, a vice, and a socket big enough to go over the bolt but not so big it couldn’t go in the jaws of the vice as a sort of erzatz puller. A pusher, to be more precise. With a few turns of the screw it reluctantly yielded and the Frankenchassis is now assembled.

I will take the small victories while the large ones elude me.

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If it was easy, lawyers would do it

It’s fair to say that not everything has gone to plan with the W650 coronavirus special. Back in May I posted, with foolish bravado, that the only job left was to patch up the seat covers.

Oh, how the gods laughed. Here’s the current state of play.

I went to buy a rear mudguard and a bike seat off a chap who had found them surplus to his requirements for the W650-based bobber he was building, and on the way back I went to see Ken-who-knows-everything to ask if he could see why there was an unpleasant sounding clunk at low speeds.

Because the joints were loose, that’s why.

In a puzzling achievement, the joints holding the chair to the bike were both welded and loose. So it all had to come off.

The good news is that, contrary to Ken’s worst fears, nothing is actually cracked. So the tasks have been dismantling, de-rusting, taking off the now-surplus welds, and deciding how to reattach the eyebolts so they don’t work loose again.

Also painting.

I don’t know a huge amount about attaching sidecars but I’m lucky enough to know a few men that do. We’re currently debating how best to attach the upper rear mount – I want it a bit further back than it had been to improve the triangulation. (See, it’s almost as though I know what I’m doing).

In theory, setting up a chair is straightforward.

But then everything is, in theory.

I have the advantage now that I know what a well-set-up rig should handle like. So once we have reached consensus on where the eyebolts are going to go I am going to bravely attache the chassis, set the toe-in, the lead and the lean-out, and see how we do.

By this time it will be 2021 and the dog will probably be in Valhalla, but it’s good to have a project.

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It’s just a jump to the left…

I have taken a version of this photo most years since 2000. As a baby biker living in Buckinghamshire Jack’s Hill was just far enough away to be an adventure and you could get a cheese toastie while you were there summoning up the courage to ride home again. After a few years it became one of the places I stopped for breakfast while heading at speed up to the Scottish Borders.   The wheel of fortune turns and once again it’s just far enough away to be an adventure and get me home in time to placate the dog. Even better, it’s now got a tat emporium in one corner of the car park so I can usually find a small treasure to take home with me – on this visit, a cooking thermometer so I can have a go at slow-cooker-Greekish-yoghurt.

The give-away that this was 2020 – though of course these days you never need to stare at a photo thinking “when the hell was this taken?” because it’s right there in the metadata- is the gazebo and the red plastic lane dividers. Two households or one bubble per table, please. There is always something that makes me sad at the moment and the “new normal” is top of the list – no-one has invited me to “bubble up,” so I sat at the table on my tod and ate my cheese toastie.  In the jacket that I bought when I bought the bike, 20 years ago. I am nothing if not loyal…

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the 900cc solution

PeaceThe Wingman had another wobble about a month ago, and it looked for a few days like he would be packing his bags and making his final journey.  Mainly due to failure of my courage, he’s still here, but while I was trying to think about all the things that would need to be done, and all the ways that life would be different, I realised that I had two motorcycles with sidecars attached for the sole purpose of transporting my hairy life companion, and one Triumph that had done 500 miles on its own wheels since 2015 and about twice that in the back of a van up and down the country before descending into the vicious circle where every time I took it out something went wrong – last year, that was fuel pouring out from the air box drain hose – so I took it out less and less for fear of getting stuck miles from the dog and it got less and less reliable.

Of all the unbearable things that would have been life post-Wingman, the worst would have been taking one of the outfits out with an empty chair so I thought after he had gone I would get the Triumph sorted and return to solo riding.

Then I thought, why wait until after he’s gone? Now that I’m at home with him all the time, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to sneak out on my own now and again. Apart from his wobegone face when he sits right behind the door so I can’t even open it, that is.

Who do you trust with your favourite motorcycle?

There’s only really one answer for the Triumph and that’s Steve and Caz Hutchins of Raceways Motorcycles in Stevenage. A very long time ago I started out on IAM training and the first thing you do is walk round your bike (or maybe that was just the first thing my observer made me do…) – anyway, I was in a Tesco car park in Hitchin looking at my bike thinking “that front end is squint.” Turns out when you smack into some diesel-coated tarmac on the way to your sister’s wedding things don’t quite stay lined up. Steve and Caz took a huge amount of care getting it all straight again and became my workshop of choice until poor life decisions took me to the Fens. So I gave them a call, and they said “bloody hell, are you still alive?” and said of course they would sort the bike out.  So a man in a van did a covid-busting run down and last Saturday was time to go and get her back.

You need to know that I’m a terrible pillion. I hardly ever ride behind people because I’m a lot bigger than most women (and in truth, than most men)  and it upsets the aesthetic of the bike. I’m also a total coward. About this time last year I went pillion to the bike night at Jack Hill’s Cafe and genuinely thought I was going to go arse over tit off the back as Meerkat opened the throttle.  Fortunately in Shoei no-one can hear you scream.

“I’ll put the top box on for you this time,” he said.

Didn’t help.

It’s not that I don’t trust him. I just don’t trust everyone else on the road. So for the first half of the trip down I remembered the advice of Big Chief Polar Bear, closed my eyes, sang show tunes and tried not to throw up.   I quite liked the motorway because the speed was just in a straight line but then we were on the rollercoaster which is the Baldock to Buntington Road, my nemesis as an IAM learner – it’s fast and sweepy and then there’s a tight, tight set of esses which we piled through without hesitation or deviation but in complete terror.  It’s just not dignified at my age to be trying to velcro myself to the leathers of a younger chap like some sort of novelty backpack while whimpering.

I had been a bit worried about piloting the Triumph after so long on tiny bikes. If you add the MZ and the W650 together, you’ve only just matched the Triumph for capacity. But after 75 miles of white-knuckle adventure, there was no adrenaline left in me.

When life got dull, Sherlock Holmes would turn to a seven per cent solution of cocaine to stimulate his brain. He would have been better off with motorcycles.



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the things we do to pass the time…

Lockdown continues and with it the pointless rage at having fettled a long-range sidecar outfit only to have all non-essential travel banned. Still, hope springs eternal and there was one job left to do – patch up the seat covers.

The seat base was only suffering split seams so some heavy duty EvoStik (the sort that comes in a can) and some PVC sail trim sorted that.

The back, however – oh dear. Seams as far apart as Donald Trump’s foundation and his hairline. A total replacement was called for, but a new seat cover is the best part of a hundred quid and has to come from foreign parts. Who knows how long that would take in the New Normal?

It is a make-do-and-mend sort of bike, so could I copy the cover and make a new one from scratch? Where do you even start with the quilty bits?

Fortunately for me the ludicrously talented Lilibobs has been learning upholstery and renovating all the interior in Margot the Trabant. I’d say Margot has turned from drab to fab, but she was never drab in the first place.  From standard to outstanding, maybe?  So upholstery is clearly something that a (wo)man can do.

I asked a few questions.

It turns out that the quilty bits are called “tuck and roll.” Now I thought that was an aikido move, but armed with that information it’s only a short step to YouTube tutorials and a new seat cover. I feel I should point out that the seats Lilibobs made for Margot are impeccably finished and fitted, while mine is a bodge.

Still – first attempts and all that.

And much to the joy of bikers in England, our lockdown rules have been relaxed to allow “driving an unlimited distance” to enjoy activities like “relaxing in the park” and “having a picnic.” So in addition to a comedy seat cover I’ve also attached a picnic basket. Meet the Kawasaki W650 Coronavirus Special.





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Lockdown diaries

We’re now in the 6th week of coronavirus lockdown. I spent two of those flat out with something that may or may not have been Covid-19 but as the UK wasn’t doing widespread testing then I won’t know unless and until antibody tests become available.

Petrol is still cheap, the roads are still quiet and the sun is still shining.

I chafe against the restrictions but I abide by them.

What do we do when we can’t ride bikes? We can look back at previous rides, and I had a lot of fun at the weekend doing #lockdownlejog on twitter revisiting some memories from the 2008 Six Points Ride, the 2010 Lifeboats Ride and the 2011 Air Ambo ride.

I have always thought I had a bad memory but it turns out that’s not really true, I have moments of absolute clarity. I can remember as if it was yesterday rolling into Devizes camp site in 2011 to be greeted by Biker Paul say showered in cherry blossom and looking like Huey from the Fun Lovin Criminals. Or in 2008, roaming Dingwall looking for a dinner and meeting a tweedy lady weeding a flower display.

“Where’s a good place to eat in Dingwall?”

“At home,” she said.

She may have been right but we went to the National Hotel and had a dinner that couldn’t be beat. So much so that it became tradition and we went there again in 2010 and 2011.

And we can fix bikes. I have installed the TS150 I bought to commute on a week before we were all sent to work from home into the sun room and look forward to getting it into good shape, should we ever be allowed out again.





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Going Nowhere

It’s a bright, sunny spring morning in April. I should be chucking the Wingman in the sidecar and heading to Derbyshire for the 2020 Round Britain Rally ARSE.

But I’m not. Like every gathering of more than 2 people, the ARSE has been cancelled to help limit the spread of the coronavirus.

It has to be done. But as a person who has designed her whole life around fixing shonky bikes and riding them to places to meet friends, I’m suffering.

(I do know that I am making this complaint from a place of great privilege. I’m still getting paid, I’ve got a comfortable house to hunker down in, and I’ve got no children to protect from this awful disease.  It could be a lot worse.)

But to be going nowhere – that’s a terrible thing. The roads are almost empty, petrol is less than a pound a litre, and the sun is shining.  It’s like one of those cautionary tales about being careful what you wish for – somewhere out there Brendan Fraser asked Liz Hurley to make the world a biker’s paradise but didn’t specify the ability to get out there and use the roads!

Is there are way to turn Going Nowhere into a positive? It’s a challenge. It’s hardly a positive phrase, is it? A career can Go Nowhere. A relationship can Go Nowhere – hmm, perhaps I have more experience of this than I thought!

Therapy? even wrote a song about it, and here’s the key line: “But it’s what’s inside you’ve got to rearrange.”

Under lockdown I’m staring down the twin barrels of Time On My Own and Time At Home, two things I have avoided for about 20 years.

I’m mulling over radical action. Maybe the way to cope with this is just to become another person. Someone who doesn’t ride bikes and so doesn’t mind a life within four walls. Someone who – horror of all horrors – stays in one place.

It’s all gone a bit medieval. We’re fighting a plague that we don’t properly understand. We’ve all become anchorites, self-isolating in our homes, or serfs, unable to leave our villages without the permission of the authorities.

Am I cut out for serfdom? It doesn’t really appeal. Maybe I should dig out those Robin of Sherwood videos and mentally prepare myself for outlawry instead.







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There is a light that never goes out…

For some reason unknown to Western capitalist running dogs, you can take the keys out of an MZ but leave the lights on. So a few weeks ago when I was in a rush to get to a meeting at work I accidentally did this and came back to a flat battery.

Put the Optimate on it in the garage, came back a few weeks later (I know, but it was winter and I’ve done my time riding in the cold and the wet) and it was flat again. So I brought it into the kitchen (the battery, not the bike) and put it on the car charger.

Built its strength back up, put it back on the bike, this time it held its charge but the red light that warns you that your revs are too puny to run the system wouldn’t go out.

I treated the bike to a new battery just in case.

Thanks, said the bike, but I’m just going to carry on with the warning light.

Now, it seems to me that you should be able to run a bike with a flat battery even if you can’t start it, but it’s different for MZs. In a rare burst of good luck, the new battery had just enough juice in it to get back to the garage and I thought I would see if the headlights brightened when I revved the engine, because I have a vague memory of that revealing whether or not your charging system was shot.

Turned the lights on and the engine stopped.

Yes, we have a problem.

My grasp of electrics is about the same as the Wingman’s grasp of particle physics. I know that a circuit has to go power – switch – component – earth, though sometimes on the MZ it goes power – component – switch – earth. If the circuit isn’t working you have to check that the fuse isn’t blown, that the wires aren’t broken, and that the thing that is supposed to be working isn’t borked.

If that’s a light it’s easy. If it’s a thing with six diodes on it, not so much.

What a man can do, remember?

I have a multimeter, a wiring diagram and the might of motorcycle Twitter behind me.

How to keep your Volkswagen Alive For Ever” recommends that before starting a new task you should grok the scene. Robert Heinlein is rather out of favour these days, but that’s no reason not to take the advice.

The charging circuit includes the battery, the generator, the regulator and the rectifier. The regulator and the rectifier are under the seat. Like Ant and Dec, one of them has a large shiny dome and I’m never quite sure which is which.

The Blue Book has three pages of instructions on what to test if you’ve got a red light that won’t go out. The Haynes manual has the same but their tests require you to “unsolder” several components – I have a soldering iron but not an unsoldering one, so I am not keen on this!. The Blue Book’s tests just need a bulb and crocodile clips. And by fortunate chance (and an afternoon in a Trabant graveyard having my leg humped by a Jack Russell) I have an actual IFA test lamp. I dig this out in the hope that the bike will feel more inclined to co-operate with the testing equipment of its people.

Electrical fault-finding needs ample supplies of tea, a good desk lamp and a notebook. I’m trying to learn to love it as it’s nice to do some work on the bike that doesn’t leave me clarted with shite or bleeding.

I got to play with my brucie bonus caliper, which would have been better if I’d remembered how to read the vernier scale and hadn’t had to resort to just putting the brush on top of the ruler part to make sure it was longer than 9mm (dear reader, it was.)

I got to refresh several fuses (never mind stockpiling bog roll, I’m going to have to clear Halfords out of 15amp blade fuses if this needs doing again).

Apart from me short-circuiting things several times, nothing actually seemed to be broken.

And then it just started working again. Wiggling the Regulator (or Rectifier) about resolved some sort of earthing problem and that was us.

I’m a great believer in quitting while I’m ahead. Yes, it would be good to understand a bit more about what was wrong and why it’s not wrong any more but I’ll just make sure I’ve put the Communist Test Lamp into the tool kit and keep a scan of the test pages on my phone

Hasta la Victoria Siempre! ( to mix my marxist metaphors).

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I didn’t need those knuckles anyway – Kawasaki W650 air box refit

What does the modern woman do on the extra day that science has gifted us to keep the calendar in order? Well, I did offer to propose but no-one was available so I ended up doing what I do every other weekend of the winter – wrestling with a rusty heap in the garage.

I pine for the days when I lived in a house with an integral garage that housed the boiler and a radiator. That was the first year I rebuilt the Lomax and it was not only warm and comfortable, it opened onto the kitchen so top-up brews were only a few feet away.

Now I live in a house with a concrete sectional garage at the bottom of the garden that lets a lot of water in under the door. I need to buy a rubber threshold seal but I also need it to stop raining long enough to let the glue set so that one’s parked until spring.  A bit like the bikes…

What’s the task in hand? I have a Kawasaki W650 and sidecar previously owned by one of my very best friends. He converted it to pod filters but I’m a traditionalist and I do like things to be stock so I thought I would convert it back thanks to a fortuitous find of a complete air box on Italian eBay.

It arrived a few weeks before Christmas and a few days before Christmas I took a closer look, psyching myself up to get stuck in after Boxing Day.

Not quite complete after all.

Missing – one 8-inch long plastic rod. That has to come from Japan, about three weeks after you ask for it. And if you have a bike on which someone has removed the Kawasaki Clean Air system then you need a 50p rubber bung for the hole in the top. So I ordered a rod and a bung and some new seals and some clips and a side order of patience.

There are some good resources about how to remove the air box – and I’m going to give a shout-out here to Captain Jake’s brilliant photo guide. Note this small, helpful sentence

“As you wiggle the airbox back into place, you’ll have to mush the rubber cone to get it around the air horn of the carburetor. I started mine with one finger.”

Worst. Job. Ever.

I started on the right hand side at the end of January. The right-hand half of the airbox butts up hard against the battery carrier, so you can’t ease it rearwards to make room. And when you push the box into place, half the horn gets caught inside the carb.

I soaked the rubber horn in hot water. I applied red rubber grease. I applied washing up liquid. I soaked it in hot water again because it’s cold in the garage and the effects wore off pretty quick. I modified a plastic picnic knife from IKEA to try and hook the folded side out over the bellmouth.

I undid the clips on the carbs to try and shove them towards the bars a little. I tried to evolve an extra hand and a couple more thumbs.

I had more tea.

And then at the hundredth attempt the rubber squished in without folding under and all I had to do (hollow laugh) was squish it onto the end of the carb.

Victory was mine.

Rinse and repeat…..

Here’s the game for the left hand side. You’ve got to do it sitting in the sidecar. You’ve got to slide the left-hand box over the two plastic rods, that you now know take at least three weeks to come from Japan so you DO NOT WANT to fucking break them. And the rubber on this side is rock hard with age. Yes, you could order a new one from the very lovely chaps at Cradley Heath Kawasaki but spring is coming and you just want this job done.

Wiggle the box over the rods, get the rubber stuck. Wiggle the box off the rods. Wiggle the box on the rods, get the rubber stuck.

Get the butter knife and the washing up liquid.

Get the hair dryer.

It reminded me of two things. The first time I tried to replace the driveshaft rubbers on the 2CV, and disappointing sex. Every time – it would almost, almost go into the right place and then just slip away.

The answer to “how do I get a rubber gaiter onto a 2CV driveshaft?” turned out to be “put a pointy cap from a roll-on deodorant over the end of the driveshaft to give the rubber something to slip over.” And the answer to “how do I get the bastard rubber bastard over the bastard carburettor end without the bastard getting bastard stuck” turned out to be “cover the end of the carb with a piece of plastic cut from a milk bottle until you’ve past the danger point and then pull it out slowly.”

So now you know.





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Hammer to fall – auction house brucie bonus!

I don’t get lucky very often. And sometimes I take decisions that don’t quite work out. I put some absentee bids in at an auction about 90 miles away from home because I wanted the MZ ES150 they were selling and fancied my chances. And it would have made sense to make a 180 mile round trip to pick up a motorcycle and a box of random shite.

So when they emailed to say the bike had been withdrawn from auction I should have nixed all the other bids too.


On the Monday after the auction they called to tell me I was the fortunate winner of a box of studs and bolts.


So I went to get it, because a winning bid is a contract, and I met up with BikerPaul for tea and crumpet on the way home, so it wasn’t a total wreck of a day, but by the time the petrol had been included and the tax and fees it was a 50 quid box of bolts.

In the evening I finally had a look to weigh up the true extent of my folly and among the stainless studs there was a shiny silver lining – a Sheffield steel Moore and Wright vernier caliper. Now I know you can buy digital ones for about 7 quid but it looks like this style sells for more like 70.

It was rusted solid, of course, but that’s only a matter of patience and penetrating oil.

And there’s something rewarding about bringing old tools back to life. I don’t know whose garage was being sold off in lots but I hope they will be happy for their calipers to make MZs run better.

22 Feb 2020

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