Flat Tires, Engine Blockage, and Great Views

My bike has looked much like a seesaw these past several weeks, teetering back and forth from front to rear tire with different parts missing in repair.

I’ve had it about six months now, and have put many miles and rides on it.  I seem to be entering the stage of ownership (or hopefully a brief period) where I spend just as much time on maintenance as I do on actually riding.

There’s a few things at play, really. I’m certain that if I were in America I wouldn’t be exposed to the degree of problems that I’ve had recently.  Six months seems like an unreasonably short amount of time to be experiencing recurring issues.  But, perspective is key. This is after all a $400 motorcycle.

The price reflects the lower cost of living, general low opinion of getting around on two-wheels, and the fact that all else being equal, these bikes simply aren’t the best. My first bike in Erbil had a “honda” engine which at first had me excited, though performance would have suggested that it was anything but.

I’ve since learned that the vast majority of 125, 150, and 200cc bikes that are frequently bought and sold at the motorcycle market in Erbil are mostly Iranian bikes cast from Honda molds using weak metals and poor workmanship.  It’s not uncommon to have a brand new bike with problems already built into it (my 2nd bike).

My bike has never been a harmonious machine. It was immediately apparent from the moment I bought it; the muffler was mounted improperly.  I’m often one of the loudest things on the road, and the backfire-infused rattling of my engine sounds like what I imagine it would be like to chew ball bearings.

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Spark plugs are a perfect little anecdote for the whole experience. The combination of bad fuel quality, dusty air, and poor engine seals give spark plugs a lifespan of little over a month. Vigilance with all of it is key… and always having a few spares ready of course.

It isn’t, however, a necessarily bad thing.  Each bike has its own sound that it develops, and it’s not unlike the way every pair of shoes has a different feel when broken in.

My bike grew into its chewing rattle about a month after I bought it, and I’m little  concerned now simply because it seems to be the way it runs, as it performs perfectly well despite its din.

It has aged quickly.  But not unexpectedly so, as I’ve probably put on 6-8,000 kilometers (My odometer stopped working one month after I bought it), on some of the most masochistic road surfaces and unkind riding conditions to be found anywhere. Considering all factors it’s only fair I’m now seeing wear and tear.


 

Three weeks ago I was riding back to Duhok after spending a night with some friends in Zakho.  It was the first morning of Newroz, and traffic was mostly bumper-to-bumper.

In the few stretches where there was enough space to pick up any amount of speed it never seemed to be a good idea, as I would still be too near to the car or truck in front to gauge the road conditions as they came (I like at least a 25yd cushion for anything under 40kph).

This was after all the notoriously bad Duhok-Zakho road.

I was doing my best to get back to Duhok before noon as I had plans to picnic with a friend’s family, but impatience caught up to me. Or maybe I didn’t have a chance.  I was behind a truck at no more than 30 kilometers an hour, when an 8ft wide pothole appeared under the truck’s wheels. I cringed and lifted my butt (braking is deadly), hoping I could absorb the drop in speed with my legs.  It was a blowout flat to my rear tire.

I didn’t have my repair equipment with me, so I attempted to hitchhike with comically poor results. Success didn’t come until the two disinterested traffic cops on the other side of the highway decided to help after watching me fail to get anyone’s attention time and again for ninety minutes.

Eventually a P.E. teacher from the nearby town of Sumel named Hussein gave my bike a lift in the bed of his pickup, and after stopping at his house to help him unload a couple of 50-gallon barrels of milk he graciously took me all the way back to Duhok.

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My bike sitting in the bed of Hussein’s pickup with 400 lbs of milk
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Mid repair after blowing out my back tire on the Duhok- Zakho Road

My Newroz plans were wrecked, but I was glad to have my bike in its parking spot having been stranded 40km away only a few hours before.

Only a few days later I was riding back from a coffee shop after doing some work.  My bike felt great and the new tire felt very smooth on the road.  I couldn’t help but think how complete the bike felt at that moment.

No sooner did that thought cross my mind did my bike suddenly shut down.

The throttle failed and my engine died as I was going about 60kph. Traffic was thin enough that I could let my momentum carry me to the right shoulder and check my bike safely on the side of the highway.

It would not have been possible to imagine a more perfectly terrible coincidence of thought and timing.

I checked all of the immediate possibilities and couldn’t find anything wrong.  Fiddling with choke combinations on the carburetor got the bike to start in an ugly gurgle, and I rode that gurgle through three more breakdowns until I was close enough that five minutes of pushing would get me home.

As this was my first real breakdown I had to write down all the possible avenues of engine failure and test each one to figure out what happened.

Breakdowns can seem completely amoebic to the uninitiated. Flat tires are one thing-manageable, simple, identifiable- as if I have my proper tools and a spare tube I can repair on a ride and continue. A breakdown, in particular the first, is far different, as I have to deduce the fault from a number of possibilities, and it forever shifts my confidence in the durability of my bike while testing everything I know.

A mid-ride breakdown is at best something I can deal with immediately and continue, maybe something I can get lucky enough to hitchhike back to Duhok if the bike won’t restart, or worst, a situation where I effectively have to ditch the bike on a rural road and worry about just getting myself back.  That’s why a breakdown erodes my confidence.

After a few days of down time, a new spark plug, cleaned air filter, complete carburetor disassemble and cleaning among other things, where the itch to ride is much greater simply because I can’t, the bike was once again running. (I should add with the help of one of my friends, as although I got close to the solution I couldn’t keep the bike running).

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Working on the carburetor. Almost every part of these procedures is a new experience for me, so I’m very careful to take photos every step of the way in case I miss a step while reassembling or forget a piece of the pattern
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Mid repair for the carburetor and air filter

With my bike once again fully functional and riding as powerfully as it had before my week long ride in November, I did the least responsible thing and challenged it on a 200km long, elevation-testing ride through sparsely populated areas..and it rode just fine. I attribute that in no small part to my effort to avoid thinking about how well it was riding in the moment.

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From a 5,000 foot pass looking towards Turkey
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From a 5,000 foot pass looking towards Gara Mountain

The ride did unfortunately give me a slow leak.  I didn’t notice it until a few days after, when I was leaving a parking lot and my front tire was too flat to ride.  After trying in vain with my often worthless hand pump I was approached by a man who offered his air compressor.

The friendly gesture seemed rather suspect after the fact, considering the man who helped me, as well as his friend were both Asayish (the Kurdish equivalent CIA/FBI), and their colleagues had been observing me all evening as I roamed through a park with a friend.

The fact that my bike tire was just as flat the next morning meant that although I couldn’t rule out tampering, it did fortunately seem very unlikely.

I put in a new tube only for a new slow leak to emerge. Repeat problems do get annoying, but they also force me to re-evaluate and improve my techniques. I thought at first I had caused the problem with my often sub-par tools (I warped a couple of old butter knives to act as my tire wedges), but no clear marks on my tube seem to infer that the products for bikes are sometimes as poor as some bikes themselves.

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Repairing a slow leak in the front tube

For all of the bumps, flats, and shutdowns that my bike has experienced recently, not one has ever been a truly frustrating experience.

Even as I had the blowout flat on the Duhok-Zakho Road during Newroz, I remember having a quick rush of excitement with the thought that it would finally give me a chance to replace the bike tire and log the resulting process to memory.

And that’s precisely why the abrupt issues don’t bother me.

Because the purpose of the bike has always been bilateral; a tool for exploration and adventure, but also as a learning resource.  Each problem is an opportunity for exploring new solutions and to learn a little more about the motorcycle.

My understanding is still fractional compared to what I could or should know but I am getting better.  I enjoy that every difficulty helps me move closer to what I think is a responsible amount of experience and knowledge considering I’m riding a problem-prone machine in a country with booby-trapped roads and little infrastructure to solve such problems beyond a responsible rider’s self-reliance.

For all of its limitations, I appreciate the bike for being a simple enough machine that it doesn’t outclass my simple understanding of it.

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