Take Care of the Little Things

Maintenance is important, especially for motorcycles. Some guys live for this stuff, checking torque specifications on every nut and bolt on their ride, oil changes every few hundred miles, wash/wax and go over their bike with a fine-toothed comb every weekend. Other guys couldn’t be bothered and will perform only minimal maintenance, or none at all, and fix something only if it’s broken. My approach is somewhere in the middle.

I regularly look over my bike and keep up with scheduled oil changes and other important maintenance, but I am not obsessive. Since I ride regularly and all year long, my bike doesn’t sit for long periods of time and I know as soon as something needs to be fixed –and I fix it right away. Still, even with staying on top of things and regular maintenance, things can and will go wrong. A recent cross-country trip saw several issues crop up on my bike that even the most rigorous maintenance schedule wouldn’t be able to combat.

My planned ride was a trip from Pennsylvania to California, with a few days scheduled for riding with my friend Darryl in Tennessee and Alabama. I was on a 2004 1200 Custom Sportster with about 30,000 miles on the odometer. I’d owned it for a couple of years, and keep it in top running shape. Right before leaving, I changed the oil, put on new tires, and did a thorough check of the bike. It was running great, never had any problems, and was up for the task. I realize a Sportster isn’t exactly a touring machine, but I’d taken several long trips on the bike and was confident in its abilities.

The first issue I encountered was in Tennessee. I’d already rendezvoused with Darryl, and we were making our way through the countryside. At a gas stop, he mentioned that he liked the lights on my bike. I figured I’d show him the fancy strobing brake light that was on the bike when I got it, only to find I now had no brake light. Hmmm, it was working fine when I left earlier that day. Some troubleshooting also revealed that my rear turn signals weren’t working either. We didn’t figure it out right away, I was on a time schedule, and the bike was running great otherwise, so this wasn’t a deal breaker. I’d resort to hand signals and I was mostly riding during daylight hours anyway.

I had every intention of using a helmet cam to film sections of the trip. I’d had the helmet cam for a few years and had used it many times. I was looking forward to getting some footage when we met up with some of Darryl’s friends for a ride to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. It would be fun to ride at the back of the group and get some video of all the bikes riding in formation in front of me. Of course, this would not happen. I’d gotten some video earlier in the trip and had remounted the camera to my helmet. We were just sitting next to the bikes during a rest stop when I heard the camera fall off the helmet and hit the ground. (Good thing it didn’t happen while we were riding.) The mount on the helmet had broken. I still had the handlebar mount for the camera, but that would involve taking off my cell phone mount, and I was using the cell for navigation. Again, no big deal. I wouldn’t get any more video, but the bike was still running fine and I could get another helmet mount when I got home.

New Mexico was the location of the next issue. I was cruising along Interstate-40 when I felt something hit my leg. I looked down and saw the heatshield on the rear exhaust pipe had fallen off. Traveling at highway speed, I was a bit down the road by the time I realized what had happened and there wasn’t a good place to turn around. I glanced at the mile-marker number, and figured I’d turn around at the next exit and come back to retrieve the heatshield so I could reattach it. Exits in this part of the country are far apart and I ended up riding about 30 miles round-trip to return to where the heatshield had fallen off. I did find it on the side of the road, but it was now badly scratched and bent. I took it with me anyway, but it was in bad shape. I ended up throwing it in the recycling container at the motel later that evening. Still not a deal breaker and nothing that interfered with the bike being able to run.

What else could go wrong? As soon as you ask yourself that question, the universe will show you that there are infinite ways it can give you an answer you won’t like. I got the answer the next morning when I was getting ready to leave, when I noticed a nail in the rear tire of the bike. This was the first issue that could possibly cause me to stop and consider getting help. I had a portable air pump with me and I was able to fix the tire and get going without much delay. Hoping the bad luck was all behind me now, I continued on my way.

Not far up the road, I had my next failure, when the cell phone mount broke and stopped holding my phone. I was using the cell phone for navigation and having it mounted to the handlebars also allowed me to charge it as I rode. I was able to rig it up with some rubber bands and electrical tape. This was a stable fix, but it did prevent me from taking the mount off to switch with the handlebar mount for my video camera. Whatever video I had taken to this point, which wasn’t much, would be all the video I had from the trip. OK, I’ll just stick to still photos.

I figured out in Salome, AZ., that I could bypass the brake light strobe modulator and have both the brake light and turn signals working again. Good thing, as I had decided to leave Salome in the pre-dawn hours the next day so I could beat the Arizona heat. I left the motel at 3 a.m. and noticed I had another problem. The headlight on the bike was no longer working. I did have high beams and was able to continue on along the interstate, but I was now starting to dread what might happen next. I was alone, 3000 miles from home, and it seemed my motorcycle was falling apart. I wondered again, what could possibly go wrong? This time, the universe was kind and I made the rest of the trip unscathed.

Once home, I was able to make all the repairs easily and was glad to have no real mechanical issues during the trip. The bike didn’t actually break down. Everything that had happened was no big deal. Nothing left me stranded on the side of the road. The tire was the only thing that could have left me stranded roadside, making a call to Triple A.

It was definitely the most trouble I’d ever had during a trip. In nearly 8000 miles, I had a nail in my tire, brake light and rear turn signals stopped working, the mounts for my helmet cam and cell phone broke, headlight low-bean stopped working, and the heatshield fell off.


  • When you think nothing else can go wrong, it will.
  • Carry a portable air pump, a battery jumper pack, and some basic hand tools.
  • Even diligent maintenance won’t guarantee you won’t have issues.
  • It could always be worse.


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