Backyard mechanic

motocross rider standing beneath blue sky
motocross rider

If there is one thing I’ve learnt in life – and I’ve learnt a few things – it’s that you need the right tool for the job. I’ve learnt this in my work life but primarily in my personal life and admittedly, often the hard way. By “the right tool” I mean the thing that enables doing the job effectively, efficiently and without all the consequences that come from doing it without the right tool.

Growing up I, like many, looked up to my older cousins, even those who were marginally older than me; they all seemed so cool, a coolness that I could only ever aspire to. Always a few steps behind I was an eager student, hoping to (one day) walk in their shoes. I keenly remember stepping, in awe, into the shrine that was my older cousin’s bedroom for him to showcase to me his far superior music collection—Prong and Foo Fighters are the ones I remember, both of which made my ears burn with their seeming prohibition. This was the same cousin who played the outro to the fourth track of Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power at fullest blast during a gathering of my aunt and uncle’s church friends (man, he was cool!). Wide-eyed, the angels singing, I would find myself surrounded by the explicit exhibition of my idol’s interests and loves, specifically; pictures of maniacs riding the large, smooth curl of Teahupo’o (surfing) and others whipping through the air on loud, fire-hearted machines at Glen Helen. I am sure there were others on display but those are the two themes that really struck me. I would go into his room on each visit just to see them. It was in this room that the idea of riding motorbikes was born—I mean look how cool Jeremy McGrath is, even off the bike with his long middle-pathed hair (got to love the 90s!). From that time, I was determined I would own and ride a motocross bike—and have long middle pathed hair (evidence of which is buried…I hope).

For years, I worked hard and saved all the money I could to eventually buy the first (second-hand) Kawasaki KX125 I saw. Large, green, fast, noisy (and missing a kick-starter); I just had to have it. As it turns out machines made for racing do not age particularly well and being made for high performance, they also demand considerable maintenance, exponentially more so with use and this one was used. Having spent all my hard-earned cash on said machine and just enough safety equipment to survive, I had none left for the expertise of mechanics so thought I’d take care of that part myself. I mean, how hard could it be, it only has one piston?

Aware that I knew nothing about looking after my mechanical baby I had gone to the effort of sourcing what felt like a black-market workshop manual from Kawasaki; naturally they wanted you to pay them to service your machine, so these were hard to get hold of but luckily I knew someone (as is usually the case)—my mechanic friend photocopied the manual for me.

As I poured over the schematics of the anatomy and the steps for servicing, I noticed many references to specialist tools; “flywheel puller”, “seal press”, “spring clamp”, “micrometer” etcetera. “What! Surely these can’t all be absolutely necessary?” and even if they were, I’d scrounged all the coins in the couch for my black-market manual. Specialist tools have specialist price tags—but I’d have to look after the bike if I was going to ride. Instead, I used my discretion as to whether the specialised tools were necessary. Instead of “flywheel puller” I used a swimming pool cover lever and a mallet (that’s a hard one to explain), instead of a torque wrench I used a good ol’ spanner, instead of a fork oil gauge I used a PVC tube and my mouth. Just a few examples of my backyard mechanic techniques.

It was in these moments that I learnt the true value of specialist tools. I wasted hours trying (and eventually, angrily succeeding) to remove the flywheel—it should have been a five-minute job. I stripped an engine bolt and a sump plug (both important if you’re wondering) not using the torque wrench (thank goodness for Helicoils). Using my mouth as the suction element of the fork oil gauge (I couldn’t even wait to get a syringe) meant I inevitably found out what fork oil tastes like (bitter and metallic, I don’t recommend) and subsequently had dry mouth for a week. My impatience to ride again and dismissal of the need for specialist tools meant I was often fixing the things I had broken rather than riding – the goal I ultimately wanted to achieve – or bearing other unpleasant consequences.

The moral of the story: never buy a bike without a kick-starter, or—patience, people, patience.


Author & Storyteller: Warren Zanin

Warren sold his motocross bike to pay for his wedding. He moved to London with his wife Andrea in 2006 and has no plans to return to South Africa although he misses the sea, sun and African spirit…and also his bike, although he’d never be able to ride on the pavement like he used to to back home. He lives in North London with Andrea and his five children (yes, she returned the favour!). 


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