Sunday, 8 April 2012

Theory, practiced

Well, that didn't take long.

I've frequently looked at Gumtree ads offering a swap and thought "Who on earth would prefer to swap bikes rather than getting cash in hand?", so of course today I went out on the Firebird and came home on this.

It's a 2002 GPZ 500 S with just 4500 miles on the clock, plus a fair bit of sad neglect injuries to be healed. But mechanically, it's sound as a pound and goes like A SENSIBLE COMMUTER BIKE (or if my wife isn't reading, it pulls like a flipping train).

That was a straight swap, no cash either way, and it didn't even cost me a penny to swap bikes on my insurance. Plus the world has two more happy people in it, which has some inherent merit of its own.

Farewell, faithful Firebird, now go and put that daft grin on the face of your new owner.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

The end of an era for me, the beginning for someone else

Well, I passed my test 2 years ago on this very bike, and have still being riding it on and off since then, without any hint of fuss or bother. It's since been joined by a 250 cruiser, a GPz 305 and a theoretical Bigger Boy Bike, and sadly there's no more room in the garage, and just not enough hours in the day to ride them all.

So, it's back to stock for the plucky Firebird, where it's happiest, and off to Gumtree and eBay. The bike - of course - just sailed through its first MOT, no advisories, and is freshly taxed and sluiced down. The bronze paintwork on the side panels is looking a little tired (perhaps reacting with the plastic underneath), but otherwise it's doing just peachy. I've even riveted closed the "speed holes" that I'd drilled in the exhausts, making a rather fetching 8-rivet circle of silver dots.

There we go, one of those 3 year old Chinese pieces of tat that rust away by the time they're a year... uh... old. Some mugger is going to steal it from me and ride away with a daft grin on their face, and I will be genuinely sorry to see it leave.

I think that I can now confidently declare that properly looked after, these can be decent, unpretentious little bikes. They're not the fastest, they're not the biggest, or the most plastic, but they get the job done and are just an absolute joy to ride - it still puts that same daft grin on my face every time I get on it.

The era of dismissing all Chinese branded bikes out of hand is over. Long live the Firebird!

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

I present for your consideration: the FireBob

It's true: undressed is sexier.

What's going on? Where's the chrome? Where's the pimp? Well, it's at the back of the garage, waiting to be put back on if the urge ever takes me. You know, the next time it rains. In 15 minutes, in other words.

Until then, I'm liking the bobber look. Liking it a lot. It's not a full bob - I haven't (yet) chopped off the frame behind the rear shock mounts, but even with the slightly protruding tail it's still a big change from the dressed look.

There actually aren't that many changes, it's mostly removal: front and rear mudguards, the crash bars, screen, side panels. The changes are: 4.5" headlight - the electrics very nearly fit inside it - smaller indicators front and rear (the rears mounted into the holes on the back of the frame proper that used to secure the mudguard and rear luggage rack), straight bars, a custom seat in place of the stock one, and a bullet stop/tail light on the far side, mounted on a bracket off the top shock mount. The battery is simply covered over with a 4-thickness layer of black plastic fabric. Usefully, there's a black plastic inner-guard running up from the swing arm mount to just behind the shock mounts, which I've kept on - no fettling required.

The only real design decision was to mount the plate up behind the seat as a legal UK plate looks unpleasantly large placed on the traditional bobber position, on the side of one of the shocks. Putting it up there also helps to blend in the trailing frame behind the shocks.

There's only a few bits of custom work, just brackets to hold the plate and the stop/tail light in place.

Further bobbing options are: reduce the instrumentation to just the speedo; chop the exhausts; chop off the frame behind the shock mounts. Two of those are non-reversible, so I'll leave them for a rainy day. Well, a rainy day followed by a sunny one.

The bob went remarkably smoothly. The wiring for the indicators took the most time. The rest of it was just bolt-off, bolt-on. There was an oops moment when it revved its nuts off when I started it up, but some adjusting of the accelerator cable connectors sorted that.

How does it ride? It rides like it looks: like half a bike. There's not that much weight taken off, but - particularly in comparison to my 250 Lifan - it feels so light and nimble that it's Grin Factor 7, Mr Sulu. The only point of issue is the straight bars, which are a £5 worth of 745mm x 22mm 16 gauge aluminium. With the stock bars on, and rotated backwards and down, the ride was amazing. With the straight bars, there's more of a lean-over-the-tank style, which I'm not sure I like yet. The bars themselves feel bizarre, like they're pointing forwards, and they may be too much style-over-substance to keep. I'll give them another few rides, but might either have to bend them back, or splash out on some pre-bent "drag" bars.

Well, it's not like I'm ever going to be done, is it?

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Screen if you want to go faster

You could build an empire on perspex and patience.

I may have mentioned that the wind blast on the Lifan was something fierce, so a screen was the first thing on the agenda. As usual, I cheaped out went for the hand-crafted option, eBayed some 500mm x 500mm perspex and got busy with the jigsaw and heat gun.

Attaching it to the bike is a touch of pure decadence: about 2/3 of a genuine screen fitting kit designed for the Jinlun JL125-11. This comes with a cryptic selection of brackets, bars, bolts and rubber widgets- there may even be grommets - and of course no instructions, so my utilisation here of it is somewhat experimental.

The screen feels secure and does a great job at keeping the wind off, making an open face helmet a practical choice again. Huzzah! That said, the wind noise does still get harsh above an indicated 50mph, so ear plugs are de rigueur.

Which reminds me, something had been bothering me about the Lifan. The engine is great, with smooth and almost linear acceleration up to around an indicated 55mph or so, then it starts the long haul up to... well, I don't know, I haven't had a chance to wind it up on a straight level road. Despite any claims to the contrary, I doubt it'll see much of the high side of 70mph, but then again, that's the legal limit, isn't it?

But for all the better acceleration, it didn't appear to be going as fast as it should, based on the indicated speed on the single tank-mounted dial. This was a puzzle until today when I took a trip past the local speed-nag sign, which informed me much to my surprise that the Lifan speedo is bang on accurate. All vehicles I've ever had have read 5-10% over, the Firebird included. So the Lifan isn't slow, it's just not lying its little chromed plastic socks about how fast it's going. I'm looking at you, Firebird. Yes, hang your bars in shame.

The Lifan's not a bike that lends itself to hurry though. "What's your rush?" it seems to ask, "Isn't it better being where you are now rather than where you're going?" I think it makes a very salient point.

So, I'm warming to the Lifan. The riding position now feels more natural and secure - although holding the clutch while doing a u-turn, with the long, forward bars turned away, remains something of a art. I guess you grow to love the bike that you ride.

That said, I forgot the kids' ice cream at the shop, so I feel a trip back there is required. Absolutely necessary, in fact. Firebird, I choose you!


Aaaahahahaha! Forget everything I just wrote, it's Firebird for the win. What a laugh. So much easier to ride, it's just ridiculous.

The Lifan is a good capable bike, don't get me wrong, but it's rather sombre. I feel like the American Chopper blokes look when they take a new bike for a ride, all po faced and serious. The Firebird is far more grin inducing, and isn't that what it's all about?

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Ask not how many bikes you need

Ask how big a garage you need to store them.

For 10 points, which lying liar lied these lies?

I really don't need a bigger bike for my commute or pleasure jaunts, so unless I plan some touring in this year, I'll be sticking with my 'Firebird'.

Well, that lasted all of a week. My head was turned by the jaunty number pictured above, a Lifan LF250-B. For all intents and purposes, it is a Yamaha Virago XV250. I suspect that Lifan bought the jigs when Yamaha stopped making the Virago, and just started churning them out themselves. It needed a bit of minor maintenance to correct some neglect - it had been stored outside, and the right side of it had suffered a little from the weather - but it's substantially sound, and feels well made.

First order of business was an oil change, to Halford's 5W-40 synthetic motorcycle oil. The oil in it was quite emulsified (creamy looking) which is consistent with it being used for short runs, as the previous owner admitted glumly - we both need longer commutes to work - maybe we should swap jobs? I got it home OK, but when testing the rear brake light sensor (which didn't work), I snapped the rear brake cable, which was rusted and clogged up with crud. Ah well. ChineseMotorcyclePartsOnline got me a next-day replacement, and the sensor switch just needed a strip and clean. The chain and engine got a good scrub down with Gunk engine cleaner; the amount of road crud under the front sprocket cover was unbelievable: I think I hit a layer with dinosaur fossils in it.

Job's a good 'un now though, and the Firebird got another oil change while I was at it, at 4400km. That makes... um... lots. I've lost count, but it's more frequent than every 1000km, that's for darn sure.

Back to the Virago Lifan. The previous owner slapped those YAMAHA stickies on the tank - did a good job of it too, they were very convincing, but the first thing I did after taking this picture was to strip them off. Who wants to be seen riding one of those madly overpriced Japanese bikes?

On the plus side, it's got a splendid 250 v-twin engine, smooth, torquey, and surprisingly quiet. It feels like a much more grown up bike. However, the riding position is very different to the Firebird - lower, with feet forward controls, and a bigger reach to the bars. The Firebird is comfier and far easier to ride, which - to be honest - makes it more fun. It's just so light - in weight, handling, gearshift and clutch - that it feels like a pushbike in comparison to the Lifan. My appreciation for the Firebird just grows with experience.

Of course, that hasn't stopped me stripping it for parts. The pimp panniers and tool roll went straight on to the Lifan, and the Firebird got its old cheap fabric panniers back. Those keeping score will also note that the Firebird has its stock seat and rear rack back as well. Those with x-ray vision will have spotted that I've also put the stock air box back in as well in place of the cone filter. This is to quieten the bike down a bit: it sounded a bit hooligan next to the more refined Lifan.

Now, I'm not done with the Firebird yet. I'll be keeping it for some time, for a couple of reasons.

The first is that I plan to bob it. Look, it's a proper Plan, with bullet points and all.

  • Remove the add ons: screen, spotslights, front and rear crash bars.
  • Start stripping the stock parts: remove or shorten the front mudguard, remove the seat and rear rack.
  • Replace the handlebars with lower, shorter ones.
  • Cut off half the rear mudguard, and mount it on the swing-arm.
  • Cut off the frame behind the rear shock mounts
  • Remove the side panels, mount the battery lower down, cut the horizontal frame members at the rear vertical member, and angle them down to make room for a lower solo seat.
  • Replace the headlight with a smaller one.
  • Shorten the front indicators. Shorten the rears and remount them near the shock mounts.
  • Put the rear light and license plate on the side of the bike.

The goal is to move towards this look (but with flat bars):

Unfortunately, there's a spanner in the works. Don't tell her I called her that though.

Yes, that's barely legal hot wife-on-bike action! Turns out she's bike-curious, so I've been taking her for secret dates on the local industrial estate, so she can practice wrapping her thighs around a throbbing powerhouse. Then I let her have a go on the Firebird.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

And that's a wrap

After the cut-a-cat adventure, the exhausts were looking a little tatty. With hindsight, there are two much better methods of de-catting them:

1) A single cut near the end of the cat bulge.
2) Just buy a set of nice shiny chromed and cat-free exhausts, £60 delivered for the pair.

I sprayed my pipes with high temperature silver paint, but it didn't really match the rest of the bike. Black would have been a better choice, but I went another way.

Something that's making a faddy comeback at the moment is exhaust wrap. It's basically a fibreglass tea-cosy for the exhaust. The techno-babble is that it keeps the temperature of the gasses up inside the exhaust which helps them flow through faster. That's as maybe, but it also covers up sloppy weld jobs, and makes the exhaust look a little fatter.

I did some rocket science that indicated I'd need 5 metres to cover around 60cm of exhaust. That seems like a lot, but it's all about pi. Mmmm, pi. For once, I got my reckoning right, and 10m just did both exhausts, nicely secured with stainless steel tie wraps.

Does it make any difference to the performance? Not so as you'd notice, but that's not why it's there, is it? The main effect is to soak up water, WD-40, ACF-50, road dirt and such, and steam or burn it off in huge clouds every time you stop. Larks!

Easter weekend seemed like a good time for a spring clean. The bike was looking pretty grubby after winter riding, and there was actually some road grit layered on it - we're not having that. "Gunk" engine cleaner is just the ticket for de-grubbing, and I spent a happy hour brushing the best part of a litre of it into all the crevices of the bike, including a thorough soaking of the chain, which was in dire need of a clean. A good wash down, and the sparklies were restored, then treated to a good coat of ACF-50 to keep them that way.

It was also time for some basic maintenance; a chain tension and rear brake adjustment, inspection of all the nuts and bolts, and I bled the front brake, which was starting to feel a little spongy. The year-old fluid was already looking fairly mucky, so it was easy to see when the clean stuff came through from the master cylinder.

The other modification I made recently was to remove a few things from the bike, namely the L plates. Huzzah! I am now a Big Boy (Jnr). I really don't need a bigger bike for my commute or pleasure jaunts, so unless I plan some touring in this year, I'll be sticking with my 'Firebird'.

I didn't have any lessons, I just went for it. £31 for the theory, £15 for the Mod 1 offroad, £75 for the Mod 2 on road, twice, as I failed the first one (darn unmarked crossroads), works out well compared to the cost of training, or of re-sitting my CBT which would have been up at the end of April. The DSA has recently acknowledged the existence of our bikes, and has classed them as A2, i.e. proper bikes capable of 100kph, so there's nothing stopping you from sitting your test on your Firebird, waiting 2 years, then buying a Hayabusa. Excelsior!

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Ride In Peace, chumrade

Last summer, my workmate Andy and I went on a bike tour of Scotland together on our plucky little 125s. A brilliant time was had. Laughs, spills, and anyone complaining got to be Charley (Boorman) for the day.

Like myself, Andy was planning to sit his test and move up to a Big Boy bike this spring, either a Suzuki Bandit or CBR600. He took a week off, and I was looking forward to telling him that I'd passed my theory and Mod 1 when he came back.

Last week, Andy's mother called him in sick after his holiday. We assumed he'd just got a bad dose of the cold that was going around. After a week with no news, we were shocked to hear that he had been taken into hospital, and that he had cystic fibrosis.

We found it hard to believe; cystic fibrosis is a chronic hereditary condition for which there is no cure, and which is usually debilitating and eventually fatal. Andy always seemed so healthy, and had never mentioned it to anyone outside his family, never complained about it or made an issue of it, not once.

With treatment and good luck, people of Andy's age with cystic fibrosis can live on into their 30s or later.

Andy was not lucky. He died on Tuesday night aged 26.

Andy will be sadly missed by all who knew him. I will remember him fondly as a gentleman, and the best of bike buddies.