For months now, my XL250 project has been “done” enough to try starting it.
But I didn’t.
I used every excuse I had to put it off. First it was the home-buying process, and then it was moving, and then it was simply that I needed time to relax.
Even after we settled in our new home, I couldn’t stop fixating on small, trivial tasks. The horn that still wasn’t mounted, the speedometer LEDs that didn’t work. They were periphery — without them, the motorcycle would still run — but they were great fuel for my procrastination.
The truth is, I was scared. I was sure that the first time I would try to start it, something would go horribly wrong.
Maybe the timing was wrong (even though I’d checked it a million times) or the chain was misaligned (even though I was careful), and I’d have to dive back into the engine to fix it. Maybe I’d hooked something up backwards and the bike would explode.
Unlikely, but that’s anxiety for you.
So, instead of trying to start the motorcycle, I delayed the inevitable by pursuing small problems.
Chasing paper tigers
In my sea of frivolous issues, one stood out: the clutch didn’t seem to be disengaging properly.
I could put the engine into gear and find neutral just fine, but if I put it in gear and then pulled in the clutch, the clutch still grabbed the engine.
Which was strange, because I hadn’t messed with the clutch at all. The motorcycle ran when I bought it, so I decided not to split the cases. I didn’t even pull the clutch out of its basket.
I shared the problem with Matt and the rest of the Krank Engineering community, and they helped me walk through the troubleshooting. We eliminated any issues with the cable or lever itself, and then it became clear: I had to take apart the clutch.
Off came the bearing, and then the springs. Once I removed the springs, I discovered that the dried-out oil had practically glued together my friction plates. Matt agreed — this could definitely be the source of the problem.
Using a tiny Ryobi impact driver to loosen the clutch nut, I pulled out the clutch plates to clean and inspect.
Everything seemed to be in spec and none of the plates were warped, so I cleaned each one thoroughly with brake cleaner, coated them with oil, and stacked them back together neatly, taking care to preserve the original order.
The next day, I began to reassemble the clutch, but realized that, because I didn’t have a holder to keep the clutch from spinning, I wouldn’t be able to torque the clutch nut down precisely.
Matt encouraged me to use a bit of Loctite and the impact driver, and I should have listened. But instead, I tried to come up with a DIY method to hold the clutch still while I torqued it down.
If I had a welder, it would have been simple to fabricate a tool. But as it was, there was no easy answer. J came out to help me, and before long we found ourselves using a wrench to brace the clutch against itself.
It seemed to be working — I was getting the nut to tighten down — but then we heard a sudden, sickening snap. The clutch plate broke.
Moving past moments of no return
During this build project, I have experienced so many of these moments. Moments when you realize you’ve screwed up and there is no going back.
When I first started working on motorcycles, this moment killed me. The first time I broke a bolt, I was in tears. Breaking the XL’s piston and bending the rings left me in a funk for days.
But now, I’ve learned the best way to cope is to take action — often in the form of an eBay search.
Before long, I had found an entire matching clutch for only $26, shipped. I put in the order straightaway. As Matt said, a $26 mistake isn’t that bad of a mistake.
When the clutch arrived, I had it back together in no time — using the impact driver.
The only problem was, nothing had changed. The clutch still didn’t disengage.
When I reported the news to the Krank Engineering crew, the only thing anyone could think to do was the one thing I had been avoiding: start it.
All in the family
Ever since I can remember, my dad spent most of his free time out in the garage. He has a knack for small engine projects, and can repair just about anything you put in front of him.
When I was a kid, I wasn’t very interested in his garage projects. It was only after I grew up and left home that I fell in love with motorcycles. My dad encouraged the hobby, but always seemed disappointed that my projects and I live so far away.
After J and I bought our house, my parents planned a visit up from Texas to come see it. And, while talking on the phone with my dad on Father’s Day, the week before their visit, I got an idea: my dad could help me start the XL.
His response was heartening: “Well, let’s see what we can do.”
Ever since moving to Portland, I have very much been a solo mechanic. My projects tend to be just me, my motorcycles, and my manuals — playing it by ear, watching YouTube videos to learn, and hitting up the Krank Engineering community when I get stuck.
But at this point, I knew that I’d put off that first start indefinitely unless someone gave me a push. My dad, then, would be just the person to give me the momentum I needed to push past the fear.
The day arrived. My dad and I checked the clutch, and he agreed we needed to see what happened when it ran.
Together, we prepared the motorcycle. I triple checked my work, going over and over the motorcycle. Battery connected? Check. Fuel lines leaking? Nope.
“Do you see any reason why it wouldn’t run?” I asked my dad, over and over. “Nope, it looks good to me,” he said, again and again.
“Okay, but look — the spark plug’s out,” I replied. I didn’t trust myself.
Finally, I had done all the checks I could think of, and it was time. I positioned myself at the kickstarter, and recruited my mom to film the big moment. “Pull your shirt down in the back!” she said.
I took a breath, and gave the kickstarter my all.
I kicked and kicked while both J and my dad held the XL steady. It seemed like it wanted to start, but my kicks didn’t have enough follow-through to get it there.
Next, J gave it a try. He had been able to start the XL before the rebuild, so I held my breath. A few times, it sputtered, but didn’t quite ignite. I was beginning to feel that I had been right — something was about to go wrong.
“Give it more throttle?” I ventured.
Finally, my dad threw a leg over the seat. I noticed the front tire was slick with a bit of spilled oil. “Please don’t fall!” I cautioned.
He threw a hard kick and the bike sputtered with more resolve. “Whoa,” I said, anticipation building. “That was something!”
With the next kick, the engine sprung to life. J and I threw our hands in the air and screamed. It ran! We high fived and hugged while my dad revved the engine, and I realized I was crying.
The exhaust kicked out buckets of white-gray smoke, and the smell of freshly heated engine paint filled the garage. “It smells like shit!” I yelled, laughing and waving my hands.
My project motorcycle, the one that had been in pieces for two years, that had seen me through my wedding and first home, that carried me through two birthdays and so many difficult moments, did indeed run. On the first try.
And it didn’t even explode.
“I knew it would,” J said later. “You put so much work into it, you were very thorough.”
And though I didn’t have his confidence before, I knew he was right. I had put a lot of work into this motorcycle, and I had been as conscientious and careful as I could. I did my research, I put in the time.
As I stood there in my garage with some of the most important people in my life, I felt deep tears welling up, happy tears, tears of relief, tears of being in that moment and wanting to hold onto it forever.
While my dad still sat on the motorcycle, grinning, I crouched under his right leg and adjusted the idle. The engine thumped along happily, confidently, not even threatening to die, even when I backed the idle all the way down.
The first time my dad tried to put it in gear, though, it didn’t budge.
I was still so happy that I didn’t care — I rebuilt a motorcycle! I can handle anything! — but my dad cut off the engine and started troubleshooting. He rocked it back and forth and was eventually able to find first, and we adjusted the clutch a little tighter.
When it seemed to be shifting again, we fired it up once more. When I heard it start a second time I did a little happy dance. My motorcycle was running!
This time, my dad was able to find first, and the motorcycle didn’t die — which meant that the clutch just needed some oil after all!
He eased the clutch out and I cautioned him to be careful (the floor was slippery). The motorcycle pulled forward, just as it should.
“Okay okay okay!” I said, waving my hands. “It’s my turn!”
My mom joked that we’d have to pull him off, but my dad relinquished the XL and I sat on it, testing the clutch. The clutch worked, the brakes worked, the throttle worked… I started backing it out of the garage to give myself enough room to see if I could make it into second.
“Do you need a helmet?” J asked.
I shook my head, “Nah, I’m not going to ride it anywhere.”
The look on my face must have said something different, because J sized me up and said, “Yeah, you need a helmet.”
Next thing I knew, I was helmeted astride the XL while J and my dad taped up the kickstand (I still didn’t have a spring that fit).
I backed out into the driveway, laughing when I realized my mom was still filming my awkward backwards waddle. Then, I took off.
The bike was a thumper, no doubt. I felt it out, shifting up, letting the engine rev and then lug.
The front brake needed to be adjusted tighter, but the rear brake was solid. The new seat, which had originally been too tall for me, was now the perfect height.
I let J take it for a spin next, and he got off claiming that it ran better than when I bought it. I barely remembered what it felt like to ride before, so I was glad for the confirmation.
All I know is when he came back into view, I couldn’t help but yell, “That’s one cute-ass motorcycle!”
The beginning of the end
The XL is still not quite finished — I still don’t have the horn wired and the indicator lights still don’t work, and it vibrates so much that pretty much every bolt on it needs Loctite — but it runs.
It just goes to show, you don’t have to wait until everything is perfect to take a leap of faith.
Even when your brakes aren’t properly adjusted, even if you think the clutch might not work right, even when you don’t have a horn.
Sometimes, the only thing to do is look past your fear and try.
Thinking about starting your own motorcycle project?
Matt’s Krank Engineering community has been an invaluable resource for me, and now that he’s added a Slack channel it’s even easier to get and share advice — sometimes even in “real time,” while I’m actually in the garage!
If you’re interested in doing your own custom motorcycle project, but don’t know where to start, I can’t recommend Matt and his Krank Engineering community enough.
Plus, when you join his community through the link below, part of your membership will help support the RIDEWELL blog. Thank you!
Being an affiliate for Matt’s community helps me continue to create quality content for readers like you. Read more about my affiliate policies here.
You. Are. A. Legend. Stoked its running!
Well, you managed to move my feelings once again.
When I read your telling on all that going through your mind I cant help but admire your honesty, and the beautiful and sensitive writing is a great bonus! 🙂
Thanks so much, Navot! It’s been a long journey, but one I’ve been honored take 🙂 Thank you for your continued support!!