Even well-designed and well-maintained machines break down. Problems as minor as a broken chain, flat tire or dead battery can immobilize a motorcycle and strand a rider.
Many of us on motorcycles have the skills and carry the tools to attempt minor roadside repairs, but occasionally a solution appears out of the blue when a rider stops to render assistance. It may come from someone who has been on the receiving end of such help, someone who knows the importance of paying it forward. Larry from San Diego has helped many stranded riders over the years. His first lesson in “road karma,” as he calls it, came when he was about 10 years old.
“I was on the back of my father’s FLH Harley,” he explained. “We were riding from Sacramento to Lake Tahoe. My father saw another man on a shovelhead Harley broken down on the side of the road. He stopped without saying anything to me to see if he could help. The other rider’s chain had broken. My father opened up his saddlebag and pulled out his old green army ammo can of tools and parts, fished around and found a master link. Together they fixed the bike. My father would not accept anything in return.”
Fast forward about 20 years. Larry was riding the same California highway on an old iron head Sportster when the bike’s chain broke. “Another rider about my age on an old shovelhead stopped and asked if I needed help. I told him I’d thrown my chain and asked if by chance he had a spare master link. He did. As we were fixing the chain, he told me he always carried one when he was riding his deceased father’s bike. Said someone on an old pink Harley helped his old man on this road when his chain broke and he purchased a master link in case he ever ran into the guy who helped him again. Said he never found the guy who helped him.”
The Harley that Larry’s father had ridden was painted pink and white. Larry wondered if it was really possible that these two men, repairing a bike together at the side of the road, were the sons of two men who did the same thing two decades before while a young Larry watched. The facts pointed in that direction. Since his profession compels him to keep his identity under the radar, Larry decided not to pursue the answer, but the encounter made a lasting impact on him. “I’ve been paying it forward ever since.”
Your humble scribe is fortunate that in three decades of riding, a motorcycle has broken down only once and left me stranded. By a stroke of luck, my friend Randy, an automotive technician trainer and the most talented wrench I know, was right behind me at the time. My Honda ST1300 abruptly died on I-70 in not-so-scenic East St. Louis, Illinois. No power, no clocks, just nothing. Even without the benefit of a multi-meter, Randy diagnosed the problem—no power to the ignition switch—from the breakdown lane.
Meanwhile, Steve (who was right in front of me and managed to pull over) and Bob (who was further ahead and had to cross the bridge to Missouri) talked on their cell phones. They accessed the Rider Assistance Network, comprised of members of the ST-Owners forum who volunteer local knowledge, time, tools—whatever it takes—to help stranded riders. They connected with Rick who knew of a Honda dealer near my location and made a phone call. Not long after, Tim, the owner of Belleville Honda, arrived with a flatbed trailer. We talked on the drive back to his shop and I learned that he had been a nationally ranked racer in his younger days. Sounded like he was a motorcycle guy by choice, a businessman by necessity.
Tim rolled my bike off the trailer and into the shop. A twenty-something technician named Kyle put aside the job he’d been working on and Randy briefed him on his road side diagnosis. When the side panel came off, the culprit was apparent: the wire that feeds the ignition switch from the harness had corroded and broken off at the connector. Kyle cleaned up the wire harness, installed a new connector and the bike started.
Elated at how smoothly this scenario played out, I was ready and willing to pay whatever the shop owner charged. He handed me the invoice: Shop Charges $25. “I guess I have to charge you something,” he said. “I’ve got to pay my guys, but I understand what it’s like to break down so far from home. I’m glad we got you going.”
I paid the bill and handed him a tip, which he refused despite my insistence. Placing the money on the counter I said, “Then this can cover lunch for the guys in the shop.” He decided that would be OK. As I backed out my bike to continue the ride, I saw that someone had quietly tucked a Bellville Honda T-shirt in my top case.
It was my turn to pay it forward, and two days later the opportunity presented itself. It was mid-morning, still chilly, and I stopped for a break at a road-side rest area in central Pennsylvania. As I stretched next to my motorcycle, a young woman walked across the parking lot toward me. In my experience, young women alone tend to walk away from the motorcycle guy, so I smiled and said good morning to put her at ease.
“Excuse me, do you know how to change a tire?”
“I do. Need some help?”
She explained that her brother and a girlfriend had managed to get the spare tire and jack out of the trunk, but that was all they could figure how to do.
“Did you look at the owner’s manual? That shows you what to do, step by step.”
She stared blankly. I suggested we walk over to her car for a look. The space-saver spare was leaned up against the fender. It looked to be touching asphalt for the first time. With my thumb I pushed on the sidewall. It felt soft.
“Sit tight while I pull my bike over here. I have some things that will help.”
The tire gauge confirmed my suspicion: 21 pounds. Recommended pressure shown on the spare was 60 pounds. I took out my portable air compressor.
“Your spare tire needs air. Let’s get that started and then we’ll take that flat tire off the car. Here, plug this into your cigarette lighter.”
“How about plugging it in where you charge your phone?”
“OK. You don’t have to stay. Really, you must have somewhere to go.”
“You’re right, I do have somewhere to go, but you need help and I’m doing for you what I would want someone to do for my daughter. All three of you, pay attention. You’re going to help me do this so if you ever need to do it yourself—or help someone else—you will know how.”
In a few minutes, the lesson was complete and a properly inflated spare tire was on the car. The flat on its aftermarket rim was too big to fit in the recess the space-saver spare had come out of, so there was some shuffling of bags and trunk junk to make everything fit. As I stowed my compressor, the girl who first approached tried to slip me a twenty. I refused it.
“Just promise me something,” I said in my best fatherly tone of voice. “Promise you’ll read your owner’s manual so you know more about your car, and promise you’ll watch out for people riding motorcycles. You’ve got a long trip to New Jersey so you’ll have an opportunity to do both.” All three promised they would, thanked me again and set off. A few miles up the road I passed them. They waved to me, and one of them held up the owner’s manual. Seems they were keeping their promise on both counts.
Paying it forward always feels good, but probably feels best when it helps kids. A bright sunrise stirred me awake on a summer Sunday morning. I left my wife and daughter to sleep in and took a ride to find French toast and bacon. Observing the Fifty Mile Rule, I found myself at Denny’s Pantry in Greenfield, Massachusetts, a local diner with no relation to the national Denny’s chain. An empty stool at the counter placed me in the company of an old guy who shared stories of his younger days and the motorcycles he rode. Our conversation was enhanced by the fiery interjections of our career waitress and my breakfast stop turned into something of an event.
Belly full, I began to wander more-or-less south toward home. Along a newly discovered back road, I passed two boys by the side of the road. One of their bicycles looked out of commission so I turned around and asked if they needed a hand. They nodded. A quick inspection revealed the problem: the chain was jammed between the smallest sprocket and the frame. The boys had been jumping on the pedal trying to work the chain free but had only managed to wedge it in more tightly.
“I think we can fix this,” I reassured them. I grabbed my tool roll and a bit of finagling with a right angle screwdriver popped the chain free.
“Thanks, mister,” said the older of the boys. “It’s cool that you carry tools with you.
“I always carry tools. I never know if something of mine will need fixing or if someone else will need help.” He seemed to understand.
Feeding the chain back on, I noticed the teeth on that smallest sprocket were rounded off but the larger sprockets looked unworn. “Does your chain come off a lot?”
“Uh-huh, all the time.”
“Try shifting up to one of these sprockets and I bet it’ll stay put. When you get home, try cleaning the crud out of the chain and sprockets, too.”
They assured me there was a can of WD40 in the garage. I agreed that would be a good start.
“Thanks a lot, mister.”
Five minutes of road-side fix-it gave me enough good feelings to last all day. I’d like to think it also planted in two young boys that sense of “road karma” Larry discovered on the road to Lake Tahoe. Perhaps someday these boys will be among those of us who stop to offer assistance, those of us who know the importance of paying it forward.