Nothing says winter like rebuilding a garage full of bikes. I had been fiddling with Sharah’s Yamaha XT350 getting it ready to sell in the spring, and pending some new jets arriving, I decided to start rebuilding our bikes.
We are both riding mid-80’s Yamaha XT600’s that are nearly identical. Both need a top-end job, some frame modifications, and general maintenance before they are ready for the high road.
What kind of bike to buy
In my opinion for long distance travel, 600cc single cylinder dual-sport bikes are king. They are simple machines with few electrical and mechanical components and can be fixed with a handful of tools. A good bike is one that is easy to fix, has a long production run, and therefore has lots of spare parts laying around the globe.
For reasons that extend back into my early years of motorcycle ownership, I gravitated towards Yamaha and their line of mid-80’s XT’s. Unlike the Honda XR650 whose engine remained nearly unchanged for almost a decade, 80’s Yamahas were rarely the same year after year. Their 1984-1986 XT600 (model code 43F) was Yamaha’s longest kickstart only 600cc single-cylinder air cooled motorcycle and its short years on the shelf and moderate sales appealed to my irrational brain.
With only three years of production 30-year-old spare parts are becoming harder and harder to find. Nevertheless OEM components are still being manufactured with websites like www.boats.net selling retail online and rebuilding these old bikes isn’t as far fetched as it may seem.
600cc single-cylinder is about the right size for long distance travel. Anything with a smaller displacement than 600cc and you will probably struggle in the mountains though I have heard of people riding 200cc bikes up and down the Pan-American highway.
The single cylinder design is the goldilocks engine for touring. It can perform well in the dirt even when weighted down and it can hit highway speeds. Even at 14,000 feet of elevation my XT600 still had enough power to ride on single track dirt trails up and down the mountain with stock jetting.
I have set our gearing to a 15-tooth front sprocket and 42-tooth rear sprocket. Depending on your preference for highway or dirt you can decrease or increase your rear sprocket teeth respectively.
So what’s to like about these bikes? Here are some things to look for.
These old Yamahas are kick-start only machines with a spark pickup bypassing the battery, meaning that our bikes will run without a battery if needed. On multiple occasions my battery has died or I needed to loan my battery to another rider whose electric start bike died and I could continue to drive all day, or many days if needed. Between Alaska and Mexico I fried three regulator/rectifiers and more than 5 batteries before I could finally replace the offending pickup coil that burned out. It never kept me from riding.
Fewer electronics means fewer things to go wrong. One time I witnessed another bike’s starter motor short out against its frame and it ignited a fire under the seat and almost destroyed the bike. Simplicity is why I opted for a kick start only bike despite the mild hassle of kicking a stubborn bike after a cold night sleeping in the dirt.
It’s reassuring knowing every morning that no matter what the bike should start.
The air-cooled engine of the XT series means no water pump or radiator will fail. I’ve driven this 1985 motorcycle through Arizona’s hottest 120 degree desert days and it outperformed my friend’s brand new 2015 Indian Scout as his overheated and shut down.
A carburetor keeps things simple since there’s no computer to monitor fuel injectors or fuel pump, and if something clogs up it’s a quick tear down to clear out the offending jet and you’re back on the road. I’ve stripped a carburetor on a campsite picnic table while eating lunch and was rolling again within an hour. Carbs can be adjusted with elevation so carrying a few extra jets for long days in the mountains is an option but a well tuned bike shouldn't need it.
Furthermore valve adjustments are done with feeler gauges and adjuster screws meaning no shims, chain tensioning is a solo job, a flat tire can be resolved with a simple patch kit, the rear swing arm has grease points, and the front forks have shrader valves to add or remove air pressure.
So then what’s not to like about these bikes? Well, there are a few things.
The XT’s biggest obstacle for long distance travel is its diminutive 2.9 gallon gas tank. The first thing I did was replace our stock tanks with 4 gallon aftermarket Clarke tanks, though at times I wish it was bigger.
The longest stretch of road in the United States without a gas station is 240 miles between Coldfoot and Dead Horse, Alaska on the Dalton highway. With only 4 gallons of gas and the unrealistic gas mileage of 60 MPG you would be lucky to make it without jerry cans.
Besides you can never trust gas mileage. Your speed, road conditions, the quality of gas, altitude, tire pressure, and who knows what else affect your mileage without you knowing it. Plus in Mexico and beyond gas isn’t guaranteed every 100 miles like it is here in the States so I added a two gallon Rotopax gas can strapped to my side rack to increase fuel to 6 gallons.
While I’ve mainly used that extra gas to bail out fellow travelers you may depend on it when your credit card doesn’t work at some small town’s filling station, or maybe they are just out of gas.
Another issue is that these bikes don’t come with rear racks from the factory. If you want to carry luggage then you have to find or make a rear rack and then manufacture side racks from scratch. Nobody has done the research to manufacture aftermarket side racks for this bike so that’s on you.
I built my racks to be removable with six bolts but rarely take them off since they are so handy. I then strap Rotopax gas and water tanks to each side and then my soft luggage straps onto the tanks.
The trick is to keep your width to a minimum so that when navigating narrow streets or filtering through traffic you don’t get snagged and thrown off your bike.
The XT rear suspension is a monoshock system that comes from the factory with a soft spring and is not serviceable. The stock spring is a linear spring (one continuous coil) with a rating of about 80 N/m (newton/meters) which is too soft for a full sized adult plus luggage riding 60mph over rough terrain.
I found myself bottoming out in Mexico on the Baja 1000 route just trying to make a modest 30mph.
One option is to replace the spring with a stiffer aftermarket spring but I’ve had two stock shock assemblies literally snap in half because I installed a stiffer spring and the lack of a shrader valve to increase rebound compensation stressed the shock to the point that it broke.
Because these old shocks aren’t serviceable you can’t add extra nitrogen to increase dampening, so the best option is to completely replace the whole damn thing with an aftermarket shock which has a stiffer spring and a shrader valve. It’ll prevent headaches down the road when your shock breaks in Panama and the nearest spring is in Oregon.
Trust me. XT's don't have good rear shocks.
On these bikes oil changes are a few extra steps than normal because the engine is a dry sump system wherein excess oil is stored in an external oil tank. That means an oil change requires draining both the crank case and the oil tank, and the tank drain bolt drips oil everywhere. It’s not really that bad but it always makes a mess.
Speaking of oil I use whatever brand of 10w-40 I can find and don’t worry about clutch slippage. It’s never happened on this bike.
These days you can blend synthetic and conventional oil so if you've put synthetic in at one time, don't worry about switching back. Just try to keep the same manufacturer.
What to do before you leave on your trip.
It had been about 35,000 miles and a trip on Alaska’s Dalton Highway since I last rebuilt my top-end and Whiskers was starting to show signs of fatigue.
I anticipated that both bikes needed top-end repairs which means new piston rings, a cylinder hone, and valve lapping at the very least. Sharah and I spent a couple of hours going around the engine locating the hidden bolts beneath the valve inspection cap and under the frame mount, pulled the head and cylinder, and looked for these old XT’s idiosyncrasies.
I pulled each valve and lapped them with grinding compound and used a brass wire brush to clean up much of the carbonization and oily gunk. I installed new OEM valve stem seals, OEM piston rings, honed the cylinder, and used a thick, reusable copper head gasket that would reduce engine compression and allow for a more tolerant engine when it comes to shit gas south of the border. A thicker head gasket lowers the compression ratio by slightly increasing the space between the piston and valves.
Solid copper gaskets are reusable because of a quirky metallugic property wherein copper when heated and then cooled becomes soft and malleable, unlike steel which becomes hard and brittle. I used my propane cook stove to heat the copper gasket to glowing red and then quenched it in a bucket of water. Once cool the copper was so soft it could be deformed with your hands, which makes its squish measurement great for torquing down the head. No leaks so far.
I also replaced my cam chain, reset the valve clearance and added some inserts to the cylinder head cover since these 30-year-old cast aluminum threads have been abused with over tightening who knows how many times. I think my engine has four or five inserts in the case at this point. I use Keenest brand inserts and carry the drill bit, tap, and extra bits with me on the road in case another thread strips.
Sharah’s bike will also need a top-end because it currently only runs on high-octane gas, which is nearly nonexistent south of the border. With these old bikes a stock piston and cylinder with stock valves and a stock cam should make the engine burn low octane gas without knocking or pinging.
Honestly I’m not particular when it comes to luggage. If it’s waterproof and I can strap it down, I’ll use it.
The only thing I insist on is soft luggage because when you go down you want your bags to take the fall, not your frame.
The only hard luggage I carry is a 1510 Pelican case ratchet strapped to my back rack that I fill with my camera equipment, travel documents, and anything else I kinda value. I was previously using my friend’s Ortlieb roll bags on my side racks but some one stole that with my riding jackets and camping gear in New Orleans last year so now I’m rocking a thrift store backpack.
There are many hundred dollar options out there from companies like Wolfman, Touratech, Ortleib and more if you want to spend the money, but if you want to spend that good money on gas and food on the road then save your cash and see what Goodwill offers.
If it's dry it'll ride.
What to look for on the road
Replacing consumable items like brake pads, shoes, sprockets, chain, and tires before leaving on a long trip is good practice but not critical.
By carefully watching your bike’s wear and tear you can anticipate what gear will wear out and when so that you can buy what you need in major cities before heading out into the wilds for a few weeks.
For instance going north from Whitehorse in The Yukon I knew it would be about 1,000 miles between me and Fairbanks Alaska, so I brought a spare chain, sprockets, and a tire with me, all of which I replaced on the road.
While I could have done all that work in the city 1,000 miles earlier, when you’re trying to save money, miles count. Tires wear out quickly when you’re carrying luggage and get more and more expensive the further from civilization you travel. Chains and sprockets only last about 10,000 miles. An oil change costs $20 in oil plus a $7 filter every 3,000 miles.
All these costs add up over time and pinching pennies can sometimes pay off if you’re careful, but sometimes it can backfire. Don’t get caught with a broken bike and no spare parts. Carry spares of the most worn items and be prepared to change it yourself, or catch it early and get someone else to do it.
Breaking down sucks.
Why do we ride?
If you’re looking for comfort while traveling then long distance motorcycle touring might not be right for you.
No matter what anyone says being on a motorcycle for 10 hours a day for a month or longer will make you cold, sore, and miserable. You’re exposed to the elements, the wind cuts through all your clothes, trucks almost blow you off the road, dogs chase you, rain always leaks in, and at the end of a day you have a cold tent to crawl into and maybe a fire if it’s a good day.
But all of the places you see, all of the people you meet, the smells of cities, the beauty of nature, all of that would be just a daydream unless you actually got out there and rode those miles and felt that chill and ate those bugs day in and day out.
It’s the magic of the road that propels me to make journey after journey on these awful machines and to discover the secrets of our world one turn at a time.