#281Broke Bike Mountain (redux)

When the best-laid plans of men go sideways, it’s time to switch off the ABS.

The story so far: a bunch of BC boys including ex-pat Kiwi Jim Bush go motorcycle New Zealand. (“Broke Bike Mountains,” July 2011) Jim had planned the route meticulously with full GPS maps, and also provided two of the bikes: a Ducati ST2 for Steve, and a BMW R1150R for himself. Disaster strikes on day one. Jim highsides on the Beemer landing himself in hospital with a rung bell and four busted ribs. The trip goes ahead thanks to the GPS, and all else is well until, between Queenstown and Christchurch, the Duc expires in a cloud of oil smoke. The gearbox case has cracked open around the swingarm mounting. So Jim is left with two broke bikes and a painful convalescence. Now read on …

It’s December 2011 before Jim can get back to “Un Zud” (this is how Kiwis pronounce ENN and ZED, according to the Urban Dictionary.) Over the year he’s collected the parts to repair the Beemer, and feeling cheated on the “Broke Bike” trip, desperately wants to go riding. (The Duc has been sold as is for spares or repairs.)
Complicating the issue is that the Beemer needs to pass a Warrant of Fitness—New Zealand’s semi-annual vehicle inspection—and before the crash, the ABS system kept quitting.
It doesn’t take Jim more than a day to replace the smashed headlight, flyscreen and rocker cover, and the Beemer is back on the road. But what to do about the WoF? The Beemer won’t pass with the dodgy ABS, and needs new tires, too. MY 2001 BMWs, like Jim’s R1150R, came with a linked, servo-assist ABS brake system that is notoriously fallible if not bled and annually refreshed with new fluid.
The Auckland BMW dealer wants $500 to bleed the system and reset the computer’s error code, which Jim reluctantly hands over, but he declines a further $560 estimate to install braided stainless brake lines.
Less than five miles down the road from the dealer, on the way to the tire store, the Beemer’s ABS light is on again. Back at the dealer, the diagnosis is a faulty ABS pressure modulator—the heart of the system. A replacement is $4,500 and on three weeks delivery. Neither the cash nor the wait is an option: Jim’s time in NZ will be over before the new unit arrives.
Surprisingly, after fitting the new tires and adjusting a loose rear wheel bearing, the Beemer passes its WoF with the ABS temporarily back at work. But the recalcitrant brake system fails twice more on the way back to Jim’s digs. What to do?
They say the darkest hour is just before Dawn kicks you out of bed to go make the coffee. As Jim sits morosely around the barbecue that evening, buddy Dave is scouring the internet forums. “That’s it! An ABS-ectomy,” he yells. He’s found detailed instructions, photos, wiring diagrams, parts list, everything you need to remove the offending black box while retaining a working brake system. Some enterprising wrencher has performed just such an operation with apparent success. All it needs in the way of parts is a $12 automotive relay, some wire and electrical tape, plus new brake lines. Maybe this could work!
In the cold light of day, the task looks a little more daunting. Under the gas tank is the big black box and its profusion of pipes, wires and hoses. Yet while the brakes are designed around the ABS unit, apparently they work okay without it.
A trip to the local automotive parts store provides the relay and supplies to complete the job. Removing the ABS unit takes little time after the brake lines are disconnected and the connections to the wiring harness unplugged, and it’s unceremoniously hurled as far as Jim can throw it.
Next, though, comes the infinitely trickier task of rewiring and plumbing the system both to produce a reliable and effective braking system, while fooling the electrical system into thinking the Black Box is still there. Fortunately, the 1150 predates BMW’s Can-Bus digital system, so conventional wiring will work. The internet instructions describe how to hotwire the multi-terminal plug that used to hook the ABS unit into the electrical system, and where to fit the five-pin automotive relay that will operate the brake lights. Plumbing is completed with a set of Galfer braided stainless brake lines that Jim brought with him from Canada. They wouldn’t fit with the ABS but now they do. A double score!
Ample quantities of electrical tape and zip ties later, the ABS-ectomy is complete. A quick road test confirms that the brakes work just fine. Indeed, better than before, says Jim. “The best part,” he says, “I got to do a 2,000-km ride round the Coromandel Peninsula and up to Cape Reinga (New Zealand’s northernmost point) with my buddies after all.”
A caveat. This not an endorsement for removing safety equipment from a motorcycle. Jim is a qualified, experienced motorcycle technician, if a somewhat creative and unconventional one. That said, servo assisted brakes on a motorcycle are surely a solution looking for a problem. The potential consequences of a system failure (or even running out of gas!) are pretty serious. Modern direct-acting brakes are perfectly capable of standing a bike on its front tire with two fingers. So why the servo?
Right or wrong, BMW, has acquired a reputation among sceptics for making things more complicated than they need be, just because they can. Each to his own, but I’d rather ride something I can fix myself. And yes, I do own a BMW—a no-frills 1991 Paris-Dakar “airhead,” a paragon of elegant design simplicity. As the owners’ club motto goes, “Simpla Fi …”

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