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Europe, Part 5: Switzerland, for maintenance and the Alps

Europe11 min read

April 27 - May 2, 2011

I had been in Europe now for a couple of weeks, but I hadn't been in a place where I could wrench on the bike. There was some long term maintenance issues that I wanted to address before getting to Africa, namely swapping out some leaky gaskets on the engine. Thomas, a rider from Switzerland, had been following my trip in South America and once in Europe, invited me stay and work on the bike. After a few days there, I headed out across the Swiss Alps into Italy.

Tunnels on the Autobahn. Heading southwest from Munich towards northern Switzerland. I was caught in some spring rains the whole morning and finally the skies cleared.

Beautiful light in the late afternoon shining on the northern foothills of the Alps as I went around Lake Constance.

I crossed the Rhine River and rolled through the semi-open border into Switzerland. They've recently joined the Schengen Treaty so that now I could enter without needing a special visa. However, there are still customs checks at the border, but I wasn't stopped. Close to the German border, I was headed for Gippingen, a small hamlet near the town of Leuggern, about 50 kms (31 mi) north of Zurich.

Thomas, preparing a barbeque for a weekly gathering that he has for his close friends. He and Andrea had recently traveled from the US down to Ushuaia and were slowly getting used to being resettled, but the itch to get moving again hasn't died down and they're planning to head through Africa in the next few years.

Dave, whom I met in Frankfurt, had also made it here by now and he's slicing up some freshly grilled ribs. Thomas and Andrea had met Dave during their South America trip and now on his round-the-world journey, he was passing through Europe after Asia.

An excellent barbeque dinner, surrounded by a whole cadre of Heinz sauces. I had never seen so many different kinds of sauces, ranging from curry mango, cocktail, knoblauch, sundried tomato, barbeque and hot chili.

Getting to know some of Thomas' friends over dinner.

Spending my days in their garage and finally giving sanDRina some much overdue care.

The main items I had to take care of were these two leaking gaskets. One was at the Cam Chain Tensioner housing and the other was from the clutch spindle.

Painstakingly scratching off the old, ineffective paper gasket at the tensioner housing. If something is leaking, it's most likely due to a gasket being at the end of its life. These leaks started towards the end of South America and I had the replacements sent in a care package, while I was in Europe.

After maybe an hour or more, I had a clean surface to mate the new gasket to. If there's any part of the old gasket left, it won’t form a proper seal and there'll be a leak again. The thing with working on an engine is that there are no shortcuts. It takes time, but if you do it the right way the first time, you'll be good to go.

New gasket going on the cam chain tensioner and note that the tensioner bolt has been pulled into the housing, which will be released once it's assembled back on the engine to set the correct tension on the cam chain. This is what I should've done in San Francisco to have avoided destroying my original engine. It was an expensive lesson but now I know for life.

The hard plastic gasket around the clutch spindle got replaced but I could hardly tell what was wrong with the leaky gasket. When these parts reach the end of their life, it might not be evident to us that its structure has started failing and it's not that effective as a gasket anymore. Some people are surprised when I tell them I'm going to make it back to India on this same bike as they can't imagine that it would survive till then. Of course, not everything's going to make it, but with preventative maintenance of replacing things before or as they fail, this machine called sanDRina can keep ticking as long as I care for her.

Having a look at the starter gears to see if I could find where this occasional noise is coming from when I shut down the engine. I couldn't see any wear on the teeth or anything that looked like it was failing. I was told it was just a feature of higher mileaged single cylinder engines for the crankshaft to spin a bit more after turning off the engine, resulting in a loud knock. It’s been there since Brazil.

That's the look when I realize I have a major problem on my hands to contend with. Before replacing the valve cover gaskets, I did a valve clearance check and everything looked to be in order. In doing this check, the outer spark plug (it's a dual spark setup) is removed so that the piston can be moved into position without resistance. Since I was there, I decided to check the condition of the inner spark plug, but it required a lot of force to remove it, which was strange. After going back and forth a bit, I gave it a slightly stronger nudge and...

...realized I had broken the spark plug in the engine. This was an unusual issue because spark plugs don't usually get broken in half. A common issue is to apply too much force when installing a spark plug and stripping the threads. These spark plugs were installed at the service shop in Brazil and I have a feeling that one of apprentice mechanics who was charged with putting the engine back together might have cross-threaded this plug, resulting in it getting stuck when I tried to remove it and thus, breaking off the threads. The threads of the plug were wedged in the cylinder head and the ceramic tip was broken.

I had to find a way to remove those threads and see if a new spark plug would fit. Thomas called up a friend at a nearby KTM shop and he told us to bring him the cylinder head. This was towards the end of the day, so I had to work quickly to remove the cylinder head from the engine.

Thomas lending a useful hand to get the job done properly.

This is looking at the bottom of the cylinder head that covers the piston. The hole on the left is for the outer spark plug and the inner plug, stuck in its hole. The larger circles on the top are the exhaust valves and the smaller ones are the intake valves where the fuel and air come through to get ignited by the spark plugs.

We rushed to Roger's KTM shop, which had just closed down for the day but he was still willing to help. He managed to remove the old threads and I was eager to find out whether the cylinder head was damaged beyond repair or not. I was thinking through my options of how I could get a new cylinder head shipped to me, but luckily Roger said he could save this head.

Drilling out the old threads left the hole a bit too loose after it was re-tapped and I was eager to get moving in the next few days, since my European visa was expiring and extensions are not an easy affair, so I suggested to Roger whether he could find a way to permanently seal a new spark plug into the hole and I would deal with it later. He liked the idea and bashed in the new threads a bit to get better engagement and applied Red Locktite to the new spark plug, which would prevent it from being removed. He said a spark plug could easily last 20,000 kms or even 40,000 kms, which would easily see me through to South Africa, where I know I could get replacement parts for the engine.

So, that's my situation now. I have a cylinder head with a permanently sealed spark plug. The whole cylinder head will need to be replaced when this spark plug reaches the end of its life. Roger assured me that it wasn't that big of a problem, since if I just replaced the other spark plug, the engine's ignition computer would compensate and all I would lose would be a few horsepower. Cleaning off the top of the cylinder, getting ready for reassembly.

The Camshaft, which is connected to the Crankshaft via the Camchain to regulate the opening and closing of the intake and exhaust valves.

Assembling the camshaft back in its place on top of the cylinder head. It was a bit tricky dealing with the chain and we needed all three minds (Thomas, Dave and me) working together to get this just right. I spent lots of time making sure that everything was spinning around correctly and going over and over my work before closing things up. The locktite and new silicone gaskets would cure overnight and I would find out the next morning if I was good to go or not.

Thomas heading to work on his bicycle and Dave's DRZ400 in the background. Andrea planned to take us to a festival that evening, but since Thomas works the late shift at the nearby train station, he couldn't join us.

Andrea took us to the Mittelalterfestival, a medieval festival across the border in Germany. In the US, they would call this a Renaissance festival. Most of the people dressed up in medieval clothes or just simply went goth.

Swords, axes and shields for sale.

It was a big venue with new age music from the misty stage.

Lots of traditional food was on hand and we got this...

...super-thin pizza of sorts to start with, called Flammkuchen mit Schinkenwürfel.

The next item was gyro cuts being stewed up. I liked the decoration around their kitchen.

Andrea getting us some gyro sandwiches.

Behind the new age area was a regular rock band setup in front of this old house.

An old-fashioned beer house.

Imagining what the scenes inside beer houses would've been like back in the day here.

Our group for the evening: me, Ute, Sabine, Stephanie, Andrea and Dave.

After the fun evening, we swung by the train station to say hello to Thomas, who's the station manager at Gippingen.

He's responsible for controlling the rail traffic through his station. He said this was one of the last places in Switzerland to still have manual control of this operation and within two years, a computer was going to replace him and I think that's when they'll set off on their next travel, into Africa.

The next morning, I fired up sanDRina and everything sounded good. I went for a test ride and was confident in taking off the next day. But before that, I was requested to prepare a curry. It was a last minute thing and we couldn't find any fresh chickens but there was salmon on hand, so I made a salmon curry.

Getting ready to chow down on Thomas and Andrea's patio with all their friends. I enjoyed these few days spent here and was grateful to Thomas and Andrea for letting me get things in order before setting off for Africa. It's always comfortable staying with people who've gone on a big journey themselves as they clearly understand your needs.

Auf Wiedersehen Thomas and Andrea. I hope to see you guys on the road somewhere...

From northern Switzerland, I was heading to Venice to catch the Visemar ferry to Alexandria. It was early May and thus not all the high passes through the Alps were open yet, but Thomas suggested a route to cross this majestic mountain range. Click on it to go to the interactive version in Google Maps.

I avoided the highways, since besides being boring, the tolls are quite expensive and it's harder to get close to the scenery. While waiting for a construction light to turn green, I took in this sight of a wooden shed at the bottom of a green hill.

Europe is crowded, compared to the vast expanse of the Western US or Patagonia and it's only a few kilometers before you pass through another small, charming town. Even though it's a very industrialized country, the tractor passing through town emphasizes how agriculture is still a big part of the European economy.

Getting my first sight of snow-capped peaks in the distance. I had this impression that Switzerland was all mountains, but it's generally flat in the north and the big mountains are to the south.

That looks like Spring has arrived. A blooming field in the foothills of the Alps.

Now those are the Alps. It was stunning to see how close the rocky peaks felt to all these little hamlets.

sanDRina blending in with the jagged horizon of the Swiss Alps.

A wide angle shot of a huge valley, where I took a little break to let it soak in that I was finally riding in the Alps.

The small town of Wildhaus walled in by the pushed up landscape.

Heading down twisting roads and having to concentrate hard to not get distracted by the scenery in the distance.

Riding down into this big valley where the small country of Liechtenstein lies across the Rhine River.

Officially called Fürstentum Liechtenstein, the principality has the second highest GDP/capita in the world, due to a strong financial sector and being a tax haven in heavily taxed Europe.

It's such a small country, measuring only 160 sq kms (61 sq mi), that within a few minutes, you're either in Austria or back in Switzerland, whose country designation is CH, referring to the Helvetic federation (Confoederatio Helvetica) that formed the country of Switzerland. Vaduz is the capital of this small country and they rely on Switzerland for many things, such as their currency, fire fighters and army since it has no military.

Half the country is flat and the other half is mountainous, with stony villas perched on their edge. The principality was formed after the Liechtenstein dynasty started acquiring land in this region and through the breakup of various confederations and empires, this region stood on it own.

A shot of a cute rear end showing the unique plates of Liechtenstein, which like Switzerland, don't conform to the EU plates.

A modern building with asymmetric glass panels, perhaps resembling the peaks of the Alps in the background. It's interesting to note that besides producing machinery and ceramics, Liechtenstein is the world's largest producer of sausage casings. No matter how small a country you are, you can be the world's largest in something.

A tall church tower in this Alpine nation, known for its great skiing.

Heading out of the urban area and...

...crossing the southern border back into...

...the land of Schweiz.

The road narrowed and crossed this small bridge and I felt like I was riding into a walled city.

The beautiful countryside of eastern Switzerland...

...making for excellent motorcycling.

Passing through the town of St. Luzisteig and remembering Thomas' instruction to not exceed the speed limit as the fines are very expensive.

It was a Monday, however, most of the towns and villages didn't appear to be bustling and I guess that's the charm of these old hamlets here.

Exiting town and noting the end speed limit sign, which meant the limit was now 90 kph (56 mph).

Seeing mountains in the distance, I was looking forward to crossing them.

But before that, I was content with passing through tree-shaded country lanes.

Working my way through the small city of Igis and noting how all the traffic respected the pedestrian crossing zones.

Taking a break in this flower-filled meadow and it's vista of the snow-capped Alps.

Looking across the valley and seeing the clear distinction between the green forests and the white caps, demarcated by the snowline or treeline.

sanDRina inhaling the spring alpine flowers.

A mechanical beauty surrounded by natural beauty.

The alpine reservoir of Lai da Marmorera below its full capacity as I climbed the mountain pass. The Italian name telling me I had entered the Italian side of Switzerland, which is German in the northern part and French in the west.

Getting very close to snow and feeling the chills as I climbed up to...

The summit of Julier pass, which was freezing cold at an elevation of only 2284 m (7,491 ft).

Lake Silvaplanersee as I turned on the main route south from St. Mortiz down into Italy.

Spending a few days with other bike travelers was a nice change as I feel we’re all old friends, the first time we meet. I guess because the experience of traveling on a motorbike for a long time changes your perception of the world.

I was feeling good about taking care of the oil leaks on sanDRina, putting some life back in her heart, but now I had another issue to keep at the back of my mind; the condition of the inner spark plug. My first day’s ride through the Swiss Alps was a good of a test as any and the engine felt smooth, so I could rest at ease.

Next: Europe, Part 6: The Italian Alps down into Venice

Previous: Europe, Part 4: A Day in Munich at the BMW Museum


Jammin thru the Global South was the 3+ year, 100,000+ km ride Jay did from the US to India via Latin America, Europe and Africa. Explore the photojournals at the Journey Posts tab.

Jammin Global Adventures is a tour company run by Jay Kannaiyan. He organizes small group, premium motorcycle adventures in Peru, Kenya, Mongolia, India and more.

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