Mr. Meticulous: Pete versus the Vibration

Nov 22, 2017 View Comments by

The world is filled with an abundance of avid motorcyclists. But “avid” can take many forms. There are bikers whose lives revolve around riding daily, whether to work, a vacation destination, or simply a meandering excursion along some country roads for an afternoon. There are those who purchase their dream motorcycles and continually extol their virtues, only to find that, after five years, their dream bikes have 4,000 miles on them and have taken up special, permanent places in their garages. And then there are riders like Pete Poggi, a retired computer software developer and project manager, who, perhaps due to his profession or the nature of those in it, has established motorcycling standards that most of us cannot even comprehend.

Pete took up motorcycling eight years ago. After gaining some experience, he joined several local groups, as much for the camaraderie as the riding. Very quickly, he developed a reputation for having the cleanest, shiniest bike in the group. Always. To demonstrate that ragging on a friend is the sincerest form of flattery, group members would often point out to Pete the tiniest speck of dust that he might have missed while meticulously readying his bike for an afternoon ride. He would regularly regale his cycling buddies with stories about parts he’d purchased and installed to replace and upgrade much of the standard factoryware. One example of this occurred when Pete hit a bump while crossing the Indian River Inlet Bridge in Delaware, severely jarring his back and prompting him to wonder whether installing heavier-duty shocks might eliminate this problem. So, that’s exactly what he did, installing stronger, half-inch-longer shocks that would absorb any protuberance this side of Mount McKinley. But he couldn’t possibly have anticipated the challenge that was about to confront him and his penchant for perfectionism.

Pete began noticing that his bike, a shiny, immaculate 2005 Honda VTX1300, had developed a vibration at 30 miles per hour. Not at 29. Not at 31. Precisely at 30. At first, he didn’t pay it much mind, but as time went on, and the vibration persisted, it became more noticeable and considerably more bothersome to Mr. Meticulous. At first, he attributed it to the fact that over the preceding year, he had lost about 30 pounds, causing the bike to ride higher, which led to the vibration. He also noticed the vibration more as the weather turned warmer, owing to switching out his full-face helmet for a half-helmet.

Pete drew up a table of variables in order to tie the vibration to a particular part. He was convinced that it had to be a part that rotated at 30 mph, such as a bearing, a wheel, or a transmission gear. He recorded the vibration’s sound with his iPhone in order to better illustrate the noise. Verbally, he would liken it to a loose heat shield over a car’s muffler. But as he considered all the possibilities, he grew more obsessed with identifying the source.

Friends provided Pete with some alternatives to combat the noise. “Wear ear plugs.” “Turn up the radio.” “Get loud pipes.” “Pete, just ignore it!” But he couldn’t let go of it, nor could the vibration release him. He noted that it didn’t seem to affect rideability or performance, but he worried about safety. Could a part fall off while I’m riding? he wondered. He constantly complained about it to his buddies in his riding club, the SlowRiders, a group of mostly 60-plus-year-old guys who ride as much for the fellowship and the restaurants as they do for the sheer pleasure of two-wheeled traveling. Every Saturday, at breakfast at a local deli, Pete would report on his latest tests, part replacements, and theories. He’d constantly report that, not only could he hear the noise, but he could feel the vibration, at 30 mph, from his hands down to his tush. It was making him, and consequently, his friends, crazy. He would tell anyone who would listen about his travails. “I even told my doctor, who also rides a motorcycle,” he said, “He couldn’t help me, either.” Pete even considered regaining the 30 pounds that he had lost. With his background in computer programming and logic, he felt strongly that there had to be a reason for this devilish vibration. And he had to find it.

So Pete dug his heels in. Over the course of about a year, he analyzed, he theorized, he tested and replaced parts. He kept scrupulous records of everything he had done in order to narrow the possibilities. And when he felt exhausted, both mentally and physically, he brought his bike to several reputable and skilled mechanics, along with all his documentation so that they wouldn’t duplicate what he had already eliminated as possible causes of the vibration. His logs included the bike’s history, and significant symptoms including factors that might or might not be present while vibrating, such as carrying a passenger, the gears at which the vibration occurred, or whether his hard side bags or a chrome radiator cover might be contributing to his nightmare.

His list of parts—checked, lubricated, adjusted, or replaced—grew to over 150, including: new front brake pads, rebalancing the front tire, new upper and lower steering neck bearings, new front wheel bearings, increased space between the metal rear brake line and radiator housing, replacing rear wheel bearings, replacing the rear tire, installing new rear OEM disc brake rotor, and replacing the swing arm bearings. He also replaced the header crush, slip-on, and crossover gaskets on the stock exhaust, and on and on and on. He spent $1,600 on new parts, and another $847 on tools to install those parts. And yet, the vibration persisted. Unless he took on a passenger. Then the vibration was temporarily eliminated, until the passenger dismounted.

Pete’s wife, Cindy, a non-motorcyclist, heard his griping and frustration daily. One day, after Pete had taken her for a test ride around the block and found that the vibration abated with her on the back, she suggested to him that perhaps it was the shocks causing the vibration. But Pete, in his analytical manner, explained to her why changing the shocks again wouldn’t solve the problem. “The shocks were simply an amplifier of the problem, not the cause,” he explained. “Given the angle of the drive shaft, the 90-degree angled gear mesh, the angle of the shock would change the vibration of the power converter. But new shocks won’t change that,” Pete retorted. “I’m not wasting another $300! I’m not throwing good money after bad!” he declared. But, knowing Cindy as he did, he thought that she might just run over to his dealership and buy shocks anyway. And she’d probably buy the wrong ones. So Pete, against every fiber of his being, went ahead and bought them just to ensure they were the right ones which would then prove Cindy wrong.

Pete installed the new shocks, similar to the originals, confident that his money and efforts would once again prove fruitless. But new shock absorbers couldn’t possibly have softened the shocked look on Pete’s face when, after taking the bike out for a test ride, the vibration had miraculously disappeared! He returned home to a waiting Cindy. When he gave her the news, she gave him the look. Guys, you all know that look when your wife or girlfriend knows she’s right and you know it, too. No words need to be uttered. After a bit, Pete thanked his wife beyond measure, knowing that his year-long nightmare, and the agony and pain he had inflicted on so many others, was finally over. He also knew he’d be thanking Cindy in many more ways for years to come.

Pete noted that he learned some very valuable lessons through this experience:
1) When you cannot solve a problem, ask someone with absolutely no experience for a solution. Their complete absence of knowledge will enable them to think out of the box;
2) Don’t get rid of the old shocks before you know for certain that the new shocks have solved the problem. Pete sold the originals. Instead, he could have simply reinstalled the old shocks and returned the cursed new ones; and
3) Get rid of your bike before your odometer hits 55,000 miles.
Cindy might have one more lesson to add to this list.

Tags: Categories: Chronicles