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When a Motorcyclist Loses His Bearings

When a Motorcyclist Loses His Bearings

a Harley owner’s adventures on the road – and in the shop

bt: Darrell Broten Courtesy: VolumeOne

The next time you are tempted to brag about how well your motorcycle is running, I suggest you hold your tongue. Last summer I did some boasting about my 2003 Road King and events made me eat my words.

I bought my 2003 100th Anniversary Harley-Davidson Road King from St. Paul Harley in December 2021. It ran great during the 2022 season. I put just over 3,000 miles on it, actually a bit more than what I had planned. When the season ended, I had Ron Ives Performance Service (RIPS) service the bike, which over the winter I kept hooked up to a Battery Tender in an unheated garage.

In 2023 the Road King picked up where 2022 left off, running fine, starting right up, and making me smile. Toward the end of July, I stopped in at RIPS to tell Ron that the Road King was operating well simply to give him some good news to balance out the breakdown bad news he sees all the time. I was trying to do a nice thing.

Less than two weeks later, on Friday, Aug. 11, I was on my way to Ladysmith for coffee with high school buddies. I was heading north on U.S. Highway 53, just about to slow down for the County Highway S exit, when all of a sudden it felt like the motorcycle lost one cylinder. The bike jerked forward, started clanking under the gas tank, and lost power. I coasted downhill to a stop sign. Sensing a serious problem, I immediately dialed my American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) Roadside Assistance number.

Last summer I did some boasting about my 2003 Road King and events made me eat my words.

Once Tom of Rodell Towing in Altoona got the Road King into the shop, he and Ron listened as I started it up. “That doesn’t sound good,” Ron said. “I’ll get at it as soon as I can.” He wouldn’t hazard a guess as to the problem, but I kept thinking about those cam chain tensioners that Ron had warned me about before I bought the Road King  But the tensioners had been upgraded, so what had actually let loose there? As I left the shop, I thought I was done with the Road King for the season, given Ron’s considerable backlog and that this was August, one of the busiest months for motorcycling.

However, when I returned a few days later Ron already had the bike on a work lift and had removed damaged parts. I won’t go into all the comments and advice I received on Facebook and the internet, but rather report that, after a week, Ron diagnosed the problem. The front camshaft bearings had escaped their race (which holds the bearings in place) and did their best to roam around the engine. It wasn’t the upgraded tensioner that failed, though it had been damaged and needed replacement. Before ordering parts, Ron explained everything to me as he delivered the bad news: $1,500 in parts and six hours of labor at $100 an hour for a total of $2,200. I had money set aside so I told him to go ahead. Now I had to wait for parts – I hoped for no delay – and for Ron to do the fixing.

Ron was nice enough to let me come into the shop a few times in September while parts were on the way. I have a fetish about plugging in batteries on Battery Tenders so I did that and I just wanted to see how things progressed. I was careful not to bug him about parts. I asked him once, but only once. Sure, I was hoping to be able to ride the Road King yet this season but secretly I thought a repair might be possible by mid-October. Mid-October? Heck, Ron called me Oct. 2 to pick up the bike so I had the whole month to ride it! He said he worked on it that Sunday. I gave him the biggest tip I could afford.

There was a caveat. Ron’s note on the repair sheet read: “This engine may have crank failure in the future with the amount of metal that was run thru complete engine.” So, I had to ask him what he would do if this was his bike. He said, “sell it.” I replied, “What you really mean is get rid of it, because nobody but scrap yards would buy this bike, not even mechanic schools or tech colleges.” Ron wouldn’t guarantee that the crank would fail, he just didn’t know when or even if it would fail. “It might be perfectly fine,” he added. When I asked him for odds that the crank would fail, he suggested we change the oil again after 500 miles to see how much metal comes out. He already had flushed the oil pan and camchest with several gallons of brake cleaner until no metal appeared.

There was a caveat. Ron’s note on the repair sheet read: “This engine may have crank failure in the future with the amount of metal that was run thru complete engine.” So, I had to ask him what he would do if this was his bike. He said, “sell it.”

So that’s what we did. I devoted October to putting on those 500 miles. On the 27th it was back to the shop. After examining the oil, Ron told me that there wasn’t too much more metal than normal and he showed me the iron filings stuck to the magnetic oil drain plug. The next day he cut the oil filter open to see how much nonmagnetic aluminum it caught. Again, not much more than normal.

Given all that, here is my thinking: I’m going to ride that Road King as if it’s fixed, because I think it is. This spring I’ll change the oil at 1,000 miles to see what we find. I won’t change how I treat the King because I can’t treat it any better than I do. If I get 30,000 more miles out of it, I’ll be happy because by then I’ll probably be too old to ride any more. If I don’t get those miles, I’ll park it until I’ve saved enough for an engine rebuild or simply let it sit as a decoration. Like it or not, as soon as those bearings were lost, that Road King became mine, for better or worse. I’m betting that the King will be just fine. Right now, it sounds and runs like a charm.

And here is my philosophy: Contrary to Harley naysayers, I consider the bearing failure a happenstance of life. H-D doesn’t seek to build poor machines, St Paul Harley doesn’t try to sell lemons, and mechanics don’t purposely make mistakes. It’s unreasonable to expect a dealer to completely tear down every trade-in to make sure all the parts are fine. You also can’t expect every motorcycle off the Harley assembly line to be perfect. Somewhere I read that from Jan. 1, 2022, to July 1, 2023, Harley-Davidson shipped 5.5 million motorcycles. That means since 2003, when my Road King was assembled, Harley built almost 55 million bikes. It’s common sense that out of those millions, a few are going to have issues. It happens. No conspiracy, no intent, no incompetence.

Ron said, “sell it!” I say, “ride it!” Ron then fixed it. I’m going to keep it.

Darrell Broten has been riding motorcycles since 1979. He’s owned 14 different machines and thought it was high time get a Wisconsin-made Harley-Davidson motorcycle on his riding résumé’ before age caught up with him. To receive his newsletter, Mindful Motorcycling, email him at


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