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When a motorcyclist loses his way

Writer Darrell Broten and his 100th anniversary Harley-Davidson Road King from 2003. (Submitted photo)

Writer Darrell Broten and his 100th anniversary Harley-Davidson Road King from 2003. (Submitted photo)

The next time you’re tempted to brag about how well your motorcycle runs, I suggest you shut up. Last summer I bragged a bit about my 2003 Road King and events made me eat my words.

I purchased 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 little more than I planned. When the season was over, I had Ron Ives Performance Service (RIPS) service the bike, which I kept plugged into a Battery Tender in an unheated garage all winter.

In 2023, the Road King picked up where 2022 left off: it ran great, started right away and made me smile. At the end of July I stopped by RIPS to tell Ron that the Road King was functioning well, simply to give him good news to compensate for the bad news he sees all the time. I tried to do something nice.

Less than two weeks later, on Friday, August 11, I was heading to Ladysmith for coffee with high school friends. I was driving north on US Highway 53, just about to slow down for the County Highway S exit, when it suddenly felt like the motorcycle lost a cylinder. The engine lurched forward, began to rattle under the gas tank and lost power. I drove downhill to a stop sign. I noticed a serious problem and immediately called my American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) roadside assistance number.

Last summer I bragged a bit about my 2003 Road King and events made me eat my words.

When Tom from Rodell Towing in Altoona got the Road King into the shop, he and Ron listened as I started it. “That doesn’t sound good,” Ron said. “I’ll get started on it as soon as possible.” He didn’t dare guess what the problem was, but I kept thinking about those cam chain tensioners Ron had warned me about before I bought the Road King. But the tensioners had been upgraded, so what had actually been released there? As I left the shop I thought I was done with the Road King for the season, given Ron’s significant 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 damaged parts removed. I won’t go into all the comments and advice I received on Facebook and the internet, but rather report that Ron diagnosed the problem after a week. The front camshaft bearings had escaped their race (which holds the bearings in place) and were doing their best to wander around the engine. It was not the improved tensioner that failed, although it was damaged and had to be replaced. 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 per 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 make the repairs.

The Harley under repair.

The Harley under repair.

Ron was kind enough to let me come into the shop a few times in September while parts were on their way. I have a fetish about connecting batteries to Battery Tenders, so I did that and just wanted to see how things progressed. I made sure not to bother him with parts. I asked him once, but only once. Of course I hoped to be able to ride the Road King this season, but secretly I thought a repair would be possible in mid-October. Half October? Heck, Ron called me on October 2nd to pick up the bike so I had all month to ride it! He said he was working 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 experience a crankshaft failure in the future due to the amount of metal that has gone through the entire 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 that you should get rid of it, because only scrap companies would want to buy this bike, not even mechanical schools or technical colleges.” Ron couldn’t guarantee that the crank would fail, he just didn’t know when or even if it would fail. “It could be fine,” he added. When I asked him what the chances were of the crank breaking, he suggested we change the oil again after 500 miles to see how much metal would come out. He had already flushed the oil pan and camshaft with several gallons brake cleaner until no more metal is visible.

There was a caveat. Ron’s note on the repair sheet read: “This engine may experience a crankshaft failure in the future due to the amount of metal that has gone through the entire 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 spent October completing those 500 miles. On the 27th it was back to the store. After examining the oil, Ron told me there wasn’t much more metal in it than normal and showed me the iron filings attached to the magnetic oil drain plug. The next day he cut open the oil filter to see how much non-magnetic aluminum it captured. Again, not much more than normal.

Given all of this, here’s my thought: I’m going to drive that Road King like it’s fixed, because I think it is. This spring I will change the oil at 1,000 miles to see what we find. I will not change the way I treat the king, because I cannot treat him any better than I do now. If I can drive it another 20,000 miles I’ll be happy because by then I’ll probably be too old to drive anymore. If I don’t get those miles, I’ll park it until I save enough for an engine overhaul or just leave it as decoration. Like it or not, once those bearings were lost, that Road King became mine, for better or worse. I bet the king is doing well. At the moment it sounds and runs like a charm.

And here’s my philosophy: Unlike the Harley naysayers, I view bearing failure as an accident of life. HD isn’t trying to build bad machines, St Paul Harley isn’t trying to sell lemons, and mechanics don’t make mistakes on purpose. It’s unreasonable to expect a dealer to completely tear down every trade-in to ensure all parts are in order. You also can’t expect every motorcycle from the Harley assembly line to be perfect. I read somewhere that Harley-Davidson shipped 5.5 million motorcycles from January 1, 2022 to July 1, 2023. That means Harley has built almost 55 million bikes since 2003, when my Road King was assembled. It stands to reason that of those millions, a few will have problems. 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 fourteen different machines and thought it was high time to put a Harley-Davidson Wisconsin motorcycle on his resume before age caught up with him. To receive his newsletter, Mindful Motorcycling, email him at [email protected].