As a self-identified “grizzled old mechanic,” I’ve always harbored a healthy (in my opinion) disdain for high-end European bikes. Their more demanding maintenance schedules and specialty tool requirements are simply too much of a commitment for me. But after listening to the Editor Formerly Known as GS Aerostich threaten to off his long-partially-disassembled yellow ‘98 900SS/CR for peanuts because he “ain’t got time to fix it and it takes up too much goddamn space,” I reluctantly stepped in to help. I wasn’t looking forward to buying the required cam belt tension gauge. Nor was I looking forward to using metric wrenches.
Moto Guild saved the day. If you’re not familiar, Moto Guild is a different kind of shop, where you do the work. They offer a clean and well-lighted place with lifts, a tire machine, a welder, and other things a motorcycle shop typically has and you don’t. They also stock some tires, filters, oil and other fluids, and can order most other things if they don’t have them on hand—quite handy when you find that the brake fluid in someone’s 900SS is darker than your coffee.
Even better, if you don’t have the skills to work on your own bike but want to learn, Moto Guild offers a wide range of classes covering areas from basic maintenance to complete engine rebuilds. In the middle of that range is the valve adjustment class. This particular class requires that you have basic mechanical skills, and be comfortable with removal of bodywork and accessing engine internals. While not for complete beginners, the class is quite comprehensive and removes the fear associate with baby’s first valve adjustment. I signed up for the Euro-specific version of the class in order to rehabilitate Surj’s ailing 900SS.
The instructor was Lucy Carrera, Ducati technician extraordinaire. Like most Moto Guild instructors, she’s a working tech first, so her teaching goes beyond what you get from a textbook or service manual. She’s done the job you’re tackling, many times, and has all the insight you could ask for. She illustrated this fact by listing the belt replacement and valve adjustment steps from memory as I rolled the SS/CR onto the lift, and repeated this feat when my classmate rolled his KTM 1190 Adventure up on the lift next to mine.
The two-valve 900 is a fairly simple bike as far as Ducatis go, but having Lucy there made a big difference in the experience. The knowledge she shared and the level of confidence she exhibited, combined with the supportive environment at Moto Guild, took all the fear out of what was initially an intimidating job.
What actually goes in to setting Desmodromic valves? Well, you must start with a tiny cup of coffee and contemplate the level of passion you have for the bike you’re planning to work on…
Okay, maybe not. Our coffee cups are big, for starters. Like I said, it’s a very straightforward process: remove the seat, fuel tank, battery, and rear shock. The first three components are easily removed in your garage. Pulling the shock isn’t a complex task, but having the lift and special “Ducati emotional support” at my disposal made the job simpler by an order of magnitude.
In case you don’t have one of your own, the Ducati emotional support is actually a block of wood notched to clear the exhaust of the front cylinder, allowing you to lift the bike by the engine case without damaging anything. This kind of “been there, done that” tool collection is what you’d find in a shop that does this all day, every day, and that’s what makes Moto Guild so awesome. The collective knowledge and experience pool means that the likelihood of your particular repair having been done by a staff member is high.
With the emotional support in place, the shock was easily removed and I was granted access to the valve covers, after being warned about the amount of oil that would drain out. That kind of instruction is invaluable.
Valve covers removed, the dreaded clearance checks ensued. The engine was rotated to the timing marks with the proper pin socket, and the opening lobe clearances were checked with standard feeler gauges—it was that simple. The closing lobe lash required the use of a screwdriver to press against the retainer, with the aforementioned dial indicator set up to measure travel. The process was repeated on each valve, with the tolerances being noted as well within spec.
The next task was to change the timing belts, as the belts on the bike surely predated our stinkiest ‘Stiches. Inspection of the ancient belts revealed them to be overtightened, so Lucy recommended that I perform a thorough check of the idler and tensioner pulleys—just another one of those things that happen when you have a pro looking over your shoulder. Surj’s luck proved abnormally good, as all was deemed well.
Installation and tensioning of the new belts employed Moto Guild’s sonic tester, which checks the resonant frequency of the tensioned side of the belt. I’ve never used this method before, but it turned out to be a really cool and useful technique. I did have to brush up on my string-plucking skills, but eventually got the proper frequency.
One final check of the tension by Lucy and I began reassembly. Again, no surprises—the SuperSport was easy to get back in one piece. We even replaced the rear spring, since the shock was already out.
That’s right, Moto Guild has suspension service specialty tools. The right tool for any job makes a difference, but the right shop space and equipment makes everything better.
Job completed, the yellow Duc’s engine roared to life for the first time in years, and Editor Surj stowed his camera for a test ride ‘round Treasure Island. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday.
It’s no secret that I work on my own bikes and frequently those belonging to others, but I don’t own any Italian passion machines. I also don’t really have a shop space that would accommodate this job, nor would I want to undertake such a task knowing that I’d need to crib the bike up with random wood and repurposed automotive stands in my garage. Lucy and Moto Guild took what was a mildly intimidating job—even for an experienced wrench—and made it feel almost easy.
So easy in fact that I have since begun been looking at Hypermotards for sale near me. Not that I need an Italian passion (ticket) machine, but the mystique of Ducati ownership has now lost a bit of its intimidation. Well done, Lucy. Well done.
Learn more about the wrench ’n’ learn environment and see upcoming course schedules at MotoGuild-SF.com.
This story originally appeared in our March 2018 issue, which you can read in all its original high-res glory here.
Fish is Founder and President of the CityBike Foundation for the Preservation of Front Tires. He’s recently taken to referring to Ducati motorcycles as “Italian Buells,” because it drives An batty.