Engine Failure in Mexico

This is the story about how my engine broke in southern Mexico and how we got it fixed and I got back on the road 9 days later. This a story about the amazing generosity I have felt from the Mexican people and about a ton of help I got from friends and family back home. A trip like this isn't possible without all your support and I thank you!

Note: No one at any point in this story spoke any english. The 5 days of lessons in Puerto Escondido, my spanish to english dictionary and lots of charades is how we communicated. Also, it was especially difficult to talk about mechanics because things like "camshaft" and "rocker arm" aren't in the dictionary!

The Breakdown (Thursday)

I left Puerto Escondido with Christian and Greg for Tuxtla Gutierrez early Thursday morning in hopes to get a new rear tire for my bike from a shop before they closed later that day. It was a long ride but seemed doable in a day if I kept a good pace. Greg was having suspension issues and so was having trouble with the topes. I knew at our current pace I wouldn't make it. I figured I'd go on ahead on my own, get my tire and then meet up with them later that night. So off I blast.

Riding quickly with just a few breaks all day through some fun twisty mountain roads, some straight roads, some towns and a really really windy section with hundreds upon hundreds of huge modern windmills. Towards the end of the ride I decide to take the longer but windier way through the mountains. As I'm nearing Tuxtla I start to get pretty hungry and a bit tired so I stopped for a quick snack and a coke for some caffeine. The bike starts fine when I go to leave and do the last hour of the trip. A few minutes later the mountain road meets back up with the cuota (the highway) and I blast at 75 mph for about 30 mins before I hit a toll booth which is itself about 30 mins outside of Tuxtla. I turn off the bike at the toll booth so I can hear and take my time getting to my money, etc. As I go to leave the toll booth the bike won't start. I flip it into neutral and still it won't turn over. The starter motor was trying to crank the engine but couldn't get it turned over. I immediately thought that the auto-decompression was failing because I wouldn't think my battery died immediately after riding.

I pushed the bike off to the side of the highway and immediately a gentleman comes to help me get it started. We try and bump start it but the rear wheel just skids along the ground and just like that starter the motor wouldn't turned over. The guy is convinced I need a jump and I try to explain I think it's worse than that but he goes off to get his friends to come back with a car.

By this time I have all my bags off the bike, the seat off and I am taking readings with the multimeter. The battery looks low but I figure that's because I just ran it down. I tried bump starting it myself a few times but with no luck.

Toll booth guy comes back 10 mins later with a bus! We try to jump it but still the bike won't turn over. Eventually, with the car on and the negative attached to my peg we get the bike going. I throw the multimeter on the battery to test the charging system and it seems fine. I thank the guy, quickly load up the bike with it running, and head the last 30 mins to the bike shop where the tire is waiting. On the ride I am trying to decide if the motor sounds right or if now I am looking for problems and it's all in my head.

I get into downtown Tuxtla and the traffic is just horrible. It takes me another 30-45 mins to go the last 3km to the shop. I finally get to the shop and reluctantly turn off the bike. I go into the store and explain that I am there to pick up the tire and that my bike is broken. A guy who works at the store comes outside to look at it with me. I drop the bags, pull the seat and bust out the multimeter again. This time the bike starts and all the readings from the multimeter are fine. I try to restart the bike and it won't turn over again. The guy seemed convinced it was just the battery so we went back inside.

The girl looks to see if they have a battery and I hear the familiar phrase, "no hay". She tells me it would take 15 days to get one. I tell her that's too long. After a few phone calls she says she can get a battery there the next day! She also explains that they sold my tire earlier that day and she can't get another until Tuesday. Figuring that the battery was a long shot I put a deposit on both the tire and the battery.

By the time we got that all sorted a friend of a guy at the shop had showed up to take me to a mechanic. I load up the bike and fortunately it starts and I head across town with him in heavy traffic to the mechanics shop. About half way there the bike stalls...not my fault...I don't think. And now I am pretty sure it's more than just the battery. I break out my tow strap and he pulls me the rest of the way across town through insane traffic, across the worst roads I've seen in Mexico. Seeing as the tow strap is tied to my right fork and to his rear rack it was quite difficult to keep the bike going straight...the tension wanted to turn my handle bars to the left.
Somehow, miraculously, we make it to the mechanics place. He says I can leave the bike and my gear there and come back first thing in the morning. Me and Juan Carlos, the guy who towed me across town, get into a cab because he is going to help me find a hotel. He comes all the way across town, helps me find a hotel and then vanishes back into the chaos that is Tuxtla...like the Mexican Batman!

The Shop

I want to describe the shop because it's very unlike anything you'd see in the U.S. but somehow unsurprising for me in Mexico now. First off it's just the backyard of a house down a long narrow alley that runs from the street. Surrounded by concrete walls that seem unfinished with rebar sticking out the top. There are bikes everywhere. Kids running around. Naked babies. Dogs that I can't tell if they are pets or strays. A small outhouse in the corner and a laundry station in the back. I couple of work benches strewn about and very few tools. There is one lift in the back but they don't seem to use it. These guys make do with what they have.
I picked up some useful things they do.

First, they use some sort of bag full of what appears to be un-spun wool or mattress or pillow stuffing. It works great to dry clean your hands while you are working. Their sink didn't have soap...they just use the wool...in the end I bought some and left it there.

Second, super glue and baking soda are a powerful combination to fix all sorts of stuff...it is basically like making plastic.

These were the mechanics two little girls. So adorable!

The Diagnosis (Friday)

First thing in the morning I return to the mechanics shop. Immediately we start going through the same motions I went through the day before but this time we try a number of different batteries. We try jump starting. We test the solenoid. Still the bike won't start. I try explaining I think it's the auto-decompression and they seem to think that's reasonable but want to check the starter first. So we wiggle the starter out of the frame and test it on a battery.
Of course it's fine. They take the starter apart anyway, clean it and put it back together. I put it back on the bike and still, same result...won't crank.
Then I decide to pull the plug and try turning the motor without compression. Chug chug chug chug. Turns over fine.

We all agree to pull the valve cover. Once I get the fairing off, the airbox out and the valve cover off, I turn the wheel until I get top dead center. I check the valves and immediately I see that the exhaust valves are way too loose. The mechanic then points out the rocker arms bearing which had seized and worn a flat spot. I pull the rocker arms and then it was really easy to see the damage.
The exhaust rocker arm bearing had seized and then worn flat and dented the cam shaft. This led to the exhaust valves rapidly loosening up past their working range. The auto-decompression is a centrifugal weight on the end of a rod that adds a bump to the exhaust cam when the engine isn't spinning fast enough. So when the valves loosened up enough this bump wasn't enough to open the exhaust valves and therefore rendering the auto-decompression worthless. Which is why the bike would run, albeit rough, but was really hard to start.
I immediately got on the phone and started to see about getting new rocker arms and a cam shaft sent to me in Tuxtla. During that time the mechanic said that he could fix the rocker arm with a new bearing and get me on my way for 3000 pesos and in 3 days. I tried to explain to him that I needed to do another 40,000 miles on the bike and that any fix would have to be as good as new. He seemed very confident but still I said I wanted to wait for new parts.

Ordering Parts (Friday)

My dad tried to get the parts from the San Antonio KTM dealer but he said that they didn't seem competent and that they said they couldn't get the parts for several days and that the chain and sprockets (that I also needed...unrelated) they couldn't get for a month. So I got on the phone to call Dante, the parts guy at Scuderia West in San Francisco, and just my luck...he was on vacation. But it turned out Scuderia had my chain and sprockets in stock and they could 2-day the parts from KTM USA for an "unknown" price to their store in SF. I called my friend Curtis and asked him if he'd be willing to help me ship them to Mexico when the parts all arrived in San Francisco.

During this time the mechanic had a think and said that he could fix my bike for free and the same day. I told him that if he could get the bike running that I'd give him a big tip...maybe not 3000 pesos but a good tip. I figured that way I could have the parts shipped to San Cristobal which was the next planned stop and take a little of the sting out of the wait time.

Fabricating a Temporary Fix (Saturday)

The mechanic wasn't able to find a bearing on site and said that he'd need another day to fix the bike. So I went back to my hotel and came back the next day.

The mechanic went around town and found a ball bearing the exact same size diameter. I checked it with a micrometer in comparison to the intake rocker bearing and it might have been off by 3 thousands of a millimeter. I started to think that just maybe he could actually fix it. The bearing was too thin so he went off to a machine shop to have the bearing installed on the rocker arm.

While he was gone I drained the oil and cleaned the filters and got the bike ready to be back on the road...at least for a short distance. I also bought everyone lunch...they seemed pretty excited about the chicken.
When he returned with the finished part it looked pretty jank but like it might work. Still a bit of my skepticism returned. A part that looks like that might work on a 1983 150cc Suzuki or something that makes 15hp but on a 2013 KTM with 13:1 compression and a motor that gets 70hp out of a single cylinder?
After filing down some of the welding so it would fit next to the intake rocker arm we got it to actually fit into the bike. I checked the valves and they were back in spec. I turned the motor over a few times manually and it seemed to work. But then we turned it over with the starter, with no spark plug and no valve cover and after the 3rd crank, with 3 of us staring over the open motor...BANG...the bearing exploded and all the little balls came flying out as shrapnel. We all got hit but luckily no one took one in the face.
I will have to wait.

KTM USA (Monday)

Saturday morning I got an email from Scuderia saying that they missed the deadline on Friday for ordering the parts so they wouldn't go out until Monday...thanks Scuderia!

It took half of the day but on Monday I finally got KTM USA on the phone. I explained to them the situation and they seemed very inclined to help me out...both monetarily and wherever else they could. They upgraded the shipping on my parts to one day so they'd get to Scuderia a day earlier...which was awesome. But they also told me that if Scuderia had contacted them on Friday they would have overnighted the parts to them on Saturday. That means my shipment could have gone out Saturday instead of Tuesday...how does a KTM dealer and not know how to order parts expedited from KTM? They also told me that Scuderia didn't actually place the order until Saturday!

Additionally, they said they'd get me on the phone that week with a tech to walk me through what I'd have to do for the repair. This never ended up happening but it was nice for them to offer.

I'm also still waiting on what was decided in terms of monetary compensation. As far as I know this is a known defect that affects many bikes. They have also updated the part so newer models don't have the issue.

Shipping Parts (Tuesday)

I don't want to relive this nightmare but lets just say it's a pain in the ass to ship things internationally. A million thanks to Curtis for taking the time to make sure it got done as best as we could figure out how. We managed to get most of the paperwork correct and it only got held up at customs for one extra day.

In addition to the chain, sprockets and rocker arms I also ordered a shim kit that I had sent to Curtis to include in the box so I could do a valve adjustment after installing the new cam and rockers. It was a good thing too because I needed them.

My good friend Scott who is storing a box of my stuff was able to rummage through it and find a spare microphone for my Sena headset which broke. He promptly got that to Curtis to also include in the box! It's really nice to have a working headset now that I am occasionally riding with other riders.

While I waited I took a bus to San Cristobal with my new friend Lidi for a couple of days before coming back to Tuxtla. Lidi is really amazing person. We took the bus together to San Cristobal and we went to the caves with Christian and Greg. She took the bus back while I stayed in Sancris for a few more days. When I returned to Tuxtla she invited me to a movie with her friends and a Halloween/Birthday party. She introduced me to lots of people and by the time I left Tuxtla I had people recognizing me as I walked down the street!
I returned to Tuxtla a few days later to stay with a host family. They are wonderful people and cared for me when I got sick, fed me and gave me a place to stay! They told me it was my house and I was welcome whenever...I felt very comfortable there coming and going and going into the main house to hang out, eat food or relax in the hammock.

Fixing Bike (Friday/Saturday)

Friday I went to the shop to put on the new rear tire and prep the bike as much as I could for the when the parts arrived. I also bought oil and a new front tube because I was worried the super thin front tube with the slow leak was about to become a problem. Big thanks to MotoCity in Tuxtla for being cool about returning my deposit on the battery and putting it towards the tire and the oil.
I got the parts early Saturday morning.

By 1pm I had everything installed. New chain, new sprockets.
New cam shaft, new rocker arms.
Cranked it over and everything seemed fine. Stitched it all up and turned it over and it ran! Only thing was it sounded a bit loud. Also when it started up and turned off it made an extra noise that I didn't remember. I had the mechanic take a listen and he said that the timing chain was loose. Another mechanic there said he thought my valves were too tight. Either way I decided to pull it all apart and have a look.

While it cooled down I used that time to change the front tire which had gone completely flat. Good thing I had already bought a new tube!

Immediately after getting it apart again I saw the timing chain was really loose. I thought that was odd. I pulled the timing chain tensioner and it seemed fine but not long enough. I then read in the manual that if you push down on it really hard it resets to full extension. After reinserting it and putting everything back together again finally the bike sounded right!

Back on the Road

By 5pm I was fully packed up! I paid the mechanic the 3000 pesos he asked for and was on my way!

Second Breakdown

Three days later after riding through San Cristobal and through Chiapas with Sergio (look out for the next blog post), while in Palenque my starter motor died. We checked the fuses, the solenoid, banged on the starter, pulled the valve cover and eventually I decided to get a hotel in Palenque for the night and look for an electrician the next day to help me hopefully fix the starter.

Silvana walked around to find me a hotel and found a place with wifi and A/C (Palenque is very hot) that would let me push my bike inside the lobby.
After showering and pulling my gear off the bike I popped the starter off. Took it apart and immediately spotted the problem...one of the contacts can broken at the soldering point.
The next day I wondered around and found a mechanic who had a bunch of starter motors lying around. He looked at my problem and said that I needed a new piece because the point of soldering was underneath the plastic collar that holds the points in place. I told him that was impossible. Instead we cut away at the plastic. Resoldered the contact and then covered it with baking soda and super glue. This baking soda and super glue is a Mexican hack that I've seen a few times now that is a great way to fix all sorts of plastic pieces...try it!
Starter died at 6pm and I was on the road by 10:30am with a solid 8hrs of sleep and a shower!


No problem is too big when you have the support of countless strangers, good friends and family and patience. There are so many people to thank in getting me back on the road. I can say that I am actually glad that it happened...it was a fun, exciting and humbling learning experience that adds to the trip. At first I wasn't thrilled about breaking down in Tuxtla (which seemed at the time a big crowded city) but now I am very glad. I met a ton of great people, stayed with an awesome host family and got to really know how generous and welcoming the people of Tuxtla are!


Engine Failure in Mexico
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  1. Proper towing procedure is to attach the tow strap to your footpeg not your forks

    1. Thanks, this was actually my first time towing or being towed bike to bike. I let the guy set it up.

  2. Great story! I'm in Peru now with my 690 e. I carry spare rockers with me.

  3. wow..Great article.the pictures are also very awesome.i think you passed a awesome trip.
    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thanks for sharing this adventure. I am also occasionally driving a 690 through Mexico.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Thank you for sharing your story with us. I believe that it's very frustrating to experience a breakdown on your engine. But not losing hope can help you get back on the road. With a little fixing and additional upgrades on the engine hoist, it can really do the trick to make it look like new again.

  7. Thanks For sharing this Superb article.I use this Article to show my assignment in college.it is useful For me Great Work. Instituto de La Juventud de Puebla