The hill was steep and the drum brakes on my 1969 Yamaha DT125 were already at their limit when the car pulled across my path. My mind switched into emergency mode and I downshifted hard. The back tire barked as it bit the pavement but the compression of the tiny two stroke engine wasn’t enough to keep the wheel locked and almost as quickly as it had stopped it was rolling again. The needle on the tachometer swept across the redline and the engine screamed out in pain as it was forced too high into its rev range but I had no time to think about the motor’s distress. As the point of probable impact closed, I stood on the pegs and used my right heel to put all of my weight onto the rear brake lever. Already at the end of its range, my added 250 pounds did little to make the pedal work better and, out of desperation, I began to jump up and down on it.
The euphoria faded quickly, and as reality began to set in, I climbed off the bike to see just what exactly a miracle looked like…
Under the hammering of my heel, the steel armature began to warp and bend. Feeling the unexpected softness, I pulled my full weight off the pedal before it snapped completely and tried to think of another option in the seconds before impact. At that exact instant, fate intervened. With a sudden snap, the thin steel rod that connected the footbrake mechanism to the back wheel broke loose and, like so much bailing wire, wrapped itself around the hub of the rear wheel, jamming it solid. The back tire abruptly locked-up, the engine quit and the bike went into a silent skid. The slide bought me just enough time, and the car that I had been bearing down upon was able to scoot out of the way with inches to spare, its driver probably clueless about the accident he had almost caused.
With the threat now quite literally behind me, I slid harmlessly to a stop alongside the curb wondering just exactly what the hell had transpired. I waited there for a second, relishing that sense of golden accomplishment that comes in the moments after one narrowly avoids catastrophe. Later, I knew I would relive the moment over and over in painful slow motion as I analyzed what else I might have done, but for now there was only sweet relief and the knowledge that I had once again squeaked out a win when everything had appeared to be lost. The euphoria faded quickly, and as reality began to set in, I climbed off the bike to see just what exactly a miracle looked like.
The fact that I had the little Yamaha at all was an act of providence. It was one of those deals that materialize unexpectedly out of nothing and would have just as quickly blown away had I not chosen to act immediately. One of my workmates had a pair of old enduros he was looking to sell quickly, and at just $150 for the pair, the price was certainly right. Even though I didn’t have much disposable income, I struck the deal, went straight to the cash machine and paid the man before he could change his mind. Later that day, as I was bragging to another coworker about the good deal I had just scored, that coworker offered to buy the larger bike, a 175cc two-stroke, for $150, and so, I ended up with the smaller bike for free.
Much to my surprise, it would run an indicated 70 mph, providing you had the guts to hold the throttle wide open for the amount of time it took to get there. Stopping, however, proved to be more problematic, but I figured that went part and parcel with owning an older bike. I learned to think well ahead and to get on the brakes early, and generally, unless there was an emergency, it was a method that worked well.
I pulled the little Yamaha up onto the sidewalk and took a long look at the situation. The brake lever was bent painfully downward at an unnatural angle, looking for all the world like a broken limb, and the steel rod that had carried the inputs of the lever to the brake shoes inside the rear wheel was twisted so tightly around the rear hub that the whole thing looked like some kind of demented fishing reel. I’d untangled a few fishing lines in my day, and so, with a pair of pliers from my under seat tool kit, I unwound the metal rod from the hub, bent it back more or less straight and reattached it.
The result looked normal and seemed to move correctly when I worked the action, but the brake pedal itself was a good four inches below where it should have been and was, therefore, unusable. Looking around, I found a sizeable rock in a nearby flower garden and tried to use it as a makeshift hammer to batter the lever back into position. My attempt failed, however, when the lever snapped completely off after only a few blows. Instead of panicking, I pitched the rock back into the garden, strapped the lever to my cargo rack and headed home on the front brake alone.
Had I been a different person, I may have had different options. Had I money, I might have simply replaced the part with a new one. Had I been a welder, I might have attempted to rejoin the broken pieces. But having neither money nor skill, I was left to my own ingenuity, and in my tool box I found a giant old screw driver, one of the really cheap ones with the brown wooden handle and the cheaply constructed square shank, that I thought might do the trick. With the help of a bench vice and a large box-end wrench, I bent the screw driver into the approximate shape I needed and, once I was done, I hammered it into the broken end of the brake armature. Next, I used a couple of small wooden wedges to ensure a snug fit and then drilled the entire makeshift contraption for a set screw. Less than two hours after my close call, I had my bike back in working order with a really snazzy-looking wooden brake pedal.
Unsightly as my repair appeared, it seemed to fit the old bike, and although I cringed every time I saw it, I think today that it was appropriate. Some bikes spend their entire lives coddled by loving owners who have all their work done at the dealer. They run the roads on sunny afternoons, and when inclement weather sets in, live under logo emblazoned covers in the back of their heated garages. It is a life that this little Yamaha never knew. It had been ridden hard from the day it left the factory, and as it was passed down from owner to owner, the scars it accumulated – my makeshift brake pedal included – became badges of honor. The little Yamaha’s value and the fun times it provided so far outstripped its (non-existent) price that no amount of abuse or bodged-together repairs could ever tarnish its memory. Miracles, I learned that day, don’t have to be pretty.
About the Author: Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for nine years, Jamaica for two and spent almost five years as a US Merchant Mariner, serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast, he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.