Busted clutch cable at roadside. Easy gypsy repair

In the case of the motorcycle drifter who rides the country perpetually while almost always on a budget, the need to keep motorcycle repair costs low is an absolute must. To this end, I’ve adapted many rather unorthodox methods that, when applied, can often bring the cost of $1,000 fix at a dealership, down to a quick $50 repair made in a parking lot. Harley hates this. There are also quite a few ways to simply limp a bike onward until repairs can be made at a better location. What follows is one such story…

While traveling through Illinois last summer I was sitting at a stoplight when Sister Sarah’s clutch lever unceremoniously popped into the handlebar grip. So there I was, at the middle of a very long ride, stopped in traffic, and with a broken clutch cable.

What would you do?

There are tricks to riding with a broken clutch cable and fortunately I know them all. They go like this: Once the motorcycle is moving one can always stay easy on the throttle and simply work the gears gently from one to another using no clutch at all. But what about getting away from a stoplight? There’s the real challenge, and here’s the real trick…

First, I killed the engine then dropped the trany into low gear. When the light turned green I simply hit the starter button and paddled with my feet as the bike lurched forward. When the engine started, I rode on. Although I believe later model Harleys have that stupid Japanese safety switch that won’t allow the starter to engage while the bike is in gear and the clutch lever is out, this should be no problem if the cable’s broken and the lever’s already pulled in.

I rode onward while trying to avoid red-lights until a grassy area could be spotted. When one showed up I pulled onto the grass and parked. Why grass? I’ll get to that in a minute.

Next was to remove tools from the saddlebag, and the spare clutch cable with them. Fortunately I had one. If not, I’d have simply limped the bike to a shop then installed the new cable in their lot.

Easily seen is that your clutch cable’s lower end goes directly into the transmission’s right side cover. It’s the same for both 5 and 6 speeds. That cover would have to come off and, because my exhaust runs directly across it, I simply loosened the pipes enough to drop out of the way.

Now to pull the transmission’s cover. Problem is you gotta first drain the trany oil so it doesn’t spill once the cover’s removed. I had no drain pan or new oil for refill. What to do? I got up, walked to the bike’s left side, turned off the gas, lifted the kickstand, and laid the bike gently over until her crash bars hit the soft grass. That done, I want back and simply pulled that right cover off. No oil spilled.

Next would be to disconnect the cable from the cover. Inside the cover you can see a snap ring that’s supposed to be removed to get the cable unhooked, but I’ve always found it much easier to take a pair of needle nose pliers, grab hold of the cable end, and tweak it to the right until the cable end comes loose. Tried to get pictures of that but couldn’t because it required three hands and I was alone. After that you just unscrew the cable from the cover and pull it out.

Here the cable’s still hooked up.
Now I’ve got it disconnected and you can also see I’ve begun to unscrew the sheath.

Now I’d have to thread the new cable through the fairing. For that procedure I’ll just let the next few photos show the trick…

Trusty new cable.
Now I’ll just hook new to the old…
…tape it up tight…
…and pull that sucker through the fairing.

Alright, next was to simply screw the new cable into the cover then hook it back to the mechanism. If you’ve not done this before you’ll just have to mess with the thing, or look at the manual, or try YouTube. After the first time it’s easy.

Now to reinstall the trany cover. But won’t I need a new gasket? Not to worry, contrary to some common belief, you can reuse that gasket, and most any others like it, probably 20 or 30 times before it comes visually apart and starts leaking. One rather important note: for mating surfaces like this one and others (rocker box and cylinder base gaskets excepted. Always use metal there), only the cheap paper gaskets can be reused. The “better” and far more expensive metal gaskets only work once! After that they’ll leak every time. So in these instances “forget-about-it”, always go cheap.

Old gasket? No problem.

I lifted the bike back onto her kickstand.

Next was to hook the new cable onto the clutch lever. For this you’ve first gotta take all the slack out of the cable by loosening the adjuster at the cable’s center. It’s pretty self explanatory.

Now I had to remove the lever itself from the handlebar housing. As shown in the next photo, there’s a little chrome pin that’s gotta be pulled up and out in order to remove the lever.

On the bottom of this, as shown in this next shot (though it isn’t visible because I neglected to get pictures before I lost the little fucker) was an itty-bitty snap ring that, even if I’d had snap-ring-pliers, which I didn’t, is a bear to get on or off. For lack of the proper tool, I grabbed a little screwdriver and began prying at the bastard until finally screwing it up so badly it pretty much fell off. “No matter,” I thought, “Didn’t plan to reuse it anyway,” and threw the thing into the grass.

Now I pulled the lever out, removed what was left of the old cable (self explanatory soon as you see it), hooked the new cable into place, pushed the lever back into the housing, replaced its chrome pin, then worked the cable’s sheath into its place on the housing. For lack of an itty-bitty C-clip to hold that chrome pin in place, I simply stuck a piece of black duct tape over top of it. As with my last bike Betsy, that C-clip would never be replaced and the duct tape fix would remain a permanent solution. Why? Because this is no show bike. It’s a serious working motorcycle. It must function, and remain easily repairable, in all situations and, just as did Betsy, it’s undoubtedly destined to have many clutch cables replaced at roadside.

Next I adjusted the clutch (which can be learned from an owner’s manual or probably YouTube, and is certainly a thing worth knowing) then rebolted the exhaust into place. Note: whenever you retighten the nuts that hold your exhaust onto the heads, don’t tighten too much! Those fucking studs break pretty easily and if one does you’ll have to pull the head to fix it. So just snug them up real good and if you have to retighten them later it’s okay. If not on the first try, they generally stay tight the second time. Having those nuts loosen up is far better than the alternative.

With the bike again in good running condition, I put everything away then walked to a fast food place to wash my hands.

This entire job took maybe an hour and a half and, since I’d picked the new cable up for nothing somewhere, did not cost a single red cent.

Returning to the highway, I hit the gas. The weather was still fine. It was a good day to ride.

Note: I’d like to make clear that I’m no factory trained Harley mechanic. In my mid 20s that old Sportster lost its valves then sat in my garage for two weeks while I worried over what to do. Finally a friend said, “Just because you’re afraid don’t let that stop you from tearing into the thing Scotty.” He was right of course. So I went home and did just that; and have again many time since. Over the years I’ve messed up a few repairs, but in the end have come out way ahead on this game.

4 thoughts on “Busted clutch cable at roadside. Easy gypsy repair

  1. An interesting article as always but the real wake up call was the last paragraph after ‘note’.
    I will admit to having little or no confidence in my own mechanical abilities and have a real fear of working on my bike in case I break it. It was encouraging to read that you had this same fear but did it anyway. I have a Sportster chop with a leaky engine waiting for me to overcome my fear and fix it. This is now what I will do. Thankyou again.

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