People are extra careful when they are near water. Of course, rust is universally bad for metals, so one would naturally assume in a dry, arid environment such as a desert, a motorcycle would fare just fine. That would hold true only if the proper precautions are taken. Let us see how a desert can damage your motorcycle before we decide how to desert-proof it.

The Problems

Sand is used to manufacture glass, so it is obvious that it would have abrasive properties. Even dry desert sand has a voracious appetite for anything that comes in contact with it, stripping it steadily through erosion. It is so strong that it can, and has, shaped and carved out entire valleys over the course of centuries.

While we do not have centuries of time, and a motorcycle certainly is not sitting at the same place for a millenium, it still stands to face damage from sand. Sand gels together when it comes into contact with a liquid and acts as an abrasive, only this time with much more capacity for damage.

Since desert air is dry, it wouldn’t affect a bike. However, any parts that are in contact with oil and expose it to the surface are the first ones to start degrading. A common example is fork oil seals. These keep the fork oil from spilling out of a fork assembly, maintaining even oil pressure inside. If sand comes into contact with these seals, it forces itself through minute cracks in them, widening them as a result.

You’re not going to take it easy over the dunes if you happen to have a powerful bike. Hence proper care is required so you don’t end up with a damaged machine.

At the very least, the oil seal hardens up and obstructs the fork from travelling through its entire stroke smoothly. Worse still, the seal will crack up and spew out all the fork oil, leaving its internals exposed. Worst case scenario? Inner tube of the fork ends up with scratches, prompting replacement for fear of damaging the entire assembly.

Like we have established before, sand immediately sticks to liquids, especially high-viscosity fluids like oil. Motorcycles with open chain transmissions are the worst affected by this. Sand sticks to the final drive and makes its way to the transmission, where it wreaks havoc thanks to its abrasive nature. Again, the least that could happen is the bike’s sprockets could go blunt. The worst that could happen is transmission cogs going down the same path as the sprockets. This can lead to expensive repair and replacement bills.

Lastly, if sand somehow manages to sneak its way to the engine chamber, often times through the air filter, then the motorcycle is done for. You are looking at reboring an engine block and replacing almost all the internal components of a powertrain.

Similarly, desert air can also be held responsible for damaging a motorcycle out in the dunes. But this factor can be argued to have arisen out of motorcyclists’ decisions and choices as well. For instance, air-cooled engines are going to suffer without doubt seeing as they would have no access to cool air, or even air at such temperatures where heat exchange would be possible.

Next up, dry desert air also leeches pliable material like rubber of its elasticity. Dry rubber turns brittle, and eventually breaks apart. Since rubber parts are primarily used as buffers between two metal surfaces or edges apart from the tyres, these edges would rub against each other, resulting in more damage.

Boy Janssen’s desert sled is about as close you can get to a purpose-built dune bashing motorcycle.

The Solution

Let us start with some hard-hitting solutions so we can ease into smaller ones later. First off, do not buy an air-cooled motorcycle if you plan to do intensive desert riding. It is just not worth the trouble, and will more often than not leave you with a seized piston or broken internals. Liquid-cooled engines work the best in any kind of weather.

If you have the means to, go for a motorcycle with a sealed final drive, preferably a shaft-driven number. Shafts are sealed for life and require no maintenance. There is also little to no chance of sand filtering through the shaft and damaging your transmission.

Moving on to smaller things to take care of, always check the rubber bits periodically for signs of wear. Replace, repair, or overhaul such components well in schedule to avoid dealing with massive costs later. Check fork oil seals, gaskets, cable braids – basically anything that is rubber. Ensure these rubber bits are well-oiled, elastic, and functioning as smoothly as they should.

Any motorcycle can be taken to the desert for a proper blast through the dunes. The problem is keeping it running for a long time despite frequent sandy sessions.

That leaves us with the air filter, one of the culprits for letting sand inside the system. Nowadays, companies manufacture air filters designed especially to keep fine desert sand away from the combustion chamber. If you want something a bit more ostentatious, you can always the air filter box on the top of your tank. The filter is force-fed with a lot of sand and grit when it is under the seat. Placing it on top of the fuel tank is one of the solutions to cull the sand problem. Of course, it is not advised to do that for fear of facing unforeseen problems arising due to the new arrangement. But it has been known to make a difference for the better of the motorcycle.

So there we are. While there is no beating or conquering a force of nature such as the desert, with a little care and preventive measures, you can make sure your machine does not fall victim to the sands of time, and have a blast with it out over the dunes.

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