Summer is here and the peak of motorcycle riding is among us, so is your bike ready? Riding your bike can be dangerous enough as it is with all the people on the road that do not pay attention but to get out on your bike not knowing if it is in tip top shape, that is just asking for it. So do you know how to maintain your motorcycle?
Of course if you are not mechanically inclined or just not that experienced, then you are best taking your bike to a shop as with a motorcycle, you can’t leave too much not working or let it being close to falling apart as much as you can on a car.
A bike is a finely tuned machine with two wheels and two brakes that you must have. So keeping everything in good working order will keep you safe and increase your riding enjoyment.
Motorcycle maintenance is really crucial at all times, not just for the summer. Many people use their bikes for all year commuting and as with anything mechanical, things wear and deteriorate. Having your bike breakdown on the interstate or in heavy traffic can be extremely dangerous.
People do not see motorcycle riders as much as they should under normal circumstances, so if all of a sudden you lost power or had a wheel lock up or even a chain break, this can be life threatening.
Motorcycles are just about as maintenance demanding as an airplane. The time to find out you have a problem shouldn’t be in the middle of your flight nor should you be in the middle of a hairpin turn on your bike to find out something isn’t working.
Granted, there is no way to always know if everything is in perfect working order for the impracticality of tearing your machine down after every ride. However there are somethings you can check and should know before getting on the road.
Here is a list of things you should check over before going on lengthy rides or at least once a week depending how frequent you ride.
Headlight: Always make sure that your low beam and high beam lights are burning, if you have many miles and years on your bike, you may want to consider replacing your head light before going on a lengthy trip.
Additional/Special Headlights: If you run more than one headlight or ones that alternate and flash back and forth, make sure these are also burning and as with a regular headlight, base replacing them depending on how long in use they have been before a trip or lengthy rides.
Signal Lights: Ensure that all signal lights not only burn but also flash. Flasher units can go bad like with anything so make sure they are working properly.
Taillight/Brake Lights: Often if your bike has one big taillight lens, you will find more than one bulb in them. It may be a good idea to pull the lens cover to closely look at all the bulbs to ensure that your running light is burning and the brake light. Most bikes come with a dielectric grease on the bulbs if it is a push in twist kind. It is good maintenance to make sure there is still grease on them. If your bulb is a modular push in kind, make sure there are no dirty or bent connections.
Additional Running Lights: If your bike has additional running lights such as saddle bag lights or back rest lights, even these are not a top priority to have, it still makes the rider more visible and increases a safer ride.
Throttle Operation: Always make sure that your throttle turns smoothly and returns automatically and quickly. A sticking throttle can get you killed the same as if you went to throttle up and it won’t turn. You may want to inspect the cable or cables for any damage. Spraying a lubricant down into the cable is good practice. Also it doesn’t hurt to remove the throttle grip assembly on the handlebars and clean and lube everything at that point as well.
Front Brakes: Of course the obvious test is, do your brakes squeak, squeal or grind? Check your brake lever to ensure it moves smoothly with nothing restricting its motion. Make sure that the brake light comes on when the lever is squeezed, should come on with just a light pull. Check the brake fluid level in the master cylinder, see owner’s manual for proper type brake fluid. Visually inspect how thick your front brake pads are and if the front rotors or rotors are scored or grooved.
Roll the bike and operate the brake lever to ensure you feel the front brakes applying. Most brake pads have a groove cut in them for heat dissipation, if that groove is no longer visible due to the pads being worn down, replace the pads. Some front brake pads cannot be seen while assembled, so you may have to take the caliper off to inspect the pad thickness.
Rule of thumb that applies to most bikes, if a dime is all you can fit in between the metal backing of the pad and the rotor while the brake is lightly applied, it is time for new pads. Check your owner’s manual for minimum brake pad thickness and rotor thickness, if the manual doesn’t give you this info, call your bikes manufacturer dealer’s service department for the specs.
Also check your hoses and fittings for wetness of seeping brake fluid or obvious leaks. If you have an older bike with cables and possibly drum brakes, ensure that you have free traveling cable and levers. The only way to inspect drum brakes shoe lining thickness is to disassemble the front wheel assembly. However if you roll the bike and apply the front brake only and you see the hub lever sticking, this is a sign your shoes are too thin.
If you have front drum brakes, these are normally operated by a cable coming from the handlebar, look for the adjuster on the wheel hub. If the adjustment is already screwed most of the way in, it is time for shoes. However if not, and you need to tighten up your brake, just screw it in a turn at a time checking travel in your brake lever. You should be able to move the lever ¾ to 1 inch before the brake starts to grab.
Always make sure that the front wheel turns restriction free regardless what type of brakes you have. Set the bike in a position where the front wheel is not touching the ground. Rotate the tire to ensure that it will rotate freely. Listen for any growling noise or a rough feel as you may have a front hub bearing going bad. Disc brake pads lightly touch the rotor, so you may hear that.
Rear Brakes: If you have disc brakes on the rear, the inspection will be the same as it is on the front. Look for the groove or grooves in the pads as these are often used as your wear indicators. If they are no longer visible, replace the pads. If your rotor or rotors are grooved, scored, sign of hot spots or just worn thin, replace the rotor or rotors. If you have dual rotors on the front or rear, never change just one rotor, always replace them in pairs.
If you have rear drum brakes, again, disassembly will be your only way to visually inspect the shoe lining. If you have to push the brake pedal really far down to get it to start braking or have them adjusted all the way in, this is a big sign it is time to put new shoes on.
The free play on your rear brake pedal should be around ¾ to 1.125 of an inch. If the adjuster is already screwed in all the way, replace the shoes or pads. With the rear wheel off the ground, rotate it to ensure that the brake is not dragging as this can be in the adjustment. Also while turning the wheel, listen for noises or roughness as this could be a bad hub bearing.
If your bike has hydraulic rear brakes, check the fluid level, inspect the hoses and wheel cylinders or calipers for seeping fluid or obvious leaks.
Front Forks: The older bikes just use oil compression front forks, there really isn’t a way to check the fluid level but you can look around the dust boots on the forks to see if they are wet and oily looking. If you see signs of a wet or oily film around the boots, you have bad fork seals. If you have an uneven amount of oil in your front forks, this can cause variations in your steering, especially when you brake.
Roll your bike forward about a mile an hour or so and then cram on the front brake only and watch or have someone watch if it looks like one side goes down easier than the other or if you see or feel the bike steer in one direction or another. This will be minute and isn’t always easy to see or feel but if you suspect one fork is low on oil, this is one test.
The other test can be done by unbolting the fork cap bolts at the top. Look inside the fork and you should see some oil. With the bike positioned as vertical as possible, push down slow and easy on the handlebars and watch the fluid come to the top of the fork.
If you have a fork that is lower on oil than the other, one fork will have oil come up faster than the other. You can add oil with the caps off but only add a little at a time.
Many bikes today have air charged front forks and most have a sticker indicating how much air to put in. They all usually run from 2lbs to 10lbs, of course a stiffer ride the higher the pressure and softer the lower. This is an adjustment you will just have to use the trial an error method. Only you can determine what kind of ride you are looking for.
Rear Shocks: Most bikes come with coil over type rear spring shock absorbers that are adjustable. So no fluids to check however some do come with air shocks from factory or aftermarket. If you have rear air shocks, check and adjust your pressure accordingly. Look for wet or oily places on the shock to ensure that the oils haven’t leaked out or are seeping out.
If you have spring shocks, bounce the bike in the rear to ensure the shocks for one do not bind or catch either going down or going back up. Also ensure that that the bike only bounces back up one time and not two or three. If it loses it stiffness or bounces to many times, the shock is bad. Also keep in mind, if you plan on doubling someone in your travels, be sure to adjust the shock spring tension up to accommodate the passenger’s extra weight.
Drive Chain: Many bikes use chains to drive the rear wheel, especially dirt bikes. Chains are great but higher maintenance than a shaft driven rear wheel. Chains have to be lubricated often, usually around every 300 miles. Of course this will vary depending on the conditions and area in which you ride. A dusty road or rain will require you to clean and lube your chain more frequently.
They sell tools and cleaners for motorcycle chains and is well worth getting them as if you are chain driven, having one break while riding can cause you to have an accident. If you are using an O-ring or X-ring chain, lubricating them isn’t that easy. They are designed to keep the lube in and the dirt and water out. The problem with these are, it is hard to tell when they need replaced because the lubrication is inside sealed in the chain.
However you should still use a good chain lube that will not hurt the O-rings as the lube helps the chain running on the sprockets. You should be able to get about 15000 miles on your O-ring or X-ring sealed chains before replacing them. This of course depends on the weight of the bike, the load or passenger you haul. The more load or fast take off will stretch and wear the chain faster.
Non-O-ring sealed chains are easier to tell if they are well lubed or not but are susceptible to dirt and water and have to be maintained more so. All chains need to be cleaned and lubed no matter the type. You can clean the non-O-ring chain off in kerosene, soak it and then use a brush. Rinse the kerosene off, I have found a degreaser like Superclean and water works the best. Either let it dry in the sun or if you have an air compressor, blow dry it and then soak it in chain lube. Wipe off the excess and put the chain back on. Lube every 300 miles and remove and clean and lube every 600 miles.
If your chain sitting at rest does not have the links following straight with each other and each link is not easily movable and free, the chain is considered kinked, it is time to replace it. Also check your drive sprockets, look inside the curved in area to see how shiny and worn the teeth are. If they appear to be heavily worn, replace the gears.
Properly adjust your rear chain tension as being too tight can do damage not only to the drive sprockets but to the bearings in the rear hub or even in the engine. Being too loose can cause the chain to rub in all the wrong places and possibly come off.
In order to check chain tension, find the midway point of the chain between the front and rear sprockets. Push up on the bottom of the chain and note the distance between the full-slack lower position and the no-slack upper position on the bottom. You should have between 1.00–1.6 inches free play on average for most street bikes, check your manual for specs. You should check for this tension and adjust about every 500 to 600 miles or the time it is to remove the chain and clean it.
When adjusting your chain, pay close attention to the rear wheel alignment. After loosening the main rear axle bolt, there are adjusters on each side of the rear fork where the main bolt runs through. There are measurement markers that will allow you to make sure you have the rear wheel aligned and not cocked to one side or the other.
Also allow the free play of your tension based on hauling weight in saddle bags and the weight of your passenger. Testing the travel with the one you are going to double might be a good idea. Adjusting up the tension on your springs can help in this area as well.
Drive Shaft: Shaft drives are heaven compared to chain drive when it comes to maintenance. There is of course maintenance but nothing compared to what you have to put up with a chain drive. Look for leaks in your “Secondary Gear Drive”, that would be the area at the engine where the drive shaft comes from. Also inspect for leaks around your “Final Gear Drive” which is at the rear hub of the rear wheel.
As long as there are no leaks and it is dry, these are fluids you can change once a year. You will want to read your owner’s manual on how to check your gear lube level as well as how to change your fluids. You do have universal joints much the same as you do on your drive shaft on your car. These can eventually go bad and will need replacing but usually the bike will wear out before the joints will.
But always check for free play or popping sounds by putting the bike in gear, with the brake on, let out on the clutch enough to feel it move. Listen for any popping noise and also try and feel if there is slack between the engine and rear wheel. If your bike has high miles on it, you may want to consider pulling the shaft assembly apart and check it before taking it on a long trip.
Engine Oil: Much the same as the automotive world, you can run your bike up to 3000 to 4000 miles before an oil change. This has much to do with today’s oils. However many bikes are air cooled so for those, I wouldn’t extend much past the 3000 mark. Water cooled bikes can stretch out to 4000 miles but for me, visually inspecting the oil on the dip stick is a great practice.
If your oil is really dark or smells a little burnt, change your oil. Most bikes have the clutch inside the crankcase which means you will get a little friction disc debris in your oil so you may get coloring or a slight smell from that. As long as you change your oil around that 3000 mile mark and use manufacturer recommended oils, you should be in great shape.
Always change your oil filter when you change your oil, unlike a car engine, a bike doesn’t have a large oil pan for sediment to settle away from moving parts. The oil filter catches most of these plus usually it is the lowest part of the engine for debris to settle.
Timing Chain Adjustment: Many bikes still have a manual timing chain tensioner adjuster or adjusters depending on your engine configuration. More and more bikes are going to a complete hydraulic self-adjusting adjusters but some of the smaller bikes around 500cc and under are still using manual. Reference your owner’s manual to see if your bike requires a manual adjustment and how often. Just for a rule of thumb, adjusting the tension around every 2000 miles would be a good practice.
Carburetors/Fuel System: Fuel injection systems are more common place these days but there are still plenty of bikes that are still carbureted. Usually once you get the air and idle set on them, they stay set. However once in a while, you may notice your bike might idle a little rough or uneven.
Adjusting two or more carburetors can be tedious work and requires tools you may not have sitting around in your garage, so taking it to a mechanic might be easier. However the idle speed is usually one knob fairly easy to access. Ensure your bike idles at the correct speed to ensure no stalls on takeoff when in traffic.
Along with the carburation is the fuel system such as the fuel filter whether it is inline or made onto the tank, check this at least every 4000 to 5000 miles. Also check your air filter or filters, most are dry filters, some are still those moistened with oil. Most dry filters can run for 15000 miles and oil soaked about 5000 miles. I always check mine (dry type) before going on a trip, I usually blow mine out with an air hose. Oil types you clean in kerosene then wash with water and liquid detergent and then oil it again.
There isn’t much maintenance for fuel injection but you can run a bottle of fuel injection cleaner in your gas tank periodically. You may want to reference your owner’s manual or call the dealer to see if there is a recommended one or if a cleaner may harm your system.
Battery/Charging System: On average a motorcycle battery will last about 4 years, from my experience be looking to replace it around the 3rd year. If you are unsure how old your battery is, you may want to change it before a lengthy trip or ride. Some of the bigger bikes have a volt or charging meter but for those that do not, you can get an idea if your system is charging by doing the following.
First notice the speed at which the battery turns the engine over when you are stating it or is it hard to start, this could be a sign of a weak battery. Once the bike is started, aim the headlight at a wall where you can notice the brightness. Turn your signal light on and notice if the headlight fluctuates with the blinking of the turn signals. If it does, rev the bike up, if the fluctuation stops, your bike’s alternator is charging and putting sufficient power out. If not, you will need to check your charging system, you will probably need an experienced mechanic to do the testing or get a good repair manual to step you through the process.
Tires: Inspect your tires for wear, motorcycle tires will last from 5000 miles to 15000 miles. This depends on the type of bike, where you ride, how you ride and what quality the tires are. Keep your tires to manufacturer suggested air pressures. You may want to adjust the rear tire accordingly to additional weight by saddle bags and cargo and additional rider. Make a point to check your tires and pressures before going out on your bike anytime. Remember, only one tire going flat and you are down.
Spoked Wheels: Most bikes are alloy wheels now but there are still spoked wheels out there. You always want to frequently check your spokes for loose ones. You can tighten loose ones up but in doing so, you can throw the trueness of your rim off meaning that you will have a rim that runs up and down and side to side from center. Recommend taking a wheel in this condition to a shop to have all spokes tightened and the wheel and tire rebalanced.
Horn: Not really much to say on this one other than check your horn to ensure that it sounds off. If it doesn’t, you may want to run power straight to the horn to eliminate components. If the horn sounds running straight power to it, then you are looking at a horn switch, fuse or relay if your bike has these. Many older bikes are straight power from the switch to the horn.
In General: Inspect your bike for any loose or missing nuts or bolts. Pretty much every nut and bolt on your bike is needed. Unlike a car that could have one or two bolts missing from a fender and be just fine, a bike needs pretty much everyone on it.
Look all cables and rods over for wear or damage, make sure all cotter keys are in place as well. Keep your bike washed and clean, this makes finding anything wrong so much easier when you can see things clearly. Make sure all instruments and gauges are working properly. Listen for any vibrating noises when revving the bike up and also feel for any rough vibrations.
Ensure that your helmet fits properly, it shouldn’t feel to snug on your head or face if it is a full face. It should also not feel too loose either. If your helmet is on and strapped and you shake your head side to side, your helmet should follow, if it doesn’t the helmet is too loose. If it hurts you shaking your head side to side, it is too tight. Also make sure your peripheral view is not impaired if wearing a full face helmet.
These are just some in general tips that can help you create a good checklist to know how to maintain your motorcycle regardless if it is for a summer ride or anytime of the year ride. Motorcycles are fun and the experiences you get while riding is almost something that can’t be put into words but they can also be a death warrant if you are not prepared to ride one.
Cars and trucks have four or more wheels, they have heavy frames and are designed to take road punishment so much more than a bike. A motorcycle is a precision machine, everything on a bike is pretty much mandatory and has to be working. So be safe, make it a habit to check the bike over before getting on it to ride. Even if it is your main transportation is even more reason to know its condition before riding it.