How to maintain your motorcycle for this summer’s riding

Summer is here, and the peak of motorcycle riding is among us. So it's important to maintain your motorcycle for summer riding. Motorcycling can be dangerous enough as it is with all the people that do not pay attention. However, getting out on your bike, not knowing if it's in tip top shape, is just asking for it. Want to know how to maintain your motorcycle?

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maintain your motorcycle

If you’re not mechanically inclined, or not that experienced, then you are best taking your bike to a shop. With a motorcycle, you shouldn’t leave anything inoperable. You can’t leave things falling apart so much as you can on a car.

A bike is a finely tuned machine, with two wheels, and two brakes that you must have. Sowhat to do for motorcycle maintenance 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.

Maintenance List

Here is a list of things you should check over before going on lengthy rides or trips. Check at least once a week depending how frequent you ride. For images with details, click on them for a larger view.

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. If not already, you may think about going to LED bulbs.

Additional/Special Headlights

If you run more than one headlight, or ones that alternates flashing back and forth. Ensure these are also burning and operating properly. You may consider replacing your headlamp bulb/bulbs if your bike has more than 10K miles. 

Signal Lights

Ensure that all signal lights burn and operate properly. Flasher units can go bad like with anything. Ensure that the flashing speed seems steady and listen for any high pitched noises when flashing. .

Taillight/Brake Lights

Your bike may have one big taillight lens, you may find it has more than one bulb in it. Remove the lens cover for a closer look. Ensure that your running light and brake light light up. Most bikes come with a dielectric grease on the bulbs especially the push in and twist kind. It's good maintenance to keep the dielectric  grease on them. If your bulb is a modular push in kind, ensure there are no dirty or bent connections.

Additional Running Lights

Your bike may have additional running lights, such as saddle bag lights or back rest lights. Even though these are not necessary, they do make the rider more visible and increases safety.

Throttle Operation

Ensure that your throttle turns smoothly and returns automatically and quickly. A sticking throttle can get you killed. Inspect the cable or cables for any damage or wear. Spraying a lubricant down into the cable is good maintenance. It's a good idea to remove the throttle grip assembly from the handlebars. Clean and lube everything at that point as well. This is an important check on maintaining your motorcycle...

how to maintain your motorcycle

Front Brakes

Does your bike stop properly, do your brakes squeak, squeal or grind? Check your brake lever to ensure it moves smoothly with nothing restricting its motion. Ensure 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. Look for scores or grooves in the front rotor/rotors. Double check your front brake's operation by rolling the bike and operate the brake lever. You should feel the front brakes applying.

Measure the brake pad thickness. 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. You may have to take the caliper off to inspect the pad thickness.

how to know measure motorcycle brake pad thickness
measure your pad thickness

Rule of thumb for measuring pad thickness. 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.

Hydraulics

Check your hoses and fittings for wetness of seeping brake fluid, or obvious leaks. Take a clean paper towel and dab it into the fluid of the master cylinder reservoir. If it turns the towel excessively brown or black, or you see metal contaminates, flush and replace the fluid. Refer to owners manual or dealership fluid type. Many bikes use DOT4 and DOT5 brake fluids. DOT3 and DOT4 will mix, however DOT5 is silicone and will not mix with the other two. Be sure to check all flexible hoses for cracks or splits. 

Drum Brakes

If your bike has drum brakes and cables, ensure that you have free travel in the cables and levers. The only way to inspect drum brake shoe lining thickness is to disassemble the front wheel assembly. However, there is a way to do a quick check to see if disassembly is necessary. Roll the bike, and apply the front brake only. If the brake sticks, or you hear or feel grinding and squealing, this is a sign your shoes are too thin. Also, if you can't get enough adjustment on the lever. You can pull the brake lever all the way to the throttle and it isn't applying the brake properly. These are signs you need to disassemble for inspection, possibly replace shoes.

motorcycle front drum brakes

Cable adjustments should have two adjustment points. Look for the adjuster on the brake lever bracket on the handlebar and wheel hub. If the adjuster is already screwed most of the way in on the hub, and all the way out on the lever bracket. Disassemble for a brake inspection. Keep in mind, the more you have to tighten up the adjustment, is a sign the shoes are wearing down. Proper adjustment for the brake lever; You should be able to move the lever ¾ to 1 inch before the brake starts to grab.

Ensure 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. Even though a noise or roughness could be bad brakes, this could be wheel bearing going bad. When it comes to maintaining your motorcycle, brakes should be a top priority. 

Rear Brakes

If you have disc brakes on the rear, the inspection will be the same as the front. Look for the wear indicator grooves in the pads. If they are no longer visible, replace the pads. Inspect your rotor for grooves, scores, sign of hot spots or just worn thin. Replace the rotor if it shows any of these signs. Check the fluid level, inspect the hoses and calipers for seeping fluid or obvious leaks. Inspect hose for splits, cracks or wetness. 

rear disc brakes

If your brakes are drum, as mentioned, disassemble to visually inspect the shoe lining. Check your brake pedal travel. If it has to go over half way or more down to start braking, you may need to inspect shoes.  Pay attention to how much adjustment you have left to bring the pedal up to optimal level. 

how to adjust a motorcycle brake pedal

The free play on your rear brake pedal should be around ¾ to 1.125 of an inch. If the adjuster nut 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. If it is, this can be in the adjustment is too tight. Also while turning the wheel, listen for noises or feel for roughness. If there is either, this could be a bad wheel bearing.

Front Forks

The older bikes just use oil compression forks. There really isn’t an easy way to check the fluid level. However, look around the dust boots on the forks to see if they are wet and oily looking. If it is wet and oily around the boots, you have bad fork seals. Uneven amount of oil in your front forks can cause variations in your steering, especially when you brake. If you do find signs of leakage, you are more than likely low on fork oil.

how to tell if your front motorcycle forks are leaking

To test your forks to ensure they are working evenly. Roll your bike forward about a mile an hour or so. Cram on the front brake only and watch if it looks like one side goes down more than the other. Pay attention if it feels like the bike pulls to one side. The pull will be minute, you may have to do it a few times to notice it.

how to maintain your motorcycle

The other test can be done by unbolting the fork caps at the top of the fork. Look inside the fork, you should see some oil. With the bike positioned as vertical as possible, push down slow and easy on the handlebars. Watch the fluid come to the top of the fork.

If one fork is lower on oil than the other, oil will come up faster in one, than the other. You can add oil with the caps off but only add a little at a time.

Air Charged Front Forks

Many bikes today have air charged front forks. Most have a sticker indicating how much air to put in. If not, refer to the owners manual. They usually run from 2lbs to 10lbs. For a stiffer ride, the higher the pressure, and softer the lower. This is an adjustment you will have to make that suits you.

Rear Shocks

Most bikes come with coil over type rear spring shock absorbers. Most are adjustable, 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 aren't leaking out.

maintain your motorcycle

This type shock is known for the inner rod to bend, which can cause it to bind. You can check this by bouncing the bike in the rear. Ensure that they travel freely without binding or catching. Also ensure that that the bike only bounces back up one time. If it loses its stiffness, or bounces too many times, the shock is bad. If you plan on doubling someone, be sure to adjust the shock spring tension up. This will accommodate the passenger’s extra weight. If your bike is chain drive, the added weight will cause the chain to tighten. This is why you adjust the shock tension up. Refer to the owners manual for the procedure to adjust shocks.

Drive Chain

Many bikes use chains to drive the rear wheel, especially dirt bikes. Chains are great but higher maintenance than a shaft or belt driven rear wheel. They have to be lubricated often, usually around every 300 miles. 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.

Tools and cleaners are available for motorcycle chains, and is well worth having them. Having your chain break while riding can cause an accident. The biggest reasons why chains fail and break are due to a lack of lubrication. When a chain gets excessively dirty, it blocks it from getting lubrication. If your chain is an O-ring or X-ring chain, lubricating them isn’t that easy.

These design chains are designed to keep the lube in and the dirt and water out. There are real problems with these chains. You can't tell if they are running dry and need lubrication. The other main issue is, you can't lubricate them. The seals on the chains will not allow lubrication to penetrate the needed areas. You can still lubricate the chain, however it really just helps where the chain runs over the sprockets. 

They claim you can get about 15000 miles out of these type chains. From my own experience, I say take it off and throw it away and buy a really good regular chain. A regular non-sealed chain is easier to see if they are lubed or need lubrication. Sealed chains are supposed to keep the lube in and dirt and water out. However, that lube isn't going to last forever. If you can't get lubrication into it, you have a dry chain fixing to break.

Chain Cleaning

All chains need to be cleaned and lubed no matter the type. You can clean chains with kerosene. Remove the chain and soak it, then use a brush to scrub the grime off. Rinse the kerosene off with a degreaser. I have found Superclean works very well. After washing the chain in kerosene, soak the chain with Superclean  and rinse with water. Blow the chain dry with an air hose, then let dry overnight. Once dry, soak it in chain lube. Wipe off the excess and put the chain back on. Lube every 300 miles and clean and lube every 600 miles.

You do not have to remove the chain every time you clean it. They make tools for cleaning chains. The Aluminum Grunge Brush works great for cleaning a chain on the bike. This tool can be used in conjunction with a chain and sprocket degreaser, and some towels.

maintain your motorcycle

Around 600 miles, using the chain cleaning tool. Spray some DuPont Chain and Sprocket Degreaser on the chain, sections at a time. Use the cleaning tool with the spray solvent to remove grime and dirt. Wipe with some solvent soaked towels to finish the process.

Once the chain has been cleaned and is dry from the cleaning solvents, lube it. I have always used Maxima Chain Wax. It is fling resistant and so far has lasted longer than other lubricants. Great for resisting water and dirt.

With your chain sitting at rest, the links must follow straight with one another. If the chain is zig-zagged and any of the links will not straighten out, the chain is considered kinked. Your only safe recourse is to replace it.

how to tell when a motorcycle chain is bad

Inspect Your Sprockets

how to tell a worn out motorcycle chain sprocket

Whenever you are inspecting your chain for dirt or wear, also include your chain sprockets. Look inside the curved area of the sprocket to see how shiny and worn the teeth are. If they appear to be heavily worn, replace the gears.

Properly adjust your chain tension. Being too tight can do damage the drive and rear wheel sprockets. You can also damage the bearings in the engine. If the chain is too loose, it can cause the chain to rub in places and possibly come off.

Drive Chain Adjustment

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. Note the distance between the full-slack lower position and the no-slack upper position. You should have between 1.00–1.6 inches free play on average for most street bikes. Check your owners manual for specs. You should check for this tension and adjust about every 500 to 600 miles.

how to measure tension on a motorcycle chain

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. The main bolt runs through these adjusters. There are measurement markers that will allow you to make sure you have the rear wheel aligned. Set the marks evenly by setting the adjuster pointer to the same mark on each side. If not adjusted properly, the rear wheel will be cocked to one side. This will cause the bike to track and steer abnormal. 

Drive Shaft

Shaft drives are heaven compared to chain drive in both maintenance and smoothness. There isn't any maintenance, when a u-joint goes bad, you replace it. However, it takes forever for a u-joint to go bad. Even though there isn't maintenance on a drive shaft, you can inspect where the shaft connects. 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”, This is where the shaft connects to the hub on the rear wheel.

As long as there are no leaks and it is dry, these are fluids you can change at recommended intervals. You will want to read your owner’s manual on how to check your gear lube level. Also refer to the manual for scheduled fluid change and how to do it. These driveshafts have universal joints, much the same as a drive shaft on a car. They have been known to go bad.  However, the bike usually wears out before the joints will. 

what does a motorcycle drive shaft universal joint look like

As a maintenance inspection, check for free play or popping sounds. Put the bike in gear, with the brake on, let out on the clutch enough to feel it move. Listen for any popping noise 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. Definitely 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. It is actually listed 5000 to 10000 miles using synthetic. However, I would not go that long. 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 to 5000 miles. 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. 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 3000 miles, 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 debris. The filter is usually at the lowest part of the engine, so debris will settle there.

Timing Chain Adjustment

There are bikes that have manual timing chain tensioner adjusters. More bikes today use a complete hydraulic self-adjusting system. 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. For good maintenance, adjusting the tension around every 2000 miles would be a good practice.

When a timing chain gets too lose, you will hear a rattle. This noise is often heard when you take off. Sometimes at idle, and you might notice the idle seems rougher as well. If you do not have an adjustment, the it is completely self adjusting. However, if you feel the timing chain is too loose, the hydraulics in the adjuster may be failing.

Carburetors/Fuel System

how to maintain your motorcycleFuel injection systems are more common than carburetors these days. Although, there are still plenty of bikes that are 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. Taking it to a motorcycle 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.

With either, carburetion or fuel injection, there will be a fuel filter. They are usually inline or made onto the tank fuel petcock assembly. Check this at least every 3000 to 5000 miles. Also check your air filter. Most are dry filters; some are still moistened with oil. Most dry filters can run for 15000 miles before needing replaced. Oil soaked filter can go about 5000 miles before needing cleaned and re-oiled.

Always check your filter before going on a trip. A dry filter can be blown out with an air hose several times before replacing it. Oil types you clean in kerosene then wash with water and liquid detergent. Once it is completely dry, saturate with oil and ring it out. 

There isn’t much maintenance for a fuel injection system. Although, 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 for a recommended cleaner. You want to make sure not to pour a cleaner that can 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 ride. Some of the bigger bikes have a volt or charging gauge. Those that don't, you can get an idea if your system is charging by doing the following.

Pay attention to the speed of the engine when you are stating it. Does it seem to crank slower than normal or sounds like it is struggling to crank? Is it hard to start, compared to how it used to be? This could be signs 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. Notice if the headlight fluctuates with the blinking of the turn signal. If so, rev the bike up to at least 1500 RPM. If the fluctuation stops, your bike’s alternator is charging and putting out sufficient power. However, if this doesn't stop the pulsing headlight, you will need to check your charging system.

A weak battery can cause these effects, that is why you should have a charging system and battery check. As I mentioned, if the battery is older, say 2 years old, and you are getting the above results. Check the battery. Motorcycle batteries just do not last as long as a car battery. The charging system on a bike just doesn't out out as much as a car does. So bike batteries tend to die sooner.

Tires

Inspect your tires for wear, motorcycle tires will last on average, 3700 miles. The rear tire wears out faster, usually average 1800 miles. This depends on  a variety of factors. Type of bike; where you ride; how you ride, and the quality of the tires. Motorcycle tire wear is similar to automotive. Over inflation will wear the center of the tire. While under inflation will cause the wear more to the outsides.

how to tell if a motorcycle tire is worn out

Keep your tires close to manufacturer suggested air pressures. You may want to adjust the rear tire accordingly. Account for weight by saddle bags, cargo and additional rider. Adjust the front tire for steering preference and the types of terrain. Make a point to check your tires and pressures before going out on your bike. Remember, only one tire going flat and you are down.

When replacing your tires, as mentioned, the rear tire usually wears out far faster than the front. However, I would recommend replacing both tires at the same time. Even though the rear tire wore faster, the front tire will start losing traction. As tires get older and more miles on them, they become harder and stick less to the road. Refer to my post about Buying Things in Pairs...

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 rim trueness off. This means 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 correctly.  You will want to get the wheel and tire re-balanced afterwards. However, if you want to tighten your spokes until you can get to a shop, use a Wheel Spoke Wrench. Never use pliers or anything that will chew off the squared edges of the spoke nut.

When spokes are loose, you can pick up a vibration or shimmy. All spokes should be tight, even when one is loose, that means the wheel is getting untrue to center. If you have the wheel off the ground, place something stationary as a marker. Place this marker as close to the side of the wheel as you can without touching it. Rotate the wheel and see if the gap between your marker changes while it is turning. If so, the wheel is not true.

While the wheel is up off the ground, you will do the same check for up and down travel. Measure the gap between the tire and the ground. Turn the wheel and see if the gap changes. If either of these tests show the wheel is off, take it too a shop to get it corrected.

Horn

Not really much to say on this one other than check your horn to ensure that it works. If it doesn’t, you may want to run power straight to the horn to eliminate components. If the horn works running straight power to it, then you are looking at other components. Possibly the horn switch, fuse or relay if your bike has these. Many older bikes are straight power from the switch to the horn. Look for excessive dirt build up on it and check for corrosion on the connectors.

In General

Here are some general tips on how to maintain your motorcycle. 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. That is the case with a bike. It needs pretty much every nut and bolt on it.

Look all cables and rods over for wear or damage. Ensure 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. 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 wearing any type of helmet.

Conclusion

These are just some general tips that can help you create a good checklist. A good list can help you maintain your motorcycle no matter the season. Motorcycles are fun and the experiences you get while riding is unexplainable. It's almost something that can’t be put into words. Keep in mind, motorcycles 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, that's even more reason to know its condition before riding it. You don't have to be a top-notch mechanic to maintain your motorcycle. Just know when things need to be checked or maintenance before taking a long summer trip. 

Safety is what every motocross rider should be familiar with:  Safety isn’t really a maintenance tip, however read on.  People tend to do more motocross riding in the summer, than other seasons. In any type of motorcycle riding, safety is just as important as maintenance. Keeping your bike in good condition is one key to safety, read more on motocross safety here: Always Be Prepared: Five Motocross Safety Guidelines to Remember

Safety also includes the rider avoiding possible accidents. The biggest danger is that others don’t watch for motorcycle riders. Learn More HERE…

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