Basic Motorcycle Maintenance Tips
Motorcycles are like mechanical pets. Learn how to take care of yours for the best ownership experience.
Everyone has probably heard of the famous book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But what’s that mean, exactly? To keep it simple, let’s forget the Zen part here, and just talk about the importance of maintenance. You’ll want to maintain your motorcycle properly because that way, you’ll get the most reliable and enjoyable riding experience, and more importantly, by keeping on top of maintenance, your bike will help take care of you, giving you a safer riding career. In all areas, your factory owner’s manual has precise guidance for what steps to take, what parts and tools are needed for your model, and when to do the work. But what if you’ve bought an older bike, say, that’s missing its manual? Let’s consider some fundamentals.
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Oil and Filter
Almost universally, motorcycle engines and transmissions (gearboxes) are combined in – or bolted together into – a single unitized assembly. Often, the engine and gearbox share the same oil, but in other cases the engine and gearbox use separate oil. It is wise, before each ride, to check that the oil level(s) are within specification. This may be done using a dipstick, a sight glass, or in some cases, by removing a “level plug” on a side case.
At specified intervals (which the factory manual spells out), an engine oil and filter change is required. For bikes and cars, the process is nearly universal. Warm the engine, then locate and remove the drain plug above a large pan. Note: The gods live in the details here! Some bikes have loads of ground clearance and generous tool access, others frustratingly little. Consider positioning the bike over sheets of cardboard and surround the drain pan with old towels to catch spills and splatters before they spoil your driveway or garage floor. Small housekeeping tip: If the bike is resting on its side-stand during the drain process, to catch all the oil, grab the bars and stand the bike straight upright before replacing the drain plug. Many top mechanics recommend replacing the crush washer at the same time.
Oil filters vary. Some older machines have nothing but a screen – easy to access or not – while others may have a cleanable centrifugal trap. But let’s forgo those and instead focus on the cartridge filters that most modern 4-stroke engines use. These can take the form of either a “spin-on” (e.g., threaded, screw-on) or “slip-in” (e.g., paper element) filter. There’s an old saying: Oil is cheap insurance. The same goes for oil filters, so change them together. If possible, fill up the spin-on cartridge – or even the paper element, as practical – with fresh oil prior to installation. That way, oil pressure will climb quicker when you restart the motor.
Like unicorns, 2-strokes need good owner/operator skills to appreciate and maintain. But for the purposes of this article, virtually all modern 2-strokes are off-road machines. Burning a mixture of gas and oil, they lack internal oil pumps, camshafts and valve trains, but often add reed valves and/or exhaust power valves instead. Confusing? It can be! The result, though, is huge power from a compact and lightweight engine. From a maintenance standpoint, 2-strokes have no engine oil or filter to change, just gearbox oil, which is a straightforward process – think of a regular bike’s oil change, minus the filter. Caveat: Some 2-strokes have separate oil injection tanks; these rarely if ever need changing – just refilling. See the manual.
Call it 50/50: Perhaps half the motorcycles running around out there are air-cooled, the other half liquid cooled. For air-cooled bikes, no “cooling system” maintenance is required, except to keep the engine fins (or the occasional oil radiator, if fitted) free of dirt, mud, or other debris. For liquid-cooled bikes, while checking the engine oil before your ride, check the coolant too. With the engine cool, verify that the coolant is between index marks on the overflow bottle. Or, for motocross bikes, open the radiator cap and peer inside; hopefully you’ll find it just below the brim. If coolant is needed, top up with the product specified in the owner’s manual. And if it takes a lot of fresh coolant, this may signal a leak. Investigate.
If you’re a dirt rider, you probably know all about changing air filters. (Or else you should, as dirty air and engine internals don’t play well together.) For these bikes, manufacturers have gone to lengths to make changing filters easy. That’s the good news. The bad news is that dirt-bike filters are often oiled foam, making them a gooey, sticky mess to change. The easiest way to go is buying pre-oiled, ready-to install replacements. Then just remove the old unit, carefully clean the seating area, and install the replacement. Then you can clean and refresh the old one between rides.
For street bikes, dry cartridge air filters are near universal, and easy to swap out. You do keep track of the date and mileage between service on your bike, right? If so, refer to the last time your air filter was changed and follow the owner’s manual directions for removal and replacement.
This is a sticky wicket. Ethanol-free gasoline found in some locations seems to be easier on motorcycle fuel systems than blends laced heavily with ethanol. One demerit for ethanol fuels is reportedly the potential degradation of some aluminum components, and the formation of deposits that can clog tiny fuel-system orifices. To ward off problems here, use your motorcycle regularly, and add a fuel stabilizer. Learn where the fuel filter(s) are (if any), inspect regularly, and keep spares on hand.
Carburetors are a specialized deal. On newer bikes, there is precious little to adjust besides cable slack, idle speed and perhaps the idle air screw – and maybe not even that. Go back into the 1970s or earlier, though, and you’ll find carburetion’s horse and buggy days where it took a blacksmith and equine vet to keep your rig moving. In those situations, setting the carburetor(s) in question to factory specs is the right place to begin. In truth, making carbs work just right is like speaking French. Take lessons, and then practice.
Most motorcycles since the mid-1970s have electronic ignition systems, which means (on a good day) that they always stay in time and provide a good spark. On the downside, these now decades-old systems may have weakened. Thinking positively though, on a reasonable day in the universe, ignition problems shouldn’t be top of mind, and modern ignition maintenance will be limited to the occasional spark-plug change. And that should be easy for anyone who can turn a wrench.
Find the correct spark-plug socket for your bike (these vary), carefully pull the spark-plug cap off the plug, and then unscrew the plug. Use your interpretative powers to compare the business end of your spark plug(s) with each other or images found in your manual or online. Basically, if the plug is dry and any color in the vicinity of light tan, you’re probably in good shape. Just check the gap with a feeler gauge from your kit or one found at your local shop and replace it. If anything differs, replace the plug with the model specified in your manual – and then begin investigating the age-old spark-plug question of “why….”
Your motorcycle likely has a chain final drive, but it may well have a toothed belt or a shaft drive. These require distinctly different types of care. A chain drive is the hero and villain of motorcycling: Supremely efficient and universally and endlessly repairable, it is also greasy, dirty, and nasty…and an oh-so-authentic part of a motorcycle owner’s rite of passage. In terms of basic service, it requires periodic lubrication and adjustment. Scores of over-the-counter aerosol lubes are available, but in a pinch *nudge-wink* motor oil works, though it can be messy. Ideal chain tension depends on the length of the swingarm, rear suspension type, and (for AP geometry students), the distance between the countershaft and swingarm pivots. Follow your owner’s manual for those directions and for specialized maintenance of shaft-and belt-drive systems.
Discs and drums, hydraulics, cables, and rods. Depending on year and model, your motorcycle will have some combination of the above. (Unless you race speedway!) Basic maintenance for hydraulic discs typically involves verifying correct fluid level either by sighting its level in the transparent reservoir, or else cleaning and removing the cap to examine the level inside the reservoir. If the level is low, refill with the fluid specified in the owner’s manual. Drum brakes require adjusting the activating cable (or sometimes rod for rear brakes); adjustment points are typically found either at the handlebar or activating levers located on the front or rear brake backing plates. Consult your manual for precise instruction.
In all reality, literally all work done by the motorcycle happens through two little tire footprints about the size of credit cards – including acceleration, cornering, and braking. So, it’s little wonder why keeping tabs on tire condition is paramount. To up your game, learn to read the date code on the sidewalls; often a 4-digit code, the first two digits represent the week of manufacture, and the second two represent the year. Example: 1321 means the tire was manufactured in the 13th week of 2021. This is crucial information, as many experts recommend replacing tires once they’re five years old. Tread wear and tire pressures are obviously essential too. Before you ride, check both and make sure they conform to factory specs. Doing so will pay enjoyment and safety dividends not just today, but on every ride going forward.
John L. Stein brings 30 years of both automotive and motorcycle experience, having written for AutoWeek, Car and Driver, Motor Trend, Sports Car International, Chevy Outdoors, Truck Trend, Cycle World, Motorcyclist, Adventure Travel, and Men’s Journal, just to name a few. His articles have been published in the US, England, Japan, Australia and France. His technical knowledge combined with his ability to understand and effectively communicate what a motorcycle is doing underneath him is an invaluable resource to the Motorcycle.com team.
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