52 Tips and Tricks to Keep Your Bike on the Road

52 Ways to Wrench

Service manuals, tips, tricks, maintenance, motorcycles
Service Manuals are your best friends.Photography by Mark Zimmerman
  1. Service manuals are your best friends. With a manual and a few basic hand tools, you'll be able to repair and replace just about anything on your bike. Yeah, they can be expensive, but they're a lot cheaper than breaking off some crucial piece because you didn't realize that there was one more bolt holding it in place.

  2. A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Educate yourself: If you're serious about motorcycle maintenance, try to find a repair course at your local community college or alternative education center. If one isn't available, there are dozens of books on the market that can teach you the basics.

workshop, tips, tricks, maintenance, motorcycles
A dedicated workshop makes working on your bike a lot easier.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

3.A dedicated workshop makes working on your bike a lot easier. Granted, this isn't always possible, particularly if you're an apartment dweller, college student or troglodyte, but having someplace to work on your bike other than the street or under the traditional shade tree makes life a lot easier.

4.Read the damn owner's manual! You know that little booklet under the seat? Well, it's got a whole lot of good info in it. Everything from what octane fuel your bike likes to how often you should change the brake fluid. Read through it when you get your bike, and use it as a reference thereafter.

tools, tips, tricks, maintenance, motorcycles
Invest in a quality set of tools.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

5.Invest in a quality set of tools—the operative word here being "quality." As I've so often pointed out, quality tools don't have to be budget busters. Shop the big box stores if you have to, the local shops if you can, but get what you need. A Vise grip, adjustable wrench and large hammer do not constitute a tool set.

tips, tricks, maintenance, motorcycles
Get yourself a motorcycle jack or workstand.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

6.Get yourself a motorcycle jack or work stand. Obviously this isn't something everyone wants, needs or has room for, but having something to hold your motorcycle at a convenient height while you work on it is a godsend. Decent jacks can be purchased for around 100 bucks or knocked together from 2x4s for half that.

supplies, tips, tricks, maintenance, motorcycles
Lay in some supplies.Photography by Mark Zimmerman
organization, tips, tricks, maintenance, motorcycles
It also helps to stay organized with your supplies.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

7.Lay in some supplies. You needn't go crazy, but it's nice to be able to wander out to your shop and change the oil when you feel like it without having to first round up a filter, drain plug gasket and six-pack of oil. That also gives you the option of servicing the bike when the opportunity presents itself, like on a rainy afternoon when you'd actually planned to be out riding.

8.Don't forget the expendables. By expendables I mean things like rags, chain spray, brake cleaner and so forth. In short, everything from wax to single-edged razor blades and that staple of any do-it–yourselfer: duct tape. There's nothing more annoying than not having some little essential item on hand when you're in the middle of a job.

9.Don't be afraid of your bike's inner workings. Sure, when taken as a whole a motorcycle is a pretty complicated piece of equipment, but when reduced to the component level, it's as simple as a single nut or bolt. Once you understand how the individual pieces, function, the rest is easy.

lubrication, oil, tips, tricks, maintenance, motorcycles
Be sure to check that things are lubed/oiled and in proper working order on a regular basis.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

10.Oil changes are good. Regular oil and filter changes are the single best thing you can do for your engine.

11.Preventive maintenance is called that for a reason. Get in the habit of looking your bike over on a regular basis. If you use it to commute to work, inspect things like the lights, horn and tire tread daily and check the oil, chain or belt adjustment and tire pressure at least once a week. If you ride infrequently, check the bike over before each ride.

12.The only dumb question is the unasked one. If you don't understand how some part of your motorcycle works, don't be afraid to ask for help. Most of your fellow riders will only be too happy to help. (If you're embarrassed to ask them, ask me, and it'll be our secret.)

13.Adjust your cables. Loose, sloppy cables make a bike difficult to ride smoothly. Check, adjust and lubricate them on a regular basis.

14.Keep a logbook. A logbook is a great way to document your bike's service history or to simply record anything you've done to it. The logbook is also a great sales tool if you decide to trade in or sell the old gal, especially when it's supported by receipts for parts and labor.

15.Cable lubricators are cheap, so buy one and use it. But check your manual first. Lubricant will gum up some Teflon-lined cables, rendering them useless.

chail and cable fluid, tips, tricks, maintenance, motorcycles
Chains, belts, and drive shafts all need some love.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

16.Chains, belts, and drive shafts all need some love. When possible, drive chains should be lubricated when they're warm; this makes it easier for the lubricant to penetrate all the little nooks and crannies. And believe it or not, many riders adjust their chains too often. Final drive chains don't need adjusting until the slack is double the recommended measurement at the tightest point.

belts, tips, tricks, maintenance, motorcycles
Inspect belts for damage and tension on a regular basis.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

17.Inspect belts for damage and tension on a regular basis. If you don't have a tension gauge, buy one. In the meantime do a twist test; grab the belt about half way along its bottom run and give it a twist. If it deflects more than 45 degrees, it's too loose. If it stops before it's moved 30 degrees, it's too tight.

18.Worn-out sprockets will ruin a new chain or belt in short order. Inspect the sprockets regularly and always replace them as a set. The rule of thumb is that you'll wear out one set of sprockets for every two chains.

19.Shafts and final drives like to have their oil changed on occasion. If you can't remember the last time you did it (or had it done), plan to do it before the next ride.

20.Batteries aren't maintenance-free—even the ones that claim to be. Make certain battery terminals are protected with a coat of Vaseline or dielectric silicone grease. And if your bike uses a traditional wet cell battery, periodically check the electro­lyte level, topping it off with distilled water if need be.

21.Install a plug-in connector if your bike doesn't get ridden as often as it should so you can leave the battery connected to a demand charger whenever it's not being used.

22.Put together an on-board tool kit for your bike. There's nothing worse than needing to make a minor adjustment or repair somewhere on the road and being stymied by the lack of a tool—or worse, having one that's not up to the task.

23.Find out where your bike's fuses live before one blows. The side of the road at two in the morning is no place to be looking for a blown fuse. If you know where they're located before there's a problem, it'll save a lot of roadside hassle when there is.

24.Fuses come in all shapes and sizes. If you need an ATC 15-amp fuse and all the gas station carries are SFC 5 amps, you're done. Make sure your spare fuses are of the correct type and amperage rating, and always carry a full box of spares just in case you don't find that shorted spotlight wire on the first try.

electrical, tips, tricks, maintenance, motorcycles
Learn how to make minor electrical repairs.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

25.Learn how to make minor electrical repairs if you've never done one before. Practice using a crimp connector, making a splice or soldering a connection. Hopefully your skills will never be put to the test on the road, but if they are, you'll at least know what to do.

tips, tricks, maintenance, motorcycles
Assemble a small spare parts kit.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

26.Assemble a small spare parts kit. I carry a small tin of assorted nuts, bolts and fuses, bound up with a few feet of mechanic's wire in my saddlebags just in case.

multimeters, tips, tricks, maintenance, motorcycles
Multimeters can be had for around 20 bucks.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

27.Multimeters can be had for around 20 bucks. Get one, learn how to use it and practice using it on even the most minor electrical problems. That way when your spotlight wire does short, you'll be able to find the problem before you run out of fuses.

28.Torque wrenches were invented for a reason. A good one can be had for 50 bucks, which is a lot less than you'll spend trying to repair those stripped threads caused by overtightening the sump drain plug.

29.Before you start wrenching, take a quick survey of the surroundings. If that wrench slips, are your tender digits going to crash headlong into those razor-sharp fins? Bloody knuckles don't have to be part of the fun.

30.While it's fine to reuse most nuts and bolts, some types are expendable/one-time-use only. For instance, most self-locking nuts shouldn't be reused. If you're not sure, consult your shop manual before reusing that locknut.

tips, tricks, maintenance, motorcycles
Spokes loosen with use.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

31.Spokes loosen with use. If your bike has wire wheels, buy a spoke wrench and check the spokes at least once a year.

32.Once you've bent a cotter pin, it's done. Never reuse one unless it's absolutely the only way to get the bike back on the road after an emergency repair.

33.Anti-seize compounds do just that. I've had the threads come out with the bolt, and I can tell you it sucks. A dab of anti-seize, especially where steel is threaded into aluminum or in any instance where corrosion is likely can prevent a lot of those uh-oh moments.

34.Motorcycles have lots of pivoting, sliding and rotating parts that are exposed to the elements. Find out where they are and what kind of oil they like. A shot or two of 3-in-1 can work wonders on your shift linkage.

35.Grease that swingarm and shock linkage. If you're too lazy to use an old-fashioned grease gun, drop a yard for a battery-powered version.

36.Tires do go flat, and when they do, it's much better to be prepared than left to the mercies of the road. If you venture farther from home than you'd care to walk, pack some sort of repair kit, and just as importantly, learn to use it before you need it. And you guys with tube-type tires? If nothing else, pack a can of flat fix. It'll at least get you to somewhere you can get help.

tire pressure, tires, tips, tricks, maintenance, motorcycles
Tire pressure is probably the most ignored aspect of maintenance.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

37.Tire pressure is probably the most ignored aspect of maintenance. A good tire gauge and the initiative to use it on a weekly basis may save your life.

38.Like most of us, our motorcycles appreciate a good bath once in a while. Keeping your bike clean will not only help preserve the finish, but it'll also make it a lot easier to spot and rectify things like fuel, oil and coolant leaks before they become gushers. Besides, a shiny motorcycle is always a thing of beauty.

39.An occasional coat of wax keeps your bike looking good, and better yet, it'll protect the finish from damage. Don't forget to wax the frame, too.

brakes, brake fluid, tips, tricks, maintenance, motorcycles
Nothing lasts forever, especially brake fluid.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

40.Nothing lasts forever, especially brake fluid. All brake fluid, yes, even DOT 5 silicone-based fluid, is hygroscopic. Water-permeated brake fluid is never good and always easily rectified simply by changing the fluid. Do it every two years, and your brakes will thank you.

41.Armor All and silicone are your friends. The rubber bits on our motorcycles tend to dry up and crack with use. Regular applications of rubber preservative will prevent them from withering away over time. Just don't use it on the brake pads or tire treads.

42.Grip glue is great stuff, but if you don't have it handy when swapping your grips out, spray the inside of the new ones with a little hairspray or paint. It'll help slide them on and hold them in place when it dries.

tips, tricks, maintenance, motorcycles
Dielectric silicone grease is like electrical anti-seize.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

43.Dielectric silicone grease is like electrical anti-seize. Use it on all electrical connections, including the spark plug caps. It'll prevent corrosion and make the connection easier to get apart for future maintenance.

44.Water finds its way into all sorts of places it shouldn't, particularly your carburetor's float bowls. Modern gasoline, which generally contains some percentage of ethanol, worsens the situation because ethanol has an affinity for water. Since the water absorbed through the fuel doesn't burn, it settles in the lowest part of the fuel system, which is normally the float bowls. Get enough of it in there, and you'll be walking instead of riding. A periodic draining of the bowls (I like to drain mine after every wash and wax), will prevent any water from gumming up the works.

tips, tricks, maintenance, motorcycles
Antifreeze is another fluid that degrades overtime.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

45.Antifreeze is another fluid that degrades over time. If your ride is liquid cooled, you'll need to do more than check the level. Use a hydrometer (sold in any hardware or auto parts store) to measure the fluid's specific gravity. When it falls below the manufacturer's specifications, change it.

46.Fuel stabilizer works. Whenever your bike is going to be laid up for more than a few weeks, top off the tank to preclude condensation and add fuel stabilizer to prevent it from deteriorating into something less volatile.

47.Condensation is a stored bike's worst enemy. You're better off parking it in a consistently cold, dry spot, like an unheated garage, than someplace where temperatures vary greatly, like next to the water heater in your basement.

48.Stored bikes make great rodent condos. Small, furry creatures are extremely resourceful. If they're a problem where you live, block off the air intake and mufflers with duct tape and periodically check the bike for any signs that they've taken up residence.

49.When storing a carbureted bike, drain those float bowls. If you can't reach, physically shut off the fuel and let the bike idle until they run dry.

50.When you're parking the bike for the winter, proper storage is essential, especially if you want the thing to be ready to ride come spring. Take the time to properly bed down your bike, and you'll be riding instead of wrenching when the warm weather returns.

tips, tricks, maintenance, motorcycles
Fill in the nicks.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

51.Fill in the nicks. Okay, you're not Picasso, but touching up those stone chips and inevitable nicks in the paint will prevent rust from taking hold.

52.Realize that none of this is rocket science, unless you want it to be.