General Motorcycle Maintenance

Winter shouldn't keep you from spending time with your ride. By Evans Brasfield.

Every year the letters and e-mails sing the same tunes: "You Californians don't know how lucky you are getting to ride all year. I have to wait another three months before I can ride again." Or our personal favorite, "The temperature got up into the 40s today, and I just had to go out for a ride. Although I may never thaw, I needed to spend some time with my bike." Well, devoted cruiser enthusiasts, never fear, you can spend quality time with your motorcycle, without risking frostbite -- in the comfort of your own garage. Winter is the perfect time to perform some essential maintenance so that when spring rolls around, you can spend your time riding instead of wrenching.

For this article, we've selected some common and not-so-common maintenance items that will ensure your bike continues to run as well as it did the day you rode it home from the dealership. All of these tasks can be performed (with a few minor exceptions) with basic mechanics tools. Most of the specialized tools shown here are as close as your local bike shop. Or, you can follow our lead and open up the Lockhart Phillips catalog (800/221-7291, You creative types will be glad to know that often a little ingenuity will allow you to perform these maintenance steps without having to buy specialized tools.

So, grab a mug of your favorite hot beverage, sit down in the glow of the fireplace and start planning. Although the snow has piled up outside, you don't have to deny yourself quality time with your motorcycle. And you'll be glad you did. After all, spring is just around the corner...

A bike works better when you have all the controls properly adjusted and positioned. Sit on your bike. Is the brake pedal too high or too low? The brake pedal height adjuster will help you dial it in to the proper place. Check to ensure that your drum rear brake free play is within factory specifications.

Keep all moving parts working without binding through a judicious application of lubricant. Pivoting items, such as the brake pedal, shifter and sidestand, should be either loosened or disassembled. Clean the pivot and apply a fresh coat of grease. A small paintbrush makes the job neater. A squirt of penetrating lubricant will keep other parts such as floorboards and shifter linkages working smoothly.

Lubing your bike's cables will help them last longer and work more smoothly. However, you'll need to buy a cable luber. With the tool clamped on the end of the cable, spray the lubricant into the tool in short bursts until it begins to drip out of the other end of the cable. A dab of grease on the end of the cable during re-assembly will help it move around inside the lever without binding. Adjust the lever to the factory-specified free play, and if the lever is adjustable, set the lever position to one comfortable for your hand.

Your motorcycle's tire pressure is important if you want it to handle correctly when you're riding. Many riders forget that the insidious effects of low tire pressure can creep in -- even when you aren't riding. Make sure your tires stay properly inflated all winter. Sitting underinflated in the same position for several months can damage tires permanently. When you do inflate them, add an extra pound or two to combat slow pressure loss. Ambitious riders should rotate their tires periodically to allow different portions of the tire to support the bike.

Fasteners tend to vibrate loose on motorcycles. Make sure everything stays where it should by re-torquing the bike's primary components. Consult your motorcycle's factory service manual to determine its specifications. Next, loosen the fastener approximately one-third of a turn and then torque it back down. Pay special attention to axles, motor mounts, caliper brackets and steering components. Check all other bolts and screws (such as fender bolts) for tightness.

Check the oil level on a shaft drive by removing its filler plug. When the bike is level, a little oil should run out. Add the specified weight oil to bring it up to that level. If the oil is discolored, replace it. A chain driven bike should have its chain adjusted, cleaned and lubed.

That first warm day of spring won't do you any good if you can't start your motorcycle. You can assess your battery's state of charge with a hydrometer. If you have a sealed battery, a multi-tester, like the Yuasa unit we used (above), will tell you the voltage of your battery. If it's in the single digits, you need to get the battery on life-support. The best way to keep your battery charged is with a floating charger such as a BatteryMinder.

Having the proper amount of throttle free play is essential for smooth control of the throttle on the road. Too much free play makes fine control of the engine almost impossible, often resulting in an abrupt roll-on when you least want it -- like midcorner. Too little free play can make the throttle stick without returning it all the way to idle when you roll it closed. Adjusting the free play is accomplished with a thumb wheel in the cable. Free play should be adjusted so that there is only a slight -- approximately 1mm -- movement when you rock the throttle back and forth between your fingers.

Before removing spark plugs, blow compressed air into the plug hole to remove dirt or grit that could fall into the cylinder when the plug is removed. Check the new plug's gap with a wire gauge and apply a bit of anti-seize to the threads before installing it.

If the engine can't breathe, that fancy exhaust system you bought last year won't help. Check the air filter to make sure it's clean. You can replace it with a factory part, like we did, or invest in a reusable filter from K&N; Engineering or Uni Filter.

Changing Oil

Two schools of thought govern oil changing theory. The first, and more common, states the engine should be warmed to operating temperature prior to draining to ensure all the bad stuff engines create gets suspended in the oil mixture and is flushed out. The other theory stresses that, if the engine hasn't been operated in more than 24 hours, the gunk is already in the oil pan ready to be emptied. So, why not just drain the dirty oil without redistributing it throughout the engine? Regardless of which methodology you choose to follow, check to see if you can loosen the oil filter by hand before you heat up the engine and/or drain the oil. If you can't loosen the filter, it's time to invest in a filter wrench.

Locate the drain plug on the bottom of the oil pan and loosen the bolt. Drain the oil into a container suitable for transport to your local oil recycling center. Pouring old oil into the ground is bad karma and will force your offspring to drink funny-tasting water. To locate the closest oil reclamation center ask your local bike shop or point your Web browser to or call (800) CLEAN-UP. Wearing latex gloves during the messy part of the oil change is a good idea since dirty oil is a known carcinogen.

Remove the oil filter with a filter wrench or by hand if it's loose enough. If your wrench won't fit the small diameter of your bike's spin-on filter, try the old trick of folding up a rag under the wrench. Our Vulcan Classic's oil filter was in such a tight spot behind the engine that we resorted to a filter wrench, a nifty Craftsman 3/8-inch stud with a 14mm head and a 14mm wrench.

Using your finger, wipe a film of fresh oil on the filter's O-ring. Clean the gasket's contact surface on the engine prior to screwing the filter into place. Follow the manufacturer's specifications for tightening the filter. Torque the drain plug to the factory's specification. Fill the engine with the amount and viscosity of oil recommended in your owner's manual. Before starting the engine, wipe down all the engine's oily surfaces. This way oil leaks will be easier to spot after the engine has been run for a short while. When you first start your engine, don't be alarmed if the oil light stays on a little longer than usual. The filter needs to fill with oil. After the engine reaches operating temperature, shut it down and wait a minute or so before checking the oil level. You may need to add a bit more since a dry filter sucks up a few ounces of oil.

Fork Oil Change

One of the most overlooked maintenance items on motorcycles is the fork oil. While many riders don't think about the fork, the oil works every time the bike is ridden. Any time the front tire rolls over a bump, the fork oil performs a dual function. First, it lubricates the interface between the stanchion and the slider. Second, and most importantly, the oil is forced through various sized orifices to damp the speed at which the fork goes up and down. Without fork oil, the chassis would be connected to the front wheel by a spring, delivering a pogo stick-like ride. The friction of being forced through holes repeatedly eventually wears down the oil molecules lowering the viscosity and reducing the effectiveness of the damping. So, changing the fork oil every two years is a smart way to keep everything slippy.

Before raising the front wheel off the ground, loosen all of the bolts securing the caliper and the axle. Don't forget the axle pinch bolt. Carefully jack the front of the bike until the front tire lifts far enough from the ground to allow the wheel to clear the fender. Remove the caliper (be sure to hang it from a hard part, not the brake line), the front wheel and the fender. Since the bike will be in this position for a while, make sure it is stable. Some mechanics will throw a tie-down over a rafter and secure it to the frame to keep disaster from striking. We recommend changing the oil one fork tube at a time.

Removing the cap from the fork stanchion is a tricky proposition. While we've seen experienced suspension mechanics pop them out with a big Phillips screwdriver, the most convenient way we've found for removing the cap is with this cabinetmaker's clamp. Look for them at your local hardware store. The two lower screws are tightened enough to fit securely under the triple clamp -- not tight on the stanchion. The top thumb screw depresses the cap until the retaining clip can be removed with a small screwdriver. Slowly release the top screw until the spring pressure has been reduced enough to allow the cap to be withdrawn safely.

Remove the fork spring. Then, loosen the pinch bolts on the triple clamp and slide the stanchion out of the triple clamp. Compress the stanchion fully and pour the old oil into a graduated container. Pump the stanchion a few times and pour out any remaining oil. Repeat until the fork is empty. Note the amount of oil before pouring it into a recycling container. Pour a bit more fresh oil into the graduated container. (The factory repair manual will have this volume, too.) Measure the fork oil level to the length that your manual specifies for oil height. (You can fabricate a measuring tool from a coat hanger also.) Pour the oil into the fork tube and pump the stanchion until all air bubbles are removed from the system.

With the fork fully compressed and the oil level gauge flush with the top of the stanchion, draw out the excess oil until no more can be sucked into the tool. (If you're using a coat hanger to measure oil height, carefully pour out the oil until it reaches the proper height.) The oil height measurements should be made without the spring installed. Install the fork in the triple clamp, ensuring the top of the stanchion is returned to the same position as the one that remained in the triple clamp. Tighten the pinch bolts to the proper torque, and re-assemble the fork before moving on to the next tube. When assembling the front end, double check that all fasteners are set to factory torque specifications.

Coolant Replacement

The second most vital fluid in a liquid-cooled engine is the coolant. Although most cruiser enthusiasts don't leave their bikes out in sub-zero temperatures, antifreeze does more than just keep the coolant from freezing. Parts such as the water pump are lubricated by the coolant. Also, untreated water's corrosive nature will wreak havoc on all of the engine's aluminum surfaces. Most manufacturers recommend coolant be replaced every two years. If you haven't changed your bike's coolant for as long as you can remember, now's the time to do it.

Most automotive parts stores carry coolant testers which will give you a fairly accurate assessment of the status of your antifreeze. If you have any question about the condition of the coolant, replace it. When the factory maintenance interval tells you to replace the coolant, believe it -- even if the coolant tester says the antifreeze is fine. Coolant is cheap enough that it seems silly to try to save a few pennies here.

Locate the engine's coolant drain plug which is usually near the water pump. Make sure that the drain pan is large enough to catch all the fluid. Unfortunately, the design of many cruiser engines makes it difficult to drain the coolant without spilling a bit. Take a moment to clean it all up, because antifreeze is quite toxic and has a sweet smell that will attract pets. Dispose of the used coolant at your local recycler ( Be sure to re-torque the drain plug carefully. The threads are easy to strip.

Premix your antifreeze to be certain a proper 50/50 mixture is achieved. Distilled water is the preferred dilutant because tap water may have minerals that could leave deposits inside the engine, reducing the cooling efficiency. Carefully pour the coolant into the filler, ensuring none of it splashes on the paint. Immediately wipe off any spillage to prevent damage to the paint's finish. Once the coolant rises into the filler's throat, jostle the bike a little to free up bubbles in the system and add more coolant. Start the engine with the radiator cap off and continue to add coolant until bubbles stop appearing. Seal the cap, run the engine up to temperature, shut it off and let it cool. Remove the radiator cap again and add coolant if necessary.

Brake Fluid Change

Brake fluid has a nasty habit of absorbing water out of air. Over time, this moisture buildup can cause brakes to lose effectiveness under heavy use -- not a very good idea. Fortunately, replacing hydraulic fluid annually will remedy this problem. Before you dive in, a few words of warning: use the grade of brake fluid that your bike manufacturer recommends. Also, make sure you cover any exposed painted surfaces where the brake fluid could spill. Most paints -- even some powdercoats -- are easily damaged by this evil, but necessary, stuff. Likewise, wearing latex gloves would be a good idea.

Begin by taking the cover off the master cylinder and topping off the reservoir. Note how we've wrapped the master cylinder with rags to prevent leakage. Throughout the bleeding process, confirm that the reservoir is full. If it runs dry, air will get into the lines and the bleeding process will need to start from scratch. If you are bleeding a dual disc system, begin by bleeding the longest hydraulic line first.

If you're using a bleeding tool such as the Mityvac, you should wrap the caliper bleeder valve's threads with Teflon tape to prevent air from being drawn into the system. Give the Mityvac a couple of squeezes and open the bleeder valve. Keep the pressure drawing the old fluid out of the caliper by pumping the Mityvac occasionally. Frequently check the reservoir to make sure it doesn't run dry. You'll notice a slight change in the fluid color as the new fluid works its way through the system. Once you're certain the old fluid has been removed and no more air bubbles are visible in the bleeder's tubing, close the valve. Remove the hose and torque the valve.

Bleeding a hydraulic system without a vacuum takes slightly longer and may require two people. With a hose on the bleeder valve draining into a suitable container, pump the brake lever a few times and then hold it. While maintaining pressure on the lever, loosen the bleeder valve and retighten it when the lever hits the grip. Repeat the pumping, holding and releasing of the bleeder valve until the fluid change is complete. Again, make sure no air bubbles are visible in the fluid. If air (which is much more compressible than hydraulic fluid) remains in the lines, the lever feel will be mushy and imprecise.

For more articles on how to customize, maintain and modify your motorcycle, see the Tech & Custom section of

Photography by James Brown.
Adjusting a drum brake's play is about as simple as it gets.
Lube pivot points.
An inexpensive cable luber does the trick.
Proper pressure is essential for handling and safety.
Every DYI mechanic needs a torque wrench.
Changing shaft lube is easier than oil.
Battery service tools can pay for themselves in a few years.
Removing slack makes throttle action much more precise.
Fresh spark plugs are an inexpensive way to keep your engine sharp.
Clean or replace the air filter.
Hot or cold, drain the oil.
This Craftsman filter wrench allowed us to get our tightly packaged filter loose.
Lube the filter gasket.
Remove the front wheel.
Pull the fork-top bolt or clip.
Measure fork-oil level.
_Draw out oil until it's down to the required level. _
A coolant tester.
Drain & recycle the coolant.
Refill coolant.
Use freshly opened fluid.
Using a MityVac.
Keep brake fluid off paint.