How To Break-In Your Motorcycle

Should you break in your motorcycle gently or go full throttle?

Breaking in a new motorcycle
Although manufacturers recommend breaking in your motorcycle gently, you shouldn't feel like you have to baby it to death.Photography by Fran Kuhn

How should you break that new cruiser in?

First, let us say that far too many buyers seem inclined to break their bikes in far too gently. Sure, take it easy for the first 100 miles, but don't baby it to death—which is literally what you will do if you never open the throttle to get some pressure and heat working. We have heard of riders whose engines have smoked because they never ran them hard. We suspect, and some factory reps will confirm, that those conservative break-in guidelines are written as much by lawyers as the technical folks. It figures that if something is going to break (and it is very rare), it will do so when it's new. If that something locks up the drivetrain, the manufacturer would prefer that you be going slowly. It will do less damage to you and the bike.

When we buy a new bike (we’re talking our own money here), it gets 50 to 100 miles of mild use, then receives regular doses of full throttle. If this sounds harsh, visit a motorcycle factory sometime. Before that bike ever left the factory, it was run to redline on a dyno. You aren’t going where no man has gone before. We make sure that a new engine never gets too hot and that it gets frequent chances to cool off thoroughly.

The ideal break-in is the daily short trip to the office. This gives it 20 or 30 minutes of use under a variety of loads and rpm, followed by a long cool-off, and then another run. The heat-up/cool-off cycles are as much a part of break-in as the friction. The occasional full-throttle squirts, as we get away from traffic, provide pressure to help the rings seat. We want to have 500 miles as a minimum before we use the bike for any long highway trips where it will be subjected to long periods at a steady throttle setting. If we have to ride it on the highway we’d vary speed frequently, even downshifting every few miles, and we’d take lots of coffee breaks en route.

So why not be gentle with that expensive new mill? An engine, especially a big one, that’s never run hard may not seat its piston rings completely. It may varnish up its cylinders and burn oil. Then it will have to be torn down, have its cylinders honed, and you’ll still have to take it out and beat it up to get the new rings seated. We hear occasional tales of woe. One guy could not believe his easy use of a bike, which had under 3000 miles, was the cause of its smoking problem. He contacted us because he thought the dealer was trying to pull a fast one.

Of course, the engine isn't the only thing that's breaking in. All of the moving parts are getting to know their neighbors. Among the most important of these components are the brakes. These also need some hard use to ensure that they are working to their maximum capacity. And, of course, they should be fully run-in before you ride the bike fast. Tires also need scuffing before they'll deliver maximum traction.

Anyway, we’d want to be sure we had some full-throttle blasts on the engine before its first maintenance check. That first service, typically at 600 miles, is a crucial one. It’s a chance for a technician to get a good look at your bike. Moving parts (such as valves) that can be adjusted should be checked, and torque values on critical fasteners (such as cylinder-head bolts) should be confirmed.

An oil change gets rid of those wear particles in the drivetrain and the fork. Some engines, like the Kawasaki Vulcan 1500, typically seem to make a fair amount of wear metal, though on others it may be a sign of trouble. This suggests that you may want to change the oil before the recommended interval, perhaps at 100 miles. This can't hurt, provided that you don't install oil with too little friction. A full-synthetic oil at this point may reduce the friction necessary for break-in.

Except for a caution to not overheat the engine or drone along all day at a steady, low-throttle speed, we’d figure that break-in is nearly complete after that 600-mile check. If you haven’t made any full-throttle runs up to redline yet, now is the time to do it.

One warning, however: There are other reasons to take it easy on a new bike. One is discussed in this issue’s “Street Survival” column. You are more likely to crash on a new bike than on an old familiar one. As testers, our job requires us to constantly adjust to new bikes, so we tend to forget that most riders will need an adaptation period. Each bike demands a slightly different hand on the brakes, more or less pressure to steer, responds differently to throttle in a corner, and has its own power characteristics. You need to become intimate with all those idiosyncrasies, especially the ones you don’t like. For example, if your new bike seems hard to control under full-goose braking, you need to practice hard braking until you feel right at home.

One of the best ways to adapt to a new bike is by taking a Motorcycle Safety Foundation Rider Course. If you have even modest experience, the Experienced Rider Course is the way to go. These courses also involve riding routines that are ideal for breaking-in a new bike.

The two biggest mistakes you can make during break-in are: overheating the engine, and operating it for a long time at a steady speed—especially at low rpm. Give it a variety of engine speeds and loads, make sure that the entire bike is bedding in, and watch for problems.