Performing Motorcycle Maintenance To Keep Your Bike On The Road

Keep your bike on the road without taking it to the shop and shelling out money for work that you can do yourself.

Motorcycle odometer displaying 99,999 miles about to roll over to 100,000.
Taking care of your motorcycle by performing regular service will ensure its longevity and reliability.Motorcycle Cruiser

I was a little surprised when someone recently asked me if it was possible to rack up a hundred thousand—or more—miles on a late-model cruiser without making any major repairs, and if it was, what sort of motorcycle maintenance it would take to do it. My knee-jerk reaction was to start cataloging all the things that would need doing, but the more I considered the question, the more I realized that while all devices are subject to the whims of mechanical misfortune, the current crop of motorcycles is for the most part as reliable as anvils. Barring any unforeseen mishaps, motorcycles last almost as long while needing only slightly more attention.

This is particularly true if you purchase the bike new and can control how it's broken in and maintained from day one. If you buy a used bike, try to obtain all service documentation that you can and then start doing your own.

Motorcycle Maintenance

The preface in my 1946 Triumph service manual states, "To obtain the best possible result from your investment you must keep your machine in such condition that it will give you long and satisfactory service." Spoken like a proper Englishman I say, and as true now as it was then. The question is, how to go about it.

People in charge of large fleets of equipment—airlines, for instance—use routine preventive maintenance programs to forestall any major problems, and that same solution works just fine when applied to motorcycles.

Motorcycle mechanic working on a motorcycle on a lift.
Performing service on your motorcycle is not difficult, but if you don’t feel like you can, or don’t have the specialized tools, there is no problem in taking your bike to a service center or motorcycle dealership.Motorcycle Cruiser

The hardest part of creating a motorcycle maintenance program is knowing what to check and when to check it. Fortunately, when it comes to your motorcycles, the heavy lifting has already been done. Every owner's and service manual has a list of prescribed maintenance tasks that if performed according to schedule, should allow you to run the odometer of any modern motorcycle into big numbers without much strain.

Of course, this depends on how hard you abuse the motorcycle between services and your mechanical diligence, but even a relatively lax program can be surprisingly effective.

Deciphering the Motorcycle Maintenance Manual

Maintenance schedules are based on time and distance, and yes, that means whichever comes first. Doing it that way means the garage queen and the bike that's racking up 20,000 miles a year both receive the appropriate level of care.

All owner's manuals include a chart listing the maintenance tasks, with a notation at the appropriate place describing what needs to be done. Typically, these are the letters I, C, R, A, and L, which respectively stand for Inspect, Clean, Replace, Adjust, and Lubricate. Of course, that's subject to the whims of whoever wrote the manual so be sure to read the fine print, so double-check that the “C” in your maintenance schedule represents Clean and not Change.

While the periods are generally standardized, most manufacturers currently favor 12-month intervals, though mileage specifications vary. For example, the recommended oil and filter change interval for my 2008 Triumph Scrambler is 12 months or 6,000 miles.

Motorcycles riding out on a stretch of highway.
Taking care of your bike will allow you to enjoy your miles on it, worry-free.Motorcycle Cruiser

On the other hand, our long-term Honda VTX needs its oil changed at 12 months or 8,000 miles. Granted, that's not a huge difference unless you rack up lots of miles in a year—in which case the Triumph's oil will need changing slightly more often than the Honda's.

However, some service recommendations may have a more profound effect. For instance, the Triumph factory would like you to inspect the steering head bearings at one year/6,000 miles and repack them with fresh grease every two years or 12,000 miles. Honda, on the other hand, is just as happy to have you inspect them every 8,000 miles regardless of time, and doesn't specify repacking them unless there's a problem.

We'll return to this subject again, but the message, for now, is that motorcycle service intervals fluctuate between brands and even between different models from the same manufacturer. I should also point out that the motorcycle manufacturer's recommended service schedule applies to bikes ridden under average conditions.

If you ride your bike in harsh situations, then you'll need to step up the maintenance, and by the same token, if you'd just like to service your bike more often, then, by all means, do it.

When To Service Your Motorcycle

Most motorcycle maintenance tasks are relatively simple. Generally, you'll be inspecting components for damage, changing fluids, and making the occasional adjustment, at least initially. As time and mileage accumulate, the inspections do become more involved and will require more time, skill, and, in some cases, special tools. Like anything of this nature, if you don't feel comfortable performing the work, then don't; do only what you can and leave the rest to the pros. I know plenty of guys who do little more than change their oil and check their tire pressure, leaving the more involved stuff to their dealers.

As a rule, accumulated mileage isn't particularly critical as long as the day-to-day stuff is performed on schedule; whether you perform the brunt of the 20K service at 18K or 22K won't matter all that much. Because I don't like to tie up my bikes during the prime riding months I change the oil when it's due and do what maintenance I must while letting the rest slide until the snow flies and the bike comes off the road. Then I take my time and spread whatever inspection is due over a couple of weekends.

If you're so inclined, I'd suggest you take the same approach, in part because with no pressure to ride the bike, you'll be inclined to take your time and do a more thorough job. By the same token, your local service department might offer incentives like reduced prices or free bike pickup to bring in the work. If you're going to have a shop perform the inspection, schedule it for the off-season when things are quiet, even if it means running up a few extra miles.

Following The Maintenance Schedule

Let's look at a general motorcycle maintenance checklist—located below the article. Since this one is representative rather than specific to a particular bike, there may be tasks here that don't apply to your motorcycle. That goes for the 6,000-mile interval, which was used because it's a nice round number; your inspection intervals could just as easily arrive at 4,000 or 8,000 miles. As always, if there's any doubt, refer to your bike's service manual.

If none of that looks particularly difficult, that's because it isn't. If you remove the valve adjustment and the carb/throttle body synchronization from the equation—and in many cases, neither will be required—the whole job can easily be completed in about four unhurried hours.

There's a trend here, and it's one that will continue. Using our hypothetical example, at the four-year/24,000 mark, the manufacturer may want the brake and fuel lines and radiator hoses replaced, or at least thoroughly inspected. In this regard, some manufacturers are more finicky than others.

I'd also caution that some of the manufacturer's maintenance suggestions need to be tempered with common sense; I've been running the same coolant hoses on my dual sport bike since I bought it nine years ago and they're still in mint condition, despite the manufacturer's recommendation to change them every two years.

In addition to the parts listed here, you're certainly going to be replacing some expendable items like tires, brake pads or rotors, batteries, and maybe even the occasional clutch or two, but you and I both know that those parts are going to wear out no matter how often you service the bike.

Can I Skip The Suggested Mileage On My Motorcycle Service?

Unfortunately, when it comes to working on motorcycles, not everyone shares my enthusiasm, and that's perfectly understandable. If that's your case, and presuming you'd like to hang onto your bike, you have several options.

For one, you can follow the manufacturer's recommendations and simply have someone else perform the work. That's a reasonable course, and I know of several 100,000-plus-mile machines that have never felt their owner's hand on a wrench.

Another alternative would be the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" program. The argument here is that if you're going to work on something, you might as well wait until it stops working entirely before wasting your time and energy. This is generally a bad way to go because it will leave you stranded.

That being said, there are times when a little benign neglect pays off. For example, most manufacturers recommend inspecting and lubricating the steering head bearings at the two-to-four-year mark. While it's not a particularly onerous job, it is a bit time consuming, and in most cases, the bearings are perfectly fine.

Now by no means am I telling you not to do it; I must emphasize that steering head bearings take a lot of abuse, so if there's the slightest doubt concerning their condition, by all means, yank them out and have a good look. However my feeling is that once they're out of there, it's just as easy to install new ones, so what I normally do is let them slide until they're shot (which generally means something closer to maybe 30,000 miles or more), and then I replace them.

That approach isn't by the book and in some cases, like that of a high-mileage bike that sees a lot of use, it may not be the smartest way to go, but it works for me. So the bottom line here is that you don't necessarily have to follow the manufacturer's service recommendations to the letter so much as you have to establish a realistic and rational program that works for you.

In the end, the secret to running up the big mileage is that there isn't any secret: Keep up with the maintenance, repair things that break promptly, and chances are better than average that the motorcycle will age a lot more gracefully than its owner.

Motorcycle Maintenance Checklist

ONE YEAR/6,000 MILES (WHICHEVER COMES FIRST)

ENGINE OIL Replace
OIL FILTER Replace
COOLANT Inspect, top off using an approved coolant
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE OIL Replace
SPARK PLUGS Inspect/replace
VALVES Inspect and adjust as required
CARBURETOR/THROTTLE BODY Synchronize as needed
IDLE SPEED Inspect and adjust
FUEL LINES Inspect lines and clamps; replace chafed lines, tighten clamps
FUEL FILTER Inspect/replace as required
AIR FILTER Inspect/clean or replace as required
THROTTLE/THROTTLE CABLES Inspect and lubricate cables, check operation, adjust free play
CHOKE/FAST IDLE CONTROL Inspect operation; lubricate and adjust linkage as needed
CLUTCH/CLUTCH CABLE Inspect cable adjustment; lubricate cable and clutch lever pivot
STEERING HEAD BEARING ADJUSTMENT Inspect and adjust
SWINGARM AND LINKAGE Inspect and lubricate
FORK SEALS Inspect for leaks or other damage
REAR SHOCKS Inspect for leaks, worn bushings
DRIVE CHAIN Inspect, lubricate, adjust
DRIVE BELT Inspect, check tension
DRIVE SHAFT Replace oil (if applicable)
BRAKE FLUID Verify level; if contaminated, replace
BRAKE PADS Inspect/replace
BRAKE CALIPERS Wrench-check mounting hardware, check for leaks/chafed hoses or torn dust boots. Make sure all pistons are free.
BRAKE ROTORS Wrench-check mounting hardware, look for scoring or other damage
BRAKE MASTER CYLINDERS Inspect for leaks
WHEELS Inspect and adjust spokes. Inspect wheel bearings for play. Inspect wheel seals for leakage. Inspect wheel alignment.
TIRE CONDITION AND PRESSURE Inspect and adjust; replace worn or damaged tires
ENGINE AND FRAME BOLTS Visual inspect and wrench check. Make certain all appropriate cotter pins/lock tabs are in place and bent over.
LIGHTS Inspect operation
BATTERY AND CHARGING SYSTEM Top off battery, check cable terminals, check charge rate

TWO YEARS/12,000 MILES (WHICHEVER COMES FIRST)

AIR FILTER Replace
FUEL FILTER Replace
BRAKE FLUID Replace
COOLANT Replace
AIR INJECTION SYSTEM Service
EVAPORATIVE SYSTEM Service (if equipped)
STEERING HEAD BEARINGS Lubricate