Motorcycle Maintenance | Road Trip Tech

The Fine Art of Caring For Your Bike On A Tour

Few things will reveal the gaps in your maintenance program like an extended road trip. Tires that were “okay,” brakes that were “good enough,” and coolant that “looks fine,” have a nasty of way of letting you that they aren’t, and life being what it is, they’ll generally let you know at the very worst possible time. That being said, I’ll also tell you that today’s bikes are for the most part incredibly reliable, so if you’ve been maintaining your bike as you should have been, taking your show on the road shouldn’t involve more than an hour or two of prep time if that.

The first consideration here is how well you’ve kept up the routine maintenance, and the second is where the bike sits in the schedule. For example, if you’ve stayed on top of things—there are no outstanding service issues, and the tires and brakes have enough life left in them to complete the trip without causing any concern—then your pre-flight check is going to amount to checking the tire pressures and fluid levels, giving the bike a quick once-over and maybe a little give and take with your better half over who gets to fill the saddlebags.

On the other hand if you’ve been a little lax, it might be time to give the bike a good going-over, especially if things like the tires, brakes and fluids are all past their sell-by date, and particularly if the bike has any mechanical issues that you’ve been putting off, no matter how small they may seem. Something you’ve been living with for months, like a small coolant or oil leak, may not cause much problem around town or on a Sunday ride, but if you’re crossing high desert in mid-summer, or just headed to Grandma’s house three states over, it’s safe money it’ll turn into a disaster before you’re halfway there.

Before we begin, let me add one qualification. If the trip is going to involve something rigorous—maybe you’re going go for some kind of Iron Butt insane mileage award—then your inspection should be somewhat more in-depth than what’s presented here. You should also be packing more tools, and more spare parts than I’ve listed, but you already knew that, didn’t you?

Get Ready

What we’re going to doing is a walk- (or in some cases, crawl) around inspection, and in my experience the most effective way to that is by using a checklist, so that’s the format I’ll give you as opposed to a bunch of hard-to-follow scribbling. I’d also recommend starting the process with a good wash and wax. That may seem counterintuitive, however a good pre-inspection wash not only makes the bike more pleasant to work on, but will help spot any small problems before they become big ones. Likewise, a good wax job, preferably with a carnauba-based wax, will go a long way toward protecting the finish from road debris and impacted bugs, and make the post-trip clean up that much easier. Besides, a good wash and wax is worth at least ten horsepower, or so I’m told.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, let me address one last salient point: If you can reasonably assume that a given component is good, there’s no need to go nuts checking it. For instance, if you’re riding a new or low-mileage bike that’s exhibited no steering anomalies, there’s really no need to jack up the bike and check the steering head bearing adjustment; a quick rolling check will suffice, and you can do that by holding on the front brake and rocking the bike back and forth. Likewise the battery, if relatively fresh and starting reliably, needs just a visual inspection and maybe a quick voltage test. There’s no need to have it load tested. On the other hand, if the bike had to be jump-started twice in the last week you might want to consider replacing the battery and checking the charging system. What I’m saying is to temper your enthusiasm with common sense. It also goes without saying that anything that’s past its service interval or that’ll need servicing before the trip ends should be attended to before you leave.

While I’ve tried to cover all the bases, the following check list(s) are, by necessity, generic. If there’s any doubt refer to your owner’s manual. On that same note, the manual will list things that should be checked on a daily basis. During normal use a lot of those checks are overlooked (understandably). However, when you may be riding 500 or more miles a day, it pays to check things like tire pressure and engine oil levels with religious fervor, at least once a day. Although it may seem like a lot, the fact is that once you fall into the routine, a daily inspection (most of which is done visually), can be completed before you’ve polished off your morning coffee.

What To Take

While a good pre-trip inspection goes a long way toward ensuring a trouble-free tour, it’s a comprehensive tool kit, and a few well-chosen spares, that’ll get your buns out of the oven when there’s a problem.

That being said, let me point out one of the great ironies of motorcycle repair. Although today’s motorcycles are as reliable as time, they can be extremely difficult to troubleshoot and repair by the side of the road. For example, troubleshooting and repairing an EFI system failure requires a code reader, a digital ohm meter and access to some very expensive components. So once you get past checking the fuse, repairing one that’s gone south on the side of the road is damn near impossible, unless you’re very lucky, very knowledgeable, and happen to have the failed component with you. So I’d suggest you pack a tool kit suited to making adjustments and quick roadside repairs rather than something to cope with the grand mechanical nightmares your fevered imagination conjures up. And if something terminal does occur? Well that’s what cell phones, roadside assistance programs and U-Hauls are for.

Few bikes come with tool kits these days, so you have two choices; you can roll your own, or source something complete from the aftermarket. Cruz Tools and Motion Pro are two sources that come most readily to mind. Building a tool kit from scratch has some advantages; you can get exactly what you need and tailor the price to your purse. Harbor Freight and big box stores are very good if price is the main consideration, and you can work your way up from there. While you’re there, pick up a decent first aid kit as well. Though not technically a tool, it’s something that belongs in everyone’s saddle bag.

Make sure your tool kit incorporates a flashlight, or better yet some kind of hands-free light; headlamps work really well. Don’t forget the spare batteries. A small test light will help track down minor electrical problems, like that blown EFI fuse. Along with the tool kit, pack a tire repair kit, and if you’re running tube-type tires, a can or two of aerosol tube repair like Flat Fix. If nothing else, an aerosol will usually air up the tube long enough to get you off the road where you can make a proper repair. A small can of WD-40, packed in a baggie, and Swiss Army knife (get the Mechanic or Tinker) or Leatherman tool should be tossed in somewhere, as well as a set of motorcycle-size jumper cables, if you have room for them.

As far as spare parts go, pack a small assortment of nuts and bolts, a few feet of mechanic’s wire, a foot or two of #14 insulated wire, some fuses and a small roll of electrical or duct tape. I normally don’t pack spare bulbs or oil; unless you’re traveling far from the beaten path, why waste the space when you can buy it at any auto parts store or 7-11? Finally, it’s never a bad idea to pack a spare clutch lever—even a minor parking lot tip-over can break one, and while bikes can be ridden without clutch levers, it’s difficult, especially if you’re on something heavy.

Lastly, do yourself a big favor and hide a spare key somewhere on the bike. I stash mine in the taillight.

Get Set: Pre-Trip Check list

** Fasteners: Look for anything loose, broken or missing.
Front forks: Check for loose steering head bearings, leaking seals, and restricted movement.
Swing arm: Check for play.
Rear shocks: Check for leaks, spring adjustment.
Wheels: Look for loose/broken spokes; check bearing play.
Tires: Check tread depth and inflation pressure.
Grease appropriate linkages

** Brake pads: Check wear.
Brake fluid: Check level and condition (low fluid may mean a leak or a worn pad). Change fluid as required.
Brake rotor: Look for loose or missing fasteners.
Brake Drum: Check adjustment (drum brake).

**Final Drive
** Chain: Adjust and lubricate, or replace as required.
Belt: Check tension, inspect for any signs of damage
Shaft/final drive: Check oil level; change as required.

** Coolant: Check level and condition of coolant; change as required; inspect hoses and clamps.
Engine oil: Check and change (along with filter) as required.
Air filter: Inspect, clean or change as required.
Fuel Filter: Change according to the manufacturer's recommendations.
Transmission/primary drive: Check and change as required,

** Look for external oil, fuel or coolant leaks; repair as needed.
Check for unusual noises or vibration.
Address any performance issues.
Look for loose or missing hardware.
Fuel and vacuum lines: check condition of hoses and clamps.
Exhaust System: Check condition, and mounting points.

**Electrical System
** Battery: Check terminals; check electrolyte level and adjust (if applicable).
Turn signals, running and brake lights: Check and replace as needed.
Gauge lights and warning indicators: Check and replace as needed.
Headlight: Check condition and focus; ensure beam is properly aimed to compensate for any added weight.
Driving and fog lights: Check mounting hardware, beam and wiring.
Charging system: If bike is equipped with charging indicator, make sure it's working and indicating a charge at anything above idle.
Horn: Toot-toot.
Wiring: Look for any obvious signs of damage or chafing.
Switches: Check operation. Tip: A squirt of WD-40 into the switch will prevent any internal corrosion and prevent it from sticking.

** Clutch, brake and throttle operation: Check and adjust.
Clutch, and throttle cable free play: Check and adjust.
Brake linkage: Check and adjust.
Foot peg covers and grips: Check for wear; replace anything uncomfortable or worn out.

** Mirrors: Check condition and adjustment.
Luggage rack and saddle bag brackets: Look for cracks; wrench-check mounting hardware.
Crash bars: Look for cracked welds; wrench-check mounting hardware.

**Saddle Bags and Top Case:
** Make sure removable bags and cases lock securely to brackets.


That pretty much covers it. If you’ve been keeping up with your preventive maintenance, the basic inspection should take under an hour, though you’ll have to allow for any repairs or servicing that are required. Unfortunately, the hardest part of the prep—divvying up the saddlebag space—is yet to come.

Chemical Warfare

Most of us realize that what passes for gasoline these days is horrible stuff, and if you let it sit in your bike for any length of time it’s going to do horrible things to your fuel system. Yet all too often we let our bikes sit for long periods with stale gas in them, and then seem puzzled why the things won’t start, idle or run properly.

Opinions vary on gasoline’s shelf life. Ask ten fuel blenders and you’ll get ten different answers, ranging from one month to one year, and to some degree, because there are so many variables involved, they’ll all be right. For example, because alcohol has an affinity for water, gasoline with a high ethanol content deteriorates quickly, and in some cases may cause problems within a month or two, while straight gas, when properly stored in an airtight container can last for up to a year or more, especially if it’s stored in large quantities. As far as we’re concerned, the most widely accepted figure is that gasoline stored in your motorcycle’s fuel tank has an expiration date of 90 days. After that it goes downhill quickly, and when it does it can create some real problems, ranging from poor performance to plugged jets and injectors. Let it go too long and there’s a real chance you’ll end up stripping, cleaning and possibly replacing most of your fuel system.

The easiest way to forestall problems is to ride the bike on a regular basis. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible, so the next best thing, short of draining the fuel system after each ride (kind of a hassle), is to use a fuel conditioner anytime the bike is going to sit for more than a few weeks. Ideally you should add the stuff at every fill up, but carrying around a jug of fuel additive isn’t always convenient, so the next best thing is to add some before your next ride so it’ll circulate through the fuel system, and, assuming you top off the tank during the ride, add a little more when you get home.

Adding conditioner before and after each ride may seem like a chore but it’ll go a long way toward preventing problems, and it’s way easier (and cheaper) than stripping and cleaning your fuel system.






This is the stuff I won’t leave home without. The bug spray isn’t a strict necessity, but it sure comes in handy.
Every trip should start, and end, with a good wash.
Leaving home on worn tires is the ultimate touring faux-pas. This one, though, has at least 4k left.
Don’t forget to take a look at things like the saddlebag brackets. A broken weld here might not turn into a disaster but it’ll sure be a pain in the butt.
Check the oil on a daily basis; it’s the cheapest engine insurance you’ll ever buy.
Check your lights early and often.