On The Road Again

When AC first proposed I write something intelligent about prepping a bike for the open road, I was on it like stink on Limburger. But as I thought about it two things struck me. Judging by the letters I receive, the majority of MC readers are downright conscientious when it comes to routine maintenance. Shamefully, most of you are probably better at it than I am, and by the same token a lot of you spend way more time touring by motorcycle than I do. I figure there are quite a few readers who could probably teach me a thing or two on both counts.

On the other hand it's a good bet that there are more than a couple of you who are new to touring and need to learn a few of the basics. Like my granddad used to say, "An ounce of prevention is always worth a pound of whatever bit you" or something like that, so in that spirit here are a few tips on making that first trip from Duckberg to Podunk.

The Easy Way
I'm a big believer in making life as easy as possible, and the simplest, fastest way I know of giving a bike a quick once-over is to wash and wax it. My theory is that even if you're only halfway observant (kind of like me), giving the bike the old rub-a-dub lets you get up close and personal with it. Frankly I don't think you're going to uncover anything major, especially if you've been reasonably diligent in your maintenance, but you're always liable to notice something like a frayed clutch cable, chafed wire or maybe a cotter pin that's not bent the way it should be-which, by the way, I generally find by impaling a finger, so pay attention when you come up on one.

Besides being a good way to spot minor mechanical problems, a thorough cleaning before the trip helps keep road grime and bugs from damaging your bike's finish, and just as importantly (at least to me) a clean and shiny bike always makes a better impression on the nonriding public than a messy one. Personally I prefer the NRP to see me as a jolly knight of the open road as opposed to a grungy biker slob, and riding a clean bike helps promote that image-at least until they get to know me.

The Nitty-Gritty
Naturally any service work that's due or may come due before your trip is over should be performed before you leave. Changing the oil and filter in the sanctity of your own garage is a relaxing way to spend the afternoon. Changing it in the parking lot of the Poke 'N' Plumb Motel in East Gypsum, Arkansas (motto: "Poke your head out the window and yer plumb out of town"), while your buddies are chatting up the ladies down at the nearest watering hole is just a hassle.

Likewise it's a lot easier to make a service appointment with your local shop before you leave than it is to find someone who'll perform that 10K inspection (while you wait) on the road between Tucson and Tucumcari.

Anything that might wear out should be replaced, so take a look at the obvious-tires, brake pads, and the chain and sprockets or drive belt-and the not-so-obvious, like the clutch and throttle cables. If they feel stiff, lube them, replace them or buy a set of spares to take with you, cause they ain't going to get better by themselves.

Make sure you also check stuff you've been ignoring since you bought the bike. Trips have a way of reminding you exactly where there's a shortfall in your maintenance program. Heavily loaded bikes eat spokes, and long downhill grades offer terrific insight into how entrained water lowers the boiling point of brake fluid and induces brake fade. Remember that coolant is called that for a reason. If your antifreeze has degraded to the point where it's little more than water, you may run into overheating problems if you're riding in extreme temperatures. It's not a bad idea to pressure-test the radiator cap every two years or so, or even replace it just so you know it's up to snuff.

Another thing too many guys take for granted is the suspension. For the most part suspension issues occur slowly, so we tend to adapt to them rather than notice there's a problem. Before setting off on a trip, check the shocks and fork seals for leaks, the swingarm bearings for play and the steering-head bearing adjustment. If anything's not kosher, deal with it now.

I once headed for Laconia, New Hampshire, on what I thought was a well-prepped BMW. Because it was only a four-day trip and I'd been riding the bike to work every day, I didn't do much of a pretrip inspection. Besides, I'd just changed the oil and filter, so what could possibly go wrong? About 300 miles in, I hit a patch of what was essentially a corduroy road at maybe 50 mph; the bars were ripped right out of my hands, the front fork went from lock to lock maybe six times and I thought I was a goner. By the grace of God I reeled the thing in, but it wasn't pretty-the guy behind me said at one point the only part of me connected to the bike was my right hand. When I got home I checked the steering-head bearings and confirmed what I'd suspected after the second swing of the fork. The steering head bearings were w-a-a-y out of adjustment. I was lucky; you might not be, so spend a few extra minutes checking the front end before you leave, especially if you can't remember the last time you did.

Unless you're like Cherney, who travels farther with less gear than any man I ever met, chances are you'll be packing a fair amount of weight, especially if you're planning to be on the road awhile. Here are a few things to consider.

First, all bikes have a sticker somewhere that lists the gross vehicle weight rating or GVWR (this can also be found in the owner's manual). The GVWR equals the weight of the bike plus the maximum weight it can carry. For example, an '03 Harley-Davidson FLHT has a GVWR of 1259 pounds. Because the bike weighs 758 pounds dry, that leaves you with a carrying capacity of 501 pounds, which seems like a lot until you run the numbers.

A gallon of gas weighs roughly 6 pounds, and the FLH holds five of them, so there's 30 pounds. I weigh 240 pounds and my wife 117, and don't forget that's in street clothes. So with a full tank and both of us on the bike we're already up to 1145.5 pounds, leaving just 113.5 pounds for cargo. That 113.5 evaporates pretty quickly once you factor in riding gear, a few changes of clothes and whatever else you've decided is absolutely necessary to have with you. Granted there's a certain fudge factor involved, but grossly exceeding the GVWR can have some very unfortunate repercussions. I should also mention that along with the GVWR you'll find the GAWR, or gross axle weight rating, listed. This rating specifies the maximum weight each axle can bear. It's a good guide to weight distribution and gives you some idea of the how the bike needs to be loaded so stability isn't adversely affected.

The second point is that all that weight loads the suspension and tires, so you'll need to make the appropriate adjustments. Your manual or the appropriate sticker on the frame should list correct tire pressures, which will at least get you in the ballpark, and you can fine-tune it from there.

If for some reason you don't have any info, the maximum allowable tire pressure is listed on the tire's sidewall. Using that as a starting point, ride the fully loaded bike a couple of miles to heat up the tires (5-6 miles should do it), then recheck the tire pressure. If it's gone up 3 pounds or so, you're pretty close to the proper pressure. If it's gone up by more than 4 pounds, the tires are underinflated. And if they haven't changed at all or the increase is less than 2 pounds, they're overinflated. Let them cool off for a few minutes and adjust accordingly.

If you're lucky enough to have some suspension adjustment other than spring preload, the manual will provide the base settings. If all you've got is a preload adjustment, go up one notch to compensate for the luggage and two notches to offset the combined weight of the passenger and luggage. Remember, though, suspension and tire-pressure settings aren't carved in stone, and some experimentation may be needed before you're satisfied.

Necessities-Road Tools
One of the great ironies of motorcycle repair is that as motorcycles have become more reliable, they've also become harder to fix. Let me explain. Back in the days when carburetors were leaky and ignition systems intermittent, they were relatively easy to troubleshoot and repair by the side of the road, which was good because you did it on a regular basis, and in an emergency you could always cobble together something that'd get you home. I once used a John Deere tractor condenser to repair my broken-down '72 Bultaco Alpina, and it was still in there when I sold the thing three years later.

Modern bikes with their EFI systems and digital electronic ignitions are nearly bulletproof, but if something does crap out it's highly doubtful you'll be able to figure out where the problem lies, let alone fix it with an old tractor part. My guess is that after about 10 minutes of cursing the motor gods you're going to be calling for a tow to the nearest shop so the thing can be plugged into a scan tool and properly diagnosed. So why bother carrying anything other than a cell phone and a credit card?

The correct answer is because no matter how reliable your bike is, things happen. It may be something as small as a mirror coming loose or a handlebar that needs a little adjustment, or it may be crash damage you have to repair so the bike can be ridden to the nearest safe port. But no matter what, you need to carry a decent tool set and few spare parts.

As far as tools go you can either live with what's supplied with the bike, roll your own or purchase a comprehensive kit off the rack. I like the last option best, so for the last few years I've been carrying a CruzTool Road Tech M3 kit in my saddlebags. While I'm loathe to shill for any particular company (especially when I'm not getting a cut of the take), I can't speak highly enough about the CruzTool kit. It's an excellent value, and you get a very wide-ranging assortment of iron that should get you out of just about any mechanical jam short of a roadside engine rebuild. To finish off your portable service department toss in a Swiss Army Knife-I like either the Tinker or Mechanic-a spare flashlight, a small first-aid kit (in case you need to work on yourself) and oh, yeah, don't forget that credit card and cell phone.

If you've installed any electrical accessories (or just like to be prepared) carrying some sort of electrical repair kit makes a lot of sense too; you never know when you'll need to lengthen a short or something.

Along with your tools you'll also need a few spares. At the very least have a roll of good electrical tape and small container filled with an assortment of nuts and bolts, fuses and a length of stiff mechanic's wire. I'd also recommend a few hose clamps in assorted sizes and maybe a turn signal and taillight bulb, which should be wrapped in foam to protect them. If you're riding a belt-driven bike I'd suggest carrying either a spare belt or one of those split emergency belts that can be installed without dismantling half the bike. And last, an away kit should always include the owner's manual (or even better, a service manual).

I'd also recommend bringing the appropriate tire repair kit. If you're rolling on tubeless tires, that's a no-brainer -a plug kit of some kind and your favorite tire pump or a six-pack of CO2 cartridges, and you're in business. But it's a little trickier if your ride has tube tires.

Here's the problem. Removing the wheel from a big touring bike without a decent lift or jack isn't a job for the fainthearted, and it's only half the battle. Once it's off you've still got to remove and replace the tube. Breaking down a tire is fairly easy when you've got the right tools and a decent spot to work, but it's problematic even for the best of us when you're wrestling the thing by the side of a busy road. In fact it's such a hassle that I only recommend doing it if you have no other option.

Should you be so unfortunate as to puncture a tube, I'd suggest you fill the SOB with an aerosol flat fix and then limp the bike to the nearest motel or shop and make the appropriate arrangements to have the tube-and if need be the tire-replaced. This is one instance when the credit card and cell phone will come in mighty handy.

So Hit the Road Already
If the foregoing seems basic, that's because it is. My feeling is that in this day and age touring by motorcycle isn't exactly a trip to the ends of the earth-at least not when you're within the confines of the 48 contiguous states. If the bike is well prepared and you've got a few common tools, a scrap of common sense and your owner's manual, you should be able to overcome 99 percent of the emergencies you'll encounter. And for the remaining 1 percent-well, that'll make a terrific story to go with all those photos you took.

Pre-Flight Check
Get the balance right: Check your bike's GVWR before you start packing, and deduct rider and passenger weight right off the bat. Now you can distribute your cargo accordingly.

It's a good idea to keep your cargo weight low for stability, but make the load reasonable back here. If there's a passenger or additional rear-seat luggage involved, be sure to adjust tire pressures and rear-shock settings as well.

Remember to take into account the 30 or so pounds of fuel sitting in your tank when you pack, too. It could also affect your bike's overall stability.

Clean and clear: A thorough cleaning before the trip is a good way to spot minor mechanical problems and helps keep grime at bay. It's crucial for things like your headlight and windshield.

Take a look at the obvious stuff before you set out: tire tread, brake pads, clutch and throttle cables. Fork seals deserve a close look, too.

The gross vehicle weight rating info will be on the VIN sticker...
...and tire pressure info will be found on the chain guard or swingarm.
On a serious road trip, you need to be prepared to take care of things yourself. A well-stocked tool kit is your first line of repair, and a tire repair kit wouldn't hurt, either. Then add a line jumper, some electrical tape or Rescue Tape, a small container full of common fasteners, fuses, crimp-on electrical connectors and a first-aid kit. Cigars optional . . .