Routine Motorcycle Maintenance | An Ounce Of Prevention

I talk a lot about preventive maintenance, if only because there are few things worse than being stuck in an out-of-the-way place with a busted motorcycle, especially when the problem is a direct result of neglect. That being said, I'm by no means one of those guys that heads out to the garage with the owner's manual in one hand and a fine tooth comb in the other before each ride. Nor would I expect any of our readers to be so inclined, though if you are bent that way I'd appreciate it if you don't send me a nasty-gram pointing out how irresponsible I am, or that I'm a perfect example of the "do as I say, not as I do" philosophy.

If I had to sum up my thinking regarding routine maintenance, the phrase that comes most readily to mind is benign neglect. Meaning that while I perform the major services more or less by the book and at the suggested intervals, and I'm pretty good at giving the bike a quick check-over, I tend to neglect things that I've learned from experience can stand to be neglected. For example, I rarely check the steering head play unless I suspect there's a problem; the same goes for things like wheel and swing arm bearings. Frankly, I tend to leave those things alone until there's a problem.

I'd also like to think that after 45 years of riding and working on motorcycles, I've developed a pretty good feel for their mechanical proclivities. Whether that's true or not, it comforts me to think that, and I am very sensitive to the way my motorcycle performs; if something doesn't feel right, I always investigate it before the next ride.

Now, by no means am I saying you should follow the same path, but it works for me. I do spend an inordinate amount of time tinkering with my bikes because that's what I like to do, and when you're constantly fiddling with them it's easy to spot and rectify potential problems before they turn into disasters. Consequently (knock wood here), I rarely have problems on the road, and when I do they're generally not of my making.

Case in point: Last September 12, which just happened to be my 35th wedding anniversary, I decided to take the day off and go for a ride with my friend the Pipe Major, so called because he earns his daily bread as a professional bagpiper. I figured we'd run out, grab lunch and then head home, leaving me plenty of time to prepare for a night on the town with the missus.

The Major owns upward of 50 vintage bikes, at least 20 of which he rides on a regular basis. Between his music and the sheer number of rigs that need attention, it's not unusual to find that whatever he's riding on a given day needs some fiddling. This time he arrived on his 1998 Moto Guzzi (his "reliable" bike), so we were both unpleasantly surprised when it simply refused to start up again after a gas stop.

…there are few things worse than being stuck in an out-of-the-way place with a busted motorcycle…

The gas station had no shop, however it was right next to a large auto repair facility whose manager, a KTM rider, gave us full run of the place, including use of his tools. The bike's reluctance to start was traced to a bad battery, but the good news was that the NAPA store across the street had one in stock, so an hour later we were on our way. I wish the story had a happy ending, but on the ride home, a road closure due to a fallen tree, on top of the previously-mentioned breakdown, led to me being four hours late getting home, and yeah, the end result was just what you'd expect.

My wife was by no means happy, but fortunately she realizes that sudden breakdowns and road closures are part of life, and that, karma being what it is, both are most likely to occur on your anniversary. She did mention that a better preventive maintenance program by both the forestry service and my buddy might have created a more harmonious outcome but all in all, she was damn good about the whole thing.

The following Sunday it happened again. This time someone's BMW snapped a clutch cable. Again the motor gods smiled on us—it happened in front of a NAPA store, so we were able to lash something together and get back on the road. The guy's ancient R60 has had an inordinately stiff clutch for years, so it was no surprise when the bone-dry cable snapped at the lever pivot. In fact, I was surprised it lasted as long as it did.

This time when I waltzed in two hours late, my wife gave me a piece of her mind. "You know, if your friends kept their bikes in better shape, you wouldn't always be fixing them on the side of the road." True, I said, but then I'd have nothing to write about for my next column.

Here's the thing. Stuff happens—we get that—and sometimes, despite your best efforts your bike breaks on the road. That sucks, but it also sucks to be one of the guys riding with you when it happens. So next time you think you can make it through one more ride without fixing whatever it is that needs it, consider the guys that'll be riding with you. Especially the married ones.