Shop Talk | The New Rider’s Guide to Basic Maintenance Part 1

Tech Matters

**How-To **

Being somewhat long of tooth and gray of beard, I sometimes forget that a portion of our readership is relatively new to motorcycling and by extension, unfamiliar with some of the more basic maintenance tasks. While becoming an ace mechanic is certainly no prerequisite to becoming a good rider, being able to perform some routine maintenance as well as make minor adjustments and repairs to your bike will always come in handy, and in my opinion, enhance your enjoyment of motorcycling.

What follows, then, is the first of a two part series that will walk you through some basic mechanical tasks that every rider, new or old, should feel comfortable performing.

**Tool Gathering **

If you’re a dedicated do-it-yourself type, you’ve probably already got all the tools required, but if you’re new to this, it’s time to go shopping.

Initially, all you’ll need is enough iron to turn some nuts, bolts, and screws. I’d recommend starting out with a basic mechanics set, similar to those sold by Sears and other big box stores. These range in price from around $29 for a simple homeowner’s set up to maybe $1200 for a professional mechanics kit. Make sure you get the set that’s dimensionally compatible with your bike—fractional for Harley-Davidson, and metric for everything else.

Another option would be to purchase a motorcycle-specific tool kit, like the Roadtech M3 ($84.95) by CruzTools, which has the added advantage of being compact enough to stow on your motorcycle when it’s not in use, and comes with some handy extras, like a small flashlight and a tire gauge.

In general, something in the under $100 price range should do just fine as a starter, with the caveat that you may need to flesh out a particular kit with an extra tool here and there. For example, oil drain plug bolts and axle nuts can sometimes be difficult to loosen. A nice long breaker bar with the appropriate heavy-duty socket will make it a lot easier, but it’s unlikely you’ll find either in a tool kit retailing for $49.95.

Additionally, you’ll need a plastic funnel, an oil drain pan of some sort and a bag of rags. I’d also recommend buying a decent 3⁄8 drive torque wrench before you undertake any of these procedures, especially when you have little or no experience tightening bolts. I’ve seen serviceable ones go for under 20 bucks, which is money well spent. Lastly, a shop manual, either from the OEM or aftermarket company, is the single best investment you can make.

Making the bike fit you

Far too many riders, new or old, ignore their bike’s ergonomic adjustments. Consequently, rather than riding a bike that fits them, they try to adapt to one that doesn’t, which compromises their comfort and control. In other words, they let the bike ride them, rather than the other way around, when all it takes to fix it is an hour’s worth of work and a few tools.

**Handle Bar adjustment **

Before starting, determine which type of handlebar clamps your bike uses. The two most popular are offset and straight-cut. Offset clamps will have a step in them that seats against the bottom half of the lower clamp. The step is always positioned toward the front, and there’s usually an arrow or punch mark to indicate which way it should face. When offset clamps are properly tightened, the front half of the clamps will mate flat against its lower half, leaving a slight gap at the rear side of the clamp. Straight-cut clamps have equal gaps on both sides of the clamp, and are non-directional.

Place a towel over the top of the tank to protect it, and loosen the clamp bolts, front to rear by ¼ to ½ of a turn. A word of caution here; the idea is to reduce the clamping tension on the bars so you can move them with moderate pressure. You don’t want to loosen the clamps to the point where they fall under their own weight and ding the tank, so go lightly, loosening the bolts only a small amount at a time.

Once you’ve got the bars where they’re most comfortable, snug down the bolts. If the clamps are offset, first tighten the front bolts until the clamps bottom out, and then tighten the rears. If the clamps are straight-cut, maintain an equal gap front to rear.

The final tightening should be done to the manufacturer’s specifications using a torque wrench. You want the handlebar bolts tight, but not overly so, which would weaken them, and leaving them on the loose side is just asking for huge problems.

Control Lever adjustment

Locate the lever clamp screws, and back them off slightly, then rotate the levers to their most comfortable position. In rare instances, you can move the bars and levers so far it affects cable free play so make sure there’s nothing binding or pinched before you tighten them back up. Don’t overdo it here—you’re tightening steel bolts into aluminum threads, so just tight enough to prevent the lever mounts from rotating under moderate pressure works just fine.

Shift lever adjustment

Shift levers are either mounted directly to the transmission, or connect to it remotely through linkage. In the first case, you can normally raise or lower the pedal by repositioning it on the shaft. Remove the pinch bolt from the pedal, and then slide the pedal off the shaft. It may take a little effort, especially if the pedal’s been on there awhile. Tip: gently wedging a screwdriver into the cut slot located on the back of the shifter will make it a lot easier to remove. Use a dab of grease on the splines to ease installation, reinstall the bolt, and you’re done.

Linkage-type shifters typically use a threaded rod to connect the pedal to the tranny. Normally, one end of the rod has a left-hand thread and the other a right-hand thread, so the pedal height can be adjusted simply by turning the rod without disassembling anything.

The manual will detail the exact procedure and point out which of the lock nuts has the left-hand thread.

Brake Pedal Adjustment

Brake pedal heights are adjusted via stop bolts, or by linkage. Your owner’s or shop manual will describe the system and adjustment procedure your bike uses. The important thing to remember here is that when you’re adjusting pedal height, you must maintain some free play in the system. Without it, the brake will overheat, with unpleasant consequences.

Typically, the stop bolt will be located at the rear of the pedal. Turning it in brings the pedal closer to the foot peg, which also increases free play. Screwing it out pushes it away, decreasing free play. As a rule, whenever a stop bolt adjuster is used to set the pedal height, the brake will incorporate a separate adjuster to set the free play.

When brake pedals are adjusted via threaded rods, normally the only thing affected is the pedal height. Some have adjusting rods identical to the ones described in the section on shift levers; some use a captive nut, or a threaded clevis. In either event, adjusting the height requires loosening the lock nut(s), and adjusting the rod to raise or lower the pedal.

Generally, when the pedal height is adjusted via a threaded rod, the free play won’t be affected; nonetheless always double check it after making any sort of pedal height adjustment. Lastly, whenever the pedal is adjusted, double check the rear brake light switch; it may be necessary to adjust that as well.

Changing the oil and filter

We've detailed this procedure several times in the past, so check out the tech archives at for the full Monty. The short version is that engine oil is best drained hot, or at least warm, so be careful; it's easy to get burnt by the oil, the engine, or the exhaust, and very often (at least if you're as clumsy as I am), you'll hit the trifecta.

Oil drain plugs can be a bear to remove. They’re typically made of steel and threaded into an aluminum sump, so between a little corrosion, some galling and an overzealous hand on the wrench, they can seemingly weld themselves in place. If you’re man enough, a strong arm and a wrench can generally break them loose, but most of the time you’ll find it easier to use a longish ratchet and socket or a breaker bar. After you retrieve the little bugger from the drain pan, wipe the magnetic tip clean and remove the old drain plug gasket. Allow the oil to drain for 10 minutes if the engine is warm, 20 if it’s cold. Give the drain plug a light coating of anti-seize before reinstalling it, and always use a new gasket.

Run the drain plug in until it seats. If you have a torque wrench, use it to tighten the bolt to spec—if not, give it another ½ to ¾ of a turn using a wrench or 3⁄8 drive ratchet and socket. If the gasket is a copper or aluminum crush-washer, make sure it’s fully compressed.

A word of warning; some motorcycles will have two drain plugs in the sump. You’ll have to remove both to drain the crankcase, so make sure to read through the appropriate section of your owner’s manual.

Remove the oil filter. If your bike uses an older cartridge-type filter you won’t need much more than a socket or two to remove the cover, but some of the automotive-type spin-on filters can put up a fight. Dedicated filter wrenches are cheap and make removing even the most stubborn filter a lot easier. They can be purchased through your favorite motorcycle shop or at most auto parts stores.

Lightly lube the oil filter’s O-ring (spin-on) or cover gasket (cartridge-type) with fresh oil or a dab of grease before installing it; some manufacturers recommend pre-filling the filter with fresh oil before installing, others warn vehemently against it. I don’t pre-fill the filters but I do crank the engine in short bursts, with the choke off, so it won’t start, until the oil light goes out to pressurize the system. In any event, I’ve never seen any damage caused by installing an oil filter without pre-filling it, and yes, that includes those engines that were started right up and allowed to idle until the light went out.

All spin-on filters have the tightening instructions stamped on them, but the rule of thumb is to lightly seat the filter gasket against the machined surface of the filter housing, and then tighten it an additional ½ to ¾ of a turn.

Fill the engine with the recommended oil, fire it up, and make sure there are no leaks. If it’s all good (and why wouldn’t it be?), let it sit a few minutes and then recheck the level.

**Replacing the air filter **

Although there are a few air filters that are a real pain in the butt to change, for the most part the job is as straightforward as it gets. Many can be replaced by simply removing the air box cover and sliding in a new element. Obviously, every bike is going to have a slightly different procedure, but here are a few general rules. First, before removing the old filter, blow or brush away any loose debris to prevent it from falling into the intake port. Second, before installing the new filter, apply a light coating of grease around its sealing surfaces; the grease makes for a better seal, and will trap any dust or dirt that makes it past the filter.

Lastly, consider replacing the stock non-washable OEM filter with something from the aftermarket. Although aftermarket washable filters can be more expensive than the OEM versions, they’re generally more economical to use in the long run because they can be reused rather than replaced.

**Fuel Filter **

The fuel filter (if one is installed) presents a greater challenge. Typically, it’s going to be tucked away somewhere safe, like under the seat or fuel tank (and every so often inside it), in which case I recommend you leave its replacement to your favorite mechanic, at least until you gain a little more experience.

External filters are usually held to the frame by a small tab or clips, with the inlet and outlet hoses secured to the filter by hose clamps. Alternatively, the hoses may be threaded into the filter or fastened with a specialized crimp on hose clamp—this last type will require special clamps and the right tool to crimp, so unless you’re willing to buy it, it’s another job that should be left to the dealer.

To remove the filter, loosen the clamps, and remove the hose with a slight twisting motion. It might help to grip the hose lightly with a pair of pliers as you pull. Resist the temptation to pull the hose straight back, as it might pop off, or just fight you. As the filter pulls loose, be prepared for a small spray of gas; some is bound to leak, so have a rag and drain pan handy. Install the new filter, paying attention to any directional arrows, which always point in the direction of flow, then secure the clamps. Clean up any spilled fuel, and start the engine. If there are no leaks, you’re good to go.

It’s a wrap

At this point, you should feel comfortable making basic set-up adjustments and performing the outlined maintenance. Next issue we'll address replacing the spark plugs, and inspecting the tires, brakes, and driveline, and adjusting the cables. CR


Shop Talk | The New Rider’s Guide to Basic Maintenance Part 1 - Motorcycle Cruiser Magazine