Unconventional Motorcycle Wisdom

Tips from breaking in your motorcycle to oil tips

Unconventional motorcycle
Sometimes a little unconventional wisdom is much neededStaff

Twice in the past month, I have had conversations about readers’ engines. Both complained of oil-consumption problems and smoking from their big twins. Another said his used oil at a fairly low mileage. It’s a common tale of woe, and the cause is generally the same. These guys broke their new bikes in very gently. Actually, they never did break them in because they were so gentle. One benefit of being a magazine editor is access to experts in the field you cover, which often lets me hear information that contradicts the conventional wisdom.

Don't Baby It
Over the years, several experts have warned that people are too easy on their new engines. "If they baby the hell out of it, it will never break in," one manufacturer's rep told me. Part of break-in is putting enough pressure on the rings to seat them. To do this, you must run it up to redline every so often and apply full throttle. Bigger cylinders seem especially sensitive to this. The manual's conservative recommendations are written with an eye on liability. Parts that break will probably do so when new, so the manufacturers would rather have you riding slowly when that one-in-a-million failure occurs. But unless you put some pressure on the rings, by occasionally using full throttle and high rpm, your engine may never get fully broken in. A babied engine eventually glazes the cylinder walls, and that's that. This doesn't mean that you should run everywhere wide-open during those first few hundred miles, and you should not overheat it. The cycles of heating and cooling are part of break-in. If running that new engine hard concerns you, take a tour of a motorcycle factory. Every bike coming off the line is run to redline.

Warm While Riding
Another bad thing that riders with good intentions do to their engines are long, static warm-ups. One expert told me, "These engines develop hot spots while sitting. Even liquid-cooled engines are designed to have air flowing over them. If you leave it idling on its stand some parts get too hot. They should let it warm for a few seconds, then, as soon as it carburetes well enough to pull away without bogging, get moving." He added that it was sometimes possible to see discoloration caused by prolonged warm-ups at rest. One of these signs, of course, can be blued pipes.

Slippery Subject
To get a group of motorcyclists agitated, loudly declare that one oil is the best. Someone will call you a moron. If all discussion of motorcycle lubrication was taken off the Internet, we'd have quicker downloads and millions of free gigabytes. Everyone has an oily opinion based on some bit of information or experience. What should you choose? In some cases you actually can tell a difference because your bike will shift more smoothly and quietly with certain oils. But beyond that it's hard to find a difference, or even a meaningful recommendation. Awhile back one motorcycle publication "tested" oils and recommended one premium automobile oil. Months later I was at a new model intro with one of the manufacturer's tech people. One dealer said that he started stocking this automotive oil, since his customers wanted to use it. "Don't," said the tech guy. He then told us about one country's distributor for this brand that had made an arrangement with the distributor for that oil brand, endorsing that oil and even putting stickers on new bikes saying so. Soon thereafter, bikes of that brand in that country began having an inordinate number of lubrication-related top-end failures. There were recriminations and threats of suits, and the oil endorsement was quickly withdrawn.

So what oil should you use? Not surprisingly, most manufacturer’s tech reps recommend their company’s brand because they have seen the testing results and feel confident about it. Most assert that you should at least use a motorcycle-specific oil, citing the usual concerns about clutch and transmission lubrication issues, high rpm and air cooling. Others are a bit more specific. “If a customer only rides his bike twice a month for 50 miles at a time and changes his oil once or twice a year, it doesn’t really matter what he uses,” one rep told me. “He will never wear that engine out anyway. The ones who need motorcycle blends are the guys who ride harder, keep their bikes for years and go the full distance between recommended oil-change intervals.”

“The motorcycle I worry about,” said another company’s rep, “is the one that isn’t ridden for a month or two, then gets started up [again].” In this situation, the expert suggested a heavy, single-weight oil, which was less likely to run off the moving parts while the bike sat. He saw corrosion and start-up wear as the biggest threats to such engines.

These are just some tech issues that seem to have been shrouded by confusion, myth and misinformation over the years. Motorcycling is full of myths ("Loud pipes save lives") that aren't supported by the facts. Fortunately, there are people out there who are looking for the real story. One of the pleasures of being a journalist is getting to relate it.

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