Avoid costly repairs with our basic motorcycle maintenance guide.
Understanding the mechanics of any vehicle can be a very daunting concept for most. But at some point, curiosity, interest and our love of the machines we ride might just usurp our fear of taking on minor motorcycle maintenance jobs. It is always recommended that any maintenance be carried out by a specialist, however, the concept of preventative maintenance will not only allow you to understand your bike better but also prevent issues leading to expensive repairs in the long run. Let's take a look at easy, regular checks you can do yourself by having the right motorcycle tools to maintain your pride and joy.
In this guide, we highlight the best ways to look after your motorcycle. We’ll discuss:
- Keeping your ears open
- The tools you’ll need to do it
- What you should check before heading out on the bike
Plus, other professional tips on how to keep your bike running smoothly.
Open Your Ears & Listen
Your motorcycle communicates with you directly in many ways. If you’ve got something modern, the dashboard usually gives you some indication there’s an issue, from a simple red light to a full-on text warning message. On the other hand, not every bike is equipped to the hilt with sensors to self-diagnose. In that case, you need to listen to the constant feedback your motorcycle is giving you when you’re riding. Whether it’s the noises your motorcycle produces or the feelings through the controls and seat, our bikes are always speaking to us in one form or another.
Along with advances in technology on motorcycles, our heads have had the same treatment. Modern tech such as Bluetooth helmet intercoms allow you to listen to your favourite music or take a phone call. But, it’s good to hit pause every once in a while just to listen to the noises your beloved bike makes.
A good starting point is to note how your motorcycle sounds at various stages of operation. When cold, bikes are usually noisier than when they reach operating temperature. This is because the oil hasn’t warmed up yet and is still quite viscous, but it doesn’t take long for the oil to warm up and lubricate all those bits of metal spinning round in the engine. Your bike will sound a bit less “gruff” but it really depends on the engine, some will just be noisier at startup than others! If however, a noise doesn’t go away or gets louder once the bike has been running for a few minutes it could point to an issue inside the engine.
Much like in aviation, where the pilot will go through a pre-flight check to determine if it is safe to fly the aircraft, you are the pilot for this two-wheeled machine. It is recommended to perform some sort of mental checklist before getting onto your motorcycle so that you have peace of mind when you take off on your journey. You may have heard of POWDERY, or even POWDER as it was formerly known. This acronym can be found in the Police Riders Handbook ‘Roadcraft’, and stands for:
Petrol, Oil, Water, Damage, Electrics, Rubber, You.
Check you have enough fuel for the journey you are about to undertake. You wouldn’t want to be desperately searching for a petrol station halfway through a ride. If your motorcycle has been standing for a while, and hasn’t had a fuel stabiliser added to the tank, it may be worth draining and refilling with fresh fuel. Petrol can go “off” and clog fuel lines, carb needles or fuel injectors.
With the motorcycle standing vertically, check the oil with the dipstick or sight glass located on the side of the engine casing. Ensure the oil level is between the min/max levels. It’s best to do this when the bike is cold (generally leave the bike for at least 10 minutes after running). If it looks low you can always top it up using the same oil type that was used previously. Beware that overfilling the oil can cause as many problems as too little oil, so don’t go gung ho with the refills!
Don’t worry about this one if your bike is powered by an air-cooled or oil-cooled engine. Watercooled motorcycles use a water and coolant mix to keep your engine operating at optimal temperatures. Coolant will also have an antifreeze element to stop it freezing in sub-zero temperatures. Like with the oil, ensure the bike is standing vertically and check to make sure the coolant level is between the min/max levels on the overflow tank. If it’s tricky to read, shine a light at the tank which will illuminate the liquid making it easier to read.
Check for any visual damage to your motorcycle. This could be the bodywork but also components like the radiator or controls. Also, remember to check your helmet and protective clothing. Damage is sometimes interchanged with drive-chain aka the chain. There is a section later on in the article about chain & sprocket health so I won’t go into detail here.
Give the horn a beep, flash the lights and pump the brakes. Turn on the ignition and walk around the bike to make sure all the lights are on and working. Flick the indicators from left to right and if you have them, check the hazards. Testing the lights is a bit easier if you are in a garage or it’s dark out as you can see the light bouncing off other surfaces. To check the brake light is working correctly, hold your hand in front of the brake light with one hand and pull the level with the other. You’ll see the light change on your hand. Make sure you check both the front and rear brake levers.
This is about the condition and pressure of your tyres. When looking at them visually, check for any signs of cracking, bulging, or bald spots of tread. The legal limit is at least 1mm of tread across ¾ of the tyre. Test the pressure in the tyre using a pressure gauge making sure the tyres are cold - the temperature will affect the pressure within a tyre and recommended tyre pressures are given as cold.
If you’ve not ridden for a while If you’ve been out of practice for a few months, then you may have lost that ‘bike fitness’. Make sure you are fit to ride your bike and remember to take it slow and steady until you’ve got to grips with it.
IAM recommends to perform these checks before every ride and to some, it may seem like more hassle than it’s worth. It would be advisable to perform these checks before every ride if you ride infrequently or are about to undergo a big trip. As someone who commutes by motorcycle every day, I aim to do them at least every other day.
After your visual check has been completed, you will then go ahead and start up your motorcycle before mounting and getting ready to depart. Motorcycles can cause a disturbance with your neighbours, especially when your commute or weekend ride starts in the early hours of the morning.
Regardless, your motorcycle needs to warm up. Oil in the engine is there to lubricate the internals, including – in most cases – the gearbox and clutch assembly. One of the best ways is to start the engine and by the time you have your helmet and gloves on, the engine will be warmed up to a sufficient operating temperature.
Failing to bring the engine to operating temperature can lead to poor oil distribution throughout and can be detrimental to the longevity and performance of your motorcycle’s engine. It’s worth noting that a modern motorcycle with synthetic oil and fuel injection will require much less time to warm up than an old classic with carbs. But if you’ve got a classic, you’re probably already a bit handy with the spanners anyway!
Chain and Sprockets
Your chain and sprocket do a lot of work. They transfer the horsepower and torque from the engine to the wheels, propelling you nicely down the road. However, they are often the most overlooked of the basic maintenance items as they take a bit of involvement to keep them in check. We've all seen someone riding along with a chain absolutely hanging from the sprockets. It could even be you. (I know I've been guilty of it in the past!).
As you ride your motorcycle the chain stretches, relaxing the tension between the front and rear sprocket. Most motorcycle manufacturers are kind enough to place a sticker on a swingarm informing you of the correct tension range for your chain. If it falls out of this range, the chain will wear quicker and you’ll notice a short lag when accelerating as you pick up the slack in the chain. You may even feel a clunk through the footpegs which signifies a tight spot in the chain, pointing to poor lubrication. If you have tight spots, shark fin-shaped sprocket teeth, or are at the end of adjustment on the swingarm - you will want to replace the chain and sprocket set.
To extend the life of your chain & sprockets you should regularly keep them clean and lubricated. Depending on the amount of riding you do, this could be the occasionally monthly job or a weekly chore if you’re racking up the miles. You'll want to lift the rear wheel in the air to adjust the chain, although it isn't necessary to have the wheel off the ground for cleaning & lubing - you can get away with moving the bike as you go to reveal another section of the chain.
Lifting the bike off the ground can be done by using the motorcycle's centre stand to hoist the rear wheel into the air. Not every motorcycle comes with a centre stand from the factory, some are optional extras, and some bikes are unable to ever have one fitted. In those circumstances, you'll need a paddock stand. A U-shaped tool designed to pick the bike up by the swingarm, either by actually lifting from under the swingarm or using bobbins and a pair of hooks to hold the motorcycle in place.
You can make life a bit easier fitting an automated chain oiling device, like a Scottoiler. This system mounts to the motorcycle and applies a steady stream of lubricating fluid to the chain as you ride providing a less maintenance hungry chain and typically giving a much greater life span. If have a quick search on the internet you'll find that Scottoiler's are a bit like marmite. Either they work fantastically and people love 'em, or they never work properly and people hate 'em. Most issues stem from setting up the system properly and it's worth taking the time to get the flow rate right before dismissing them. They will easily earn back their price tag in reduced maintenance and extending chain life!
Motorcycles have very little dampening, and bolts tend to become undone over time, especially parts like fairings, windscreens, mirrors and other peripherals. Purchasing a basic motorcycle toolkit and going through some of the visible bolts every now and then to ensure that they are properly tightened can save you thousands in repair bills later on.
AND THAT'S IT!
Putting in the time and effort to understand your motorcycle will pay dividends in the long run, and spotting a minor discrepancy before it leads to a serious problem will save you time and expense. Always consult a specialist when needing any major repair work, but don't be afraid to take on small challenges yourself.