I am an avid motorcyclist; avid to the point where my family has one car and one bike. I’m the guy who suits up when it’s raining, bundles up when it’s cold and has a camel pack for hot days. I also do most of my own motorcycle maintenance. On the weekends, I work cheap and there is a satisfaction knowing that I managed to do something in the amount of time the motorcycle maintenance “book” says I should. Even if it takes twice as long, I am still coming out ahead because there will be a next time.
Because I have always tried to do as much of the motorcycle maintenance and repair work on the bikes I have owned, I’m deeply aware of motorcycle safety issues that come up. I ride around and see motorcycle safety problems far too often and it saddens me. A safety issue on a motorcycle is far more of a life or death issue than in a car. The safety cage, airbags and redundancy of a car means that an ignored issue can cause a wreck but the chances of dying are far lower. Here are ten motorcycle maintenance tips that every motorcyclist should be aware of and check regularly to ensure proper motorcycle safety:
Motorcycle Safety Starts with Correct Air Pressure in Tires
Far too often, I see motorcyclists with a low tire or two. Typically, it is the back tire that ends up low. This causes the bike to handle differently than it was designed to and can make emergency maneuvers or even an aggressive lane change become a dangerous experience. The sidewalls on motorcycle tires are much softer than those on a car tire and a low tire on a motorcycle can come unsealed, causing a catastrophic flat and one of the scariest experiences on a motorcycle. A low car tire needs to be driven slowly and carefully but most of the time is safe to drive to the tire shop.
For Motorcycle Safety Month, buy a set of valve stem dust caps that check the pressure. They come in different pressure ranges and are easier to read than trying to stand on your head while trying to check the air pressure in the tires. They are inexpensive and available at auto parts stores as well as your local motorcycle dealer.
Time: 5 minutes
Tread on Tires, Easy Motorcycle Safety Checks
Another common issue on bikes is letting the tires wear well past where they are safe. Motorcycle tires are absolutely not known for their longevity and aggressive driving will shed the tread off the tire even faster. Rear tires typically develop a flat spot in the center from being the primary contact point and also being tasked with keeping all the power going to the road. My previous bike, a 2001 Yamaha V-Max, ate rear tires at a rate of about 5000 miles before I needed to replace it and stay safe. I also tended to really push the bike off the line, guaranteeing the tire would need replacing.
A flattened out tire still has tread on the sides but the primary contact point is all but smooth rubber. The bike may seem to handle fine, however, the turning ability is compromised slightly and the ability to control the bike is not what it was when the tire was broken in but still new. If you get caught in a rain storm, you will have no traction and the possibility of a blow out is much higher on a tire with no tread. It will make more heat than a normal tire and have fewer avenues to dissipate the heat.
Remember motorcyclists, when you replace a tire, the new tire needs to be broken in and the bike is going to handle differently. The degradation of turning ability and traction is slow and the improvement is immediate. Many motorcyclists I know recommend never changing both tires at the same time simply to give you one tire that has good traction. Talk this over with the shop that you buy your tires from and have them mounted. Regardless, give your tires a few hundred miles of break in time before really pushing them or expecting any traction on a wet road.
Time: Inspection – One minute. Replacement – A few hours
Cost: Inspection – Free. Replacement: $100-200
Chains Pose a Motorcycle Safety Problem if not Properly Maintained
Many sport bikes, standards and more than a few cruisers are chain driven motorcycles. They have sprockets and a chain transferring power from the transmission to the rear wheel. This method of transferring power is incredibly efficient which is why it is so popular, especially on sport bikes and dirt bikes. It is also one of the easiest to maintain, provided the motorcycle maintenance is done. It makes me cringe to pass a sport bike and hear the chain clattering away. It’s dangerous; first of all, a chain that needs lubricating can get hot and break which can cause the rider to lose control. Secondly, it eats away at the sprockets, causing premature wear. Properly maintained, sprockets can last 40-50,000 miles. Improperly maintained, it could be 10% of that time before the chain and sprockets give up.
Each manufacturer is going to recommend specific products, typically their own branded products, for chain maintenance. They will also have recommendations for cleaning, inspection and adjustment. While a chain is the best way to transfer power, it is also the one that requires the most frequent tending. On my chain bikes, I would lubricate my chain every other time I filled up with gas. This was accomplished either with someone following me with the spray can of lubricant while I backed up or by placing the bike on its center stand. There are automatic lubrication systems available as well, however, they tend to lean toward over lubing and some are complex and require a custom install. My top pick for spray lubricant was the Royal Purple Synthetic Chain Lube. Many motorcyclists I know recommend painting on synthetic ATF with a brush when possible.
Cleaning the chain every thousand miles or so is recommended as well. Use a cleaner designed specifically for this job as well as a three-sided brush. After cleaning well, allow any cleaner to evaporate, then apply a generous amount of spray lubricant or brushed on lubricant to the chain. Be aware that some of this will fling off after the first ride.
Finally, when cleaning, inspect the chain to make sure it has not stretched out. Many bikes have a gauge of some sort built into the frame stamping to make the testing process easy. Consult your motorcycle’s manual for where the gauge is as well as how to make adjustments.
Time: Cleaning – Half an hour. Periodic Lubrication – 5 minutes. Replacing Chain and Sprockets — 2-3 hours
Cost: Cleaner — $10 Dollars. Lubricant – $5-$20 dollars. Chain and Sprockets – $200 and up for parts
Belts, Simple Motorcycle Maintenance
While belts require less regular motorcycle maintenance than chains, they are still prone to stretching, wear and breakage. As with chains, the owner should research in their manual and learn how to inspect the belt for wear, understand if there is a recommended replacement interval for the belt and get comfortable making the adjustments. This is something most shops will check and adjust when doing an oil change but if you are a DIY motorcyclist, don’t forget this as part of the oil changes. Checking the belt every thousand miles is good, cheap motorcycle safety.
A broken belt does not happen often but should it happen, it will cause a loss of power which can cause a loss of control. The bits of belt left can jam up the pulleys as well, which could cause the rear wheel to lock and lead to a loss of control. Those regular inspections are two-fold: to make sure the belt hasn’t stretched and to also look for any signs of the belt wearing out.
Time: 5 minutes for inspection, many hours for replacement, depending on motorcycle model
Cost: Free for inspection and adjustment, $100-$200 for belt plus labor
Shaft bikes – Do the Regular Motorcycle Maintenance as Recommended
Owners of bikes with shaft drives aren’t excluded from driveline issues either. An ignored shaft drive system can degrade over time and eventually can destroy itself. Again, the destruction takes a long time but not as long as one may think. On my current bike, a Honda Valkyrie, there have been reports of the final drive assembly needing replacement as early as 40,000 miles. Granted, these are isolated incidents but a completely ignored final drive can and will break. There are many parts that need to be tended to but the two primary ones that are easy to do and should be done regularly are replacing the gear oil in the final drive and making sure all the parts inside the final drive are lubricated with the proper high-temp lubrication during rear tire changes.
Time: 10 minutes every other oil change and 5 minutes during tire swap. 2-3 hours for final drive replacement
Cost: 10 dollars for a quart of gear oil, good for 2-3 final drive changes. 5-10 dollars for Moly-paste or comparable lubricant for parts inside final drive. $300-$1000 or more for final drive replacement, depending on motorcycle model.
Motorcycle Safety on your Brakes – Inspect regularly
Stopping a motorcycle is just as important as keeping control of the motorcycle when it is moving. However, many people, even seasoned motorcyclists, ignore their brakes until they stop working properly. The irony is that they are often very easy to inspect, especially compared to car brakes. Except for some small 250cc bikes, all the bikes sold these days have disk brakes front and back. Inspecting the brakes is as easy as shining a flashlight between the caliper and the rotor and making sure there is brake pad visible. If it is barely visible or not visible, it’s time to change the brakes.
Replacing pads is fairly inexpensive, however if this job is ignored, the cost of replacing rotors on a motorcycle can be staggering, not to mention the cost should you damage a caliper. Being able to rely on your motorcycle brakes is one of the most emphasized reasons why motorcycles have an advantage over cars.
Inspection Time: 2 minutes
Major brake component costs if the pads are ground down too far: rotors: $300-$500 per rotor, caliper: $150-$500 per caliper.
Adjust those shocks!
One of my pet peeves is seeing a motorcycle, regardless of bike style, dragging on the ground when it is obvious that it shouldn’t be. For most bikes and most riders, they should adjust their rear shock’s preload to compensate for their weight. Should they have a passenger from time to time, the shocks should be adjusted prior to the passenger getting on the bike.
Most motorcycle manufacturers provide preload adjustment, on the rear shocks at the very least, to help compensate for a very wide range of weight loads that could be on the bike. The springs need to be set differently for a 120 pound rider compared to a full loaded bike with two people on it. Not having the springs adjusted properly makes the bike handle differently than it was designed to. Too much preload with too light of a load makes the rear of the bike bouncy and prone to skipping around when hitting bumps. Not enough preload with too heavy of a load can cause the suspension to bottom out and the bike to wallow.
Time: Varies; 2 minutes to 10 minutes
Biennial Headlamp Replacement to Ensure Bike Safety
All modern motorcycles have daytime low beam headlights and mine happens to have two. One of my high beams went out recently so I replaced that headlamp and opted to wait to replace the other. The difference between the new bulb and the one year old bulb that was supposed to put out more light is dramatic; dramatic enough that I and many other motorcyclists just plan on replacing headlight bulbs every couple years if they don’t go out on their own before that. Especially because the lights are on all the time, the light degrades over time. This is a common issue with Halogen technology bulbs. If you are one of the few with HID lights, feel free to ignore this as they continue to produce consistent light over years of use. I included a picture of the front of my bike, and for the record I am going to go buy a new bulb for the other side very soon.
Time: Varies; 5 minutes for some models, hours for others.
Cost: $15-$30 dollars
Motorcycle Maintenance on the Rest of the Lights
Doing a weekly inspection of the turn signals and brake lights on your bike is an incredibly important bike safety precaution. Many bikes have one brake light and if it is out, drivers who are lucky to notice you in the first place are likely to not notice you stopping and will run right into you.
Inspection is pretty easy on most bikes. You can be sitting behind a freshly cleaned car and check to be sure the front turn signals are working and the rear can be checked at night in the parking lot before driving off to your favorite dive.
Time: 10 seconds
Train and Maintain Your Brain – The Most Important Motorcycle Safety Tip
There are many motorcyclists on the road who have been riding improperly for years. In the interest of Motorcycle Safety Month, going and taking a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course will help learn the proper way to ride a motorcycle. Whether just starting out or a seasoned rider, you will learn something. The MSF has beginner courses that many states allow to be taken in lieu of a road test to get a motorcycle certification or endorsement on your license. The typical course is a Friday evening filled with book learning and two eight hour sessions of riding on Saturday and Sunday. Most of these courses provide small displacement motorcycles for use during the course and the goal is to train people how to ride safely and properly from the beginning. Even riders who have been riding for a while will learn something from this course.
For more seasoned veterans, the MSF also has an Experienced Rider’s Course. In this course, motorcyclist bring their own motorcycle and learn how to drive it well past what they thought were the limits of the bike in terms of accident avoidance, advanced braking techniques and a number of other areas of motorcycle control in a half-day session.
On top of this, these courses are often looked upon favorably by insurance companies. In some cases, the discount from the insurance company will be more than the cost of the class. The half-day Experienced Rider’s Course is also considered acceptable by many courts to have a ticket dismissed.
Time: 1-3 days
Cost: $80-$200 dollars