Transition from right turn to left turn in a Lee Parks Total Control clinic


Routine and Winter Motorcycle Maintenance

I get just three maintenance-related questions over and over in my class and talking on the range between exercises:

Can you do the maintenance yourself?

Which really means, naturally, can the questioner do it himself? The answer is that any work you can do on your car, you can do on your motorcycle. Furthermore, because motorcycles are smaller and it's easier to get to their innards, you can do a lot more on a motorcycle than on a car.

As one data point, the only things I do to our cars are: change oil, check tires and inflate when needed, change spark plugs and air filter annually. So start with that on your motorcycle. Get a shop manual first. A Haynes or Clymer manual for your specific model will generally cost between $30 and $40. It'll have detailed directions for every task from changing oil to changing pistons. And I do mean detailed. If it tells you to remove the windshield, it'll likely have a photo with arrows pointing to the 4 screws holding the windshield on. For me, a manual is a requirement. I like the aftermarket manuals better than the manufacturer's manuals, because the latter assume that their audience is a factory-trained professional mechanic who doesn't need his hand held. The aftermarket knows that many or most of their audience consists of people who, six months earlier, were asking "Say, can I do any of this myself?"

Another item that I strongly suggest is a torque wrench. If you don't know what one does, look it up in the tools section of your new shop manual for a detailed explanation. But I'll tell you what not having one does: It strips bolts on your motorcycle, like oil drain plugs. I have two click-type racheting torque wrenches, one for low torque values and one for larger values. They run $50 to $100 at places like Sears or Home Depot.

So armed with your new torque wrench and manual, and with the usual assortment of sockets and rachets and end wrenches and screwdrivers (leave the hammers in the carpentry shop), go out and change the oil. Record the date and mileage when you do, and your career as a "shade-tree" motorcycle mechanic is off and running.

That's where I started, and in the 9 years since then I have slowly branched out to changing chain and sprockets, rebuilding forks, changing steering bearings, adjusting valves, changing brake pads and rotors, and a lot of other similar stuff. All this is trivial for a professional mechanic, but it gives me satisfaction and saves me considerable money on the fees the shop would charge. I bought a few of the special tools, like the valve-adjuster that cost less than $10, but for the high-dollar low-use tools like the bearing seaters, I take the parts to a shop and have them do the work. It's fast because the mechanics don't have to take anything apart or put it back together, and cheap because it's fast.

So if you've decided to change your own oil, that brings up the second of the three maintenance questions that I get all the time:

How often should I change the oil? And what type of oil?

Ok, so there are two questions, but they have the same answer. In my mind, there are two groups of people with an opinion on this question. One group is the people who designed the engine of your motorcycle, the people who manufactured it to the specifications of the designers, and the people who pay for warranty repairs on the engine. Their opinion of how often to change oil and filter, and what kind of oil to use when you do, can be found in the owner's manual for your motorcycle, and also in the shop manual you bought. For a data point, the designers and builders and warranters of my 1200 Bandit say to change the oil every 3700 miles, the filter every three oil changes, and the oil should be API type SF or SG. (You find the oil type on the container of oil in the store.)

The other group of people with an opinion of oil change intervals and type is everybody else, the people who didn't design or build or warrant the engine. Your task is easy. You must decide which group of people knows the most about your engine, and then you take the advice of that group.

What do you do for winter storage?

Even if you think, as I do, that the easiest approach is to ride it all winter, you'll still need to face the long stretch in the middle of the winter when the garage door is frozen shut or the driveway's a sloping sheet of ice. And remember those group-1 people above, the designers and builders and warranters? They know about winter too, and they'll have suggestions for long-term storage. Take their advice. Here's what my group tells me to do:

First worry is the fuel. Over a period of several months, the lighter portion of gasoline will evaporate off, leaving a material called varnish, which will clog the tiny holes in the carburetor jets or the injectors. Oxydation might play a part too, I don't know. Regardless, to prevent it, ride the motorcycle to an auto-parts store or motorcycle shop for some fuel stabilizer. Then ride it to a gas station, pour the recommended amount of stabilizer into the tank and top it off with fresh fuel. Then ride it home, taking a detour if needed so you'll have 5 miles or so on the clock, so that all the fuel in the system will have stabilizer. If there's a warm spell in January and you use a substantial portion of the fuel, top off with more stabilized fuel. That should prevent a carb or injector rebuild in the spring.

Second worry is the battery. Get a maintenance charger like the Optimate 3 that I use, connect it to the battery, plug it in, forget about it. Note that this isn't just a basic charger, which if run continuously will fry the battery. The maintenance chargers will monitor the condition of the battery and vary the charge continuously to keep it in good condition. $50 or $75 at motorcycle or internet shops. If you have only a basic charger, run it on the schedule suggested by the manual.

Those two are actually my only worries, with an air-cooled motorcycle and increasingly-mild winters and full heated gear to get in the occasional ride all winter long. But if you're being posted to Iraq or live in a place where you know you can't ride for several months at a stretch, follow the long-term storage recommendations. They'll have you take as much weight off the tires as you can, block entry points like pipes and air intakes with rags (or steel wool to keep out rodents), put a teaspoon of oil down each spark plug hole and then turn over the engine a few times, check the coolant for sufficent antifreeze, that sort of thing.

One final item on winter storage and riding: Suppose you look outside a few days after a storm, notice the roads are now dry and, while cold, decide it's a good time to ride for an hour. Go for it, with all the usual cautions about residual ice and motorists not expecting motorcyclists. When you get home, take a look at that white powder on your motorcycle. That's salt. Get rid of it before the next day in the 30s with the accompanying humidity. Those of you who spend 2 hours washing for every hour riding will already know to do this, but those in my camp, who wash a motorcycle by riding it in the rain, had better make an exception here. I run a hose directly from my water heater outside to the bike, and thoroughly wash off the salt with hot water before pushing the wet motorcycle back into the garage.