"Six days shalt thou labour, and the seventh ride."
I first heard that expression in the 1950s, when I was a small boy; but I never understood whether it referred to the six-day working week in the glory days of Nortons, Triumphs, Rudges, Beezas and Royal Enfields, or to the amount of time that most motorcyclists spent on fettling those same British classics versus the amount of time they spent riding.
Modern machines require far less maintenance, and the machines of the early 21st century require far less maintenance than those of the 1980s when I wrote the original [Motorcycle Touring in Europe]. It is also true that very few motorcycles today, at least in the affluent western world, are the sole means of transport of their owners, so mileages are lower and servicing is still more reduced.
On the other hand, no machine can survive completely without servicing, and if something is going to break, it often does so at the most inopportune time. Even if you normally entrust the maintenance of your motorcycle to someone else, therefore, it is a good idea both to check it over from time to time and to know how to do at least a little elementary work yourself.
Checking it over includes checking ALL levels, including the ones that 'never' need topping up. Years ago, I had a very slow leak on the final drive, and because the panniers live permanently on the bike, I never noticed -- until the final drive unit seized in Avignon. I was particularly pissed off, because I had had a new (not reconditioned, not second hand) crown wheel and pinion fitted a couple of years before, and they should have had a life (properly lubricated) of at least 100,000 km (62,000 miles). And the London firm to whom I entrusted the servicing were pretty reliable.
Even so, I don't think the same problem would have occurred with Jim Cray (Cray Engineering, in Sittingbourne, in Kent), to whom I switched after that. My instructions to Jim were simple: 'Treat the bike as if it were your own, and you were paying to have the work done. If you think it needs replacing, replace it. I won't argue.' He'd have alerted me to that slow leak, and I'd have kept an eye on it. But I shouldn't have needed to be alerted.
Anyway, I learned that lesson, and since then I have checked all levels myself: engine, gearbox, final drive, even forks. In fact, since I left England in 2002 I have done all my servicing myself. In one sense it's not cost effective: it takes me a day and a half, because I am a slow mechanic, and if I were writing for a day and a half (I'm a very fast writer) I should be able to earn a lot more than the cost of a service. But then again, I'd have to drop the bike off at the engineer's, and pick it up again, and that's more than half a day gone, plus the cost of the service, most of which is labour anyway.
Of course, the old advice to keep your bike sparkling clean is good, because it alerts you to leaks like that one and to other problems; but I have to admit that I'm of the school that says, "I'd rather ride 'em than clean 'em'. Maybe I'll yet change on that one, but looking at Frances's Honda 'rat bike', I doubt it.
In any case, I have never had much time for manufacturers who discourage riders from working on their own bikes and says that all maintenance must be carried out by the Authorized Dealer. To be sure, that weeds out some of the incompetents -- my father, a marine engineer, refers to do-it-yourself maintenance manuals as 'horror comics' -- but it lets in another batch of incompetents, the ones who work for the Authorized Dealer. It also allows the manufacturers to design bikes that are cheap to build but hard to service without specialized tools, and it allows them to disguise some truly horrific engineering such as hardened steel camshafts running directly in light alloy heads without bearings.
Perhaps the ultimate machine for the rider who wished to do all his own maintenance was the Vincent, where the frame had a design life of a million miles (50 years at 20,000 miles a year); the engine, if maintained properly, would need between two and four rebuilds in that time; and the tool kit was tiny because the number of fastener sizes was deliberately kept to a minimum. The Hesketh is perhaps the closest you can come to a modern Vincent, but my old BMW R100RS is still pretty good.
There are at least six good reasons for learning a bit about the mechanical side of your machine.
First, you can often anticipate and avoid trouble -- as with my final drive. That was not very serious; but how does a disintegrating wheel sound?
Second, you can often fix faults that otherwise might leave you waiting for hours for roadside assistance. Electrical faults are particularly good for this. A defective HT connection on a single will stop the bike; but the last time it happened to me, it took me five minutes to diagnose, and thirty seconds to fix.
Third, even if you can't fix it yourself, you can better explain to the mechanic or breakdown man what happened. You will also be better equipped to tell if you were ripped off when you see the bill.
Fourth, you can decide whether a fault should be fixed immediately (and how) or whether you can let it go until you have finished the tour. Let's take a slipping clutch as an example. You should be able to adjust it yourself, but if this doesn't work, it ain't gonna get better. You then have to decide whether to get it fixed immediately, possibly paying Swiss labour rates and staying in an hotel, or to take it easy and get home. Which you choose will depend on the bike and on how you ride -- but you need to have a fair idea of the severity and consequences of the problem in order to decide.
Fifth, 'mechanical sympathy' will enable you to get the best out of your machine: the best performance, the best braking, the best fuel efficiency, whatever you want. 'Mechanical sympathy' is not something you can be taught, but it is something you can learn; and the more you know about how your machine works, the easier you can learn it.
Sixth, if something does go wrong, you are better placed to know whether it was your fault -- my clutch control is much better than it used to be, and my clutches last correspondingly longer -- or a design fault of the machine, or the fault of the garage that last serviced it. This can make quite a difference to who pays!
There is no point in going into detail here. Buy the workshop manual(s) for your bike; re-read the owner's manual. But the following checks are worth doing. In fact, it's a good idea to do them well before you set out, so you have plenty of time to cure faults (including buying new tyres, etc.)
Front tyre: pressure, cuts, stones, adequate tread. Might as well check the rear tyre at the same time while you have the tyre pressure gauge handy.
Front wheel: examine alloy wheels for cracks and dents. Cast alloy wheels are wonderful things and require little care or maintenance but traditional spoked wheels are reparable and in an emergency almost anything can be laced on to the hub. Check wire spokes by running a spanner around them: they should all go 'plink' at the same note. A 'plunk' is a candidate for tightening, preferably by a specialist wheelbuilder. Again, the same for the rear wheel.
Front forks: any weeping? Check the oil level occasionally.
Front wheel-bearings: grip the wheel between your knees and move the handlebars.
Front disk(s): unscored? Disk pads OK? Front drum: brakes well adjusted? Same at rear.
Controls: operating smoothly and freely, with the right amount if play? It may seem unnecessary to check these, because you'll notice when you are riding; but it is all to easy to ignore gradual deterioration, or to mean to get around to adjusting things, and never actually do it.
Lights? Indicators? Brake light?
Hydraulic fluid level(s) OK?
Petrol filler cap: air vent not blocked? (This can be a cause of mysterious fuel starvation)
Fuel taps OK and not weeping? Fuel lines in good condition?
Air filter clean? A dirty and partially blocked filter can significantly impair power. You can run without an air filter, but this will greatly increase the rate of wear in the engine.
Plug leads in good condition and tight (and uncorroded) at both ends? Do not check this with the engine running: HT shocks are something you can do without.
Plugs: check gap. The British Standard Thumbnail is a good gauge if you have no other. Bend ONLY the outer electrode.
Engine oil level OK? Coolant OK, if liquid cooled?
Valve clearances OK? (You would normally check this only at a service, or if the engine was sounding 'tappety'.
Gearbox oil level OK?
Chain: lubricated and at the correct tension? Rear chain sprocket OK? Or: final drive oil level OK?
Seat secure? This may sound silly but they are not always put on tightly after a service.
General check of tighness of all fasteners. I once had a rear wheel lock solid when the front half of the (split) rear mudguard dropped onto it. I left a 30-metre skid mark. Fortunately I was on a straight, deserted road at the time.
Ideally, your tool kit should permit you to do any reasonable repair by the side of the road. I have supplemented the already excellent tool kit of my BMW with a few extras, but if your bike doesn't have a tool kit, either because you bought it second-hand without one or because the manufacturer doesn't believe in them, try the following. Items asterisked can be replaced, more or less effectively, by a single [Leatherman] tool -- though I carry both the tools and the Leatherman.
Spanners in the appropriate fittings (usually metric nowadays). Plug spanner. Screwdrivers*, cross-head*, slotted* and electrical* (small). Allen keys, if required. Pliers*. Feeler gauge. Tyre levers, hand pump, tyre pressure gauge. A top-quality adjustable spanner can be useful, but should never be used when a 'real' spanner is available.
Spare bulbs, spare fuses and insulating tape are always a good idea, and indeed a set of spare bulbs is compulsory in some countries. At least one spare spark plug. Puncture repair outfit. Spare inner tube (if appropriate). Spare throttle, clutch and (if appropriate) brake cables. A small amount of wire. Some hand cleaner, and a rag.
A simple trouble-shooting algorithm is of use not only to the complete novice, but even to the experienced rider when you're tired, worried and in the dark by the side of the road. It helps you not to forget things, whether because they are 'too obvious' or just because you've freaked out.
Notes on algorithm
Note 1: If an engine will not turn over, it is unlikely to be a trivial fault, though some old engines (especially two-strokes) will seize when overheated and run again once they cool down.
Note 2: Lack of fuel is still one of the most frequent causes of involuntary stops. You may be able to get the last few ounces of fuel into the right place by leaning the bike over, or sloshing it around, or both.
Note 3: Check for a blocked filler cap air vent or a dirty fuel filter. If you can't pull the fuel line off, the only way you can find out if the fuel is getting through is by seeing if the plugs get wet (7, below).
Note 4: Some bikes can run without the battery, or do not rely on it for ignition. In this case, just check the plug, plug cap, and all connections including the ignition switch.
Note 5: If you hold the plug about 6mm (1/4 inch) from a metallic part of the engine (not near the carburetter, or spilled fuel, obviously) and turn the engine over with the ignition on, a clearly visible spark should jump the gap. Use gloves or wadded paper to hold the plug to avoid a shock.
Note 6: With the plug out, check the plug gap and look for fouling: a matchstick with a split end is ideal for cleaning out carbon. Clean the outside of the plug to make sure it isn't earthing out there.
Note 7: Wet plugs, caused by churning the engine over when there is fuel but no spark, will stop an engine firing even if you have cured the original fault (poor connections, etc) so dry them off, leave them out for 10 minutes and then replace them and try again.
Note 8: If you have both fuel and a spark, the engine more or less has to start: the problem must come down to rough running, lack of power, dying, or whatever. Check that there are no air leaks between the engine and the carburetter(s) or fuel injection; that the air filter is not blocked; and that there is no water in the carburetter float bowl. This should cure the vast majority of problems. The next stage is to strip, clean and overhaul the carburetter(s) but this is a bit like hard work. After that, you are normally looking at intermittent electrical faults, which are an absolute bastard.
This information has been verified as far as possible but should not be taken as definitive. You alone are responsible for your safety on a motorcycle (or elsewhere) and should always ride and behave accordingly. Click here for the Official Health Warning.
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last updated: 03/11/03
© 2003 Roger W. Hicks