Motorcycles are something of a modern miracle wrapped in a thin layer of insanity. Take a lump of metal with some holes in it, add fuel and oxygen and light it on fire, creating a series of rapid, controlled explosions, and somehow deliver all that energy to a rotating assembly bolted on to the back of this crazy contraption, spinning on a metal rod held in place with tiny little fasteners. This is all happening on something that can't stand up on its own, mystifies riders and physics experts alike in how it does stay upright, and provides a rush of excitement and joy that relatively few people have ever felt.
The motorcycle. A visceral, crazy, fun, enjoyable, dangerous, beautiful piece of mechanical art made of metal, plastic and dreams. And at the center of all this exists a machine. Like all machines, motorcycles require certain maintenance and attention to keep performing safely and at their peak.
If you do all your own maintenance, there's a good chance you're very much in tune with your bike. When you put wrench to machine, you create a kind of intimacy and knowledge of that machine that no one else likely has. You'll know if something has loosened up. You'll feel if a wheel bearing you replaced three years ago feels a little odd. You'll understand that vibration you're feeling might indicate a tire has gone out of balance, or the chain has developed a tight spot. You know your bike better than anyone else ever could. Sure, mechanics get paid to know a lot about repairing and maintaining bikes... but only YOU know your bike like you do.
If you don't do your own maintenance, consider getting involved in at least some of it. Even as a rider, you know your bike better than anyone, and doing even a small bit of the ongoing maintenance gives you opportunities to see things, to catch problems or to deepen your understanding of the machine that you might be missing if you take your bike to a shop for all of its maintenance. There are a number of tasks you can do on the maintenance list even without possessing a lot of mechanical aptitude or specialized tools.
If your bike is chain drive, you're probably already familiar with cleaning and lubricating your chain. If you're not, get your owner's manual out and get to work. A decent chain cleaning and oiling should only take you a few minutes once you're familiar with the task, and can be invaluable in prolonging the life of the chain (and the bike!), and increasing safety. It also gives you a chance to visually inspect the chain, the sprockets, the wheels and tires, and while you're at it, if your bike has rear disc brakes, you're probably only one head tilt away from looking at the thickness of your brake pads. You could potentially identify trouble spots on 3 or 4 different systems on the bike just by oiling your chain!
If you're able to make yourself a cup of coffee in a modern coffee maker, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say you've got all the mechanical knowledge you need to at least attempt to do a basic oil change. Let's look at the steps necessary to do a full oil change on most motorcycles. Step 1 - warm up the engine. Step 2 - stop the engine, position the bike properly for the oil change (see your manual). Step 3 - slide a drain pan under the bike and take out the drain plug(s). Step 4 - remove the oil filter. Step 5 - replace the drain plug and install new filter. Step 6 - refill with oil. Step 7 - start bike, warm it up, shut it off, and check the oil level.
Sure, I'm simplifying things, but your owner's manual - or better, buy a service manual - will have all the detail on those steps that you need to do the job. Some bikes will drain better on the side stand, also known as the kick stand. Others will drain better on the center stand, so do pay attention to your manual and do the work according to those guidelines. But all in all, it's a pretty simple job that will save you money, will allow you to really get hands on with the bike, and isn't that easy to get wrong. Once you've done it, you'll wonder why you never did before. You'll also be happy with the money you saved.
Other maintenance tasks that might be worth doing include changing your air filter, replacing brake pads, or cleaning, lubricating and adjusting brake levers, and clutch levers and cables. Doing a lot of the little tasks can add up to huge savings over time, not only in keeping your bike out of the shop more ($), but in catching potential problems early and turning a costly repair into preventative maintenance.
With any job you're doing for the first time, it's a good idea to have a little guidance. Always consult your owner's manual. As mentioned, getting hold of a service manual for your bike will not only give you detailed information particular to your model of bike, but may also list specific tools and equipment you'll need, and will walk you through the whole job, step by step.
If you're a member of any online forums or local riders' groups, you might be able to find and attend a local tech day. A tech day is a great opportunity to meet other enthusiasts, and work with people who may be considerably more experienced in repair and maintenance, and can lend you all the guidance you need. If you can't find or host a tech day, you should still be able to make an online request for help and find someone local (enough) to lend a hand, or at least walk you through any trouble spots you may have.
It's important to note that some maintenance is best left to those with more mechanical ability and experience if you're not comfortable with engine design, etc. For instance, throttle synchronizations or engine valve clearance checks can be very involved, and if done incorrectly, could render your bike unable to run, running poorly, or perhaps even damaged. What this article is discussing are the smaller, more pedestrian tasks.
Look for follow-up articles discussing the details of these and other home-based motorcycle maintenance tasks in the coming weeks. Who knows... we may even shoot some video! Keeping your bike running at its best doesn't need to include trips to the dealer for mundane things, spending a whole day waiting around, or writing a big check.
Chris & James both have older bikes that require the occasional bit of attention, and the guys are hoping to start capturing more of that at-home maintenance with pictures and video... stay tuned.