Basic Motorcycle Maintenance

By DiAnne Crown

January 21, 2011 7 min read

Ever notice how many motorcycles on the road look brand-new? They're pampered. "For most motorcycle people, these are their babies. They'll ride them and then spend a day and a half cleaning them," says Dick Rogers, who rides a 2010 Harley-Davidson Road King Classic and serves as automotive technology professor and motor sports adviser at Lincoln Land Community College. But there's more than cleaning and polishing to keeping that beauty running at peak performance. Rogers and Michael Kratz, who is a service consultant at a Harley-Davidson dealer, offer a maintenance guide.

*Fluid Service

"Motorcycles generally use internal-combustion engines and are air-cooled or liquid-cooled," Rogers says. "The fluid common to all internal-combustion motorcycles is the engine oil. Change the oil and filters at mileage intervals specified by the manufacturer. For cycles built in 2005 or later, the manufacturer may recommend using a synthetic oil after the initial break-in period, about 6,000 miles, and then changing the oil every 5,000 miles or so afterward."

The basic oil change is often neglected and occasionally done incorrectly by the do-it-yourselfer, according to Kratz. "People go past the 5,000 miles Harley recommends," which damages the motor because either the oil isn't clean or the level has run low. But it's very easy to overfill, Kratz says, and then oil blows out the air cleaner and gets all over everything, including the environment.

"Never overfill the crank case," Rogers says. And make sure to fill separate fluid reservoirs with the appropriate gear fluid or oil per the manufacturer's recommendations.

Rogers notes that several makes and models of cycles use a coolant mixture of antifreeze and water. Water never is recommended as the only liquid used to cool the engine. Maintain the proper fill level, boil-over protection and freeze protection. And about every two years, when you exchange the coolant, check all hoses and lines, the radiator cap and the radiator.

Commercial dip strips are available at a reasonable cost for the do-it-yourselfer. Fluids removed from the cycle should be disposed of properly and may be recycled at the parts store where the new fluids were purchased.

*Electrical System Service

The power source for most motorcycles' starting systems is the 12-volt wet cell battery. The expected life is four to five years, depending on use and charge/discharge rates. Check and top off each cell's fluid (electrolyte) level with distilled or deionized, not tap, water. Battery cable terminal ends are checked for corrosion and deterioration during battery inspections. Note that batteries corrode faster during extended storage.

All lamps -- running, marker and turn signal -- should be checked periodically. Change any lights that are too dim or too bright. Check all connections for corrosion. Clean any inside dust. Replace any dried weather seals.

*Tire and Wheel Service

Inspect tires regularly for cuts, gouges, bulges and dry rot. Tires should have a minimum tread depth of 3/32 inch, which is the level of the wear indicator bars molded between the treads. Replace any tire worn down to the indicator bars; it is considered by law to be "bald" and may hinder stopping ability.

Maintain the manufacturer's recommended tire pressure. Check wheels for damage, including tightening and truing wire wheels. Check valve stems for dry rot; replace any that are cracked. Straighten or replace bent wheels.

This is an area in which it may be helpful to take the motorcycle to the authorized service center, Kratz says. "It's very important to make sure the alignment and pressure are to spec."

*Brake Service

Most late-model brake systems are hydraulic and have master control cylinders with brake fluid reservoirs. Check the brakes regularly in order to maintain proper fluid levels. Replace any thin brake friction pads and warped or scored brake discs. Note that brake fluid draws moisture over time, which can cause loss of brake pressure and stopping ability, so most brake fluids have a two-year replacement interval.

*Suspension Systems

Inspect front shock absorbers and tubes and rear shocks for fluid leaks, dents and loose nuts and bolts. Each unit's compression and rebound should be firm. If in doubt, have an experienced service center check them.

Check axle nuts and shafts for tightness; re-torque to manufacturer's specifications as needed.

*Drive Components

Check and reset clutch operation to specifications as needed. Check drive bolts and/or chain for wear, stretching, dry rot and any other visible damage. Tighten any loose fasteners on sprockets, pulleys and guards.


The tuneup is another area in which a service center may be needed, to check or change spark plugs and wires and tune up the powertrain control module (on-board computer), Rogers says.

Kratz agrees. "The service center knows what to look and listen for. There may be a chatter or ping that you don't hear, but the service center knows what that motor is supposed to sound like and will know that something needs to be fixed."


Gasoline has a useful life of about six months. If a cycle will sit idle for a while, consider adding a gasoline extender. Change fuel filters at manufacturer-specified mileage intervals.

*Air Filter System

Check, clean and replace air filters as needed using quality replacements.

It's a good thing to be able to do some basic work on your bike, Kratz says. "You'll know how your bike runs, when something changes and when it needs to be fixed."

In general, Rogers concludes, go by the manufacturer's specifications for inspections and replacements. Although manufacturers can't duplicate real-world conditions for everyone, they do a lot of research and development to make these products and have done extensive testing on them. Unless you need to adjust the schedules for extreme conditions, following the specifications in the owners manual will keep your cycle running well.

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