I’ll be honest: I’m a terrible mechanic. I’ve got a scar on my forearm from the last time I changed the brakes on my Mini. Any repair work I’ve ever done has been a financial decision, not a leisure one. But! Even someone like me, who has the dexterity of a drunken penguin, can do basic motorcycle maintenance.
Motorcycles, in general, are much simpler machines than their four wheeled counterparts. Nearly every component is just hanging out in the open, ripe for the picking. A simple set of metric wrenches and allen keys will allow you to disassemble basically my entire bike. Hell, you can do a full oil change without ever laying on the ground, or removing any covers or skid plates. Go ahead, do the whole thing from your chair, relax and put your feet up.
Changing Your Oil
Oil is where we’ll start. Make sure you get motorcycle specific oil. Even if the car oil is the correct weight, you don’t want that. Our resident mad mechanic, David Tracy, has informed me that diesel oils like Shell Rotella work well in motorcycles, too. Most bikes have what is known as a “wet clutch,” which means that the engine oil serves as transmission fluid as well. Normal oils aren’t really designed to take that extra abuse, so make sure you buy the right stuff.
The oil filter needs to be swapped out as well, although for my SV Suzuki you don’t need to change it for every oil change. It never hurts to err on the side of caution, though. The filter can be a cartridge-style found behind a bolted-on filter cover, or it can just be a screw-on type like the one on my SV.
For mine, a normal strap wrench will do just fine to crank it off. Once you’ve got everything changed over, checking the oil level on a bike is way easier than on a car. There is a small porthole looking thing on the side of the crank case. Just get the bike vertical, either on your stand or balanced by hand, and kneel down to look at this. If the level is between the lines, you’re all good.
While working on a motorcycle is comparatively easier than wrenching on a car, you can make it even easier with a rear stand. Think of this as a jack for your bike. It keeps the rear wheel off the ground, and the whole bike upright, which also allows you to freely spin the rear wheel without moving the bike. That makes chain maintenance much easier.
There are a few different varieties of stands, but I prefer ones that utilize swingarm spools, just for the sake of stability. How this works is you thread small plastic bobbins onto the end of your swingarm, and then those slot into the gaps on the stand. I promise, even if you’re built like a reasonably fit seventh grader the way I am, you can easily lift a motorcycle off the ground with a stand.
Continuing with the running theme, brake maintenance is similar to that of a car, just easier. Because the whole vehicle is so small, it’s possible to bleed the brakes yourself. You can reach the brake levers and the bleeder screw at the same time. No more needing someone to push the pedal down while someone else bleeds the air out.
One point to keep in mind is that your front and rear brake systems are entirely independent, which means you’ve got two different master cylinders to top off. One is on the handlebars, and the other is on the side of the bike, right below the seat. While you’re down there, check the brake pads to see if they need to be replaced.
Just remember that motorcycle brake pads are much thinner than car ones, so just because it is thin does not mean that it needs to be replaced yet.
The master cylinders are opaque, so theoretically you should be able to look through the side and see the level of your fluid. In reality, the dingy plastic is pretty damn hard to see through, so I wouldn’t trust it. Just unscrew the reservoir and have a look, being careful not to get any dirt in the system. You can also tell if your fluid is low by feel. Bikes don’t have power brakes, so what you feel is what you’ve got.
When in doubt, listen to Chester Bennington and bleed it out.
(Editor’s Note: That joke is terrible.)
I know that all of the various PSAs urge you to check tire pressures on every single vehicle before every single trip, but let’s be honest, you probably don’t. Lord knows I don’t.
But on a bike, you need to be a bit more religious about it, and not just to prevent catastrophic tire failure of the “we were unable to locate his head” type. The smallest pressure differences can cause fairly drastic alterations in the way a motorcycle behaves, even at low speed.
If you ever feel like your bike is a big sloppy mess on turn in, or you just don’t feel as confident at the helm, check your pressures. I bet you’re low.
As important as the correct pressure is, you also need to ensure that the tire itself is safe. A car losing traction and sliding in the wet is fun for the whole family. A bike losing traction and sliding in the wet results in massive bowel evacuations. At least for me. In the grooves of your tire there will be small raised points called wear indicators. When you’re to the point that those are being worn down, it’s time to replace the tire.
You’ll wear out your rear way before your front, so don’t worry if the wear is uneven.
A large portion of my childhood involved setting things on fire. One of the lessons taken from this is that a fire requires an oxygen source in addition to fuel and a spark. Since an engine is basically just controlled fires and explosions, it needs the same things. The fuel filters in the SV are non-consumable, and are part of the fuel pump. So don’t worry about them for now, though some bikes use in-line filters that can be swapped fairly easily. The air filter can actually be a bit tricky to access, as it is underneath the gas tank on my bike. So you’ll need to unbolt the tank up at the head of the bike, remove the side plates, remove the seat, and then open the airbox to reach it. That’s almost more involved than replacing the entire drive chain.
One way to maintain the life of your chain is to ensure it is the correct tightness. It will stretch over use, so you need to ensure it doesn’t get too loose. Your owner’s manual will give you the specific specifications for slack, but basically you’re looking at how far the chain flexes when you pull the slack out of it. If it’s too loose, you’ll need to adjust it.
As with most motorcycle work, that’s easier than it seems. All you need to do is loosen the rear axle nut, to allow the rear wheel to slide in the swingarm a bit. Then you can use the adjustment nuts on either side of the swingarm to dial out some of the slack.
Just make sure you keep the two sides even or you’ll really throw your alignment out of whack. The easiest way to do that is just to keep track of the number of turns you give to each side. A half turn on the left nut needs a half turn on the right one. Once everything is where you want it, tighten the axle back in place. Oh, and try not to giggle with all the talk of nuts and chains and lube.
Lubrication is important, and that’s true for motorcycles, but it’s also really just good life advice all around. When in doubt, lube up. Just, you know, clean up afterwards. Keeping your chain properly lubricated helps it to flex smoothly and not bind up, but the lube itself is sticky, so it tends to pick up a lot of road gunk and debris, which can act like sandpaper. So you need to periodically clean all that off.
Just spray degreaser on the chain while the bike is on its stand, and slowly rotate the rear wheel, so you coat the entire chain. You can either just let the grime drip off, or really get in there with a Grub Brush. Either way, lay down some cardboard or something; the crap that runs off is pretty heinous.
Once you’ve got your chain all cleaned up, you need to re-lubricate it. This works basically the same as degreasing. Just slowly rotate the rear wheel by hand, and give the chain a good spritzing with your motorcycle chain lube of choice. It should go without saying, but do all this with the bike off and in neutral. I’ve seen the aftermath of guys leaving the bike running and in gear so that it just idles the rear wheel around for you. That works great, up until the point that you catch your fingers and turn your hands into some weird sort of blood mittens. Take the extra 30 seconds and do it by hand.
But regardless of how well you take care of that chain, eventually it will stretch to the point that it is too uneven to tighten, or there is just not enough room to pull the slack out. That means it’s time to replace it. Even if you don’t need to change sprockets, use this opportunity to inspect them, to ensure that all of the teeth are intact and straight. When in doubt, replace it all.
Replacing the chain is just a more in depth version of tightening it. You’ll need to loosen the axle, to get enough room to work. Then, you use a chain breaker to, wait for it, wait for it... break the chain. Fucking mind-blowing, right? Then just pull the old chain out and thread in the new one.
Pull the chain as tight as you can, then use the provided masterlink to tie the break in the chain together. Don’t use a clip style one, go ahead and use a rivet masterlink. It’s much stronger. Yes, that requires a special tool, but you can buy a breaker/rivet tool on Amazon for $40. Spend the extra few bucks for the peace of mind. Plus, now you learned a new skill, which is neat.
I’m not one of those guys that thinks you have to wrench on your own stuff to prove that you’re a “real gearhead.” Some people like working on vehicles, and some prefer actually driving them—or riding them.
But if you want to try to save a bit of money by doing your own bike maintenance, it’s a lot easier than you think. Plus, when the neighborhood kids see you with the bike up on the stand as you crank away at it, they’ll just think you’re the raddest dude on the block. And isn’t that what it’s all about?