Big Motorbike Maintenance

7 Key Tips from the Experts

Want the satisfaction of going under the hood and getting your hands dirty? Working on a motorcycle is typically more straightforward than wrenching on a modern car. Removing cladding to get at the inner workings seldom takes more than 20 minutes and then you have the entire machine revealed before you. But it can also be perilous.

Say you watched Alex Honnold in “Free Solo” and decided to head to Yosemite to climb 3,000 feet of rock with no rope. That sounds unwise, right? Well, so is watching some rando on YouTube rebuild his motorcycle’s brakes and deciding that you can just follow his instructions. Your motorcycle’s brakes are your climbing rope. Their proper operation can stand between you and death. And even if that botched repair does not endanger life, it can still cost you a lot of money to fix.

To help figure out what repair jobs you should and shouldn’t do yourself, I reached out to Barry Rompella, who runs a speed and repair shop called Cycle Center in Saugerties, New York and has seen it all during his 35 years in business. “You wouldn’t believe how many times we hear a customer balk at paying for a repair because they saw how ‘easy’ it was to do on YouTube,” Rompella groaned through a half-hearted, ironic smile. He uses YouTube too — often to find out what incorrect aftermarket part a customer threw onto his bike and diagnose the damage wrought.

We also consulted Marcin Wasicki, who runs a German car repair shop called Airport Automotive in Linthicum, Maryland. Wasicki is a professional car mechanic and self-trained moto wrench, but he’s also well aware of his own limitations. He’s an advocate for working on his own bikes—when he has the time, expertise, and tools, and never otherwise.

Learn the basics.

Motorcycles can be super easy to modify. Changing the bars, levers, grips and hand guards, adding some luggage racks and pegs or even introducing some simple electronics like a USB charger or hand warmer grips will usually be very straightforward. We’re talking about turning screws, not learning the finer points of fuel-air mixtures, air- and liquid cooling, and electronics. The former, not the latter, all feel like fair game to Rompella.

Wasicki thinks owners should absolutely know how to change their own oil and filter as well as the air filter because this is cheap and easy service. “But don’t rely on some YouTube video,” Wasicki cautions. If you do want to use the internet, look for the bike’s shop manual so you can find the correct replacement part — and be observant about the proper steps for even these seemingly basic operations. Inserting an oil filter the wrong way can result in a seized engine.

As for field repairing a blown tire, especially if we’re talking about off-road rubber that’s easier to pry free from the rim vs. a street tire, both Rompella and Wasicki think that’s important to know how to do. But why suffer the hassle if you’re not stranded miles from help? Wasicki recently popped a tire on his Kawasaki KLR. “I could do it on the side of the road, but we found a dealer close by who flat-bedded it instead,” Wasicki said. “Ultimately, I want to ride more and not risk us getting stuck again or a failure that might be dangerous.”

Remember: You can get hurt.

Speaking of danger, If your bike doesn’t have a center stand, the first risk may be having a bike fall on you, busting parts all over the garage floor. Rompella’s shop has a lot of specialized tools, stands for bikes, ways to center them, hoists to lift them off the ground, etc., and he says that’s so that the work’s done right, and also so that nobody gets hurt. “There’s danger in not knowing how to set the bike up properly to do a job.”

The right analogy here is cooking. It’s not a dangerous endeavor in itself, but you’re talking about boiling water, sharp implements, and 400-degree metal. You are the weak link in the formula, especially if you’re rushed and haven’t set up your kitchen with uncluttered work surfaces and proper tools. Don’t have the tools or the free space? You may want to rethink if you actually want to deep fry that turkey — or perform that valve adjustment.

Don’t be cheap.

You know what’s never inexpensive? A Ferrari. Even one you got for free. This is also true if you own a fairly sophisticated motorcycle, like a Ducati or a BMW. Those bikes are luxury items when they leave the factory and will continue to cost a premium when you repair them.

Rompella says he constantly sees customers who buy parts from eBay because they’re inexpensive and the seller “claims that they fit the factory spec, but they’re junk.” This leads to the most common form of heartache, Rompella eye rolls as he continues, “because people just get into parts swapping.” When the first cheap widget doesn’t work, they go to the web to find the next one to replace.

Let’s say, though, that you’re certain what’s broken — but that OEM part seems extremely expensive. Yes, the aftermarket exists for a reason, and a lot of what’s out there is excellent, Rompella says, but you have to shop for quality. One useful filter: Is a reputable site like Revzilla, Chapmoto, or Rocky Mountain selling that brand? Good. If they’re not listing it and you cannot find it at legit storefronts or e-tailers, run the other way.

Exhaust systems are not that complicated.

7 Key Tips from the Experts

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Wasicki wants you to know something: An exhaust pipe isn’t an empty tube. Changing the exhaust, especially with a unit that’s not designed for your motorcycle, can change “how the engine can breathe and that can affect fuel mixture that can affect power band.” Rompella adds that an engine needs back pressure, and if you alter that formula, you’re potentially going to not just get backfiring but potential engine damage.

Rompella elaborates that cutting corners here will eventually cost you more money and headaches, noting that there are superb aftermarket exhaust systems from brands like Yoshimura and Akrapovic. He likes these because modern bikes have complex sensors (see next entry) that either have to be remapped or confused into working properly. These established manufacturers have already done the homework to make their products compatible.

Executing this work properly is one of those very satisfying jobs that can result in incremental power and sonic upgrades. But only if you heed Rule No. 3.

Electrical systems can be quite complicated.

mechanic customizing motorcycle

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Older bikes tend to be very rudimentary. But more modern fuel-injected motos — especially bikes with lots of electronic accessories — have very distinct power draws with Controller Area Networks, aka a CAN bus. Wasicki’s Twitter-length explanation for these are that “these are your bike’s brain.”

CAN buses reduce wiring clutter, enabling a single wire to carry multiple signals for different operations. This allows motorcycle manufacturers to add more safety and convenience tech, like ABS, an LED headlight, traction and stability control, and high-tech flat-panel instrumentation. But CAN buses are reading only for the signals they were programmed for at the factory. “So you throw in an LED on a BMW that didn’t have one,” Wasicki said. “And now you have an error message.”

Rompella notes that, as with better exhaust systems, higher-quality LED lights designed for your bike have built-in resistors that work retroactively with your bike’s computer, to speak the same language. “This comes back to knowing how stuff works,” Rompella explains. LEDs throw a lot less resistance than old incandescent or HID lights.

On a 20-year-old motorcycle, a device like a turn signal literally cannot operate without the proper resistance. On a newer bike, the CAN bus may not interpret the signal properly because the bargain bulb you bought off Alibaba isn’t speaking the same language.

How do you know if the electrical device you want to upgrade to will work with your bike? Make a phone call. Literally having a conversation with a human being at a specific parts maker (like Clearwater Lights, because they’re in the lighting business for a lot of motorcycles) will help you better understand both the upgrade and how the product was designed for your bike — or if it wasn’t.

If it’s carbureted, ask your mechanic for advice.

Here’s some inside baseball. This whole article started because I wanted to fix a rough-running motorcycle I bought from a friend of a friend. The previous owner probably tried to get more power from the bike and just went with bigger carb jets, thinking more fuel was the solution. Not always, and not if you’re just talking about randomly going with jets with larger throats. “Because when people jet things, and you don’t know what you’re doing,” Wasicki muses, “all of a sudden the thing has terrible idle or doesn’t want to start correctly.”

Rompella highlights two issues. First, “I’ve done thousands and thousands of jetting jobs.” He says his shop works on carbs daily, thanks to the ethanol in fuel, since it attracts moisture and can cause fuel systems to gum up, so he says if you ride a carbureted bike, try to avoid gas with ethanol, or use a fuel stabilizer. He also says just jet swapping is a bad idea because going too far out of spec leads to the above headaches that Wasicki flags.

But the larger sin he sees again comes back to cheaping out on quality. “You think, ‘My carburetor is dirty,’ and go and spend $40 on a new one from Amazon,” but the part isn’t actually to spec, usually because those jets are also faulty. “When I hear that someone’s carb is a problem, I always ask if they have the original, because then we can solve the problem,” which just comes down to properly cleaning and servicing it, “and the whole operation costs you as little as $50.”

You need some specialized tools.

Even if you only want to slightly customize your bike (say, swapping bars for a better fit to your body) you will need a few just-in-case tools, for instance to make a roadside flat repair, or to move your rear wheel back to account for chain stretch, maybe to replace a dead battery, etc.

Wasicki likes Motion Pro tire levers and their various helper devices that work like a second pair of hands when you’re trying to get a tire to seat on the rim. He also recommends CruzTools because they make quality travel sets and unfortunately the kit that came with your moto almost surely isn’t very sturdy. Still, take that out, study the bolt sizes you’ll need to most commonly address the various bits of your bike, and get a three-sided T-handle tool like this, which is one of the most versatile devices you could own—and not just for repairing your bike.

Do note: Some bikes have very proprietary parts (BMW oil filler caps spring to mind) and you’ll either need that company’s specific tool or an aftermarket option designed to grab, turn, loosen or tighten.

When in doubt, learn from a mechanic.

When (not if) your two-wheeled companion busts — and that may or may not be because you got in over your head trying to fix it yourself — show up at the shop with your motorcycle and your mechanic’s favorite malted beverage. It’s the least you can do, really, and while you’re at it, ask if you can stay and watch them work. You’re probably going to learn something that could save your sorry butt six months from now, and if nothing else, you’re going to laugh at how little you know.

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