Going the (First) Distance: An Introduction to Long-Distance Motorcycle Riding, Point #9 (Preventative Care aka Motorcycle Maintenance)

#9: Preventative care:

Previous articles have discussed the importance of having the ability to call for help in any situation and having the right tools packed to make roadside repairs. However, both situations can often be avoided by keeping your motorcycle properly maintained. This is especially true for long-distance riding, where riders are usually far from their home garage. It is much, much better to make repairs or perform maintenance in the comfort of one’s own garage than on an interstate shoulder. Moreover, there are many repairs that cannot be performed roadside, like fluid changes.

Each motorcycle’s specific maintenance needs are different. For a general listing of common motorcycle maintenance information, see this PDF: Motorcycle Maintenance Chart

The complexity and costliness of performing the above maintenance will vary from bike to bike. For example, most motorcycle batteries can be found underneath the rider’s seat. My old FJR1300 had the battery located within the right side of the front fairing. Instead of simply removing a seat and disconnecting battery cables, I had to remove several pieces of bodywork to get the battery out.

One of the most important components to performing preventative maintenance is having a good manual for your bike. An official shop manual from your motorcycle’s manufacturer is often the most detailed and accurate manual available. However, those manuals can be expensive and often lack illustrations. Personally, I have had good success with both Clymer and Haynes motorcycle manuals for almost all of my bikes. They offer pictures to illustrate parts and procedures, and can often be purchased for less than $40.

In the long run, performing your own maintenance can save touring riders thousands of dollars in as little as one year. For example, a set of chain replacement tools usually sells for around $100. A shop will often charge an hour and a half for labor for a change replacement, at $100/hour. I have used my $100 chain tools several times, which has saved me $300-$400 over the last 10 years. The same holds true for replacing cables and fluids that are easily accessible. In short, making the upfront investment in tools can pay large dividends for decades to come.

Personally, I try to perform as much of my touring motorcycle’s maintenance in the off-season as possible. This is advantageous for several reasons. First, it keeps me from rushing to finish maintenance work in order to not miss riding time. When I bought my FJR1300, I did not do the valve clearance check over the winter like I should have. I ended up doing it the night before I was supposed to leave for a multi-day trip to Americade, and it was the first time I had had the FJR’s gas tank off. I stayed up far too late, got little sleep before I left, and did not reinstall a coolant pipe correctly. Fortunately, the pipe was located on top of the engine in a small gulley and did not cause a problem during the trip. However, I ended up spending extra money to replace gaskets and lost riding time later in the summer because I had to re-do my work. It is best to perform maintenance in a relaxed atmosphere so that problems or mistakes can be more easily spotted and corrected.

Second, it allows the motorcycle to remain torn down for an extended period of time. Instead of having to button the bike back up right away to get back to riding, the bike can be left in a state of un-dress for months on end. This allows a rider to perform maintenance at their own pace and saves a lot of time. This is especially true with sportbikes, sport touring bikes, and touring bikes like a Honda Gold Wing. The bodywork on those machines can be a real pain to take on and off. Personally, I used to remove almost all of the side bodywork from my FJR1300 for the entire winter. After performing all of the needed maintenance and rechecking everything a couple times, I would then re-install the bodywork when riding season was at hand.

Third, if there is work that needs to be done by a shop, motorcycle shops are usually very slow during the winter months. Some shops also offer discounts on labor in order to bring in at least some business. Some shops will even pick up your motorcycle and bring it back to you if you live close enough. The winter is a great time to get tires changed or have more complex work done.

Going the (First) Distance: An Introduction to Long-Distance Motorcycle Riding, Point #8 (Motorcycle Shoe [Tire] Shopping)

#8Motorcycle shoe shopping (aka tires): 

Just like carrying the right tools can be a tour saver, so can having the right tires on your motorcycle. Certain types of motorcycle tires last longer and therefore perform better for long-distance riding than others. Having to lose a day or two during a long-distance trip to having new tires installed can ruin a tour.

Tire life if chiefly determined by a tire’s rubber compound. Tires with a softer rubber mix, like sportbike tires, provide excellent grip at the expense of longevity. Cruiser tires tend to feature harder rubber compounds that provide excellent tire life at the expense of cornering grip and performance.

Sport touring riders used to have to make a choice between tires that would provide enough mileage for touring but lack grip for sportier riding, or have to change tires much more often. Over the last 10 years or so, tire manufacturers have begun producing dual-compound tires. Those tires feature a harder rubber compound along the center of the tire, and a softer compound along the sides of the tread. This innovation has allowed sport touring riders to have access to tires that will allow them to ride to the Tail of the Dragon and back, as well as have plenty of edge grip for carving up the Dragon. Most manufacturers use the dual compound construction on the rear tire only, while Michelin uses it for both its front and rear tires. Many of the dual-compound sport touring tires are also available in a “GT” spec with extra belting for heavier touring motorcycles (Yamaha FJR1300/Kawasaki Concours 14/etc.).

A strategy some riders use is buying inexpensive tires that do not have features like dual compound and change them more often. I used such a strategy for a while with my FJR1300. I was living in Columbus at the time, which is blessed to have the Iron Pony motorsports store. They were selling Continental Motion tires for $142.99 a set and $92.99 for a rear tire. Even though it costs $30-$50 to have tires installed (more on that below), it was still cheaper to do that than buy fully-featured sport touring tires.

Each rider needs to first determine which tires are the correct construction (radial or bias ply), size, load rating, and speed rating for their bike. Riders should then try several different brands of tire until they figure out which one is best for them and their bike. Some tires wear better or handle better than others for different rider/motorcycle pairings.

Touring riders can also save money when changing tires by removing the wheels from their motorcycle themselves. Many motorcycles can be lifted using motorcycle lifts with one or both wheels off the ground. Some motorcycles also come equipped with a centerstand that allows the removal of one wheel at a time. A rider can then take the wheels into the shop with their new tires, and only have to pay for the mounting and balancing of the tires. This can save a rider $100-$200 a year or more.

Going the (First) Distance: An Introduction to Long Distance Motorcycle Riding, Point #7 (Bring the Right Tools for the Job)

#7: Bring the right tool(s) for the job:

In the words of fellow long-distance riding enthusiast Paul Pelland (http://www.longhaulpaul.com/), “If your idea of a bike tool kit is a cell phone and a credit card, you’re in trouble already.” While carrying cash and alternative means of calling for help was covered in the last article (Point #6), the need to call for help can often be avoided by carrying the right tools on your bike. Unless you are not straying far from home and have someone who can bring you tools or a trailer on short notice, it is imperative that you have the ability to make simple roadside repairs yourself.

The goal here is not to carry an entire tool chest when you tour. You will not be doing a complete engine tear down and rebuild on an interstate shoulder. What a rider does need to carry is enough tools to perform the following:

  1. Remove front and rear wheels
  2. Tighten loose nuts and bolts
  3. Test electrical wires/switches/fuses/etc. for voltage
  4. Check battery voltage
  5. Remove/retighten clamps
  6. Remove/reinstall bodywork
  7. Change lightbulbs (headlight/taillight/turn signals/meters)
  8. Adjust/replace cables (clutch/throttle)
  9. Check tire pressure
  10. Add air to tires
  11. Cut and crimp electrical wires
  12. Replace brake pads
  13. Change spark plugs

Each bike will need different tools to accomplish those tasks. It is therefore best to check your bike’s stock tool set to see what size wrenches it includes. It is also important to include any special tools that accessories may need. For example, when I put a Givi luggage rack on my old Suzuki Bandit 1200, it used two 13mm nuts to secure the brackets to the motorcycle’s frame. The Bandit’s stock tool kit did not include a 13mm wrench, so I needed to add that to my bike tool set. Another example is my old FJR1300’s front wheel. The front axle needed a 19mm allen key socket to remove it.

In general, the tools needed to perform the above procedures will include the following:

For carrying the tools listed above, I use two small tool bags for the tools I store in my saddle bags (https://www.harborfreight.com/tool-storage/tool-bags-belts/11-in-tool-bag-61835.html), and a plastic bag or drawstring bag for tools stored underneath the seat.

The list of tools above may seem excessive. Why would a rider need to carry a wrench and a socket in the same size? The reality is different tools are needed for different parts of the bike. My old FJR1300 had two 10mm bolts that held the fuel tank down. The bolts were located in a small space between the tank and the steering stem. If I only carried the wrench the FJR’s tool kit came with, I would not be able to raise the fuel tank to make repairs. A rider also needs to be able to make repairs as quickly as possible when stuck on the side of a road. A road shoulder is a dangerous place, especially with the modern problem of distracted driving.

Additionally, carrying so many tools has proven invaluable to me on more than one occasion. The best example was a Memorial Day ride in 2016. I pulled over to check weather on my phone. When I tried to start the bike again, there was no power when I turned the key. Because I was carrying my tools with me, I was able to use a ratchet with an extension and a 10mm socket to unfasten the tank and a multimeter to find the electrical problem. I then used a wire key ring to bypass the failed wire between the main fuse and the key cylinder, and got the bike running again. Had I not had my tools with me, I would have been stuck calling a friend and leaving the bike on the side of the road. In that story, I was only about 100 miles from home. Imagine if I had been 1,000 miles away. Carrying the right tools can deescalate a nightmare situation into a mere inconvenience.