DIY motorbike maintenance

This section deals with basic / essential DIY motorcycle maintenance
DIY on your motorbikeTyres (Tires)Tyre gauge
BrakesBrake fluid
FuelBrake pads
CoolantOil level
OilOil - high/low levels
Chain and sprocketWhich oil?
BatteryChain lubrication
Sending the bike for a serviceCleaningChain sag
FusesChain stretch
Good Condition TipsCleaning brush
Quiz Question.The oil level can be only be accurately read when the oil is cold

** True/False **

Quiz Question.Anti freeze should only be added to your radiator water during the winter months

** True/False **



Keep your tyres correctly inflated. A tyre that is very under-inflated generates a lot of heat which can lead to a blow out. Tyres that run too hot also wear out more quickly. According to the AA in the UK the most common motorcycle breakdown is for tyre damage.

Purchase a pencil-type tyre gauge (approx. R60-00) and use it regularly until you instinctively 'know' what your tyres feel like correctly inflated. (Some riders give their tyres a smart kick before mounting.) Use of the gauge and visual inspections must become second nature.

Replace your tyres sooner rather than later. Take a tip from the mad sportbikers and the canyon racers - they never skimp on their tyres as they are often all that stands between them and the pearly gates. (See web page on tyres for more)

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Motorcycles have two brake fluid reservoirs, one for the front, usually found on the handlebars and one for the back, usually tucked away somewhere under the saddle. Both should be checked regularly. Topping up should only be done from a new, sealed bottle as brake fluid tends to absorb moisture over time. If your brake pads are thin and due for replacement, do not top up the reservoir - replace the pads first and the level in the reservoir will rise automatically (a dark art at work here!)
Beware - brake fluid, if spilt on paintwork eats right through to the bare metal.

Also check the thickness of the brake pads. If you allow them to go right down to the metal your brake disc will be damaged resulting in an unnecessary and expensive replacement. Fitting braided steel brake lines will increase the performance of your brakes by roughly 50%

Here the thickness of the brake pad can be seen. It clearly has a lot of mileage to offer before needing to be replaced. If your bike is used off road or is exposed to corrosive forces ensure that the pistons that force the pads onto the disk are cleaned and serviced once a year.

Chain, sprocket and pinion.

These are three items that are essential to the well being of your bike. If not well maintained you will end up forking out a lot of money all too often to have them replaced.

Lubricate them often with a commercial chain spray (every five running hours/once month/every 300km). Spray liberally on the side of the chain that comes into contact with the sprockets. Ensure that you spray both left and the right hand side of the chain. Position a piece of newspaper so that you do not dirty the rear wheel rim as you spray. Use a second piece on the floor to catch any drips. Wait five or ten minutes before you wipe all excess oil off the chain. (This whole process is a lot easier if your motorbike has a centre stand) I find that an old sock slipped over my hand works the best. If your chain has been recently lubricated you only have to spray small sections. Spinning the back tyre will ensure that the rest of the chain is lubricated when it comes into contact with the sprocket and pinion. This is a task that is best done when you return home from your ride while the chain is still warm.

Bike chains are never taut but must be able to sag between 20mm and 40mm at the mid-point between the two sprockets. The sag is used when the bike suspension moves up and down over uneven surfaces.

If your chain is not an endless loop it will use a master link to join the two ends together. Check the condition of this link on a regular basis. Unfortunately replacing it usually requires a special tool to force it to separate.

The closed end of the master link must precede the open end on its way around (see arrow)

Cleaning. If your chain becomes very dirty e.g. after a long ride on a dirt road, leave it overnight. The crud becomes hard and is easily brushed off with a small steel wire brush the next morning. If you do want to clean it with a solvent do not use petrol as this dries out the small rubber O rings in the chain. Use a commercial chain cleaner, kerosene or diesel fuel as these are all oil based.

Chains stretch with time no matter how well they are cared for. You will know when the chain has stretched too much when you are able to pull the chain off the back of the rear sprocket. See diagram below

chain2.gif (38219 bytes)
When you try this when the chain is new, it will not budge from the sprocket but when it has become stretched, it moves off easily.


(If you own a water cooled bike). Check your coolant level. Do not simply add water but a mixture of antifreeze and water - usually mixed 50/50. The name antifreeze is misleading. Suffice to say that the anti-corrosion agents in antifreeze is the stuff you are interested in.

Water cooled motorcycles can be a problem if taken through thick mud. The mud can be thrown up against the radiator where it dries thus preventing proper air flow.

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Do not park your pride and joy in the pouring rain. One reason for this is that the rain water may infiltrate your fuel tank via your fuel cap and contaminate your fuel. If you suspect that some water may have infiltrated the tank rather be cautious. Open the petcock to the reserve position. Disconnect the rubber fuel pipe below the tank. This will cause the fuel to drain onto the ground. Very gently rock the bike to and fro and watch the colour of the fuel as it runs out. If after 500 ml it is clear the fuel is probably OK. If it is opaque then there is water in it. Continue to drain until it becomes clear again or find a bucket and drain the whole tank 

Remember when parking your motorcycle for any length of time to turn the petcock (fuel tap) to the off position. This can prevent you coming out to a bike in a pool of petrol. 

The fuel that is drawn in when you change your petcock (fuel tap) setting from "Normal" to "Reserve" comes from a different part of the tank, usually the very bottom. This is the exact place that foreign matter and water collects. This could mean that the very first time you need your reserve fuel your motorcycle just stops dead - choked by all the crap that has been drawn into the system.
Solution - Ride on the reserve setting (with a full tank of fuel) on occasion. The ratio of muck to good fuel will be so small as not to be a problem. This will also mean that the day you need your reserve - it will work!!


It is a fact that the electrical systems on motorcycles are more prone to giving problems than any other single sub system. Therefore make it a routine when giving your bike a through cleaning to check for loose and frayed wires that can cause intermittent problems or short circuits.

Good Condition Tips

Keeping your bike standard maintains it value. Fitting expensive aftermarket bits and bobs does not increase your bikes value - it can even reduce it

Fit a tank protector to protect your tank from your jacket and zips

Keep your air filter clean and this saves on fuel

Fit crash bungs and engine protector guards to protect your bike should you drop it

Protect your motorcycle's top yoke (the area around the ignition). Do this by fitting a yoke protector or do not have dozens of keys that will scratch the yoke.

Rear hugger mudguards and front mudguard extensions will protect your bike from flying crud.

Protect exposed metal work from corrosion. There are many protective products available.

Use a bike cover even if you store it in a closed garage.


Unlike a car, a motorcycle needs a strict routine of inspections and maintenance e.g. cars need to be serviced every 15 000km - a motorcycle every 5 000km!.  Develop a rigid habit of checks and inspections every time you use it and adhere to a weekly, monthly and quarterly maintenance routine.

You are going to be bitterly disappointed if you think that you friendly motorcycle dealer is going to maintain your motorcycle (they are in the repair business which is much more profitable). Things like loose spokes, battery water, cracked rubber hoses, loose bolts and nuts, all fluid levels, light bulbs, switches, brake fluid levels, corrosion and everything to do with your chain is your problem. This is the voice of experience speaking!!



Regular oil and filter changes will keep your motorbike young. 

Oil level. (four stroke engines only) Checking your oil level is not a simple matter when in comes to motorcycles i.e. should the oil be hot or cold, is the oil level checked in the crankcase or in a separate reservoir (a dry sump), should the dipstick be fully screwed in or not, must the bike be on the centrestand, side stand or simply 'level' and does the bike have a dipstick or a sight glass? All this adds up to reading the manufacturers handbook very carefully. An under filled crankcase can be disastrous while an overfilled one may flood you air cleaner with oil.

You should also know the difference between the 'low' level and the 'high' level in ml e.g. if the difference is 300ml you cannot purchase a 500ml tin and pour the whole can in!

Here are some pointers regarding oil which are true for most motorcycles

  1. The bike should be level as possible.
  2. The oil should not inspected cold and is therefore best done when you stop for fuel.
  3. Do not allow foreign matter and dirt to fall into the sump during the inspection process
  4. With threaded dipsticks do not screw the dipstick in when taking a reading
  5. With a sight glass you are OK if oil is visible (there is probable no 'high' or 'low' markings)
  6. High temperatures, time, speed, heavy traffic, short trips and dust quickly destroy the quality of your oil
  7. Change your oil every 5000km or 3 months, whichever comes first although take note of point 6 above.
  8. Never use a pirate oil filter. An excellent quality pirate unit can still destroy your engine as its "Bypass Filter Rating" may be incorrect for your particular model. Thus, use only the one from your manufacturer.
  9. Motorcycles can and do use the same oils as cars although special synthetic motorcycle oils are available for sportbikes that are ridden hard. Note that synthetic oils are not recommended if your bike has a wet clutch (a clutch that runs inside the oil in your crankcase) In South Africa a semi-synthetic oil graded as  SAE 20 W-50 is usually fine. Deviate from this only if you will be riding in extremely cold temperatures.

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The humble battery is the second most common cause for motorcycle breakdowns! (AA, UK). Unfortunately they are awkward to get to and therefore do not get checked as often as they should. I have it on good authority that garages do not always top up battery levels with distilled water but simply use tap water. Either buy your own from a chemist or have the levels checked at a battery centre. If you drop your bike then battery acid sometimes leaks out and begins to corrode anything in the immediate area. Therefore always check this area very carefully for acid damage if your pride and joy does end up on the deck for a few moments or more. 

If you have cause to buy a new battery then -

  1. Ensure that the key ignition is off before you start removing and replacing.
  2. Check to see how the old one is connected. The negative terminal is usually connected to a cable which attaches to the frame while the positive cable disappears off to the starter motor. When you fit the new one ensure that you do it in the same fashion or you will destroy the electrical system of your bike!


Know where your fuses are. Most bikes have a set of spare fuses next to the ones being used. One fine day your bike may not start or the lights and hooter (horn) may not work and you will be required to replace the defective one.

In this picture spare fuses are stored around the ones in use above. 

In reality this is too few. Should your bike develop a short you will probably burn at least five fuses before you find the problem.

Do not be fooled by a fuse that looks good. Swap it around with a spare before you take for granted that the fuse is good


There is a dark art at work here. How some riders get their motorcycle so clean and shiny is beyond me. One thing is for sure though - you need a very soft brush. The one I use is actually a shoe buffing brush. It is small enough, big enough, soft enough and hard enough - all at the same time. The backing handle is not the flat wooden type but is plastic with a curly back bits that fit around your fingers. This is useful when squeezing your fingers in between spokes without leaving the brush behind. A toothbrush is also good.

A powerful hand-held spray bottle for spraying the soapy water before brushing is useful. You can make your own degreaser by adding a good squirt of dish wash liquid to 400ml of paraffin. Use good car shampoo for the plastics as it is usually cheaper than the special bike stuff. Do not use dishwash liquid on the fairings as it removes the protective silicon layers. 

Do not use steam or high pressure water hoses to clean your bike as it damages the grease packed into the bearings. You can use them on your wheel rims and spokes if you have tubeless tyres. If you have spoked wheels with tubes ensure that you ride the bike afterwards to evaporate any water that may have forced its way inside the rims. This avoids rust where the spokes penetrates the rim.

Very fine steel wool available at good hardware stores is also great. Ask for the type that cabinet makers use to buff wood with. This does a great job on greasy inaccessible spokes and very dirty wheel rims. Use sparingly however and do not use this on any surface that is coated in some way as it will remove the coating.

A sponge - the type used to clean floors with. The type that goes hard when dry. This is useful if you wet only the front bit and use the hard back as a support to push and manoeuvre with. This type of sponge does a good job when you are applying a UV plastic protector liquid to any black plastic or rubber surfaces your motorcycle may have. It works because you can push the soft front into inaccessible places with the harder back part of the sponge.

Cleaning the chain. See the section on chains

Sending your motorbike in for service/repair

My suggestion is to take off all the non essential fairings/plastics and then ride your motorbike in naked - the BIKE, not the rider! This allows you to inspect it thoroughly yourself before you hand it over and no, you do not have to be a mechanic to do this. Look for cracked rubber hoses, rubber hoses that have become hard and brittle, loose bits, missing bolts, loose spokes, loose and chaffed electrical wires,  soiled areas as a result of a leak, battery water levels, battery acid corrosion around the battery area, kinks in your chain, worn chain master link, thin brake pads and all other fluid levels. Then you can specify your concerns on paper when you check it in. When you collect your bike you can then see the work for yourself as 'the lack of work' cannot be hidden behind the plastics.

Removing all the plastics as in this photo above is not difficult and reveals the true condition of a lot of parts that can give trouble on the road

The head of this spoke has been pulled right through its seat on the wheel hub. Although it is still intact it is useless.

Accident Prevention     Riding Safely     Choosing a Motorcycle    Tyres

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