In today’s challenging economic climate and this election year, the off-road motorcycle industry is moving slowly. Racing programs are being cut or even eliminated, and new bike sales are only up slightly. 2015 sales numbers have just been tabulated by the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC) and at 730,000 units the total of motorcycle and ATV sales combined was only up 2.2% over 2014.
Many riders are feeling the pinch and to that end we’re keeping our bikes longer and spending more money on maintenance and upgrade items than saving up for a new ride. Putting miles on off-road machines is hard on your equipment and your motorcycle requires at least the basic maintenance to get you through the day without mechanical or safety-related failures.
With that in mind, we’ve put together 7 great inexpensive, cheap or even free ways to keep your older ride ready to hit the track or trail…
#1 - EXHAUST PACKING: WHY YOU SHOULD CHANGE IT
Experienced riders and racers know that a dirty, spooge-filled exhaust can limit an engine from reaching its full potential because you can just hear the difference once you spend enough time around these machines…but we never realized how much until we talked to the good folks at FMF Racing about how this maintenance items can impact riders and racers.
Research by FMF has shown up to a 2 horsepower loss from blown muffler packing and that regular replacement can help restore top end power, improve throttle response and extend muffler life. Maybe the best reason is to reduce sound levels and help keep our riding areas open!
To inspect your exhaust for packing issues, it’s best to remove the rivets and replace, depending on how many hours the machine is operating. Signs of needing replacement include excessive noise and pieces of baffle material leaving (being blown out) the canister. We’ve done this procedure many times and it’s rare that we see a muffler unit that isn’t past due for it to be done so if you stay on top of it you may always have an extra horsepower or two more than the rider next to you and that’s always a plus.
FMF also has a good video explaining this process and you can see it here: REPACKING VIDEO
#2 - OVERSIZED FOOTPEGS: GET CONTROL OF YOUR RIDE
Photo: Footpegs have changed dramatically over the years
If you’ve ever wondered why larger footpegs on off-road machines are so popular, you need to look back in the evolution of our machines…in the 60’s and 70’s even though motocross was becoming popular in the USA, the machines ridden had footpegs that were narrow, easily packed with dirt and mud, slippery when wet and weak.
Controlling your motorcycle has a lot to do with being able to react quickly to obstacles when presented in real-time and being able to distribute your weight with the maximum amount of control and balance…and if you’ve ever had these issues due to inadequate pegs when riding you know they can make a fun day short or a short race really long when they aren’t right.
To address this problem, aftermarket companies began to produce lighter, wider and stronger designs which incorporated open sections that were tapered in order to facilitate shedding debris faster, keeping the teeth clear for better boot to tooth contact.
Fast forward to the present day and footpegs have achieved the status that they deserve and not only have the factory production pegs improved greatly, but some aftermarket examples like the Fastway Evolution III from Pro Moto Billet offer even more features like a reversible collar system that gives the capability to raise or lower the footpegs roughly 8-10mm, giving taller riders extra leg room, replaceable traction cleats for easy maintenance and adjustable camber for added comfort and control.
#3 - BEARING REPLACEMENTS: BORING BUT EXTREMELY NECESSARY
Bearings…they keep our machines rolling and operating smoothly but who wants to go through their ride looking for bearing issues? It’s certainly not as cool as installing a new pipe or engine upgrade…but it’s even more important! Bearings are the foundations upon which our machines run and roll and without them working correctly - disasters await.
Bearing failures are always serious and can cost you many weeks of missed riding due to engine/mechanical issues, not to mention chance of serious injury to your person, so let’s see what we can do to avoid that drama entirely. Front to back some of the bearing sets you need to pay attention to include: front wheel bearings, steering stem, swingarm, shock linkages and rear wheel bearings as all of these take tremendous abuse in off-road motorcycles.
Photo: Swingarm bearings live in a brutal environment
We talked with the folks at Motion Pro (who make some of the best tools to make replacing these items easier) about what kinds of bearings need the most attention.
“Kind of an open question, it really does depend on what part of the country, the type of riding, weather and maintenance…also how much power washing is done. Swingarm (and associated linkages) and PDS bearing seem to get the most abuse…….they are moving parts that are exposed to the elements. Steering stem bearings (and) races are probably the most neglected. Wheel bearing get hammered a ton and most home mechanics should be able to replace them on their own….’’
Motion Pro makes some of our favorite tools for these jobs like the Steering Head Bearing Race Driver and Deluxe Suspension Bearing Service Tool which are the right tools for the job and can make these procedures much easier and precise.
#4 - TIRE PRESSURE: FIVE MINUTES CAN MAKE ALL THE DIFFERENCE
Sometimes the simplest of maintenance items are the ones we overlook and one of those is certainly tire pressure, but it's vitally important and should not be overlooked. This small patch of rubber is your interface to the trail and holds the key to great handling in it's bag of tricks.
We asked some questions of our friends at Michelin North America about off-road motorcycle tire pressures and some reasons why it should checked every time you go riding.
How should riders properly check their tire pressures, should the tire be hot/cold?
Pressure should always be checked before riding, especially if the motorcycle has sat, because air pressure decreases over time, typically at a rate of 1psi per month. It should be checked and adjusted when the tire is cold, meaning the tire’s temperature is equivalent to ambient temperature and riders should check pressure using an accurate, trusted pressure gauge.
What type of installation and inspection should be done on both the tire valve and rim lock?
When installing a tube, the valve should be positioned perpendicular to the rim (pointing directly towards the center of the wheel) and should be monitored regularly during the life of the tire to ensure that the valve stem is not beginning to lean. If the valve begins to lean, this indicates that the tire is slipping on the rim, and if not addressed, will result in a flat tire once the tube tears at the base of the valve.
One common mistake riders make is tightening the external valve nut down against the rim which mechanically holds the valve stem in place, preventing the rider from seeing the warning signs of a leaning valve stem. Michelin recommends using the external valve nut as a locking nut against the valve cap to allow the rider to see any signs of the tire slipping on the rim and to ensure that the valve cap doesn’t come off, exposing the valve core to potential damage from debris.
Photo: Pay close attention the the valve stem position
What tire pressures are good for what? For example, should riders use less pressure for more traction?
For motocross and off-road tire applications, tire pressure is a very subjective setting and often times riders’ base pressure settings vary depending upon their combined rider / motorcycle weight and the conditions in which they ride.
For the new Michelin Starcross 5 tires, we recommend a base setting of 12.5 psi to 13.5 psi for optimum performance in a variety of terrain. Consumers can use a slightly lower pressure for muddy conditions as this will allow more casing flex of the tire, which can help facilitate mud evacuation from the contact patch. Lower pressure will increase size of the contact patch and can improve traction in certain conditions. For extremely rocky or challenging conditions that increase the chance of a puncture or pinch flat, consumers should use a slightly higher pressure to provide a more robust tire / tube combination.
Are there any tools that are recommended like a low pressure gauge?
Michelin recommends making air pressure adjustments for off-road tire applications in 0.5 psi increments to evaluate the change in tire performance and impact on suspension settings and it’s best to use a quality low pressure gauge to ensure these subtle changes are accurately measured.
Photo: Use the correct equipment when checking tire pressures
#5 - FORK OIL: WHATS INSIDE THOSE TUBES?
Suspension is key to your motorcycle’s handling and safety and it’s made up of several parts that work in unison, including your front forks and rear shock. Many machines come setup for 160 pound riders and many riders never even change these settings, much to their detriment. Today’s multi-adjustable suspensions provide amazing compliance when tuned and serviced correctly, and provide correspondingly bad performance when overlooked.
One area that we know escapes the inspection by many bike owners is the fork oil. Fork oil provides the ability for your forks to change characteristics rapidly as the terrain demands, through different valving and spring combinations that use fork oil for compression and damping features.
We spoke to our friends at Race Tech for some advice on how to insure your fork oil stays fresh and up to the task.
Race Tech recommends rebuilding your suspension with fresh fluids every 20-30 hours because an over-used fork fluid will begin to break down changing your damping characteristics and potentially allow expensive damage inside your suspension.
All suspension fluids are not created equally; do your research. We prefer Race Tech Ultra Slick Suspension Fluids because they are slippery, temperature stable, long wearing and non-foaming suspension fluid. As far as, weight/oil level, it can be found easily on the Valving Search per model.
Photo: Forks are precision instruments and should be serviced regularly for best performance
If thinking about upgrading or working on your suspension, check out the to the Tech Support button at RaceTech as there is some good information there.
#6 - BRAKING MAINTENANCE: TO GO FAST YOU NEED TO STOP FAST
Another often overlooked player in the off-road motorcycle equation is the braking system(s). Many riders don’t address the brakes until braking performance suffers to the point of being dangerous. Conditions that can adversely affect braking performance can include master cylinder reservoir fluid level dropping rapidly, brake noise modulating and brake lever and/or pedal travel increasing when applying the brakes.
There are different aspects of your brakes you need to keep on top of and the first are the actual brake pads and rotors, because they see the most wear and have a such an important role in slowing and stopping your machine.
Photo: Many different components must be inspected to insure braking performance
As your brake pads wear, the metal backing will eventually surface and start to actually contact the rotor, causing damage and many times requiring a replacement so you can’t allow this to happen. Rule of thumb is to change your brake pads at the first sign it’s required and you can check your owner's manual for specs on at what point brake pads should be changed. It’s easy to see approximately how much material is left on the pads and it’s a usually simple procedure to drop the pads out of the calipers and check the thickness when you think you’re getting close to the wear limit.
Brake rotors can be visually inspected for signs of stress cracking and warping before riding and these conditions can sometimes be felt while applying the brakes. Run your fingernail across both sides of the disc…are there any deep grooves or excessive scoring on the surface? Are there any visible cracks? If you see any of these conditions, you’ll want to find out why they’re happening and correct the situation immediately.
Next up is to visually inspect your brake lines and all associated fittings for any signs of seepage or leaking of brake fluid. The fluid must be absolutely clean and free of any type of contaminants and if not, must be replaced immediately. Brake fluid is also corrosive to painted surfaces and can react with other types of chemicals in a negative manner so caution must be used during the handling and storage.
Check the top(s) of the brake reservoirs…are they clean and dry and hardware tight? Is the fluid at the appropriate level as specified in your owner’s manual? Does it look clean and clear? If not, time to delve deeper into the problem and fix it before riding again.
Brake fluid comes in different types and it’s important you use the correct type and volume as specified in your owner’s manual…failure to do so can result in damage to both expensive components as well as your body after not being able to stop!
# 7 - SETTING YOUR SAG: YOU NEED AN ATTITUDE ADJUSTMENT
One of those mystical procedures in our sport is this thing called “setting your sag” and I never see riders doing it! I’ve done it many times but still don’t know if I’ve got it down perfect and it’s not something I look forward to doing, but when I do get it done, I can feel the results. The rear of the bike is especially compliant with my light weight and the rebound fells like its hugging the ground on the smaller stutter bumps… as well as being easier to set up into fast sweepers and switchbacks where the bike loads and unloads the suspension fairly rapidly.
So it’s worth doing and doing it right…we asked the experts at MoTool about setting sag properly, why you should do it and a bit about their new digital Slacker scale which can make this task a lot simpler, faster and with more accuracy.
Riders should be concerned with setting their sag because every bike is designed to sit in a certain posture regardless of the rider’s weight and this determines how the bike handles. The suspension should compress or “sag” the same amount for every rider. The key is to preload the springs more or less depending on the rider. Sometimes you may even require softer or stiffer springs depending on your weight and the particular bike.
Sag can also be adjusted for varying conditions. For fast conditions, run a little more sag in the rear so the bike is stable at speed or, for tighter conditions, you can run less sag which produces a steeper fork rake and thus the bike turns better. This is the most misunderstood and overlooked settings when it comes to suspension setup. If the bike is not setup properly it will become unpredictable and unsafe. This setting is definitely as important for casual play riders as it is for seasoned pros as it assures it will perform as the manufacturer intended.
How is it done conventionally?
Conventionally it took at least two people to take the measurement. One, taking the measurements and two, the rider that has to be on the bike. A measurement was taken with the suspension unloaded then another was taken with the rider. The second measurement was subtracted from the first to get the actual sag measurement. It always required at least another person and there was a lot of room for error in how/where it was measured and in making sure the math was right.
Photo: The MoTool Digital Slacker sag tool
How is it done using the Motool Slacker digital sag scale?
With Slacker, you simply put the tool on the bike with the suspension unloaded and turn it on or you can use the new Auto Zero feature if the suspension is not unloaded when Slacker is mounted. Then just mount the bike and it will show you the measurement in real-time on the remote display as well as the main unit which is attached to the axle. This allows a single person to quickly and easily take a precise measurement by simply leaning against a wall or vehicle with an elbow to balance and looking at the remote LCD display.
Even if you have a helper, Slacker is much faster and more accurate than a tape measure or sag stick. No matter how you do it, you should be checking your sag regularly and adjusting for different conditions pretty much every ride.
Note: Setting your sag can sometimes be a long and complicated procedure, so our friends at Race Tech have devoted a page to show you how to do it.
In conclusion, maintaining your off-road motorcycle is vitally important to staying safe and being fast while piloting your iron steed. By properly keeping maintenance items as described above at the top of your riding checklist, you not only insure you maintain the highest performance your bike is capable of, but also increases the safety, handling and control of your machine…it just can’t be overlooked as your life can depend on it.
Of course, this list isn't meant to be exhaustive; we know there are more ways to improve the feel of your bike. That's where we'd like to hear from you! Hit us up in the comment section below and share your methods for bringing back the like-new performance and feel of your not so new ride.