First days: living with a motorcycle

Posted May 22, 2006

You've taken the MSF class, bought your gear, and made the Big Purchase. There's a motorcycle in your life now, but how do you deal with it? This is a guide to those first few experiences on the bike that MSF didn't cover, and all the books seem to skip over.

This is a general guide, and necessarily doesn't directly address your particular motorcycle. Your owner's handbook, which should have come with the bike, contains a lot of this same information (perhaps not in such an easily understood format), and is an incredibly valuable reference as you get to know your bike. Please use it.

This is also very specifically a guide for the first few days of new bike ownership. This advice doesn't necessarily apply to any more-advanced use such as touring, aggressive riding, racing, etc.


Parking a motorcycle is not as obvious as it would initially appear. Sure, parking in a big flat parking lot is easy, but what do you do when faced with a hill? Which stand to use, if you have both a sidestand (or kickstand) and a centerstand?

Which Stand to Use?

If you only have a sidestand, this section doesn't apply to you so much, but still contains some good information. For the rest of you, here are some guidelines for when to use which stand.

The sidestand makes the biggest triangle between the wheels and the stand. This is the most stable way to park the bike, most of the time. Particularly if you're parking on any kind of incline, the sidestand is definitely the best choice. If you're only going to use one of the stands on the bike, the sidestand is far easier to use, and is almost always a better choice.

If you have a motorcycle with horizontally-oriented cylinders (Honda Goldwing/Valkyrie, BMW R bike, BMW K bike), it's preferrable to park on the centerstand. This prevents oil from running into the downhill cylinders. It's not normally a problem, but if oil pools against the bottom of a piston for more than a few hours, it can seep into the combustion chamber, causing anything from blue smoke on startup to hydraulic lock. Hydraulic lock is best avoided, as it can destroy an engine in a few revolutions of the starter.

The one time when a centerstand is probably a better choice is when parking on a level and flat but soft surface, like sand or very hot asphalt.

If you use the sidestand in this situation, it can sink into the surface, allowing your bike to slowly tip over. For these situations, you can put just about anything solid under the sidestand, like a flat rock, a smashed aluminum can, a piece of wood, etc. Even something just a little bigger than the sidestand's plate makes a big difference. If you use a centerstand in this situation, the bike only sinks down until both wheels are touching, but the stand will likely keep the bike upright.

If your bike is heavily loaded, using the centerstand may be easier, since it doesn't tip the bike to either side. Loaded-down bikes have a higher center of gravity, which makes them much harder to control when tipped over a little bit.

Parking on a Hill

Parking your bike on an incline presents special problems. Even on the sidestand, you can park in such a way that it'll easily fall over, unless you follow a few simple rules:

  • Always use the sidestand
  • Park facing uphill
  • Put the sidestand on the downhill side
  • Leave the bike in first gear

The only way you could safely use a centerstand on a hill is if the bike is facing straight uphill. This makes it easier to get the bike on the centerstand, but really devilish to get off the stand. I know this one from experience, and I only did it once.

Parking with the bike pointed uphill is more of a practical consideration for moving than it is for the act of parking. Your bike (unless you have a sidecar or a recent Goldwing) almost certainly doesn't have a reverse gear. You are the reverse gear. So you want all the help you can get when trying to make the bike go backwards. With that in mind, if you aim the bike uphill when you park, then you can back up very easily, with the aid of gravity.

It may seem counterintuitive, but parking with the sidestand on the downhill side works really well. If you park with the sidestand on the uphill side, you're reducing your bike's angle to gravity. The closer your bike is to straight up and down, the more likely it is to fall over when a squirrel drops a nut on the seat, or an errant breeze happens to blow the right way. If, on the other hand, you've parked with the stand going downhill, your bike is far from that dangerous straight up and down condition. Sidestands are quite strong, so this is usually safe. If the hill is so steep that you are worried the bike is going to fall over the sidestand, find a better parking spot.

In any of these cases, the final trick to parking on a hill is to leave the bike in first gear. That prevents the bike from rolling. Once the engine is stopped, let out the clutch lever, and let the bike take up any slack in the engine before you set it down on the stand. It acts just like a parking brake. Remember to take the bike out of gear when starting it, or you could have trouble with safety interlocks in the clutch or sidestand keeping the bike from starting.

Where to Park

Motorcycles fit in a lot of spaces where cars don't. When I park, I usually try to avoid taking up a full-sized car spot, but sometimes it's unavoidable. Check your local laws, but some alternate parking spots may include:

  • On the sidewalk, out of pedestrians' paths, and leaving room for parallel-parked cars
  • In the triangular spots at the end of angled-parking aisles
  • Multiple bikes in one car spot

If you choose to park in a non-standard parking spot, follow this simple checklist to see if it's an acceptable spot:

  • Is it in anyone's way? (Pedestrians, vehicle traffic, wheelchairs, bicycles, etc.)
  • Is it legal? (Hint: parking in a Fire Zone is a bad idea)
  • Is it safe?

Parking in such a way that you block anyone's access to anything is sure to get you bad attention, so pick spots which don't block anyone's door opening, or walking path. Never ever park where you might impede access to a handicapped spot, even if you're not in the actual parking spot.

If you find another motorcycle parked in a car spot, and there's space to let the other guy out, it's probably alright to put your bike there too. Use your judgement, sometimes it's better to avoid parking too close to another bike. Make sure you leave the other motorcyclist room to get his bike out safely.

If you decide to park in a full-sized car spot, park near the entrance to the spot, with your bike's tail towards traffic. There are several factors at play here. Leave the bike near the entrance (closer to traffic) to make it obvious that the parking spot is filled. A bike pulled way into the spot looks empty until the car driver pulls part-way in, and that may make the driver angry. An angry driver can smoosh your bike flat, or may take it out on another motorcyclist later. Leave the bike parked with the tail towards traffic because the tail is more durable than the front-end, in case an inattentive or angry driver does hit the bike. Parking at the back of the spot also helps you avoid the big grease-spot where cars' engines have dropped motor oil for the last 20 years. This grease can cling to your tire, making for a very exciting time at your next turn.

Filling It Up

Filling a motorcycle's gas tank is not like filling up a car. You can't just shove the nozzle in as far as it'll go and grab the handle. With most bikes, that will result in a tank filled about half way.

The way it needs to be done is a bit more involved. If you have a centerstand, park the bike on the centerstand to get the tank as full as possible. Then, open the gas cap, before you grab the nozzle off the pump. Most motorcycle gas caps are relatively complicated, and you should open it first with both hands free the first few times. With many bikes, there will be a little flip-up cover over the keyhole. When flipped up, that allows you to insert the key, and twist to unlatch the cap. There will commonly be an arrow showing which way to twist the key, but not always, and it's not always clear what the arrow means. It might take moderate force, but don't apply brute strength, or you could snap off the key, leaving you well and truly stuck. Sometimes pressing down on the cap makes it easier to turn the key.

Once the cap is open (many bikes have a hinging cap, just fold it back to its stop), grab the nozzle, and put it perhaps an inch (2-3 cm) into the tank opening.

Make sure the metal nozzle is touching the metal rim on the tank filler opening! This grounds the motorcycle, preventing build-up of static electricity.

Gas nozzles are grounded, to prevent static build up as the gas is pumped. (Amazingly, gasoline moving through the pump's nozzle does build up static, sometimes quite a lot of it.) A static charge could cause a spark to jump when you pull the nozzle away, if the system wasn't grounded. You can probably imagine that a spark at the gas tank opening is among the world's worst ideas. At the very best, your bike only catches fire and burns uncontrollably. At worst, you get explosions like you normally only see in movies featuring guns and mean-faced guys in black turtlenecks.

If your gas nozzle has one of those pleated shrouds which allows it to catch gas fumes, you need to pull it back before the nozzle will work. Nozzles of that type contain an interlock device which will prevent them from pumping if the shroud isn't pushed back far enough. Since you'll never fill the tank with the nozzle shoved into the tank, you have to pull back the shroud by hand.

Start pumping with the nozzle an inch or so into the tank, until the tank is nearly full. You have to look into the tank for this operation to work, since the auto-off clicker on the nozzle won't work right to fill the motorcycle tank. Wear eye protection (such as your helmet or sunglasses) to keep gasoline from splashing into your eyes. If gasoline does get into your eyes, flush them with water immediately, then seek medical help.

There's commonly a visible lip inside the tank, and you can usually safely fill to that point. Don't try to fill beyond it unless you know what you're doing. If you fill the tank beyond that lip, the gasoline can expand out the vents and spill on the ground, creating a fire hazard, and wasting the gas for which you just paid good money. This is usually only a danger when parking the bike immediately after filling it. Note that on some bikes (particularly California models) you can destroy the emission system by filling the tank too full.

Once you've filled up the tank and closed the lid, check to make sure (if you have one) that your fuel petcock is set to the ON position, and not to RES or Reserve, or OFF. For more discussion on what reserve means, please see this article explaining it. If you have two petcocks, check both of them. Fuel injected bikes don't have a petcock at all for normal operation.

Fuel Gauge

Most motorcycles don't include a fuel gauge. On those that do, the fuel gauge is usually inaccurate or worse. The best way to solve this problem is to use your trip meter. If your bike has several trip meters, pick one for gas and always use it that way.

Just reset the trip meter to zero before you leave the filling station. Note how many miles are on the trip odometer next time your bike hits reserve, or the fuel light comes on. Keep paying attention to that number as you use the bike, and you'll quickly get a feel for about how many miles until it's time to head to the gas station.

If you fill up to the same point each time, and record trip odometer miles and gallons filled, this will also allow you to calculate gas mileage. This information can be very useful in determining fuel range. I use Fuel Record, which is free software for the Palm Pilot, to track mileage, which makes it pretty painless. It's also easy to find a small notebook and record the numbers in there -- that notebook can be kept in your tankbag, or a jacket pocket.

At a minimum, you need to track mileage since the last fill (conveniently there on the trip odometer if you reset it with each fill) and gallons used. It's also handy to record the date and odometer reading; tracking which gas station/brand you use can also be helpful.

When to Use the Choke

Most motorcycles these days still have a choke or fast-idle lever (referred to as a choke lever from here out). On many bikes it's on the left handlebar near the grip, but they can also be found elsewhere on the handlebar, or near the carburetor. Your owner's manual should explain where it is.

On all bikes which have it, the choke lever is intended to be an aid to cold starting. What "cold" means depends a lot on your bike, and you'll have to experiment to find out when it's necessary. If your bike just cranks and cranks without sputtering to life (and the kill switch is in the "run" position), there's a fair chance you need to use the choke to start it, or to keep it idling.

There are a number of reasonable ways to use the choke. The easiest is to yank the thing on full, and try starting the bike. If the bike starts, this will probably result in the engine running really fast, which is best avoided. A better way to do it is to try progressively adding a bit of choke and hitting the starter button until it fires. Finally, you can try hitting the starter button with your right hand, while gradually adding choke, until the engine fires.

Once the bike is running, you'll want to reduce the choke as the engine warms up. The indication that the engine is warming is when the idle starts to go up and get higher than normal. You should be able to reduce the choke a bit at a time until the engine is idling at a normal speed, or at least smoothly and without a ragged sound. The amount of time this takes is entirely dependent upon your bike (commonly even your individual bike, not just your model).

What to do with Documents

There are a number of important documents you should always carry with you. Vehicle registration, and proof of insurance are the obvious ones, but you should also carry a sheet with basic medical information in the same place. I use this medical form, but any piece of paper which contains roughly that information will suffice. The most important information is your contact information, the name of your emergency contact, what you're allergic to, and what you're taking right now.

Once you have all this information, what do you do with it? A simple answer is to fold it up, and place all the documents in a Ziploc baggie. This then goes into a pocket in your jacket. The plastic bag prevents the documents from getting wet if you ride through rain (and this can happen with no warning, so it's always worth doing). Being in your jacket pocket (vs. on the bike, or in your luggage) means that the EMTs are going to find it if you get in an accident and aren't conscious to answer questions.

Note that you should never carry your bike's title with you, that should be kept somewhere secure, and where you can find it if you need it.

Maintenance You Can Do

Here are some of the things you can do, even with no experience or tools. These are all important actions to take when you own a motorcycle, since a bike has a much smaller margin for mechanical problems when compared to a car.

Check the Oil

Your engine's oil should be checked about every week or two, or every time you ride if it's less often than that.

Some bikes have a dipstick, and some bikes have a sight window. Check your owner's manual to see which you have, and where it's located, but they're both easy to check. Always check the oil at least five minutes after the engine last ran, to let most of the oil settle out of the upper reaches of the engine.

If you have a dipstick, chances are good it's attached to your oil fill cap. This is a hand-removable cap facing upward, somewhere on the engine. Put the bike up on its stand, ideally on the centerstand. Your manual may specify how the bike should be sitting to check the oil; find that information and follow it. Almost always the bike needs to be upright rather than on the sidestand, and on level ground.

First, grab a rag, and loosen the cap. Put the bike in the correct position. Note that if you have to have it upright, but you don't have a stand to help, you can just sit on the bike, or have a friend hold it for you. Pull out the dipstick, and wipe it off. Put it back into the engine and let it sit for a second, then pull it out again. Look at the end of the dipstick. You should see some oil right on the end, and it should come up some length of the dipstick. Near where the oil ends on the stick should be two marks, a "high" mark and a "low" mark. You want the oil to end between these two marks. It shouldn't go over the high mark, and should never ever go below the low mark.

If you have a sight glass, it's even easier. Get the bike into the correct position, and take a look at the sight glass. You may need a flashlight or something if you're not outside in daylight (and sometimes even if you are). There should be some indication of a high and low mark. Sometimes it's a circle on the glass, sometimes it's lines on the glass or on the case near the glass, etc. The oil level should settle out somewhere between those two marks.

If the oil level is too low, add some oil before you ride again. It probably doesn't take much oil to get from the bottom mark to the top mark, so add it slowly and re-check often. Try adding around an ounce of oil at a time at first, to gauge how fast the level goes up.

Some people may tell you that it's terribly important not to mix different types of oil, but it isn't really. Oil, for the most part, is oil. Mixing different weights or brands or even synthetic and non synthetic doesn't make much difference. It's much more important that you have enough oil, of whatever type, weight or brand.

The one exception to that rule is that for most motorcycles, you want to avoid "Energy Conserving" oil. That rating on the bottle means that the oil could cause your clutch to slip. This isn't a problem for some bikes, but unless you're sure, avoid the Energy Conserving oils.

Lubricate and Adjust the Chain

Your drive chain needs to be lubricated and checked for adjustment at least every 500 miles (800 km).

You can lubricate the chain using all sorts of lubricants. You can use any of these successfully:

  • Gear oil
  • Bar chain oil (chainsaw)
  • Engine oil
  • Automatic transmission fluid
  • Chain wax
  • Specially formulated chain lube

The problem with the first four is that they'll fling off once you get rolling, even if you're really careful about cleaning off all the excess. Wax and the special chain oils are designed (more or less successfully) to not fling off. Pick whatever your budget and cleaning preference dictates. Again, it's way more important that you do lube your chain than what exactly goes on it.

Cleaning the chain is way easier if you have a centerstand, or swingarm stand. If you don't, you'll have to push the bike around a parking lot as you expose different segments of chain.

It's best to clean the chain first, with some kerosene, WD-40, or specifically designed chain cleaner. Soak the chain with your cleaner of choice, and then wipe it off with a rag you don't care about (this is a messy job!). If you have latex or nitrile gloves, this is a good job for them.

Once the chain is clean, go for a little ride. Ideally about 5-10 miles. This will warm up the chain, and evaporate any cleaner left on it. This short ride without any lubrication won't hurt the chain.

As soon as you get back, start applying your lube of choice to the chain. A good method is to apply a drop of lube to each roller, one on each side, at the sideplate. Apply it on the inside of the chain, so it will tend to work itself outward once the chain is spinning. You mostly want the lube to get down between the sideplates of the chain. Lubricating the rollers and the outside of the chain is fine, but you really want it inside the chain.

Once the chain has gone a full revolution and you've hit every link, wipe off any excess with your rag. You're done with lubricating.

For information on checking your drivechain's slack, see this article.

Check Tire Pressure

You will need a tire pressure gauge to do this. These are available for as little as a dollar or two (or your local currency's equivalent) at an auto parts store.

Checking the tire pressure is about as simple as they come. Locate the valve stem on one of your wheels, and take off the cap. If you don't have a valve stem cap, nip down to the parts store and pick up some spares: they're cheap, and they'll keep crud out of your valves. With the cap off, push the pressure gauge down over valve so that the receptacle is seated firmly and squarely. It'll stop hissing when you've found the right position.

Pull off the gauge, and look at what it indicates. I can't offer you any advice on what pressures you should run, but your owner's manual should have that information. If the gauge indicates too low, get yourself to an air pump (bicycle tire pump, air compressor, etc.) and inflate the tire until it's at the manufacturer's recommendation. Because motorcycle tires are relatively low volume, it doesn't take much air to change the pressure up or down.

Note that even a small difference in pressure (like 1-2 PSI, or .05 - .1 bar) can noticeably change the handling of the bike. It's worth it to check the tire pressure about once a week, or every time you ride if it's less often than once a week.

Check the Electrical Components

A simple check you can do at the beginning of every ride is to check all the lights and the horn. It takes about 20 seconds, and could be a lifesaver.

Before you start the bike, check to make sure all the idiot lights which are supposed to be glowing are on (the owner's manual should detail this, but it's usually oil pressure and a few others). Once the bike is started, make sure the following lights are on:

  • Headlight
  • Taillight (but not brake lights)
  • License plate light
  • Any other running lights

If those are all on, operate the following controls, and make sure they have the effects they're supposed to:

  • Front brake lever
  • Rear brake pedal
  • Right and left blinkers
  • High beam switch
  • Horn button

This serves the double purpose of checking the switch, and checking the light or other device. If anything isn't working, fix it before going for a ride. Motorcycles are already at a huge disadvantage in traffic, and losing any of those signals is unacceptable (and probably illegal).

Securing the Bike

Once you're done riding, you may want to secure your bike. Motorcycle theft is rampant, particularly in urban areas, and particularly of high-value or lightweight bikes.

There are a number of options available for making your bike harder to steal. These are listed in order from most to least effective. All are available at your local motorcycle dealership or shop. Each is rated on a scale of 1-5 stars, and an approximate price range for summer 2006 is listed.

Garage [* * * * *] (price varies considerably): if you can park your bike in a garage, secured or not, it's likely to be fairly safe. This is the same "they can't steal it if they don't know it's there" theory as the bike cover, but many times more effective. Obviously a secured/locked garage will be safer than an unsecured one. For the ultimate in safety, sink a heavy metal hoop into the garage floor and use a cable lock to lock the bike to it.

Bike cover [* * * *] ($5-250): a bike cover, whether it's a $5 tarp or a fancy purpose-built cover costing way more, is a great theft deterrent. Unless motorcycle thieves are completely indiscriminate in your area, a cover makes the bike less attractive. They don't know what's under there exactly -- it could be a clapped-out 1982 Honda, or it could be the world's fanciest bike, but it's probably not worth the distraction of removing the cover to find out. Particularly in combination with a good lock, a bike cover is about as good as you can do to keep your bike from being stolen short of putting it in a locked garage.

Chain lock [* * * *] ($50-100): several companies make chains specifically for locking up bikes. They're usually a heavy, 5-6 foot (2 meter) chain mated to a small, sturdy lock. These are at least as effective as cable locks, but are usually stronger if the thief decides to try breaking the chain. They're also heavier to carry around.

Cable lock [* * * .5] ($10-80): a heavy cable lock (1/2" or 10mm thick cable or thicker) is a versatile way to secure a bike. You can use it to chain up the wheel to the frame, so the bike can't be rolled, or you can use it to lock the bike to something solid. Locking through the frame to something very solid like a lamp post, bicycle locking hoop, parking meter, etc. is the best practical way to keep your bike from being stolen. Make sure you lock through something which can't be easily removed with common tools.

Fork lock [* * * .5] ($0): All modern motorcycles include some way to lock their forks to one side or the other. Use it. Use it every time you park. On most bikes this is an incredibly easy step to take, and it's remarkably effective at deterring theft -- the bike has to be physically picked up to be stolen. This is about as effective as a disc lock, but it's already built into the bike, and you'll never forget it's engaged. Use the fork lock every time you park.

Disc lock [* * *] ($30-50): these are little locks that look like heavy duty single-hole punches for paper. They are intended to go through a gap in your brake disc. They're nearly impossible to remove without doing severe damage to the brake disc, but they don't prevent someone just picking up your bike and loading it into the back of a truck. If you use a disc lock, make sure you have some good way to remember it's there. Many retailers carry a coiled plastic cord which stretches up to the handlebar to remind you the lock is there. Suffice to say that taking off with the lock in place can result in embarrassment as well as damage to your braking system.

Alarmed disc lock [* * *] ($80-150): Some disc locks also include an alarm, which is a questionable addition, since it adds $50 to the price and all you get is an annoying squealer. Might prevent you from doing damage to your bike if it goes off before you gas it with the lock engaged.

U-lock [* * *] ($10-100): A U-style lock would be very effective at deterring theft, if only you could actually fit it around something solid on your bike and something that's bolted down. Remember that wheels are relatively easy to remove on most bikes. A stout cable lock is more likely to be useful on a motorcycle. Avoid U-locks which have a Bic-pen-sized barrel key, they're freakishly easy to pick. If you know for sure you can fit a U-lock around a solid part of your bike and hook it up to a solid object, it gets 4 stars instead of 3, but they're usually too small to be useful this way.

Bike alarm [*] ($80-400): many companies sell motorcycle-specific alarm systems. These are generally good for a sense of security, and not much else. They'll keep casual thieves away, but as you have doubtless noticed yourself, when someone's car alarm goes off, most people's reaction is, "damn, that's annoying," without checking to see if that car is actually being stolen. Your bike will be no different, so an alarm will only be useful if you can hear it and respond to it. Look for an alarm with a remote pager to let you know when the system is going off. Otherwise, avoid alarms as being expensive, annoying and not very secure.

Brake lever lock [no stars] ($40-80): this is a little C-clamp-like device which pulls the front brake lever toward the handlebar. Avoid these at all costs -- all the bike thief has to do is cut the brake line, and whammo, free bike. If you just want to clamp the front brake, look for some kind of velcro strap or similar arrangement to do the same job.

Any of these methods can be combined with others for more effective security. A thief who sees a cable lock, locked forks and an alarmed disc lock is very likely to move on to an easier target. Really, that's all you want. In particular, an alarm becomes a bit more attractive if it's combined with a cable or chain locking the bike to something sturdy. A brake lever lock is still a terrible idea, no matter what you pair it with.

Final thoughts

Your first motorcycle is one you'll always remember, even if it's not the one you really wanted. Treat it with respect, for even the cheapest 50cc scooter is still capable of killing you without too much effort. If you haven't yet taken the MSF Basic Rider Course, please sign up and take it as soon as you can. That class will give you the real-world basics to make motorcycling much more fun and much safer. If you don't yet have a good set of gear, read this article and go buy the best you can afford.

Hopefully this article has made it a bit easier to spend the first few days with your bike. Remember that this advice doesn't necessarily apply to more-advanced uses of the bike, and you should seek that out elsewhere. Specifically, if you're planning on racing or touring on your motorcycle, you need advice and expertise specific to those fields.

If you have suggestions for subjects which would be good additions to this article, please email me at reaper at obairlann dot net. My goal is to make this article as useful and informative as possible.

Created by Ian Johnston. Questions? Please mail me at reaper at obairlann dot net.