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Common Tread

Five tips for adventure bike maintenance (that aren't in a manual)

Apr 09, 2020

If you take care of your bike, it will take care of you in return. Neglect it and it’s likely to fail when you really need it. Keep in mind that if you're riding your ADV bike in extreme conditions that include sand, dirt, dust, water crossings and mud, you'll need to increase the amount of maintenance required to keep your machine running properly.

Before we dive in, you should know that not only do I spend a lot of time riding my Triumph Tiger 800 XC off-road, I've also spent years running my own motorcycle shop making a living wrenching on bikes. In addition to my own thoughts and opinions I also enlisted the help of Evan Yarnall, the head mechanic at our local KTM and WP Suspension shop, Solid Performance, as well as our very own resident ADV off-roader, Spurgeon Dunbar.

Here's a list of things to consider when you're regularly riding your adventure bike off-road.

Engine oil

While riding your ADV bike off-road, its engine is usually working a lot harder than it does on pavement. Mud and sand require a lot more power to push the bike through. Steeper hills and tougher terrain equal lower speeds and less airflow over the radiator(s), which are sometimes caked in mud. Increased engine temps can lead to thermal breakdown of engine oil, which decreases its ability and effectiveness. Limited traction causes riders to slip the clutch to get the tire to hook up so friction material from the clutch plates finds its way into the oil faster than normal. Water crossings can allow water into the airbox and, potentially, into the engine. These conditions are a lot tougher on your engine oil than your typical cruise to the coffee shop. 

Changing your engine oil ADV bike
Frequent oil changes are cheap insurance against engine damage. Photo by Lemmy

Evan says: “That additional clutch use will tax the engine oil much more than a gingerly street ride.  This can result in a much different service interval when compared to the OEM manufacturer’s suggested oil change interval, despite the multiple oil screens and filters usually found in large ADV bikes.” 

Spurg primarily rides his KTM 1090 Adventure R off-road and finds the 9,300-mile recommendation for an oil change to be a bit much. "I change my oil every 2,000-2,500 miles. It's cheap insurance considering the cost of an engine rebuild."

Off-road oil tip: Synthetic oil resists thermal breakdown more than traditional oil. Even then, consider cutting the manufacturer's recommended oil change mileage in half if you're regularly riding off-road, or every 2,000 to 2,500 miles of extreme use. If you're not hitting that kind of mileage in a 12-month span, make sure to change your oil and filter once a year.

Dirt Air Filter ADV bike
The Tiger's air filter is a bear to access. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar

Air filter

After reviewing the service schedules for a few popular ADV bikes, I was surprised to find that a majority of them do not list a shorter service interval for air cleaner maintenance when the bike is ridden off-road. Wet, muddy and dusty riding conditions can clog up an air filter in much less time than on-road riding. Consider the fact that air filter maintenance is such a high priority on dirt bikes that most of them give you the ability to service the filter without tools in just a few minutes. Since ADV bikes typically have much larger engines than dirt bikes, they inhale much more air, therefore needing a clean filter to breathe through for the best performance possible. The air filter on my ‘12 Triumph Tiger 800XC is a bear to access, so I am guilty of letting it go the full 6,000 miles before changing it and I can certainly attest to the fact that it was overdue based on how much dirt and dust was packed in it.

Evan says: “A true 'off-road' air filter will be constructed from good multi-layer foam that can be prepped with specific tacky air filter oil to trap all the dirt particles from entering the engine. Better yet, the same filter can be cleaned and re-oiled over and over during routine maintenance — something the OEM filter most times cannot do.”

"Again, my manual says to check the air filter on my bike once every 9,300 miles," Spurg commented. "I just pulled my tank to check my air filter and it was completely clogged after a little over 1,000 miles. I'm regularly checking my air filter every 1,500 to 2,000 miles. And to Evan's point, it's a lot more affordable to clean a reusable filter than it is to buy a new one that frequently. There are also a lot of pre-filter kits out there that can help. I'm using a Rottweiler Performance intake on my 1090 and on my previous Tiger 800 XCx I was using a Uni Pre-filter kit."

Off-road air filter tip: Check your air filter every 1,500 to 2,000 miles or after an extremely dusty ride.

Cleaning Chain on ADV bike
The Grunge Brush is one of my favorite tools for chain maintenance. Photo by Lemmy

Chain and sprockets

Aside from the popular BMW boxer-engine adventure line, most ADV bikes are chain driven. Chain-drive bikes require frequent cleaning, lubrication and adjustment even with normal on-road use. Once the chain and sprockets experience off-road abuse, you need to be even more diligent with maintenance. Dust and dirt tend to soak up chain lube while water from crossings and mud puddles wash it away, leaving your chain dirty and dry. The dirt and dust act like sandpaper on your chain and sprockets, causing them to wear out more rapidly than they normally would on the road. Sealed chains certainly help keep the good stuff on the inside and the bad stuff on the outside, but the debris between the rollers and the sprockets cannot be avoided.

Another thing to consider is that nearly all bikes’ chains tighten as the rear suspension compresses, so chain tension is critical. Too loose and the chain may derail due to the harsh terrain bouncing the rear wheel. Too tight and the chain will cause rapid wear to your transmission and rear wheel bearings and seals. 

“Add some sand to your next cup of yogurt," Evan said, "Your teeth won't last that long, will they? Same applies for brakes, chain and sprockets off-road. Dirt and sand just seems to eat away at those parts on my bike. Keeping your chain properly adjusted and lubed is super important, as is checking for brake pad material.”

"I clean and lube my chain after every off-road ride," Spurg weighed in. "Even then, I'm getting about 8,000 miles out of my ADV chain and sprockets where I can typically see 15,000 miles out of a chain on a street bike."

Off-road chain tip: Clean and lube your chain after every off-road ride. Regularly inspect your sprockets and brake pads.

Bent Motorcycle Rim
Worst-case scenario. Rim damage so bad that the tire no longer holds air. This is why it's a good idea to carry an inner tube even if your bike has tubeless tires. Image from NEBDR documentary.

Wheels and tires

Your ADV bike’s tires and wheels have the toughest job. They are dealing with the rough terrain, the weight of the bike and luggage. They’re also putting down incredible braking and acceleration forces. Seeing what a spoked wheel deals with on an ADV bike, it's amazing that it lasts a mile, let alone tens of thousands of miles. Since off-roading a heavy ADV bike puts a lot more stress on its wheels and tires than on-road use, it’s important to keep on top of tire pressure, spoke tension and your wheel bearings. ADV tires also tend to lose off-road grip a couple thousand miles before the wear-bars indicate they are due for replacement, since they typically will work fine on the road until then.

Joe Zito Tire Change on the Trail
Yours truly changing a flat on the MABDR. Photo by Peter Hitt

I always inspect my bikes from the bottom up, starting at the tires, then nose to tail to double check. Pay special attention to your wheels and tires during these inspections if you frequently take your ADV bike off-road. Check your tires for cuts in the tread and sidewall. Check your rims for dents and be sure to tap the spokes with something metallic and listen for the tone of each spoke. If you hear a thud, the spoke is too loose. If the pitch is much higher than the others, it is too tight. It is good practice to check spoke tension and rim runout at each tire change, but keeping an eye (and ear) on them more frequently will help prevent wheel failure.

Last, but certainly not least, pay special attention to your wheel bearings. The seals can only defend the bearings so much against water, mud and dust. Once the grease in the bearings is compromised, the bearing will not survive for long. Wheel bearings are best inspected with the wheel off by trying to roll the inner race with your finger to see if they are beginning to seize or feel rough in movement. Using a heat gun to warm your hub and a freezer for the new bearings makes wheel bearing swaps a piece of cake.

Time to Change Your Wheel Bearings
One of the rear wheel bearings on Peter Hitt's F800GS decided to leave work early on one of our MABDR trips. Photo by Joe Zito

"I couldn't agree with Joe more in regard to his 'wear bar' comment," Spurg laughed. "I always try to get the most out of my tires but that actually led to me getting stuck in a mud pit out in Jersey on a solo ride. It's like Springsteen sings about in 'Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)', 'And my machine, she's a dud, out stuck in the mud somewhere in the swamps of Jersey...', Your bike might be in tip-top condition, but if your tires lack grip off-road, it's nothing but a dud stuck in the mud." 

Off-road tire tip: Don't wait to hit your wear bars before replacing your tires and check those wheel bearings more often than the manual recommends.

Triumph Tiger 800 Suspension
Removal of all suspension components on ADV bikes is surprisingly easy. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar

Chassis and suspension

I try to be mindful of all the friction points on my adventure bike’s chassis and suspension, like the steering head bearings, swingarm bearings, rear shock mounts and suspension linkage. I think about how often I’ve submerged them in muddy water or stressed them out by jumping the 500-pound bike plus 200 pounds of rider and luggage. These circumstances are much gnarlier than just a putt-putt ride around town. 

Triumph Tiger 800 Spurgeon Dunbar
Spurgie's old Tiger torn down for suspension service. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar

Evan says: “We know the dirty environment can wreck chassis parts, but off-road racing your ADV bike is also asking a lot more of our bikes' suspension. Bumps, G-outs, whoops, rocks, logs — all these obstacles are not found on the street. The additional stroke movements of your suspension you experience off-road will most definitely wear out the suspension oils at a much quicker rate. A service interval or one season or 10,000 miles for an ADV bike ridden off-road is pretty common, which can be drastically shorter than what your OEM owner’s manual suggests. Just because it’s not leaking, doesn’t mean it’s not super worn inside your fork and shock — and trust me you and your ADV bike can use all the suspension performance you can get off-road.”

"This conversation with Evan was spurred from a phone call regarding the rear shock on my 1090 Adventure R," Spurg told me. "I went to adjust the rebound screw only to find it had frozen in place. When I called Evan, he said this is a perfect example of the kind of premature failure that can happen when using these big bikes in more aggressive conditions than just the tarmac, hence the need for increased service intervals."  

Off-road suspension tip: Think about the environment you ride your ADV bike in and consider more frequent maintenance of your chassis and suspension system.10,000 miles is a good rule of thumb for regular suspension service intervals.

Joe Zito Triumph Tiger 800
Yours truly launching the Tiger over an uphill log. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar

Reader experiences

I would be interested to hear what you folks have experienced regarding ADV bike maintenance. I can only imagine the sort of stuff some of you world travelers have dealt with out in the wild. Personally, I try to remind myself that any assembly is only as strong as the weakest link. Being thorough with bike maintenance is top priority, especially considering the places these bikes take us, and can potentially leave us.