TOTW: Check that oil – it’s critical

The riding tips on these pages are my personal opinion about matters related to motorcycle riding. They are not the official position of any organization, and are for your consideration only. They are not hard and fast rules, they should not necessarily be applied in all circumstances, and they should not be applied without thinking. Always use your judgement and take all current safety factors into account while riding. You are responsible for your riding, not anyone else (especially me). These tips were originally published by a motorcycle riding course, called “Tip of the Week” (the reason for the TOTW in the titles).

What’s the problem?

The level and quality of engine oil in your bike is critical — more so than in your car. Motorcycles place a much heavier demand on their oil than cars do, because motorcycle engines often rev twice as fast as cars for a given speed, and because in most modern bikes the engine oil also lubricates the gearbox; there is no separate “transmission fluid” as in a car. Low oil can cause engine wear and expensive repairs; an engine seizure due to excessive wear will cause a crash.


Use a good quality motorcycle-specific oil (the difference in cost to an “el cheapo” brand is negligible over the life of a bike), and change it, or have it changed, according to your owner’s manual. If you’re doing it yourself, don’t forget to change the filter at the recommended intervals too.

Make sure you check the level regularly. To do it properly, the bike must be level, so you will need to put it on the centre stand. If your bike only has a side-stand get a friend to hold the bike upright.

For bikes with a dipstick, remove the dipstick and wipe it down before re-inserting it to get an accurate reading. For bikes with a sight-glass, check that the oil level is between the two marks. If the marks are hard to see, check that you can see some air at the upper level — if you can’t then you’ve over-filled. If you don’t see any oil you’re probably down at least one-half liter — not good.

Don’t forget that a motorcycle typically lubricates engine and gearbox with less than 3.5 liters of oil, so being down a full liter means you’ve lost almost one third of the lubricant. While it is not recommended to mix oil viscosity, type, or even brand, if you are down significantly use the best oil that is available. Any oil is better than no oil.

One final oil-related tip: Don’t idle your bike for long periods of time while it rests on the side-stand — because the bike is leaned over, the outboard cylinder may not receive all the oiling it deserves.

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