In Part 3 of this series, we talked about the tools and parts you need for a major motorcycle trip. But having the right stuff is only half the battle – knowing how to use it is the other half. In this article, I’ll talk about the know-how you need to tackle a major motorcycle trip – both mechanical knowledge and riding skills.
In This Article…
- 5 essential maintenance tasks you should be able to do on your bike
- 7 important questions to consider in the planning process
- Unexpected riding scenarios you’ll probably encounter on the road
- How to prepare for the roads (or lack thereof) in under-developed countries
When other bikers talk to me about my trip, a couple questions that often come up are “How much mechanical knowledge of your bike do you need to have” and “What’s your riding background and how much offroad riding experience do you have?”
I want to shed some light onto these two questions and hopefully give some insight as to what type of skills (in regards to both riding and wrenching) one should have before embarking on their big motorcycle trip, but as usual, there isn’t a simple cut and dried answer.
Part 1: Essential Wrenching Skills
First, let’s start with the wrenching side of things. At a bare minimum, you should be able to:
- Fix a flat and change a tire
- Change your oil and filter
- Change brake pads
- Clean and adjust your chain
- Change your chain and sprockets
Practicing tire repairs back home in Colorado, before starting my trip.
My reason for picking these as my minimum is that:
- Your trip doesn’t have to be all that long before some of these will need to be done,
- Utilizing a shop to do all these while on the road will consume a lot of time and money, both of which can be much better used while traveling, and
- They all are really easy, and should be well within the capability of even the least mechanically inclined if you just put a little time into researching and practicing the steps.
Along with this basic knowledge, also bring along some type of shop manual for your bike. If you find yourself in a serious bind, the step by step instructions in a good manual will really go a long way. (Whether you end up doing your own repairs, or recruiting a local mechanic from the area where you’re traveling, the information in a shop manual can come in extremely handy!)
This flat tire manifested itself in my campground’s parking lot. Unfortunately, not many of these situations occur at such convenient locations.
Determining what skills you need beyond these bare minimums will require looking a little more into your specific situation, and require that you answer a few questions about it so you can best prepare.
- Do you plan to ride the most gnarly offroad trails you can find? You probably should know a bit about proper suspension setup and be able to replace the parts that will wear out or could be damaged.
- How old is your bike? My buddy, Jono, who I met in East Timor is nearly finished with a trip from Sydney to London on a 1969 Royal Enfield. He can, and has, rebuilt his entire engine along the way (multiple times, in fact!) I don’t have a clue how to rebuild the engine on my 2013 BMW F800GS, but I was also confident that it wouldn’t be required on my trip.
- What issues is your bike prone to? Browse some forums online and see what problems are common on your particular bike. Know how to fix these problems if they seem likely to occur to you, or at the very least have an idea of how to diagnose them so you can explain the situation to the mechanic who will do the repairs, as he may not be aware of this very common problem for your particular make and model.
- How remote is your route? If you break down somewhere along the way, are you going to be stranded for days, or will you easily be able to get your bike to a shop that can get you back up and running?
- How much of a risk are you willing to take? Some people are more willing to head out into the unknown with a bit less preparation and plan on figuring everything out along the way. Others might want to have a bit more experience before leaving, which will provide a bit more peace of mind.
- How tight is your budget? Some of the longer interval maintenance (i.e. valve adjustments) can be scheduled as you’re traveling through areas with shops or dealerships, so these aren’t necessarily a required skill. But if you’re mechanically inclined and on a budget, you could easily save some cash by doing these on your own.
- Are you traveling with other people? Maybe they are very mechanically inclined and can do all the work while you cook them dinner or provide them with a steady stream of beer.
Part 2: Essential Riding Skills
So, now that you know whether or not you can work on your bike, let’s move on to the more important question – can you ride it?
If you’re doing much off-road riding, or even just getting off the main roads in third world countries, you better get used to missing bridges and river crossings!
This question is also hard to answer, as your risk tolerance (and an inflated sense of confidence) could greatly affect the determination of whether or not you’re ready. I can’t say that you need to have X number of years or Y number of miles under your belt before you head out. Plenty of people have taken off on massive trips with little to no riding experience and had wonderful experiences.
I guess all that I can say is that you’ll run into many varying situations while on the road, and in my opinion you should be comfortable enough on your bike to deal with them all; first and foremost for the sake of safety, but also because it’ll be more enjoyable.
- Bad weather: If you’re on the road long enough, you’re going to ride through a rain storm. Make sure you have the proper gear to stay as comfortable as possible so that your visibility and attention aren’t brought down to unsafe levels. And make sure you know how to adjust your riding style to make up for the decrease in braking and handling that you’ll experience on wet roads.
- Night riding: I was always trying to avoid riding at night on my trip, as the varying road and traffic conditions in foreign countries took enough of my attention, so I didn’t want to add darkness to the mix. But even though I was trying to avoid it, it still was necessary at some times after underestimating poor roads and travel times or getting a flat tire during the day. Slow down to help make up for the lack of visibility. And also take into account where you are. In India, it was very common to see animals, trucks with headlights off, and tractors with no taillights after the sun went down. Night riding there was terrifying.
- Traffic congestion: If you’re used to driving through congested cities in the United States, it’ll help you deal with some traffic situations in other countries, but be aware that an American traffic jam will pale in comparison to what you’ll see on a daily basis in some third world countries.
On my first day of riding in India, I got to deal with the impossibly hectic Mumbai traffic.
- Variation in traffic rules: The rules of the road vary from country to country. As you find yourself in these changing situations, you’ll need to be able to adapt quickly. Pay attention to how all the local traffic operates and integrate yourself into it immediately. Focus on learning all the customs quickly, and just make sure to be extra cautious during this learning process.
- Dirt roads of varying quality: If your route will take you on dirt roads or off-road, make sure you are comfortable with your ability to traverse these sections. I have a relatively small amount of experience on dirt roads, so before my trip, I took the Intro to Adventure course from Rawhyde Adventures. This weekend course was great for increasing not only my skill, but also my confidence on dirt. Not only did this turn previously impassable roads into potential routes, but it also allowed me to cover relatively mild dirt roads much more safely, and much faster.
All the bikes lined up at the RawHyde Intro to Adventure course.
Keep Calm and Ride On
Once you feel you have the necessary riding experience to safely traverse the various terrain and traffic you’ll encounter on your trip, and that you can keep your bike up and running, the last thing you’ll need is the ability to remain positive and calm in a wide range of situations. You’re going to encounter traffic jams in sweltering heat, cold and rainy riding days, unsafe traffic, and unexpected breakdowns…and that’s just scratching the surface of the stress you’ll face.
Just remember this little tip to get you through it all…that even a bad day on the road still beats a good day at work!
No matter how good you are, it’s bound to happen…the key is knowing what to do when it does!
What would you like to know more about when it comes to preparing for an epic motorcycle trip? Leave your question in the comments below!