Adjusting spokes on motorcycles should be part of your maintenance routine. Over time spokes will loosen or tighten, which can cause the rim to come out of round. When a rim gets out of round, the ride quality degrades. If it's bad enough, you could have handling issues. Loose spokes will contribute to a rim going out of round faster and can cause the instability of a wheel.
The Possible Danger
Swifty’s Motorcycle Shop showed us a wheel on a motorcycle that had been completely neglected. The rider complained that the bike's rear was unstable and felt like it would float from side to side. Cornering wasn’t stable either. The rider thought his shocks had gone out or the rear swingarm bearings had failed to cause handling issues. Eric grabbed the seat and the swingarm and pushed the rear end side to side. What we saw was incredible. The hub stayed in place with the swing arm, but the entire rim moved over 3 inches from the hub center. The spokes had loosened so much that they no longer provided any support from the hub to the rim. This was an extreme case and a good reminder to be diligent with spoked wheels and maintain them.
Use The Service Manual
You will need a service manual when you begin maintaining your spoked wheels. This will give you the torque specifications for the spokes and the process for adjusting them. You don't want to grab a spoke wrench and just start cranking on the spokes until you think they are tight. This could lead to pulling too hard on the rim and causing it to pull out of round. The torque specifications listed in your service manual or owner's manual if you have aftermarket wheels will prevent you from over-tightening and pulling the rim out of round.
Don't Rely On Pinging The Spokes Alone
I do not subscribe to the common practice of tapping the spokes and listening to the ring. Most mechanics and riders will not be able to discern what ring pitch is considered correct for their wheel. You could easily overtighten the spoke and pull the rim out of round by using the tap and ring method. Using the correct setting for your wheel on a torque wrench will prevent over-tightening damage.
Trueing vs. Adjusting
Remember that adjusting spokes is not the same as truing a wheel. Truing a wheel requires specialized equipment, time, and patience. Truing has to be done with the wheel off the bike and the tire off the rim. This technique is used to pull a rim back into round after damage has occurred. If there is too much damage, you might not be able to round it out. At that point, you would have to replace the rim. This would be caused by never adjusting the spokes or hitting potholes on the road.
Truing is an art. Unless another artist has taught you, it's probably not something you want to try. You can cause more damage to a rim if you don’t know what you're doing when truing a wheel. We had the wheels on the bike in this article trued by Swifty’s Motorcycle Shop.
Adjusting The Spokes
It doesn’t take long to adjust the spokes. Once you get into a rhythm, you can adjust a wheel in less than 30 minutes. The nice aspect of spoke adjustment is it can be performed with the wheel on the bike. You will need to lift the bike, so the wheel is off the ground. You might also encounter a spoke nipple that won't turn due to grime, brake dust, corrosion, or rust. If this happens, you can put a single drop of light machine oil in it. Let it sit for a few minutes, and it should allow the adjustment nipple to break loose.
Torque Changes As You Work The Wheel
You might also encounter some spokes that will not torque to specifications in the allotted number of rotations indicated by your service manual. If this happens, mark the spoke and finish adjusting the entire wheel. After completing the wheel, you will often find that the spoke that wouldn’t tighten completely will now be fine. Remember, when you tighten one side of the wheel, it will pull on the spoke on the opposing side of the rim, causing it to tighten.
Some Loose Spokes
If you have a spoke that is still loose upon completion, you should still be ok to ride the motorcycle. Even a couple of loose spokes will be all right. If you get near the 10% mark of loose spokes, you should take it to a shop to work on the wheel. You don’t want to crank a spoke until it's tight because the threads could penetrate the rim band inside the wheel and puncture the tube, causing a flat.
A shop will work with the spokes and grind off the excess inside a rim if it protrudes too much so it won't puncture the tube. Also, keep in mind you will need a torque wrench and a non- torque wrench. The torque wrench is only used to tighten the spoke, while the other is used to loosen the spoke. If a spoke nipple is seized, don’t damage your expensive spoke torque wrench trying to break it loose.
Spoke Adjustment Frequency
As for adjustment frequency, your service manual or owners' manual should tell how often to perform this maintenance task if you have a custom wheel. You should probably make it a habit about every 10k miles if it doesn't. The Harley Davidson Softail Deluxe shown in the video is supposed to have the spokes adjusted every 15k miles. This is after the 5k maintenance interval. Here is a link for a spoke torque wrench that works well and has a good selection of head sizes to fit most bikes: Pit Boss Spoke Torque Wrench.