Welcome to another of our “The Basics” articles. Sorry, I could not resist having a bit of fun with title since safely lifting a motorcycle to perform a service is nothing to joke about. Improperly lifting a motorcycle can lead to severe damage to your bike, injury to yourself, or others, so it’s best to get it right. If you have that other male “problem,”sorry, we can’t help you with that here.
Recently I was reading a thread on one of the many discussion forums I monitor, a member had brought up the subject of jacking up his motorcycle to replace a rear tire. His first thought was to use what he had on hand, a common automotive floor jack. There were several reasons why this would not work, the primary being he wanted to lift a large touring motorcycle with something that had a lifting surface the size of a teacup. Fortunately he was quickly talked out of that idea, but, within two comments later, introduced to a second bad idea, a picture with a similar bike perched three feet in the air on a lift with not a security strap in sight! The commenter was bragging how he used his lift like that all the time with no problems, and that it was “rock solid.” Perhaps he should have said “no problems yet,” because all it would take is one slight shift of balance to send it crashing to the ground. This particular bike was a factory limited edition bagger, worth at least $25,000, not much to lose if it fell, right? I don’t know about you, I’m not rich enough to take risks like that. This is not the first post of this type I have seen filled with misinformation and bad advice, motorcycle forums are full of it. So, it’s time to set the story straight, and help you get your bike on a lift right.
The first thing you will need is a proper motorcycle lift. If you think you might use it often, buying one of those dedicated motorcycle table lifts powered by air or hydraulics might be an idea, but, for the casual user, they are expensive. I won’t be covering those here, by the time you get to the level where you need one, you already know what you’re shopping for.
Your second option is to get a portable motorcycle/ATV lift, that’s what I use. You can find these almost anywhere in different levels of quality, and lifting capacity. I got mine at Sam’s Club ten years ago, I use it three or four times a year. Since I’m in NASCAR territory, my local Sam’s was selling a special Goodyear branded “Racing” jack. (Not really a racing jack.)
It was on sale, it had all the safety features I was looking for, so I bought it. Helpful Tip: The pad you see in the background is for lying down to check my rear tire pressure. I also use it under the car when I change the oil. It’s much better than the old, dirty, oil stained piece of cardboard I had used for years. It’s easier on my bod than the cardboard, and a quick wash keeps it clean.
You will need a lift capacity that exceeds the “wet” weight of your bike by at least half, if you have an 800 pound dry weight bike, wet it will be closer to 850-875, maybe more depending on fluids. A lift with a 1,000 pound capacity will not do, that is not enough of a safety margin, you will need something more, say 1,300 to 1,500 pounds. I have seen these lifts range in capacity, so this is the first thing to check. If you have more than one bike, good for you, just get a lift that is more than enough for your heaviest one.
Other “must haves” for safety, wheel locks, and a way to lock the lift in position so it won’t accidentally lower before you are ready.
The lockout to prevent accidental lowering is usually some type of pawl arrangement that fits into a stop on the lift frame. Safety Tip: Do not raise your lift higher than the last stop. If you have a failure, a quick drop of several inches could topple the bike, or injure you.
If you don’t think this lock detail is important, it is, you can never tell when your lift might fail. Early in the ownership of mine I had raised my Victory V92 C for its first rear tire change. By the time I had worked everything out, and had it in the air, I was tired and done for the day. After some supper, and a little TV, it was time for bed. I always make sure I’m locked up before bed, one of the stops is always the garage. Imagine my surprise when I came out and found my bike with both wheels on the ground! I was lucky, I had strapped the bike so it was standing straight up and hadn’t fallen over, at least I had done that one thing right. It had not failed quickly, just slowly lost pressure till the bike grounded. The lift was exchanged the next day, and no further problems from the replacement, but believe me, from that day forward, the safety locks were always used!
You can probably guess my next “must have,” strap attachment points, if a lift doesn’t have them, don’t buy it.
Something that is not a safety item, but nice to have if you want to be kind to your paint, padding on the lift area.
Now that we have covered what to look for in a lift, it’s time to discuss getting your bike in the air. The examples I’m showing here are my old Victory V92 C, and Victory Cross Roads. Your first use of the lift will take some time, and possibly more than one try, so be patient. On your first attempt you will need a friend to hold the bike upright and steady while you figure things out, after some practice, you can go solo. (Or not, depending on how big a pain in the ass it is.)
First you should determine where the center of gravity is on your bike, usually that’s located somewhere around the engine, sometimes a little to the front, or back depending on your make/model. Your second step will be to determine your lift points, if you have bodywork that might come in contact with lift, you will have to remove it. You might also want to remove any items that can come off without the bike being on the lift. It is important that whatever the lift comes in contact with is solid. You don’t want to pinch any wires or lines between the lift and the motorcycle, or to place too much pressure on any fittings going into the case. There is a good chance nothing will line up exactly, or set evenly on the lift, in most cases you will have to do some shimming to make everything level. This is particularly true of motorcycles that use the engine as a stressed member and have no lower frame rails.
Here are some examples of shimming, the first, my V92 C, which did have lower frame rails, the second, my Cross Roads, which uses the engine as a stressed member of the frame. The only way to tell where shims need to be is to run the jack under the motorcycle and raise it till you make contact. In the case of my V92 C, the lift would not go under even with the bike upright. I solved the problem by running it partially up a ramp, then lifting from there. If you have this issue you will have to come up with your own solution.
The the engine case actually was lower than V92’s frame rails, this created an interesting problem since the engine cases themselves were not flat on the bottom. I’m a big believer in saving things just in case I might need them later, nuts, bolts, screws, scraps of wood, etc. Fortunately I had some 5/8th inch thick pieces of wood lying around, they filled the space between the frame rails and lift perfectly.
I had to cut the wood into two pieces to clear the kickstand, you might have to do something similar yourself.
I didn’t have to cut the right side, but, I did have to set aside some lines and wires running along the lower frame rail.
Helpful Tip: Use padding on your straps to protect your finishes, old towels work fine. I don’t recommend using your wife’s new ones. As with the lift, be careful not to trap any wires, cables, or lines under the straps.
You may have only one part of your bike that touches the lift first, then you will have to shim the other contact points so it sits level. That was the case with my Cross Roads, there was a flat part of an exhaust bracket that was the lowest point.
This required shimming the front right side, and both sides of the left. The left was easy, I only needed to place strip of scrap plywood under the outside edges of the case.
The right side required just a bit more fiddling than the left. I used carpenter shims, moving them around until I had a tight fit. I later found out that the same scrap of plywood would work for the right in place of the shims.
Helpful Timesaving Tip: After you are done, write on your shims what they are, the side they go on, and store them for later use.
Once the shims are worked out, all that is left is securing your straps and completing the lift. When you are placing the straps make you do not trap any wires or lines, and, as mentioned before, it’s a good idea to protect your finishes with towels. Make sure any body panels you cross will not be crushed by the strap. Where the straps can be placed will vary, even within the same brand. It will all depend on the room you have, and what you are trying to avoid. My Cross Roads and V92 C were almost the same, but not quite. Other bikes I have had on the lift strapped totally different. Safety Tip: Before you lift, make sure your lift’s wheels are locked.
You may have noticed the automotive ramps, these are essential when your bike is on the lift. Remember that careful balancing job you did before you lifted the motorcycle? Well, the moment you remove a wheel, or other substantial part, that all goes away. I place my ramps so that they are touching both tires to start, and it stays that way unless I remove a wheel. Then the remaining wheel is resting solidly on a ramp. Trust me, these lifts are narrow, and can be pretty unstable, so it’s best to support the “heavy” end until you can restore balance. If I am changing a tire, I’m usually at the top of the ramp. If you need to lift higher than your support ramp, slip one or more 2X4s between the tire and ramp. To make sure the motorcycle is not off balance, take a sheet of paper and try to slide it under the lift’s wheels. If the paper passes between the floor and wheels, you are biased in one direction or the other. Adjust the ramp to eliminate the condition and have all four wheels solid on the floor.
Once you have it in the air, work carefully, never assume it’s “rock solid” on the lift, it only takes one wrong push to get it off balance.
Now you know how keep your motorcycle up on a lift, no little pills involved, and you’ll never have to use the excuse of…… “This sort of thing NEVER happens to me! I swear!”
Words By: Terry Cavender
Images By: Terry Cavender