Motorcycles are like any other automobile in that they require scheduled maintenance to continue to run properly. If you want your bike to take care of you, you need to take care of your bike. This means getting to know it rather intimately--using tools in places normally hidden from view and dealing with all kinds of necessary but messy fluids. Motorcycles are not quite as tolerant to neglect as cars are, and they demand respect. Understand your bike's needs, tend to them religiously, and you will have a companion that will reliably take you as far as you want to go. Ignore them and you might just end up hitting the road in a very real way.
Final drive: belt, driveshaft, and chain
The biggest illustration of this concept lies in the nature of the item that a motorcyclist will most frequently need to attend to; the chain. While most motorcycles use chains for their final drive there are notable exceptions to this rule. Engineers are always trying to find new solutions to old problems and this has led to some diversity in the final drive mechanisms they employ on different motorcycles. Virtually all new Harley Davidson bikes use a self-tensioning belt on a pulley which is similar to the serpentine belt that drives accessories on a car. This type of system requires significantly less maintenance, though it comes with its own unique set of issues.
If you have a belt, you still need to check it periodically for wear, cracking, and other irregularities. Small pebbles can sometimes jump off of the road and become sandwiched between the belt and pulley as it spins. This can quickly shred a belt and is the main reason why you almost never see an off-road or dual purpose motorcycle with a belt drive. The other commonly used alternative to chains is the driveshaft which incorporates a spinning rod that runs the length of the bike and a small set of gears to transfer the motion to the wheel. While this configuration is low maintenance it must be lubricated in key areas periodically to prevent undue wear from occurring. The components that comprise a shaft driven motorcycle are typically heavier and designed more for long distance riding. As such, this setup is typically seen on larger road going cruisers, as well as most touring bikes. For both belt and shaft driven bikes be sure to check the manual that came with the motorcycle (or the factory service manual) for the mileage intervals specific to your bike's maintenance schedule.
Chains and sprockets are still the most common way that manufacturers choose to drive their motorcycles by far. While they require much more frequent attention than the other drive types I've described, the procedures are really quite simple. There are two things that your motorcycle chain needs on a regular basis: Lubrication and adjustment. Since chain and sprocket designs vary very little from bike to bike, a universal rule of thumb is to check the chain's condition and lubricate it every 400 miles. It will not necessarily need adjustment every time you check it, and if you keep it well lubricated it will need it less frequently. Use a thick motor oil or product designed specifically for motorcycle chains for even better results and cover all the o-rings. You may want to invest in a brush for cleaning away road grime.
The next thing to look at is the chain's slack, which is the amount of vertical free play in your chain. Motorcycle chains need to have some slack to compensate for suspension movement--if the chain is too tight it will wear your sprockets away very quickly. Too loose and you risk the chain flying off the sprockets altogether. They key is to know the acceptable range of free play for your motorcycle and keep it within that range as the chain slowly stretches from regular use. This range varies from bike to bike, especially off-road bikes with long-travel suspensions, but is generally around 35-45mm for street bikes. Adjustment on chain-driven bikes is as simple as turning a couple of adjustment screws at the rear of your bike's swingarm equal amounts until the slack is back within spec. Again, see your bike's manual for specific details.
Oil: Lifeblood of your engine
Neglecting lubrication for long enough can mean the chain snaps, potentially causing a serious accident. Your engine needs oil too, though if you run it dry you're probably not going to crash your bike. You will however permanently destroy the internals of your engine anywhere there is metal-on-metal contact. You don't want that either, do you? I didn't think so! The single most critical thing that one can do to extend the life of their engine and ensure that it runs as long as possible is to change the oil on a regular basis. Oil is relatively cheap when compared to a new engine so it's probably worth the extra few bucks to get the highest-quality engine oil you can find for your motorcycle. Synthetic oils are always preferred for modern motorcycles as they further reduce friction and wear. Oil change intervals and amounts can vary widely for different motorcycles so always check the manual for your specific bike for that information.
Despite their need for slightly more attention than their four-wheeled counterparts motorcycles are much easier to work on, and this is certainly true for oil changes. Make sure you have the right tools for the job: A six-pointed socket or box-end wrench that fits your drain plug, a used oil catch-pan, and an oil filter if necessary. Some people like to change their filter every time they change their oil but it's usually fine to switch it out every other oil change. Keep in mind that the filter will hold some oil, so you fill amount will be higher if you remove and replace the filter with a dry one. Again, check the manual for precise volumes and always double-check your oil level with the sightglass near the bottom of the engine to make sure you didn't add too much or too little. Finally, never ever over tighten your drain plug!
Many motorcycles will burn some oil during normal driving, and the amount of oil burned can increase substantially with high-speed or high-rpm riding. Checking your oil level using your sightglass every time you lubricate your chain is a good idea and will help you keep track of its usage. For those with belt or shaft drive schedule it at every other fill-up of gasoline.
Basic pre-ride checklist:
There are a few very quick and simple things that should be looked over every couple of rides as a safety precaution. Maintaining the correct tire pressure is very important for motorcycles. In fact, I knew someone personally who bought his first bike used with low tire pressure. He didn't think to check it before riding home and during a fairly deep lean the bike lowsided, and terribly scratching its his beautiful red paint. Due to the rounded profile and small sidewalls of motorcycle tires they are much more sensitive to variances in pressure. If the front tire is just a few psi low an experienced rider will be able to note a significant change in handling characteristics. Safety and handling aside, keeping your tires properly inflated will get you better gas mileage and prevent unnecessary wear. Accurate tire pressure gauges are very compact and can often be found less than the cost of a cup of coffee. There is no excuse not to have one on your bike at all times!
Many bikes only have one headlight and taillight which makes ensuring that they work properly doubly important. Ensure that all your lights work, especially your brake light and turn signals. Being able to communicate your actions and intentions using your lights and signals is extremely important on a motorcycle and you should never ride with that ability compromised. Shake down your handlebars and make sure they're attached securely. Check for a firm brake, front and back. Does your clutch lever operate smoothly? How about the throttle? If they stick or bind, give them a good lube with some relatively thick oil or cable lube. When your clutch cable is dry for too long and becomes worn it can snap, leaving you stranded. That thin cable is all that stands between you and a very bad day so keep an eye on it.
There is certainly much more maintenance that can be done by a dedicated owner, but by keeping an eye on these points a new rider will not only save themselves money they'll go far keep themselves safe and rolling on two wheels.