TOTW: Practice a weekly 10-minute safety check

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?

Like any vehicle, your motorcycle can develop mechanical problems over time. Most mechanical problems start small but become more serious if left untreated. This situation is somewhat more severe on a motorcycle than on a car for two reasons.

First, minor problems on a motorcycle may go unnoticed for a longer period than they would on a car. Bikes tend to be serviced and inspected less frequently than cars, and some riders find the mechanics of motorcycles somewhat intimidating.

Second, and more important, the consequences of mechanical failure are more severe on a motorcycle. A car can be driven even when it is in poor condition. Although this is not good for the car, it will usually not fall over, and it still encloses and protects the driver. On a motorcycle, mechanical failure of almost any nature may cause a crash and injury.

Solution

You can’t do much about the consequences of mechanical failure, but you can develop habits that will detect many problems while they are still minor.

There is no substitute for having your bike properly serviced according to the owner’s manual. However, many minor mechanical problems can be detected early by a simple inspection that you perform yourself. You don’t have to be a mechanic. We’re not talking about complex analysis or special tools, just a simple inspection of the major components of your bike for obvious signs of trouble. With practice, this inspection will take you about 10 minutes. You can perform it weekly, and it makes a good weekend activity, possibly combined with washing your bike.

Think of it as a “circle check.” Start somewhere and walk a complete circle around your bike, checking each component you pass for signs of trouble. Check for appropriate tightness, signs of wear or breakage, and signs of fluid leakage. The emphasis is on detection, not repair. If you detect signs of trouble, deal with it yourself or get professional help, depending on your mechanical skill and available time, but don’t leave it to get worse.

For most of the checks, you’ll use two readily-available tools: your eyes and your hand. Look at the part for signs of trouble, then wrap it with your hand to test for tightness and, by seeing what gets on your hand, leakage. This won’t catch all problems, and doesn’t replace proper testing with sophisticated equipment, but it will detect the early signs of many routine problems. This is also a good time to do the routine lubrication your owner’s manual recommends, and also to clean and polish.

Here is an example of a circle check. Yours need not be done in this order, may not include all these parts, and may involve parts in different locations on the bike, but it will give you the idea.

Get ready

To get ready for your weekly check, move your bike to a location where you can easily walk and crouch all around it. Place it on the centre stand if you have one. If you don’t have a centre stand, an accessory swing-arm stand is very useful. If you have neither of these, leave the bike on the side stand. The engine should be off and cool, since you’ll be touching parts with your hands.

To make things go as quickly as possible, get your tire pressure gauge (one tool you should definitely own), a clean rag, oil can, chain lubricant, and so on. Check your owner’s manual for any reminders you need, such as lubrication points and intervals.

Now start somewhere on your bike and do a complete circle around it. For this example, we will start at the front on the left side.

Front left

Check the condition of your front tire. Look for obvious signs of damage or punctures and check the condition of the tread. Your owner’s manual will tell you how much tread depth indicates a worn-out tire, and most tires also contain “wear bars” — embedded marks that will appear when the tread covering them has worn down to a certain point.

Check your tire pressure and adjust if necessary.

If your wheel uses spokes, quickly check for uniform tension by running a hard object such as a screwdriver across all the spokes in a circular motion. You should hear a series of “pings” of a uniform pitch. A spoke that is too loose or too tight will stand out as an unusual note — “ping, ping, ping, ping, bong, ping ping”. Don’t worry about the 3-4 you can’t reach because of the wheel supports — chances are the wheel will be in a different position next time, and you are doing this check weekly.

Check the condition of your front brake. Check for any obvious problems on the front disc, such as cracks or gouges. Wrap the front brake assembly in your fist. Try to move it, gently, to ensure that nothing falls off. Then look at the palm of your hand to ensure there is no leaking brake fluid on it. Look at the thickness of the brake pads inside the brake shoe. Your owner’s manual will specify the thickness that indicates worn-out pads.

Check the condition of the front fork tube on this side. Check the plastic cap that seals the entry to the outer tube for cracks and leaks. There should be no sign of oil leaking through or dripping down the tube. Check the smooth inner tube for nicks, scratches, and gouges that may have been caused by flying gravel. The rough edges on such nicks can cause leaks in the fork cap as the tube slides through.

Left side

Move toward the rear of the bike, and crouch by the left side. As you pass them, check the headlight assembly and front left turn signal for tightness.

Wiggle and operate the clutch lever to ensure it is properly fastened. If the clutch is fluid-operated, check the fluid level through the inspection window. (The bike must be vertical for this check. If it is not on a centre stand, you will have to momentarily push it upright before checking the fluid level.) Your owner’s manual may suggest a drop of oil on the clutch lever pivot point.

Check the fuel shut-off valve on the left side. Move it to all possible settings to ensure it moves freely, then return it to the appropriate setting (“off” or “auto”). Now check your hand for any signs of fuel leaks.

Lower on the bike, check that your foot peg is firmly attached and moves freely. Your manual may suggest oiling its pivot point. If a rubber sleeve covers the foot peg, make sure it is not sliding off. Check the passenger foot peg the same way.

Check the side stand or centre stand fastenings for tightness. (Check whichever is not in use now, then check the other later when it is not in use.) Oil the pivot points if your manual suggests.

Left rear

If your bike has a chain or belt drive, check the fastening of the chain guard. Check the chain or belt for appropriate tightness (this is simple — see your owner’s manual) and for any obvious signs of damage or wear. Lubricate the chain at the interval specified by your owner’s manual.

Shaft drives require little periodic maintenance, but check for leakage of transmission fluid and other signs of damage.

Check the rear tire and spokes as described above for the front.

Rear

As you pass around of the rear of the motorcycle, check the luggage hooks and luggage for proper fastening. Check any passenger hand-holds for proper tightness. Check the fastening of the rear turn signals and brake light housing. Check the fastening of the license plate.

Right rear

Check the condition of the rear brake. If it is a disc brake, follow the instructions described above for the front. If it is a drum brake, check for cracks and tightness, and check the wear indicator located somewhere on the drum housing (see your owner’s manual). Your manual may specify oiling certain pivot points in the linkage between the rear brake and the brake pedal.

Right side

Check the level of your engine oil. You may need to wipe the inspection window clean with your rag. Remember that the bike must be vertical for this check, so you will have to hold it upright if it is not on a centre stand. (The oil inspection window might be on the other side on your bike, and some bikes may use a dipstick instead of an inspection window. Adjust your routine accordingly.)

Check the driver and passenger foot pegs as described above. Check the front brake lever as described above for the clutch lever, and the brake fluid level.

Operate the throttle, making sure it moves freely, and that the spring returns it properly to its rest position. Your owner’s manual will specify how much free play there should be in the movement from the rest position.

Front right

Repeat everything specified above for the front left, checking signal mount, fork, brake, spokes, and tire.

Other checks

If your bike is liquid-cooled, there will be a coolant level inspection window somewhere. Add this to your routine. Your exhaust pipe or pipes will be in various locations depending on the bike model. Check them for secure mounting and any signs of rusting through at an appropriate point in the circle check. Add any other appropriate checks unique to your bike to your routine too.

Start your engine

With your engine running, check your horn, headlight (high and low beams), brake light (operated by both front lever and rear pedal), and turn signals. Use your kill switch to stop your engine, to test the function of the switch.

Summary

The above check is an example only. Your bike may require more or fewer steps, probably in a different order. The point is that you can do a thorough check to detect many early signs of mechanical problems with limited mechanical knowledge and no special tools. The entire check takes only a few minutes and should be performed weekly at least.

Don’t forget, this checkup is not a substitute for proper professional service. Follow the service schedule in your owner’s manual.


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