15 Things to Look Out For When Testing Riding A Motorcycle

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Looking into buying a motorcycle can be exciting, but it can also be a bit stressful if you don’t know exactly what to look for especially when it comes looking for potential issues. I’ve been there many times myself; I bought and restored over a dozen motorcycles while I was going to school. I gained valuable insight from this experience and was able to identify potential problems in a potential motorcycle purchase while on a test ride.

I could get pretty technical with everything you’ll need to check during your test ride. I could go on and on about this list. Although there are many things that you can check, every motorcycle, new or old, will have a small problem. This list is for buyers who want to save money by looking for the most obvious and common problems.

Cosmetics

You (and everyone else) will be first to notice the appearance of a motorcycle. This is also one of the first things you should look at when you’re about to test ride any motorcycle. I’m not here to necessarily tell you what condition you should and shouldn’t buy, that all depends on you, how much money you’re willing to spend, and what level or expertise you have. But I can tell you about how much it’ll cost to fix.

Before you test ride a motorcycle, it’s always a good idea to do a visual walk around. Take a few moments to look at the finer points. Get down on your knees and look at places you couldn’t normally see on the bike. Engine covers or scrapes are something I love to check first. This can often indicate that the bike has been dropped.

A dropped motorcycle isn’t necessarily a bad thing (because most, if not all, motorcyclists will drop their bike at some point during their ownership). You’ll just want to look at the severity of the scratches. Long, deep scratches on the covers may mean you’ll need a new cover altogether. It’s possible to shine up parts of the engine so the scratches are hardly noticeable. However, it is possible to find decent used engine covers that are relatively inexpensive for common motorcycles.

Along with scratches on the engine, you’ll also want to look at the condition of the heat fins, too. These fins help cool the engine and are an important part of the motorcycle. If one of these breaks, you could end up with a hot spot.

A small chip here or there isn’t really much of a big deal and can be patched up with some JB weld to make it look better. Larger chips or fins that are missing completely are a bigger problem and may need to be replaced. This could lead to expensive repairs. A larger number of chips could also indicate that there was a collision or hard landing.

I also like to look at the tank for any dents. Tank dents don’t really impose on it’s function, but it can certainly be an eye sore and a possible expensive fix if you don’t know how to fix dents yourself. Try to look at the tank in different lighting to ensure full transparency of it’s condition.

I personally don’t mind a few dents because I know how to fix them, but in any case it’s really annoying buying a motorcycle only to discover a big dent you didn’t notice before. You can read my other article here about how to fix dents on a motorcycle gas tank.

Sounds

Now that you’ve made your visual scan of the motorcycle, you’ll need to take it for the anticipated test ride. It’s very important you always test ride a motorcycle before you buy it so you can detect any potential problems you couldn’t see before.

The next thing you’ll want to look out for is any strange sounds the motorcycle may be making. Any sounds coming from the engine are my first listen. There shouldn’t be any clicking or grinding coming from it at all. Any sounds like that could likely mean it’s about to give out in the near future.

Next, I pay close attention to the exhaust. Check for exhaust leaks. A leak in the exhaust can first be detected by a popping sound when it is first turned on. It will subside over time. You can also tell if there’s a leak by any unusual draft coming from anywhere on the pipes besides the end of the muffler.

Exhaust leaks from headers’ flange surfaces could indicate that the header bolts may be loose. This is an easy fix. Pin holes anywhere on the pipes will likely mean you’ll need to replace the headers altogether (especially if they’re caused by rust). You can also click here to read my article on how to determine if your motorcycle has an exhaust leak.

Also, look out for any backfiring. Backfiring occurs when there is uncombusted fuel in your exhaust pipe. This most commonly means that the engine is running too rich or too lean. It could also indicate that you may have carb problems. Backfiring could be a simple fix, but it could also be an expensive fix; it’s hard to know for sure so that decision is up to you whether or not you are okay with it. Check out my article to find out why a motorcycle backfires.

Lastly, I always like to listen to the acceleration while I’m test riding a motorcycle. Acceleration should feel smooth, and the sound should remain consistent as you rev up. Any other symptoms, such as vibrations or rattles, could indicate tire problems, engine issues or chain issues or carb problems.

Clutch Tightness

Most motorcycles have a manual transmission, so it is important that you check the clutch health before you take off on any motorcycle test. Hard shifts and grinding from changing gears are two obvious signs that your machine is in trouble. The transition from one gear into another should be seamless and soundless (assuming you know how to shift through the gears properly).

Apart from hearing the clutch sound, also pay attention to the clutch handle and it’s tightness. It should be easy to pull, with very little resistance. Sometimes clutch handles can be stuck which means it’s difficult to pull on it or it is completely loose with zero resistance. This can be either a problem with the clutch cable itself or a problem with the clutch.

Sometimes dirt and grime can get into the clutch and cause plates to stick together. It can be costly and time-consuming to fix this problem. Click here to read my other article about clutch health.

Excessive engine vibration

You’ll want to watch out for any excessive engine vibrations during a test ride on a motorcycle. There will always be vibration, but too much can cause problems.

Imagine the feeling of pushing an old lawn mower for a few hours with your arms feeling like they’ve been rattled and a little bit numb. You’ll notice a similar sensation when you ride a motorcycle that has excessive engine vibration.

A vibration in an engine during a ride is an indication of a poorly designed engine. My 1969 Triumph was poorly designed and maintained. It made my arms feel like jelly after a ride. Excessive vibration can eventually lead to oil leaks or loose bolts. You will constantly be tightening things up and fixing things on the engine when there’s so much vibration.

Electronics

I can’t tell you how many hundreds of hours I’ve spent trying to get the electric wiring just right on every single one of my motorcycles. That’s partly because I buy project bikes, but it’s always a headache having to deal with the electronics and getting everything to work properly.

To ensure the safety of your motorcycle ride, make sure you check all electrical components. These include the horn, turn signals and headlights (high and low beam), as well as the brake light. It’s also a good idea to pay special attention to the speedometer and tachometer; they need to arise smoothly and coincide with the motorcycle’s acceleration.

Specific parts, such as new turn signals or a new speedometer, really aren’t that expensive to buy. It’s wiring them into the motorcycle that can cause a world of headache. Grounding the wrong wire could cause a domino effect, and other problems like parasitic drain. I’m not saying it’s impossible to learn how to do it yourself, just know that if you’re looking into buying a motorcycle that has electrical issues, you’re in for a big learning curve (unless you are willing to pay someone to fix it for you).

Tire and Rim Condition

The last important thing you’ll need to check while out on a test run is the condition of the tires and the rims. Before you take any motorcycle out for a ride, inspect the tires to ensure they’re durable enough to ride on. You’ll want to check for any cracks and bulges on the tire and see how worn down the tread is.

Worn tread isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just an indicator of how soon you’ll need to get new tires. Flat tread is dangerous and should be avoided. If the tires appear to be in poor condition, you should budget for about $100 per tire and $50 to mount them onto the rim.

Motorcycles are more susceptible to having their rims bent by larger bumps. My rule of thumb is to never ride a motorcycle with any type of bend anywhere on its rim. So while you’re inspecting the tires, take a look at the condition of the rims, too. If you see any bends on the rims of the motorcycle, do not ride it.

Bends on the tire can lead to dangerous situations, especially if they are tubeless, which most motorcycles have unless they have spoked wheels. Tubeless tires are dependent on tight suction against the rims. Any slight bend could cause the tire to deflate on a run. Deflated tires can cause serious injury if they are on the road.

But sometimes it’s hard to see bends in the rim with the naked eye. They will appear on a motorcycle ride because the tire will wobble. Any wobble on a motorcycle isn’t a good sign and you should stop immediately if you notice that happening.

Although it is possible for a bent wheel to be fixed, I discourage amateurs from doing it. It requires some heavy machinery and exactness that most people don’t have in their garages. If you’re interested in getting a motorcycle and noticed it has a bent rim, you’ll either need to get it professionally fixed or buy new ones altogether.

Summary

To summarize what we’ve just discussed, here’s a check list that can make a test ride for any motorcycle much easier. If you’re planning to test-ride a motorcycle soon, feel free to print this out and copy it.

Checklist for Test Riding a Motorcycle:

Cosmetics

  • Engine dents/scrapes
  • Engine fins condition
  • Gas tank dents

Sounds

  • Leakage in exhaust
  • Backfiring
  • Smooth acceleration

Clutch Tightness

  • Hard shifts or grinding from the clutch
  • Too loose a clutch handle
  • Too tight clutch handle

Engine

  • Excessive vibration
  • Tickling or grinding

Tires and Rims

  • Tires with bulges or bald spots
  • Worn tread
  • Bends on the rims
  • Tire wobbles

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