Lesson 2 - checking stuff
So you've got your first bike from your brother-in-law, who swears it's
totally roadworthy. Or you bought it brand-new from the dealer, where it
was assembled by trained monkeys after being shipped from Japan in a box.
Next week you're going to stick it between your legs and ride it in front of
a 30-ton truck. Right.
So, check some basic stuff before you take it anywhere:
Your first defense is having the bike go where you point it. Anything
that compromises this basic ability, like a wheel falling off, is very serious.
Your second defense is being able to decelerate hard (i.e. braking). Your third
defense is acceleration.
- Frame - hard to check, but it should be rigid and free from cracks.
Breaks in the paint and rust may indicate collision damage. If the frame
is bent the bike won't steer in a straight line.
- Major bolts - swing arm, engine mounts, axle nuts etc. Should be tight.
If you can get a torque wrench and shop manual, check them explicitly.
I've had a swing arm nut fall off. In Canada, enough people must have lost
wheel nuts that the regulations call for a split pin fastener.
This photo shows the swing arm (rear fork) nut. No
split pin on this one. It also shows a rusty area on a frame member. This kind of thing
should be checked; in this instance it is on the rear peg support (not a critical
frame member) and there is no cracking.
- Tires - should be free from deep cuts and exposed belting.
It's quite easy to check, compared with a car.
Pressure should be reasonable (25-40 psi). Check the manual.
Low pressure gives better traction off-road,
but you can pull a valve out of the tube. Trials bikes clamp the tire to the
wheel for this reason. Bike tires are crossply, with a tube. Never substitute
a radial car tire.
- Engine oil level - small bikes don't have a warning light, and high-revving
engines need good lubrication. If you
run out of oil, the piston will seize in the cylinder, stopping the engine
abruptly (pull in the clutch before you skid and lose it!). Then you
will have to strip the engine, buy a new piston, and take the cylinder to
a machine shop to be bored out. Been there, done that.
My current bike has a window to check the level; see this photo.
The bike should be upright (not leaning on the stand).
- Brakes - should work! The front brake should come on smoothly, and
withstand the strongest grip you can manage without the lever being completely
pressed to the handgrip. If hydraulic, the fluid level should be within
limits. The disk pads or drum shoes should have adequate wear left.
Small disk brakes wear down quite quickly. Scoring on the disk may indicate
worn-out pads. It there is excessive scoring, you may need to replace or
machine the disk.
This photo shows one pad with quite a lot of wear
left. There is some scoring on the disk, but not excessive.
- Lights - should work! The brake light should come on with either brake.
The headlight should be adjusted correctly so the dipped beam touches the road
maybe 50ft away. The flashers should work (in some jurisdictions, you can
remove broken ones and use hand signals).
- Chain - should have about 3/8" of slack, be clean and lubricated.
Drive sprocket teeth should be symmetric - uneven wear may indicate an
over-stretched chain. Many bikes have O-ring sealed chain links, which are
less prone to wear. Lubrication is a double-edged sword - too little, and
the chain will wear. Too much, and it will attract grit, which will wear
- Steering - the handlebars should move smoothly from side to side
without catching or making any noise. There should be no excessive play
up-and-down or backwards-and-forwards.
- Spokes - should be evenly tensioned, and not loose or broken. The
wheels should run true on the axles without excessive play in any direction.
If you tap the spokes with a screwdriver, they should make the same pitched
sound - "ping", not "clunk". A few loose spokes may be tightened easily
enough, but serious re-tuning requires skill and a dial gauge.
- Engine. A reliable engine is nice to have. Engine work is beyond the scope
of this tutorial, but if you can't trust the engine to deliver when you need
it, you have cut your avoidance options in half.
- Loading - generally not an issue. But if you have a lot of luggage
strapped on behind, it should be as far forward as possible, i.e. on the
pillion seat. Too much weight on a rear rack will make the front wheel light
and hard to control. Do not hang anything heavier than a couple of pounds
from the handlebars. Do not fasten anything where it can swing into