Haynes has been advising owners on how to fix and maintain their motorcycles since the days of street-legal two-strokes and drum brakes.
Part of being a safe rider is keeping your bike in proper order, so it's important to give your bike a thorough once-over of all its major systems before every ride.
In fact, we'd actually recommend you check your bike over at the end of each ride so it is ready for the next one. But keeping the bike in order is so important for your safety.
There is no reason not to check your motorcycle before and after a ride. The logic in checking your bike after the ride is that you know about things that need to be repaired and can plan on ordering parts, or dedicating time to adjust things before you need to get somewhere, such as work.
What are the essential motorcycle checks before riding?
1) Motorcycle tyres
We don't need to remind you how vital your motorbike's black circles are for your safety, do we? Check your bike tyre pressures before you ride, when the tyres are cold. The correct PSI is listed on a factory sticker on the bike somewhere.
Go over the sidewall on both sides and look for bulges caused by damage from potholes and curbs.
Also check how much tread is left (wear can happen surprisingly quickly in hot weather or under a heavy load) and look for any foreign objects that you may have run over.
Most motorcycle wheels are cast aluminium (with tubeless tyres) so you no longer have to periodically test and true them by going over every spoke by hand.
But if you do have spoked wheels, check for missing or loose spokes before or after every ride; a loose or missing spoke can quickly lead to a warped wheel if not fixed.
Look for signs that the wheels bearings are failing or that the grease has leaked past the seals. Make sure there is no side to side play in the bearings and that the wheels roll freely. While spinning look for flat spots or wobbles that would indicate the wheel is out of true; even cast alloy wheels can go out of true because of potholes or minor accidents.
Don't forget to look at your motorcycle's brake discs and other hardware while you're checking the wheels. Check that there is plenty of pad left and that the rotors haven't become warped or grooved – you'll be able to feel this via a pulsing when you apply the brakes.
Check the brake and clutch lever handles; be sure they pivot freely, are lubricated and that the pivot bolt and nut are there and tight.
Also check the hydraulic system’s fluid level. Look over the entire length of the brake (and clutch) hoses and notice any cuts, swelling, or pinches that may be an indication of a failure in the near future. Don't forget to check the rear brake pedal and fluid as well, or check for proper linkage adjustment if a mechanical drum.
Modern bikes use fewer cables these days, even for throttles. Be sure your cables are well lubricated with no kinks or pinches in the housing (don't forget the speedometer and tachometer, if you have older mechanical versions), and move freely. Look for signs of fraying in the ends. Adjust for the proper amount of play.
Even if your bike has throttle-by-wire instead of a cable-operated throttle, you still need to check it. Now is the time to discover that the throttle does not close quickly when you let go of it. Too much play in the throttle can mean just a loose cable, or it can mean a failing throttle position sensor (TPS). The cable is easily adjusted, but a new TPS will likely need to be ordered.
It is not exaggerating to say that your motorcycle's brake/tail light has probably saved your life more times than you know, so make sure it is working before every ride.
Check that your headlight bulb is functioning. Make sure all the blinkers work and that the reflectors are still intact for maximum visibility among traffic and at night.
The time to find out your battery isn't charging is not when you are halfway home; the simplest test to do is check that the headlight gets brighter as you rev the motor.
If you have a wet cell battery, check the fluid level in it. Make sure both battery terminals are tight and free from corrosion, and check that the vent tube is in place and routed properly. Give the whole bike a quick once over for loose or pinched wires.
9) Engine oil
Check the engine oil level and look for signs of leaks under the bike. On shaft-driven bikes, and bikes with separate primary drive and transmission oil, check all of these as well; since these tend to be neglected it is not hard to develop a leak and not know it until it is too late.
You already checked the brake and clutch fluid with the controls, but check the motorcycle's coolant level on liquid-cooled bikes and top off with clean water.
Many bikes have a fuel gauge these days, but physically checking how much petrol is in the tank is a good idea if you haven't ridden in weeks or longer. On bikes with petcocks, check that it is set to "on" and not "reserve" before you ride, and get petrol if you are on reserve.
Look over the bike frame for areas where the paint may have cracked or flaked, because that is a good indication that there may be a structural crack developing.
Check the condition of the swingarm bushings by moving the rear wheel side to side, looking for play. Look for missing nuts and bolts, and occasionally check all of them for tightness, especially on singles and twins that vibrate a lot.
Look for signs of blown seals in the motorcycle fork and shock or shocks, which typically presents itself as an oily residue which collects dirt and dust. Do a couple of bounces while sitting on the bike to check that nothing is binding or bent.
With the front wheel off the ground, test that the bike's steering stem bearings are tight with no play in them and no resistance or notchiness in the steering. Check the drive belt or chain for proper tension, and damage or wear; lubricate the chain.
This is the last thing you check, often as you fold it up and ride off. Make sure the side and centre stand (and "jiffy stand" if you own a Harley) fold back and stay in place securely with the spring. On bikes with a side stand interlock, test the function by trying to put the bike into gear with the stand down (it should stall).
This motorcycle checklist may seem long and complicated, but once you go over the bike a few times it will become second nature.
An extra few minutes spent on making these checks before every ride could save you money, by spotting loose fasteners before anything falls off for instance. And this pre-ride check just might save your life by catching a catastrophic failure before it happens.