Spring Motorcycle Riding Prep
You roll your ride out of storage for the first time this year, ogling every curve of every fairing. “It looks so much cooler in real life than as my desktop background,” you squeal in your driveway, delirious after many grueling months of motorcycle deprivation.
Your neighbor flashes a disapproving side-eye, but you only meet their stare with a toothy grin. The temperature is up and the days are long—nothing can keep you from the open road now.
But to properly prep your pony for a safe summer of two-wheeled fun, you’ll have to do more than turn the key and thumb the starter. You should go through a full inspection of your motorcycle’s systems to ensure a safe ride and season ahead. You’ll feel much better knowing you followed the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s (MSF) comprehensive protocol for combing through your bike from tip to tail.
Dubbed T-CLOCS, the procedure covers your bike’s Tires, Controls, Lights, Oil, Chassis and Stands and more. You can print this quick-reference checklist for your toolbox or garage, but we’ll go through it in greater detail here.
Before you begin, pick up the factory service manual for your motorcycle’s make and model. If you can’t find one, pick up a Clymer or Haynes manual instead. Then give your bike a bath with plenty of suds. It’s much easier to spot things that out of place when you aren’t peering through a thick layer of last year’s grime.
Let’s get started.
T (Tires, Wheels and Brakes)
A tire’s most likely demise is wear, so inspect the tread to make sure your rubber has some life left. Most tires have wear bars set in the grooves, indicating replacement is necessary when they become flush with the surface of the tread. Look for at least 1/32 of an inch of depth at the most worn point—depending on your riding style, your tires may have more tread on the shoulders than down the center.
Look for cracks, bulges, dry-rot, and excessive hardening, which are signs that your bike’s shoes are simply too old. Be mindful of flat spots as well, which can develop under the weight of your bike if it wasn’t put to bed on paddock stands or a lift. Lastly, look around the edge of each rim for proper tire fitment and rule out possible damage to the bead.
If your rubber looks good, check the air pressure. Most tires will lose air over the winter, so it’s normal if they’re low. You might find conflicting pressure numbers in your owner’s manual and on the tire, but it’s not a large enough gap to make a noticeable difference for most street riders. If you’re unsure where your allegiance lies, split the difference and call it good.
For this next part, you’ll want to elevate your wheels with front and rear stands or a motorcycle lift. If you have spoked wheels, look for bent, broken, or missing spokes. Also check spoke tension by hitting each one with a screwdriver and listen for a clear twang. A muted thud means they’re too loose. Lacing and truing wheels is an art form, so call in the pros if your spokes are out of tune. If you have cast rims, look for dings, dents, or cracks.
Spoked or cast, spin each wheel and look for wobble. Anything more than 5 mm out of round horizontally or vertically is unacceptable. A visual check will suffice here, but if you’re a capable mechanic, set up a pointer or dial gauge on the rim for an accurate measurement.
Next, grab a handful of tire and flex back and forth. Free play is an obvious giveaway that the wheel bearings have failed. If that went well, spin each wheel and feel for excessive resistance or crunchiness. The wheel should spin smoothly, without making grinding or growling sounds. Investigate the bearing seals for tears, rips, or cuts. If they are reddish brown or a copious amount of grease is oozing out, replace them.
Compare the thickness of your brake pads to the spec in your service manual, and don’t be afraid to replace them sooner than absolutely necessary. Eking out every last bit of pad is penny-wise and pound-foolish, because you’ll only cause irreparable damage to your rotors and endanger yourself on the road. Both pads should wear evenly on each wheel.
If your motorcycle is elevated, spin the wheels and watch for rotor warping. Then feel for scoring and look for glazing. Lastly, engage each brake individually with the corresponding wheel in motion, making sure each one contributes to the stopping power of your motorcycle.
On to controls. Your handlebars should be straight, turn freely, and the bar ends should be secure. You don’t want a binding feeling or grinding sound when you turn them from side to side. Check for full range of motion as well.
Your levers should be well-adjusted and tightly mounted. Inspect for bent or cracked levers and give them a firm squeeze. If they feel sticky, lubricate the pivot bolts. Lubricate any clutch, brake, or throttle cables as well, and check for frayed ends and kinks along the entire length of each cable.
You also want all cables to be routed properly. If your bike is sporting its original cables, chances are good they are in place already. Otherwise, you’ll find routing diagrams in your service manual. Generally, cables should be free from interference at the steering head and suspension, avoid sharp angles, and have all wire supports in place.
If you have hydraulic clutch and brake systems, make sure the lines don’t have cuts, cracks, or leaks. “I’ve had a brake line cut by highway debris right in the middle of the line one time,” said Bill Shaffer, MSF Program Administrator in Minnesota. “You wouldn’t think it would fail right in the middle, so check your brake lines, every bit of them, as well as any other hoses you have.”
Then roll on the throttle to check for smooth operation. It should decisively snap closed on its own. And when you do finally start your engine, double-check that it doesn’t stick open and that there is no revving when the handlebars are turned. You’d be sorry to find this out at high speed in your favorite twisties.
While you’re monkeying around with the handlebars, take a second to readjust your mirrors. You might have bumped them when you took out the snow blower for the fiftieth time, or they may have sagged under the weight of your cover.
L (Lights and Electrics)
Some spring maintenance starts with good fall maintenance. Hopefully you had your battery on a smart charger all winter, in which case you’re probably just looking at cleaning the terminals with a brass bristle brush and lubing them with dialectic grease. But smart chargers and tenders are not fool-proof.
“I had a battery fail once during the winter,” said Shaffer. “I just installed the battery because it was showing green on my friend’s charger—[but] it was dead as a doornail.” Take it from those who have been there before you and check the voltage of your battery regardless of how it was stored.
A cheap multimeter will do the trick. You can pick one up from Harbor Freight for around four dollars, which is a tremendously sound investment compared to hours spent on the side of the road waiting for AAA. If your bike has trouble cranking over or you can’t remember the last time you replaced the battery, these are also good signs that your battery is on its dying breath.
If you don’t have a maintenance-free battery, disconnect the negative (ground) terminal before the positive terminal, and remove it from your motorcycle. Top off the cells with distilled water if they need it, then clean and grease the terminals.
Checking your lights is easy—they should all work, and the lenses should be free from scuffs, cracks, and condensation. Test them all and have a friend help with the brake light or aim the beam at a garage door for easy visibility from behind the handlebars.
If a light doesn’t come on, check the bulb first, then the fuse, then your wiring connections. Mice or other critters may have made a home in your radiator and chewed up your wires, but that’s the less likely and more complicated repair. If you’re running anything auxiliary, like extra lights, a phone charger, or an alarm, check that it works as well.
O (Oil and Other Fluids)
When was the last time you changed your oil? If you don’t know, do it now. If it was last fall, bravo! There are three general schools of thought here: change it in the fall, change it in the spring, or do both.
Shaffer suggests changing it in the fall to prevent dirty oil from ruminating in your bike all winter long. Plus, it’s a shame to run that sludge through your motor come springtime just to warm it up for an oil change. But if your bike was stored harshly outside, the temperature flux could break down the oil and invite moisture to creep in. If you can’t find better arrangements for your pride and joy, swap it out in the fall and in the spring.
In either case, check your oil level. Most motorcycles have a dipstick or a sight glass in the crankcase with min and max fill lines. Make sure your bike is completely vertical, not on its side stand, for an accurate reading when using the sight glass.
Oil isn’t the only fluid in need of attention. Pay heed to coolant and hydraulic fluid as well. If left for too long, either one could attract moisture and lead to corrosion, unwelcome moisture, and other issues. Generally, these fluids are due for a full flush every other season, but grab that service manual and scope out your bike’s specific intervals!
At the very least, check your levels and top up if you’re low, and whatever you do, don’t mix DOT levels of brake fluid together. If you don’t know what’s in your bike, flush it completely to be safe and look up the appropriate grade for your ride.
Stagnant fuel can also be cause for concern. If you didn’t top off your tank with a bit of fuel stabilizer last fall, the old gas probably degraded over winter, which could cause your motor to run rough and gum up your fuel-delivery system. Drain last year’s gas and run the bike with a tank of fresh fuel. Any drop in performance should sort itself out as the old stuff is consumed. If you’re still having fuel delivery problems though, you’ll have to clean out your carbs or injectors, or take your bike to the shop and have them do it for you.
Always use new oil, air, and fuel filters when changing fluids. It’s cheap insurance to keep everything running like a top, and they need to be changed eventually anyway, so why not do it when it’s convenient? If you’re unsure what filters are installed on your bike or how often to change them, consult a parts diagram or your service manual.
With only two wheels beneath you, riding a motorcycle is a leap of faith. You need to know that you don’t have a stress fracture that could become catastrophic frame damage when you hit one of spring’s many potholes, your forks won’t bottom out under hard braking in front of a deer, and a failed bearing won’t lock up your steering head while you’re dragging knee.
Let’s start with the steering head bearings. Twist the handlebars from stop to stop. Uneven resistance, binding, and grittiness are all bad news. With the front wheel raised, push and pull the forks and check for play. If it feels solid, move on to the suspension.
The difference between riding on a cloud and a disastrous failure can be as sneaky as a blown fork seal. Check for weeping at the seals, then throw a leg over the saddle. Holding your front brake, put your full bodyweight into the front wheel. The resistance should be even and not bottom out. If it feels soft, change your fork oil using the weight and volume specific to your make and model. As a rule of thumb, fork oil should be changed every 10,000 miles or once per year.
Around back, check for even preload and smooth travel on your shocks. With the rear wheel raised, yank on the swingarm to check for play in the bushings. Any sideways movement means they’re toast.
If you rock a chain-driven final drive, you should already know the drill and stay on top of your maintenance all season long. For now, clean it, lube it, and check for appropriate tension, especially if your chain is new. Belt and shaft-drives are nearly maintenance-free, so check belts for nicks, cracks, or cuts, and top up shaft fluid reservoirs and tightly secure the drain plug and fill plug.
Lastly, check your frame and fairings for cracks (look for paint lifting up) and torque down every visible nut and bolt properly—especially mounts for aftermarket accessories like highway pegs that may have wiggled loose from your hog’s wicked vibration.
While side stands (and center stands if equipped) get a full letter in the T-CLOCS acronym, they arguably won’t be the thing that keeps you safe on the highway. Still, you don’t want a gummed up side stand to be the reason you drop your bike in front of a swarm of one-percenters in the supermarket parking lot.
Before your first voyage, give the pivot joints a good shot of grease and make sure the stand actuates smoothly. You might even practice kicking it out a few times to refresh your muscle memory.
You did it! Now you know your steed is as faithful, and you’re ripping and roaring and frothing at the mouth to hit the open road. But not so fast! Your bike may be in ship shape, but are you?
Motorcycle Gear Guru
If you’re on an unavoidable collision path with a minivan driver who “didn’t see you,” it will be your helmet, not your side stand, that saves your life. Inspect your lid for damage, because it won’t protect its contents more than once. Helmets lose their structural integrity—and usefulness—from everything from serious crashes to falling off of your coffee table onto hardwood floor.
Helmets also have an expiration date. Snell recommends replacing one every five years, while other experts recommend more lenient intervals of up to eight years per lid. It’s a good time to remind yourself of when you bought yours and make sure it hasn’t aged out of its usefulness. You should also store your helmet in your house instead of the garage, unless it’s heated.
Mind Over Asphalt
Your wrist has likely accumulated some lead during the winter months, but that’s exactly why you should take it slow for your first few rides. Spring is one of the most dangerous times to be on a motorcycle: the roads are sandy and salty, motorists aren’t used to sharing them with bikes, and deer are skirting the shoulders looking for headlights to stare into. Adding an overzealous attitude to the mix is a great recipe for cutting your riding season short, or worse.
“When I think about how much [riding skills] atrophy over the winter, I think that’s a really important thing,” said Shaffer. Don’t put yourself on a big ride when you get your bike out. Allow yourself (and your tires) to warm up before hammering the throttle. “A great way to get your antenna up and dust off those cobwebs,” said Shaffer, “is to take a rider course.”
Not just for noobs, the MSF offers intermediate, advanced, and expert rider courses structured to give you elite hazard avoidance skills by practicing stopping, swerving, and brake-and-escape maneuvers at up to 40 mph. If you want highway-speed advanced cornering training, there is likely a rider school at a racetrack near you, too.
At the very least, go practice on your own in a safe environment without traffic, animals, and other distractions, such as a parking lot, quiet side street, or cul-de-sac. Above all, get out there, ride smart, and have fun.