It’s happened to a lot of us. You find the bike of your dreams (or, at least, one of the bikes of your dreams), and all the stars align so you can buy it. Maybe you found it locally, or maybe you had to travel a little to pick it up. Either way, there are few things that beat the sheer joy and excitement of all the potential fun you’re going to have that’s now coursing through your veins.
Then, unfortunately, reality strikes. Buying a used bike doesn’t come without a certain level of risk. Sometimes you get lucky, and you find a bike that’s been well taken care of, has all kinds of service documentation, and purrs like an angry kitten when you start it up and give it a little throttle. Many more times, though, there’s something not quite right with the used bike you just bought.
Now, it may not be a total basket case, but there’s a wide world of possible things that could be preventing you from taking your new-to-you bike out for that glorious first ride. Although there’s no way to realistically cover every single possible problem in one piece like this, we’ve rounded up five of the most common issues you might run into after you’ve scored your next sweet moto deal.
Does your throttle or cable-actuated clutch feel weird when you try to use it? If it’s sticking, or otherwise not responding to your inputs in the way that you would expect, probably the first thing you should try is cleaning and lubricating your cables.
To do both things, you’ll first need to remove the clutch cable from its lever, and the throttle from the throttle drum. If you haven’t done this before, you’ll notice a metal wire that ends in a little metal knob that attaches to the clutch lever (or throttle drum, depending on the cable in your hand). Note that you can remove the cables completely from the bike to clean and lubricate them if you want (be sure to keep track of how they’re routed, such as by snapping a bunch of helpful photos with your phone), but you can also do it on the bike if you’re careful.
You’ll notice that the wire can be pulled back and forth inside the cable sheath—or, at least, the goal is for it to move pretty smoothly within the sheath. As you pull it out, you’ll see more wire exposed, and as you push it in, the wire will disappear into the sheath.
What should you clean the cables with? There are specialty cleaning chemicals just for cables that are your best bet, but plain old motor oil will also work. Don’t use WD-40 or harsh solvents here, because some cables may have plastic inside the sheath that can be negatively impacted by harsh solvents (and can accidentally make them harder to actuate smoothly).
Some people suggest using a plastic bag and rubber band funnel to channel your selected cleaner down the cable hole, which works very well for sprays. Alternatively, you can use a syringe to gently drip a liquid cleaner or lube in, drop by drop (aim for the wire for least messy results). Once the cables are clean (when the cleaner you’ve chosen starts to come out clear, not gunked up), repeat the process with cable lube.
There are specialty tools you can buy to help you do this, and they may work—but if you have a friend or family member who is willing to help you manually work the throttle cable back and forth in its sheath from either end, lubricating it without any special tools isn’t very difficult. (You could do this on your own, too, but it will take more time and patience than asking someone you trust to help you.) Make sure to wipe up any excess lubricant that may drip down into places you don’t want it. It’s also worth using a tiny (very tiny) dab of grease on the cable stoppers before you slide them back home into the clutch lever and throttle drum, because they need to move smoothly, too.
Once you’ve cleaned and lubed those cables, see how the clutch and/or throttle action feels. You don’t have to start up the bike; just play with it a little while it’s parked, and you’ll most likely notice a positive difference.
Please note that if you have a hydraulic clutch, this information won’t apply. Instead, see our next section on brakes, which includes some information about hydraulic clutches as well.
Do your brakes feel mushy, either up front or in the rear? If so, the culprit is likely air in the lines. If you have a hydraulic clutch and your bike mysteriously wants to creep forward while you’re holding in the clutch lever, same thing. Now, if you know (and trust) that the fluid was changed very recently (such as if you bought from someone you know well), then it’s probably fine to just bleed the brakes (or hydraulic clutch) and see if that fixes the problem.
However, most of the time, what you’ll really want to do is drain the old fluids, refill with new fluids, and THEN bleed the air out of the lines. Unless the bike you bought has some funky aftermarket reservoir caps on it, most bikes will tell you what fluid is required for both the brakes and the clutch. DOT 3, DOT 4, DOT 5, and DOT 5.1 are the brake fluid types you’ll likely see, and a general rule of thumb is to stick with whatever your bike is asking for.
Be aware that DOT 3, DOT 4, and DOT 5.1 are glycol-based, and can damage the paint on your bike if you dribble or spill, so be careful! DOT 5 is silicone-based, and cannot be mixed with other specifications of brake fluid. It should only be used in cases where it is specified by the manufacturer.
With the glycol-based fluids, it’s OK to use a higher-number fluid in a bike that asks for a lower-number (for example, using DOT 4 in a bike that only specifies DOT 3). However, you can’t go backwards (use DOT 3 in an application that specifies DOT 4), because the operating temperature requirements won’t be sufficient for that bike, and you’re going to have a bad time.
For hydraulic clutches, some require brake fluid, just like your brakes—and just like your brakes, the reservoir cap should tell you what DOT specification to look for. However, you should also be aware that some clutches (Magura, we’re looking at you) want mineral oil instead. To avoid unnecessary frustration, be sure you know what you need and have the right supplies on hand before you bleed the system. Do not mix mineral oil and brake fluid.
It’s happened to us all: You hit the electric start button on your bike, and nothing happens. You know the battery is fully charged and in good operating condition. What could be wrong? If you had the same Motorcycle Safety Foundation Basic RiderCourse instructor that I had, now is when you’ll be hearing her yelling “THUMB KEY VALVE!” a few times in your head. That advice is still absolutely accurate for bikes that are carbureted rather than fuel-injected, but we’ll cover both situations here.
Check whether your killswitch is engaged. Maybe you bumped it by accident, or maybe someone else did—it doesn’t really matter either way. What does matter is your certainty that it’s not the thing preventing your bike from starting.
If your bike has a physical key (and not an electronic key fob), check that it’s in the ignition, and also that it’s turned to the ‘On’ position. Some ignitions may have multiple positions, including an accessory light position or a seat release position (that’s definitely true on some modern scooters, in particular). If your physical key is not in the correct position, it could prevent your bike from starting.
If your bike has an electronic key fob, first, make sure that it’s within range and you didn’t accidentally leave it in the house. Once you’ve made sure that it’s on your person (or tucked in a cubby somewhere in or on the bike), consider whether it might need a new battery. Since this bike is used, you probably don’t know what kind of life it’s led—and it could just be time. Find out how to change the battery on your model if you suspect that could be an issue.
If the above steps don’t work, now’s the time to get out the shop manual and start testing to isolate and treat the problem (or call in a professional).
If it’s a carbureted bike, you’re going to have a fuel petcock (that’s the ‘valve’ that the instructor in my memory was enthusiastically reminding us about). Be sure the fuel petcock is turned to the ‘On’ position. If that doesn’t resolve the problem, try switching it to ‘Reserve,’ in case there’s some type of clog in your fueling system that’s not letting the fuel flow through and combust in your engine the way that it should.
Do you know the last time this bike was run? If it’s been sitting for a while, the problem could be old fuel or weird clogs in your fueling system that could be preventing things from running smoothly. In a lot of cases, simply dumping some Sea Foam (or your preferred motor treatment fluid of choice) into the tank, letting it sit, and then running it through will work wonders. That’s true whether your system has a fuel pump or is gravity-fed, or whether you have one or more carburetors or fuel-injection.
If you try that and it doesn’t work, you may need to work harder to diagnose where your exact fueling issue is located. Maybe your fuel pump isn’t working correctly, which is a bigger problem, or maybe the carbs need to be cleaned or, in the worst case, rebuilt and properly synced.
Even if you’ve never worked on a motorcycle before, now is a great time to get your hands on the shop manual for your bike (if you don’t have it already) and start digging in to diagnose the problem. (You could also get a Haynes or Clymer manual for your bike, but be aware that the OEM, Haynes, and Clymer manuals for the same bike may not always agree on important things like torque values.)
If you’re feeling unsteady, now is also a great time to reach out to any friends or family you might have who ride and wrench. You can also make friends with knowledgeable riders in your local community who can help—or at least, keep you entertained while you swear at your bike and try to chase down the problem. A lot of more experienced riders love nothing more than helping out newbies—just be sure to take their advice with a grain of salt until you know whether it’s reliable or not (kind of like people in general, really).
A good rule of thumb is to check that your headlights, turn signals, and horn are all working before you take any bike out for a ride. If you’re by yourself, an easy way to do this is to either wait till it’s dark out, or else find a shady wall or garage door you can bounce your lights off. If you have a friend or family member who can tell you what they see when you flip switches, pull the front brake lever, and push the rear brake pedal, it’s even easier—because you don’t have to worry about turning the bike around to bounce lights off a vertical reflective surface.
If none of the lights work, check that the battery is supplying power. You can try jumping the battery in a hurry, or if you have more time, throw it on a trickle charger overnight and try again the next day. If that doesn’t work, you may need to purchase and install a new battery.
Depending on what fits your bike, you may have the option to choose between lead acid, absorbed glass mat (AGM), or lithium-ion batteries. If you use a lead acid battery, they’ll require you to maintain them by occasionally refilling them with an electrolyte (sometimes distilled water; check what the manufacturer recommends when in doubt).
AGM batteries may come in two forms: One is sealed from the factory and doesn’t need anything other than to be charged and installed, and the other will require you to add the electrolyte (included) to the battery cells. If your AGM battery requires you to add the electrolyte yourself, it will also include instructions to walk you through the process. Read them, charge your prepared battery up, and install in your bike at will.
Lithium-ion batteries have a reputation for being both lightweight and power-dense—and those things are true. You also won’t have to worry about handling an electrolyte of any kind, ever. That said, they’re also the most expensive choice, and may not even be a good option for you if you have an older bike with a charging system that isn’t up to the task of dealing with a 13.2-volt battery. If you’re considering a lithium-ion battery, take time and do plenty of research to determine if it’s the right choice for you and your bike. (One more thing to note is that you may need a different charger for a lithium-ion battery than you already have, so be prepared if you go that route.)
If some of the lights work, but not all, the first thing to do is check fuses and replace any that are blown. Next, you should check that the electrical connectors are properly seated in their sockets, and that the wires appear undamaged. If you find damage, you’ll need to replace or repair (as necessary) to remedy the problem.
If you find something extremely horrifying, such as a melted electrical connector, it’s probably a good time to check with other owners (online is good) who have the same bike, and learn about whether that’s a known issue with your particular model. Chances are excellent that if it is, those same people will also have some valuable suggestions about how to remedy the problem, and maybe even ways to circumvent future connector meltdowns. (As always, your mileage may vary—so again, take all internet advice with a grain of salt while you’re still building up your confidence.)
If your electrical connector and wire checks look OK, but some lights still aren’t working, you probably need to change the affected light bulb(s). Find out the proper bulb for your bike, obtain it, and replace it.
If the horn isn’t working, just like the lights, you should check the fuse and the wiring. Depending on your bike’s horn setup, you might have a diaphragm-type horn (very common), or you might have an airhorn-type setup. Diaphragm-type horns have fuses; airhorns may have both fuses and relays to consider.
Be aware that horns, like everything else on your bike, can get dirty and need occasional cleaning and adjustment. Diaphragm-type horns will have an adjustment bolt or nut that you can gently turn until the contacts inside are giving you the beep that you want. If nothing else will help, you can usually obtain a replacement horn fairly inexpensively.
Finally, if you go through this list and the lights (or horn) still aren’t working, you may have additional electrical gremlins that you need to chase. Once again, here is where you’ll want to get your hands on the shop manual for your bike—or, at the very least, a reliable wiring diagram.
Is it a faulty relay, a switch that isn’t working correctly, or something else? That’s up to you and your trusty multimeter to diagnose, as every situation may be different. This may also be the point where you phone a friend (figuratively speaking; in my case, I’d probably text) for technical and/or moral support during your trying time of need. Don’t worry, it’s what your rider fam is there for.
All the tips presented here are basic guidelines that should be applicable to a wide range of bikes. More specific things may be required of you, depending on your bike and situation. Your best bet (and we cannot stress this enough) is to get your hands on a shop manual (and/or Haynes or Clymer guide) for your specific bike as soon as you possibly can. It will help to answer a whole lot of your more specific questions and guide you through any long, dark teatimes of the soul you may fall into.
Also, be sure to take proper safety precautions when working on your bike. Buy yourself a box of nitrile gloves that fit you (I have small hands, so I know the struggle of flopping around in gloves that are too big). Wear eye protection. If you use power tools, wear ear protection (we always recommend wearing earplugs when you’re out riding a bike anyway, and those will do just fine in the garage, too).
Finally, if at any point you don’t feel comfortable with attempting any of the things we’ve suggested, or you started out excited to tackle these problems but are now feeling hopeless and like you’ll never have a running bike again, know when it’s time to call a professional. (Don’t feel bad; you gave it your best shot, and you’re here to ride, aren’t you? There’s always next time!)