Chances are that, at some point in your motorcycling career, your bike will breakdown, or simply refuse to start. This might be something catastrophic, or something simple like a flat battery. I’ve been professionally testing bikes for over 20 years and, in that time, I’ve seen brand new engines explode, and I rode across India on an Enfield, which looked like it was going to break down at any minute – but didn’t.
We’ve put together a simple guide; what to check if your bike doesn’t start and what to do if you find yourself stuck on the side of the road. However, these are only general tips and guidance, and please make sure you’re safe before attempting any roadside maintenance. Please don’t attempt a full engine strip on the hard shoulder of the M25. If you’ve broken down on the motorway, and it’s looking serious (for example you can now see the inside of your engine and it’s dropped its oil) move to a safe position and call the breakdown service or a friend with a van. But, if its’s safe to do so, then follow our simple guide and you never know we might be able to get you back up and running.
Sounds obvious, but so many breakdowns are simply down to a lack of fuel. Also, did you put the correct fuel in at the last stop? Here’s a little tip, always ask for a receipt every time you fuel up. This way you can double check, as usually the receipt will state petrol or diesel. Also, when you open the fuel cap to check for fuel listen for a hissing noise, did it sound like the fuel tank was pressurised when you opened the fuel tank? If so, your breather pipe may be blocked.
Fuel tap –
Most modern bikes won’t have a fuel tap, but small capacity bikes and anything older with carburettors most likely will. It will have three positions; on, reserve and off. In the past I’ve set off, rode a mile or so and ‘broken down’ simply because I’d forgotten to turn the fuel on and it ran the last mile on the petrol left in the fuel pipe. Equally, I’ve run out of fuel, stopped and forgotten about the reserve switch. Flick the tap into reserve and it should fire up again and give you enough fuel to limp 15-25 miles to the nearest petrol station, depending on the bike and conditions. Once you’ve fuelled up, don’t forget to flick the tap back to the on position. Don’t run on reserve.
It’s a killer –
Again sounds obvious, but did you hit the kill switch by mistake? I did this on a KTM by mistake, when I reached over in winter gloves to change the clocks, hit the kill switch, which obviously cut the engine. I freewheeled to the hard shoulder in utter confusion and disappointment. It took me a few minutes to realise what I’d done. Again, sounds simple, but I’ve done it.
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Some bikes won’t start in gear, while others won’t fire up with the side stand, or centre stand down. Most Suzukis will only start with the clutch in, even if the bike is in neutral. I once witnessed a new Suzuki owner desperately trying to start his GSX-1400 without the clutch in. If it’s a new bike or you’ve borrowed a mate’s bike, check the manual or call a local dealer – again it’s a simple mistake, but an easy one to make.
Safety switch –
Usually the side stand will have a safety switch, which prevents the bike from starting when the side stand is down. It usually works in partnership with a simple plunger system, but because of its position at the top of the side stand it can get covered in mud, grime and can corrode, especially in winter or if you’ve ridden off-road. Check it’s working correctly, and the connection is good. There is sometimes a similar system on the clutch level. This doesn’t tend to corrode as easily, but it’s also worth checking the connections are ok.
ll depends on the bike, age and size but usually the fuses should be accessible, and there should be spares. Check for blown fuses, and always replace with the same amp fuse. Also check the solenoid fuses. Again, if you are unsure check the manual, which should be under your seat.
First locate the battery, which is usually under the seat and make sure everything is connected. One of the terminals may have vibrated loose a connector. It does happen, sometimes even on new bikes when the bike has just had a battery fitted and they’ve not tightened the connectors. If everything is connected, then your battery may be flat. Turn on the lights and check to see if they dim when you press the starter button? If there is a faint ticking, or the starter motor only turns very slowly, these are all signs your battery is flat. Time for a jump start.
It’s not the engine –
Some breakdowns can be more serious or not so obvious. Did you hear something grinding, or did something ‘feel’ wrong? If you can hear something untoward, does it happen when you rev the engine when stationery? If so, it’s likely something mechanically wrong with the engine. If the strange sounds only occurs when the bike is moving, then it’s probably not the engine but a moving part like brakes, wheels or the chain. Get the bike onto its centre stand if you have one. Is it the front wheel or rear? Does it only happen when you apply the brakes, then it might be the brake pads? Sometimes it can be something simple, a loose baffle in the exhaust or a vibrating rear foot peg, but it’s always worth stopping and checking.
Take your time –
You might be running late for work, or a blind date but take your time. Check everything methodically, do you have power, is there fuel, make notes as you go along. If you’re not sure and something doesn’t feel or sound right, simply call recovery. And again we can’t stress this enough, your safety is the priority, don’t try to carry out any roadside repairs which may jeopardise your safety.