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Six Secrets to Handling Breakdowns

By David L. Hough

Motorcycles are a lot more reliable today than in the past. In the "good old days" it was common to expect some sort of mechanical or electrical failure on just about every ride, or at least a flat tire. Today's motorcycles rarely fail, and today's steel-belted radial tires are not only tough, but if tubeless can be fixed without removing the wheel.

The flip side of reliability is that a rider may enjoy years of travel without having to deal with a breakdown. So when the bike suddenly develops a problem it can be more of a crisis. Few auto repair facilities can (or want to) work on a motorcycle, and even if you find a motorcycle shop open, the service department may balk at working on a different brand of machine. Let's think through a possible breakdown, to better equip you to handle the situation without panic.

1. Get the bike off the road and into a safe zone to work. If the machine is not behaving normally, consider stopping in a good location to check it out, say a small town with food, lodging, and fuel nearby. If you're on a busy highway when the bike sputters to a stop, coast or push it well away from the traffic lanes. Getting hit by a passing vehicle is not uncommon. Try to find a quieter spot where you can diagnose the problem with less danger and annoyance. Take a deep breath and mentally set aside your schedule.

2. Calm down and focus on the problem . If it's not an obvious failure such as a flat tire, you'll need to either figure out what's wrong and attempt to fix it yourself, or surrender the problem to someone who can help. If the engine suddenly stopped, what happened? Is there fuel in the tank? Did you inadvertently nudge the kill switch off? Is the battery live? Did the fuel pump lose power? It's easy to get frustrated and fail to notice obvious things. Dig out your owner's manual and use the troubleshooting guide. If you're still stumped, call your dealer and ask to talk with the service manager.

3. Have a plan to transport. If you can't diagnose and fix the problem yourself, you'll need to transport the bike to someone who can fix it. If you have emergency roadside service, call the number and explain the situation. The dispatcher will typically take the information, then locate a towing company, and call you back to confirm. Normally you will accompany the bike in the truck. And if the distance is greater than your coverage you'll need to pay the driver for the excess at the end of the tow. If you don't have towing coverage, a rental car towing a low trailer is preferable to a truck with a high bed. Important: If you have to leave the machine, write down the specific location.

4. Lean on club members. If you are a member of an enthusiast club with emergency contacts, you might be able to find someone who can come out to the scene, or transport your machine to a location where it can be repaired. Some club members have considerable knowledge of the brand and possibly your model. Don't get discouraged if you can't raise any help with one or two calls. While volunteers will often bend over backwards to help stranded club members, you can't assume they will be available 24/7. On the other hand, you might find an enthusiast just down the road with a trailer, working tools in the garage, and spare parts on the shelf. Of course, you need to be a member of the club.

5. Check your tool kit before you go. Before you leave home, make a point of checking your tool kit and emergency contacts. If your machine didn't include a tool kit, you might wish to carry a few wrenches that fit the common fasteners on your machine, and perhaps add an electrical tester. It's also a smart precaution to carry a tire patching kit and a 12-volt air pump. If you have emergency towing coverage, note the policy number and phone contact on a waterproof sticker positioned on the machine in plain sight. If you are a member of a club with emergency contacts, carry the booklet with contacts for the area in which you will be traveling.

6. Study the manual. Get a shop (repair) manual for your machine, and study it in the off season. It's too big to carry on the bike, but the more familiar you are with how everything is supposed to work, the better prepared you will be to diagnose problems on the road. The shop manual includes detailed descriptions and pictures to explain everything. Even if you depend upon a dealership to maintain your machine, there are certain tasks for which you are responsible, including battery maintenance, tire pressures and engine oil. If you don't wish to purchase a paper version of the manual, you may be able to download a copy for a modest cost.


The Good Rider- by David HoughDavid L. Hough ("huff”) is a veteran motorcyclist and journalist, with more than a million miles of riding experience over 48 years. Dave was inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame in 2009 in recognition of his efforts toward improving motorcyclist skills and knowledge. He is the author of several highly respected skills books, including Proficient Motorcycling and The Good Rider, available from store.soundrider.com

The author and Sound RIDER! are willing to grant permission to reprint this column at no charge for educational purposes by clubs and non-profit organizations including the military. Contact sreditor@soundrider.com for more details, full size photos and a full transcript of this article.


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