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5 Motorcycle Mechanical Failures That Can Kill You

5 Motorcycle Mechanical Failures That Can Kill You, And How to Avoid Them

As a motorcyclist, you already know the importance of keeping your head on a swivel to avoid all of the dangers out there. You also already know that riding tired, or inebriated, can be a killer too. If you saw my last video, you probably also already know the 10 things that motorcyclists lie to themselves about,  but do you know how to check your motorcycle for warning signs of the five motorcycle mechanical failures that could kill you, and how to avoid them?

Brake failure

Brake failure can be terrifying on a motorcycle. Motorcycle brake failure typically doesn’t come from your brake rotors wearing too thin, or your brake pads being worn out. You’ll hear plenty of scraping before that ever happens.

Brake failure usually comes from something else, and to imagine what it feels like, imagine yourself applying pressure to the brake levers, and instead of your motorcycle slowing down, you simply feel less and less resistance from the levers, as if you’re squeezing the life out of them or stomping on their last breath. The failure typically comes from old brake hoses which have broken down.

Brake pad construction

How to prevent brake failure

Make sure your brake pads have plenty of meat left on them. As you use up your brake pads, the friction material will wear down. Once your brake pads are down to the slot, they need to be replaced.

Make sure your brake rotors are smooth (no deep grooves) and clean. Worn out brake rotors with ridges and deep grooves can cause premature wear on your brake pads. If your rotors bumpy or rough it’s time to change them.

Rebuild your master cylinder every 30,000 miles (50,000 km). Your motorcycle brake’s master cylinder uses rubber seals. With time those critically important seals can wear out, which can hurt your brake performance and put you at risk. It’s commonly agreed upon that you should rebuild your master cylinder periodically, even if everything seems okay.

Replace your brake hoses every four years or sooner. Your brake lines play a critical role in helping you stop your motorcycle safely. Your brake lines should never get bulbous, dry, cracked, or leaky. As they age, rubber hoses start to break down which can put you at risk. You can consider switching to stainless steel braided brake lines for better longevity and safety.

Flush your brake fluid every two years or 6,000 miles (10,000 km), whichever comes first. Brake fluid absorbs moisture, and the more moisture your brake fluid absorbs, the less efficient your brakes are, and the more likely your brakes are to overheat and fail on you completely.

With a simple brake fluid flush tool like the one I use, it’s a very easy DIY job, but without it, many riders don’t want to attempt this maintenance themselves. Alternatively, if you’re in the Toronto, Canada, area, give me a shout and I can do this for you for half of what a dealer would charge.

Suspension issues

Poor steering geometry can cause stability issues when motorcycle riding. Motorcyclists can negatively affect their steering geometry by swapping out the stock handlebars, rear suspension, adding lowering links, etc. Poor steering geometry can cause tank slappers (a.k.a. death wobbles).

Note: While I was editing this, I realized that not everyone would understand what a tank slapper or a death wobble is. Simply put, without getting too technical, if your handlebar starts shaking side to side all over the place, looking like it’s trying to slap the sides of your gas tank, causing your motorcycle to wobble dangerously, that’s a tank slapper or a death wobble. Common causes include too uncalibrated steering geometry, too much power, gripping the bars too tight or having too much weight on them, mismatched tires, improper tire balancing, bent front wheel, and more.

Motorcycle steering geometry

How to prevent suspension issues

Make sure your suspension is adjusted. If your bike’s front suspension is too stiff, it’ll hit a bump and deflect, rather than absorb the bump, the back and forth over-correction and under-correction creates a tank slapper. Likewise, if your back suspension is too soft, the back end of the bike can get thrown out of line, which would also create a tank slapper situation. Make sure that your suspension is set up for your own weight, and serviced according to your motorcycle’s owner’s manual. This includes replacing old springs and replacing your fork oil every year.

Consider going back (closer) to stock. I’m not one to advocate keeping a motorcycle stock, but wild deviations from your motorcycle’s stock setup, like switching from a drag bar to an 18” ape hanger style of handlebar is going to throw off your motorcycle’s steering geometry and take your bike far away from how it was designed to be handled.

Headlight failure

The critical importance of other vehicles knowing that you’re on the road with them is one of few things that every motorcyclist can agree on it. Oncoming car traffic turning left in front of motorcyclists is one of the leading killers of motorcycle riders, so much so that it has it’s own acronym, SMIDSY, which stands for “Sorry mate, I didn’t see you!” So what can you do to be more noticeable to oncoming traffic?

Believe it or not, in Thailand, the leading cause of motorcycle deaths is burnt out headlights and tail lights. Over in Australia, a study found that about 25% of motorcycles involved in an action weren’t road worthy, with dead lights being a commonality.

Headlight exploded view

How to prevent headlight failure

Replace your headlights proactively. A halogen headlight is good for about 1,000 hours of burn time. Because of traffic, the average speed on my commute is about 25 mph (40 km/hr), meaning my stock headlight should be dead by the time my bike has 25,000 miles (40,000 km). If your motorcycle is getting close to this kind of mileage, replace your headlight proactively or upgrade your lighting to LED like I did.

Wheel bearing or steering head bearing failure

Much like a suspension or steering geometry issue, your wheel bearings can cause your motorcycle to start misbehaving and feeling out of control all over your lane.

The problem with wheel bearing failure is that it can creep up very gradually over a long period of time, and then fail altogether very quickly. Meaning you don’t always notice the change coming until it’s too late.

How to prevent wheel bearing failure

Make sure your wheel bearings aren’t worn. If your motorcycle tires feel loose or clunking, check your wheel bearings. To check, get a tire off the ground with help of a good motorcycle jack. Put your hands on opposite ends of the wheel and wiggle your tire from side to side and all around. If you have any play, your wheel bearings may be worn out and due for replacement. You can also do this while replacing your tires, with your wheels off, putting a finger in the bearings and turning to make sure it turns smoothly and evenly.

Make sure your steering head bearings aren’t worn. When turning your motorcycle’s handlebar from side to side, you might feel a little notch. This indicates that the steering head bearing has been worn out. You can also use a motorcycle stand to lift up your bike, and with the front tire off the ground, grab the forks and push and pull front to back. If you feel any play or feel or hear a clunk, your steering head bearings are loose.

Chain failure

Chain failure is equally scary, and potentially lethal for motorcyclists. Your chain could fly out, taking out your tire or your left leg.

But what about your chain guard? If your bike is equipped with a solid metal chain guard, and not just a flimsy plastic one, you might avoid a chainsaw-like catastrophe. Your chain could also bind up, and if it binds by your rear sprocket it could lock up your back tire. If your chain binds up by your front sprocket, it could be bad news for your entire motor. Either way, good luck.

motorcycle master link direction

How to prevent chain failure

Check your chain link by link for kinks. If after cleaning and lubricating your chain, the kinks don’t come lose, it’s time to replace your chain before jammed links become broken links.

Make sure your master link is on in the right direction. The master link is the clip that attaches the two ends of your chain into one loop. Your motorcycle riding forward should have the master link traveling closed-end first. If your master link is damaged or in the wrong direction, replace it with a new one.

Make sure your chain is adjusted correctly. Every chain-driven motorcycle has an optimal amount of slack that the chain should have. Too tight and your chain and sprockets will wear out faster. Too loose and the chain will wear out your sprocket’s teeth and your motorcycle will jerk on acceleration. Your owner’s manual or your motorcycle’s swing arm should tell you what the optimal chain slack is.

Make sure your chain is aligned correctly. Proper chain alignment is the difference between both tires pointed straight, and having your front tire pointed straight and your back tire off to one side. If your alignment isn’t straight, your motorcycle will want to pull to the side when you’re trying to ride straight.

I use this $15 chain alignment tool to make sure all the bikes that pass through my garage are aligned correctly, because sprockets that aren’t aligned correctly will cause chains to break.

Make sure your chain is cleaned and lubricated. Cleaning and lubricating your chain helps to avoid things breaking down or being worn out prematurely and should be done every 600 miles (roughly 1,000 km) at most.

Conclusions

Motorcycle mechanical failures can put you at risk, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be avoided. A little pro-active maintenance and testing can help keep you safe while motorcycle riding, and the skills you need to avoid these five motorcycle mechanical failures are always good to know.

Even a mechanic from a dealership checked out your motorcycle at the start of last season, a lot could have changed or something could have been missed. Ultimately, you, the rider, are the person most responsible for making sure that your motorcycle is safe, so be accountable to yourself and give your bike a home check-up from top to bottom.

Have you had to deal with any of these mechanical issues on your motorcycle? Did you give your bike a good inspection at the start of the season? Leave a comment and let me know!

About YouMotorcycle

YouMotorcycle is a lifestyle motorcycle blog to be appreciated by those who see motorcycling as a lifestyle and not simply a hobby, sport, or method of transportation. Most of the posts on the site are written by past and present motorcycle industry staff. We remain fiercely independent, innovative, and unconventional. Our goal is to encourage more people to enjoy the world's greatest outdoor sport by helping new riders get started and inspiring current riders to get out more. We motorcycle, do You?

2 comments

  1. Good article! My first over the road ride when I was 18, (I’m 67 now and a lot smarter) on my first motorcycle. So green I was afraid to go over 45MPH when I left the house. About 3-4 days into the trip I stopped to adjust my chain on my little very used, very abused, very neglected ’60 something Honda 350. I was somewhere in BF Illinois. An hour after the chain adjust, when using the rear brake the motorcycle kept shifting. Being so new I looked to the rear and didn’t see anything and even kept riding. The next time I used the brake, I got a REAL rear wheel shift. This time I looked to the rear on both sides and saw my axle sticking out about 8″. In my haste, I had not only forgotten to re-install the cotter pin, but also failed to tighten the axle nut. I got my first about the comradery of the motorcycle community. While hitchhiking into a small town, carrying my helmet, a guy picked me up in his car who was a fellow motorcycle enthusiest. He took me to his friends house who works on motorcycles in his garage. He took the castle nut off of his bike and gave me a new cotter pin. He refused payment of any kind. He said he needed to go to the Honda shop anyway, (which was about 50 miles away). Learned a lot that day!!

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