How to Buy a New Bike

Ah, the fantastic feeling of getting that fresh two-wheel ride. Be sure to go in prepared with these tips!

Based on reader feedback, roughly 20 percent of you will be buying a new motorcycle this year. It’s just a guess, but I’d assume a good portion are first-time buyers and, as such, may have questions regarding the bike’s setup and break-in. Here’s the scoop.

Typically, new motorcycles arrive at a dealership crated and partially disassembled. It’s the dealership’s responsibility to assemble and service the bike before delivering it to the customer and to make sure the new owner has a basic understanding of how it operates.

how to buy a new motorcycle, tips and tricks to purchasing a new motorcycle
When buying a new bike be sure to get all the information you can on it from the technician or salesperson. Don't be afraid to ask where everything is and get a good understanding so you aren't left in the limbo realm of all the tech, gadgets, and gizmos.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

Picking Up Your New Bike:
After the paperwork's been signed, someone should give you a pre-delivery walk-around, which, as the phrase implies, is when the salesman (or maybe a tech) strolls around your bike, answering questions and explaining in some detail where all the bells and whistles are located. If that someone knows his business, the sermon will be worth a listen. Obviously, it's in the shop's best interest to make sure you understand how your new bike works and that you're happy with its condition when it's delivered it to you.

Pre-Flight Check:
Unfortunately, you'll occasionally get a slacker who will toss you the keys with a heartfelt "you know where everything is; thanks for coming in," so he can get back to the showroom and make another sale as quickly as possible. Unless you really do know where everything is, my advice is to stop right there and demand that someone actually go over the bike with you.

Here’s why: As part of the sales process, you should be given a pre-delivery inspection form to sign. Normally, PDI forms are printed in triplicate: one copy for you, one for the dealership and the third for the OEM. The PDI form has several purposes; first, it gives the mechanic who prepped your bike a checklist to work from, and his signature certifies the work was correctly performed. This is to protect the buyer, as well as the tech. Second, when you sign it, you’re saying that you inspected the bike and found nothing amiss, which protects the dealership and the OEM. Bear in mind that this is a legal document—if something goes seriously wrong, the first thing everyone (from the lawyers to the state DOT) will ask for is the PDI sheet. I can’t stress enough that you should take the time to read it and ask questions if something doesn’t make sense.

how to buy a new motorcycle, tips and tricks to purchasing a new motorcycle
Pay attention to the fine print and make sure the work described in PDI form was actually done.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

For example, when I bought my last new bike, the PDI sheet stated that the antifreeze and clutch fluid level had been checked and adjusted and that the saddlebags and windshield had been correctly installed. When I mentioned that I’d bought an air-cooled, naked bike with a cable-operated clutch, the mechanic mumbled some lame excuse and shuffled off. Essentially, he’d checked every box on the form without reading them, making me wonder whether he’d done any of the work properly. Sometimes, there’s a reasonable explanation for such gaffes, but pointing them out to someone lets them know you’re paying attention to the fine print.

Break In:
Ask 10 mechanics how a new motorcycle should be broken in, and you're likely to get 10 different answers, ranging from "by the book" to "ride it like you stole it."
The "by the book" method has a lot going for it. No matter how carefully any production engine is assembled, there are always going to be microscopic burrs left by the machining processes. During the initial run-in, these are literally broken off and, along with any other leftover debris, carried away by the oil and safely deposited in the filter. This is one reason OEMs recommend a moderate break-in and why the first oil change is so critical and occurs at low mileage.

But there’s always another side to the story. You may have heard that a motor broken in hard (or fast) will always be fast, and that one broken in slowly will always be slow. Turns out there’s some truth to that. When a new engine is assembled, there are plateaus between the piston rings and the cylinder wall. These high spots prevent the rings from fully seating and sealing the top end. During break-in, combustion pressures force the rings against the cylinder wall, literally honing them together. If all goes well, a near perfect seal is created, and we all live happily ever after. The problem is that it takes a lot of pressure to make this happen, and idling around at low speeds may (and the emphasis is definitely on “may”) not create pressures high enough to do the job.

Here’s my suggestion: First, bear in mind that during the initial few miles you’re running in a new motorcycle—not just a new engine. Tires need to scuff, brakes need to seat, and you need to get comfortable with the bike, so take it easy, especially for the first 100 miles or so. Second, always follow the manufacturer’s recommended break-in procedure, with the following caveat: Brief periods of “lively” acceleration are by no means a bad thing. A brisk run through the gears now and again, especially when the bike is lightly loaded, will definitely help the rings to seat and make for a happier engine over the long haul.

Does it make the Grade?
Check and adjust as required.
1. Engine oil level
2. Brake fluid
3. Check for leaks
Check and adjust or replace as required
1. Tire pressure
2. Suspension preload
3. Belt/chain adjustment
4. Loose or untidy cables
5. Lights
6. Loose or missing hardware
Report to service department
1. Odd noises
2. Indicator lights that stay on
3. Hard-starting or drivability problems

A Pound of Prevention:
You don't have to go crazy, but sometime between riding your new bike off the showroom floor and your first scheduled service, you should at least hit the routine maintenance stuff—after all, despite a dealership's best efforts, things sometimes slip through the cracks. It's entirely normal for parts to bed in and require adjustment after a few miles.

Your owner’s manual will detail the ins and outs, so here’s the short list, which is basically what you should be checking on a weekly basis anyway. Serious concerns should be brought to the dealer’s immediate attention, while minor ones can be addressed by you or at the initial checkup.

Ergo What?

Over the years, I’ve seen far too many guys struggle with awkwardly positioned handlebars, levers set at wrist-cramping angles and foot controls that were clumsy to use simply because that’s how the bike was delivered. I dunno, maybe some riders think motorcycles are supposed to be uncomfortable. Judging by what I’ve seen on TV and in some of the custom chopper showrooms, it’s certainly one school of thought.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way. Adjustments can be made, and offending parts can always be modified or replaced. Since the handlebars have a big influence on both comfort and handling, that’s where we’ll start.

how to buy a new motorcycle, tips and tricks to purchasing a new motorcycle
Not bad, but just a little lower would fit me perfectly.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

My number one rule is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." So if your bars feel comfortable, there's no need to mess with them. But for the rest of you, here's a simple trick that'll help you find the handlebars' sweet spot.

Sit on the bike with your eyes closed and your hands placed behind your head. Then, reach out for the bars. Your hands should drop to them in a natural position, which for most of us will be with arms slightly bent and wrists straight. If you have to wave your arms around like a hooked bass to find them then they’re in the wrong place or they’re the wrong shape.

Let’s assume the shape of the bars is fine, and that you just want to fine-tune them. Loosen the rear clamp bolts a turn or so, releasing enough tension to adjust the bars without making them so loose they come crashing down on your brand new tank as soon as you let go. In fact, placing an old towel over the tank to protect it is always a good idea, just in case.

In my experience, most bars are positioned with the ends too high. When I was a kid, I was taught that the bars should have a rearward rake approximating that of the front forks. That may not put the bars exactly where you want them, but it’s a good starting point. If lower doesn’t get it done, then try raising them; remember, this is your bike, so put ’em where they feel comfortable—not where someone else tells you to.

how to buy a new motorcycle, tips and tricks to purchasing a new motorcycle
The throttle-cable adjusters can put a nasty scrape in the tank. Make sure they've still got clearance after you've lowered the bars.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

When you’ve got them where you want them, give them a swing from lock to lock, watching the cables and switches. I’ve seen more than one ding caused by a throttle-cable adjuster or signal switch that didn’t quite clear the tank after the bars were lowered. When you’re satisfied, don’t forget to tighten the bolts.

If you can’t find an acceptable position, you can replace the bars with something more suitable or relocate them using aftermarket kits to either raise or move them closer to you. If you opt to go for replacements, consider that the wider the bar, the more leverage you’ll have. If your bike is heavy and wears you out on back roads, an extra inch or two of width will make it a lot easier to handle.

how to buy a new motorcycle, tips and tricks to purchasing a new motorcycle
Loosen the pinch bolt to reposition the levers.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

If you’ve ever seen the “Billy Bike” from the movie Easy Rider, with its upward pointing levers, and wondered how anyone ever rode like that, the answer is they didn’t. The bikes were trucked around and only ridden a few hundred yards at a time—just long enough to get the shot. Stylish as those bikes may have been, they were terrible to ride.

Levers should always be positioned where you can get at them without straining your wrists; in most cases, that means on a slightly downward angle. Typically, the lever clamps are secured with a bolt, which allows the clamp to pivot on the bar when loosened. Before retightening it, make sure the control cables haven’t been forced into an extreme bend and that no wires were inadvertently pinched.

how to buy a new motorcycle, tips and tricks to purchasing a new motorcycle
Aftermarket adjustable levers may be available for your bike—something to consider if reach is a problem.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

Some levers will also have a provision for adjusting the reach; a little experimenting will yield the best position. If the levers aren't reach-adjustable and you'd like them to be, it's time to head for the parts and accessories catalogs. One thing I warn against is exceeding the manufacturer's recommended free play to bring the lever nearer to the handlebar. Most clutches work best with about 3 millimeters (1⁄8 inch) of free play. When they have any less than that, slip may become a problem. When you add appreciably more play, the plates may not fully disengage, and drag becomes an issue. If an extra millimeter or two will help, go for it, but I doubt you'll find it makes much difference. Since few cruisers have free play adjustment at the front brake, it's not something many of us have to worry about. Suffice it to say, a brake with more (or less) than the factory recommended free play is one that's out of adjustment.

how to buy a new motorcycle, tips and tricks to purchasing a new motorcycle
Removing the brake clevis pin on this bike allows the clevis to be adjusted, which changes the pedal's height.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

Not all rear brake pedals feature a height adjustment. Those that do may have one adjustment that sets the pedal height and another to set the master cylinder free play, so check your owner's manual before you start thrashing. Drum rear brakes normally have a stop bolt for the pedal, while the free play is adjusted at the actuating rod or cable. Oh yeah, don't forget to check the brake light operation after any pedal adjustment.

Shift levers are normally adjusted by repositioning them on their splined shafts, or by adjusting the connecting linkage. If yours is on a spline, move it one position at a time; you'll be surprised by how big a difference that'll make. Most linkage systems use a left-handed thread at one end, so if the locknut resists turning in the normal direction, don't force it. Reverse the pressure and see if it comes loose. Once the nuts are loose, turn the rod to position the shifter. Make sure at least a half dozen threads remain in the clevis or ball joint before tightening it, so the thing won't pull apart in use.

how to buy a new motorcycle, tips and tricks to purchasing a new motorcycle
Loosen the locknuts and spin the threaded rod until the shift lever is positioned where you want it.Photography by Mark Zimmerman

Since it's always open season on things like seats, grips and pegs, I'll only mention them in passing. Clearly there are dozens of options available, so only a confirmed masochist would put up with something uncomfortable. That being the case, I don't understand the attraction of billet grips and can only imagine how a billet seat—soon to be the rage amongst hardcore custom builders I'm told—might feel.

Here’s the bottom line on ergonomics: You can ride farther, harder and with more confidence and better control on a comfortable bike than you can on the alternative, so putting up with poor ergonomics just because it looks cool is not only silly, but downright dangerous.

In Sum:
They say a building is only as good as its foundation, and I think that's an axiom that applies here. Taking an hour or two to ensure the bike's properly set up is time well spent, and in the long run, a lot easier than dealing with headaches caused by one that isn't. Besides, spending some quality time with your new bike, even if it's out in the garage, is always a good thing.


New to the world of motorcycling? Check out these great guides to basic maintenance:
Part 1
Part 2