The Pre-Ride Motorcycle Inspection

Debrief your motorcycle after each ride to make sure its mechanically ready and safe for thenext ride. By Art Friedman

Motorcycles have become so reliable that it's easy to take them for granted. Back when I started riding, you were cautioned about carefully examining your clutch cable and avoiding holding the clutch lever in while you waited at a light, lest the cable break and propel you into crossing traffic. These days the recommendation is to keep your bike in gear with clutch in to permit an immediate escape if a car veers toward you.

In the bad old days, fasteners routinely vibrated off bikes, spokes broke, steering head bearing needed regular attention, drum brakes required cleaning, ignition point timing and gap had to be monitored closely, and you needed to check your oil frequently to see how much had leaked or burned.

Tremendous strides in the quality of materials, the design of components, and manufacturing tolerances have given us much more reliable machines. It is tempting to simply assume that everything is right and nothing hangs on the brink of failure. But as the service tech at a shop said to me recently after double-checking something and finding that a near disaster would have occurred otherwise, "You know what they say about assume."

It is therefore prudent to pay attention to the mechanics of your motorcycle. Check those things that you can see or get a wrench on. Feel or measure for proper adjustment. And, most of all, be sure that your last ride didn't do some damage that will spoil your next one. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation has developed a simple checklist, outlined in the accompanying list, summarized with the acronym T-CLOCK, for the headings of each section.

After, Not Before

Although this is usually described as a "pre-ride" inspection, the best and most convenient time to perform it is shortly after your last ride. This helps to ensure that the motorcycle will be ready for your next ride because it gives time to correct any discrepancies you find. A nail lodged in a tire will, if discovered on Sunday morning, probably scrub your ride that day. But if you find it after riding home on Friday night, you can get it repaired on Saturday. If you discovered in after your ride on Sunday, you'll have time to arrange an alternate means of getting to work the next morning.

One of the best ways to find problems is through the post-ride cleaning many riders give their bikes. I have no doubt that riders who routinely clean their motorcycles do uncover the small problems that would become big problems much earlier than riders who simply walk around their bikes, look them over and shake a few pieces to make sure they are attached. Loose pieces, small leaks, the first signs of corrosion and components out of whack are much more obvious when you are touching every external part of your bike.

Wheels and tires should be looked over carefully, which is not easy with a cruiser with only a sidestand and deep fenders. A tool which makes both cleaning and inspecting your cruiser much easier is a work stand, such as the Craftsman Motorcycle Jack. Getting the wheels off the floor of your garage helps buff the grunge off the rims all the way around and simplifies the process of checking the tires for foreign objects and other damage that might be signs of a pending blowout.

Avoid Big Surprises

Tires are the most vulnerable component of your bike because they stand the most in harm's way. I have discovered nails and other objects in my tires before rides several times. Those pre-ride checks, along with the fact that I often carry tire-repair gear, are the reasons that flat tires have only stranded me twice in over a million miles of riding. I can recall two occasions when I found puncturing objects before they penetrated far enough to deflate the tire.

One time to be extra scrupulous is after maintenance has been performed. Of the hundreds of test bikes I have received in a quarter-century of testing them, three arrived with loose drain plugs. All had just left the in-house service facilities of major motorcycle manufacturers. Since some service people are offended when I start double-checking their work, I have learned to ride around the corner before I do it, but I usually don't go much farther than that. On my own bikes, I keep an eye on things that have been removed or replaced recently. For example, I pay extra attention to the seal of a new oil filter and double-check a recently installed fastener to be sure it isn't loosening up. One time I discovered that a front axle clamp had fallen off. I know two riders who adjusted chains and shortly thereafter lost their rear axle nuts, though one took over 100 miles to depart the bike. Rechecking those recently serviced maintenance points avoids such problems.

A good inspection program should uncover more than the immediate black-and-white problems like failed bulbs, punctured tires and missing fasteners. Some components may gradually slide out of spec, and cause smaller problems that the rider may not notice because they happen so gradually. A common example is throttle-cable adjustment. The rider may not notice the small, steady change, but the growing play causes a small deterioration in throttle-control precision. Another item that may not be obvious is worn or damaged steering head bearings.

If your routine inspection includes checks and even occasional measurement of the adjustment of the items that gradually change over time, your motorcycle will operate with more precision.

Among the potential threats to your safety while riding, mechanical failure is fairly low on the list. Wearing bright colors, staying off the bike after having a beer or practicing your braking are much more important. But that won't much matter if the nail you missed causes a tire to blow out or if the recently installed drain plug in your drive shaft housing falls out in heavy fast-moving traffic, locking up the rear wheel. Motorcycles are more reliable than they have ever been, but that still doesn't mean you can ever ignore your bike's mechanical completely.


The Motorcycle Safety Foundation created the T-CLOCK mnemonic as a memory and orgaization ad for a pre-ride safety check of a typical motorcycle. Each letter represent a particular inspection category, as follows:

  • T - Tires & Wheels
  • C - Controls
  • L - Lights & Electrics
  • O - Oil
  • C - Chassis
  • K - Kickstand

Pressure correct (cold), tread condition. No cuts, bulges, punctures of foreign objects.
Wheels: Spokes tight and intact; rims true; no free play when flexed; bearing seals intact; spin freely.
Brakes: Firm feel; sufficient pad depth, no leaks or links in hoses or cables.

Pivot bolt and nut; action and position correct; pivots lubed.
Cables: Ends and shafts lubed; no fraying or kinks; no binding when handlebar turned; proper adjustment.
Hoses: Check for damage or leaks, proper routing.
Throttle: Snaps closed freely when released; no excess play.

Brake and Tailight(s):
All filaments work; both levers actuate brake light.
Headlight: All filaments work; properly aimed; no damage.
Lenses: Clean; no condensation; tight.
Reflectors: Clean; intact.
Battery: Fluid level; terminals clean and tight; held down securely; vent tube not kinked or mis-routed.
Wiring: Check for pinching or fraying; properly routed; no corrosion.

Brake fluid, oil, final drive, transmission, coolant, fuel.
Leaks: Check all systems for leaks.
Condition: Check color of brake fluid & coolant.

Paint lifting or peeling may indicate cracking.
Steering head & swingarm bearings: Lift wheels off floor, grab lower fork legs and pull and push to feel for play; repeat at rear. Turn fork to feel for detents in bearings.
Suspension: Smooth movement; proper adjustment; no leaks.**
Chain or belt: Tension; lube, look for wear.
Fasteners: Look for missing or loose threaded fasteners, clips, pins.

Retracts firmly; no bending or damage; cut-out switch operates; springintact.
Centerstand: Retracts firmly, no damage.

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For more information on safe-riding equipment, strategies, techniques and skills, see the Street Survival section of

The best timw to inspect your bike is right after a ride, since it will give you time to make repairs. However, even a mid-ride pause is enough to give the tires a quick visual check. Luggage and its mounting components should be inspected regularly to make sure it isn't loosening or cracking.
Checking your bike over after every ride may be boring, but discovering that there is a sheet-metal screw in your rear tire right about now might be a bit too exciting.
Custom bikes are more likely to have fasteners that work loose and should be checked for this more frequently.
Use all you senses to check your bike. The smell of gasoline that was just barely leaking at the beginning of a ride might warn a rider of the potential for something like this. Other fluids also have distinct smells.
A workstand or jack like this Craftsman can make your inspections quick and easy.
If you buy a new bike, it's worth asking the dealer's tech folks what things you should make part of your daily check.