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Common Tread

How to talk to your mechanic about what's wrong with your motorcycle

Mar 12, 2020

When you bring your motorcycle to a mechanic, you’re after help.

Help getting your bike working properly so you can get to the office, hustle to class, or better yet enjoy a Sunday-morning ride with friends. And as your mechanic, I might need a little help from you if your motorcycle’s issue isn’t as obvious as a flat tire or toothless sprockets. That help comes in the form of information that will steer me toward a diagnosis, so I can fix your bike and get you back on the road.

Information is especially important when I don’t have access to the machine, as is the case when I’m replying to pleas sent my way via social media. In that scenario, a vague issue like “My bike is idling poorly and doesn’t want to rev up” is difficult to address, because I have no evidence to work with and no interest in composing a troubleshooting guide on my smartphone.

If you're the rider whose bike isn’t idling well, I’ll likely groan out loud, take a deep breath, and then begin tapping out questions.

What do you mean by running poorly? Is it a low idle, a high idle, or is it misfiring? Does it stumble when you open the throttle? Is your bike carbureted or fuel-injected? Have you changed anything on the bike? How many miles are on it? When was it last serviced or worked on? How long has this problem been going on?

Verbal probes in search of clues

These questions and others like them are verbal probes, methods for building a mental framework of information where I’ll look for correlations. It’s what all mechanics do. Maybe the owner has just installed a high-flow air filter and exhaust, revealing an obvious cause-and-effect relationship to be explored. Or perhaps it will be revealed that it’s been raining for weeks and the bike is parked outside, in which case water in the fuel system or soggy electrical connections are likely culprits.

It’s all just detective work, and you, as the key witness to the problem — even if you absolutely don’t understand what it could be — hold the most clues.

So, the best way to help your mechanic help you is to give the issue some thought, identify as many symptoms as possible and offer as much background information as you can. To that end, there are three categories I recommend considering while gathering evidence: sensation, noise, and scenario.

Tune in to sensations

When it comes to sensations, you’ve got a lot of options for feeling out your motorcycle. Your hands are on the grips, your butt is in the seat, and your feet rest on the pegs. That’s tens of thousands of nerve endings to detect rattles, shudders, knocking, shaking, or other sensations that could be useful to your mechanic. Bad bearings, a loose cam chain, worn head bearings, warped clutch plates, glazed brake discs, out-of-balance wheels and myriad other maladies all telegraph telltale sensations to the attentive rider.

Along with tuning into any unusual sensations, you’ll want to take note where they appear to be coming from. The same goes for sounds.

flow chart in manual
Mechanics use a step-by-step flow chart to diagnose problems. But to do that, they first need information. Photo by Ari Henning.

Imitate sounds

Is the bike making any unusual noises? If so, where from? If you’ve ever listened to NPR’s legendary “Car Talk” program, brothers Tom and Ray Magliozzi were famous for soliciting sounds from their callers. They didn’t just do it because it made for humorous radio, they also did it because a sound, like a picture, is often worth a thousand words and can quickly steer an experienced mechanic toward the source of the problem.

So don’t be afraid to imitate the noise your bike makes when it is struggling, even if it’s the owl-like screech of a slipping alternator belt on your BMW R 1150 R. Odds are your rendition will make both of you chuckle, and maybe even provide a valuable clue.

Describe the scenario

Finally, the scenario surrounding the problem can be revealing, so mine your memory for the situation in which the problem occurs. What happens just before the issue, or after? Is it associated with any specific control inputs or actions, like taking a turn or hitting a bump? What was the weather like, and is the engine cold or hot? Had you just spent an extended period of time on the highway? Does it happen while accelerating or slowing down? At a certain engine or road speed? Things that may seem entirely insignificant or irrelevant to you might illuminate a lightbulb in the head of your mechanic, so don’t hold back.

Motorcycles aren’t mystery machines, and mechanics aren’t magicians. We’re simple folk who have a knack for logical, if-A-then-B thinking, and we need information for our mental flow charts. Providing clues will help get your bike fixed faster, save you money, and it gets you thinking like a mechanic, which might just empower you to solve the next problem yourself.