The best way to bring your motorcycle out of extended storage is to follow a systematic process of cleaning, inspection, adjustment, and taking care of any required maintenance work. AND doing all these steps BEFORE hitting the starter button and going for your first ride.
This is a companion guide to my post, Complete Guide to Short & Long-Term Motorcycle Storage.
Taking your motorcycle out of storage is NOT just the reverse of your storage prep routine. So much so that I suggest you make a plan (checklist) and follow it based on your specific situation.
Being patient and organized pays off on this job. By contrast – just checking that there’s gas in the tank and hitting the starter can cause permanent and avoidable mechanical damage. This is unfortunately what you see most fantasy Reality TV shows and some online sites. After all, their goal is to entertain you and keep your attention in a short time, so things have to happen quickly even if they make no sense at all.
In return for a few hours of work, you will make sure that your motorcycle is safely prepared and ready to perform. The overall approach is to confirm that all parts move freely, lubricated, are not worn out, and are properly adjusted. As opposed to shocking them back into service and hoping for the best.
- Pre-season Planning
- Pre-Cleaning Inspection & Cleanup
- Wheels & Suspension
- Fuel System
- Engine Lubrication
- Cooling System
- Controls, Instruments & Lighting
- First Start
- First Ride
Get started before the nice weather arrives – by making a plan. Break out your service manual, and check any pre-storage notes (if you made any), or make your plan from memory.
List the standard maintenance you need to get done, such as oil change, spark plugs, air filter, etc. From this make a parts list, then order them so they are on hand for the big day. This also goes for any tools or shop supplies that you are lacking, like a torque wrench, model specific tools, bike lifts, etc. Over the winter or storage period, you will likely be able to get some of these on deep discount too.
If you do not have a service manual for your machine, get one now. The cost is minimal compared with not knowing how to properly adjust or disassemble something – then ending up damaging it. Even if you do not plan on keeping your motorcycle for too long having it makes the future sale a little easier.
OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) parts manual is optional but a nice to have. Its main purpose is to identify OEM part numbers, but it can be handy for the assembly diagrams in it (how do parts fit together). A cheaper method is to use a large online vendor (like BikeBandit) and check their exploded assembly diagrams to get needed part numbers. For older models, these images are often scanned microfiche slides, so they may have lost some crispness because of it.
Before you physically touch your motorcycle read general maintenance and get ready for any repair work expected. Go ahead and collect all required parts, fluids & lubricants, shop supplies or needed tools.
If you have a logbook, it’s time to consult it. If you do not – this is a great time to start one. Record all major events, repairs, maintenance like fluid changes, mileage & dates, also take notes on any minor repairs required in the future. And of course, use it when you put it in storage. I like a book that can hold receipts too – so you know where they are if you have a warranty claim or want to check the price paid.
If you have no records, and you can’t remember – do a thorough inspection based on a checklist (typically, service manuals have these comprehensive checklists). At minimum plan to check all fluids, adjustments, consumable parts as listed below.
If there were any small problems you noticed before storage, like hesitation on acceleration, braking or handling issues make sure you include these on your checklist for diagnosis and repair. These problems never rarely get better with age, they will still be there and maybe even worse. The value of keeping a maintenance logbook can’t be overstated, in my opinion.
Inspection & Cleanup
A complete and thorough cleaning is needed…but first – have a good look for any significant leaks or weeping around gaskets, seals or fittings. Check the floor under the bike before moving it. Don’t mistake any oils or coatings applied prior to storage as leaks or weeping. Some minor amounts are OK, after running the seals may swell and seal properly again. Check that all related connections & fasteners are tightened to specification – use a torque wrench if required and follow the recommended procedure.
The battery provides stored electrical power to start and keep your motorcycle running properly. A failing battery can trick you by initially providing enough power to start your machine, then leave you stranded miles down the road.
Batteries have a typical lifespan of 5 years, with good care. Make a logbook entry when the battery was first installed (acid added, or date of manufacture for a closed cell). When the battery gets into its final years, be more suspect of it failing. In my experience, I would typically have to replace my battery every 2nd season of use. This was mainly due to using an automotive-style charger that had to be manually operated, and would easily overcharge if you didn’t keep a very close eye on the process. This problem was solved by getting a “smart” trickle charger. These chargers can be left attached to the battery and they will monitor and provide charging as needed, then revert to trickle charge to maintain the battery. My charger has paid for itself a few times over by now by ending in the cost of replacements, and the convenience also. Many have extra wiring to add leads that connect the charger to the battery while the motorcycle is parked, with no need to open the seat and expose the battery.
Visually inspect the battery. Clean the top surface and terminals with a battery cleaner product or a solution of baking soda and water. Thoroughly rinse all of the baking soda solution off with plain water and dry (baking soda will neutralize battery acid on contact). Check for signs of interior plates separating, bulges, cracks or the case leaking, sediment build-up, discoloration, or physical damage to the terminals. Physical damage usually means a replacement is or will be required soon.
Check fluid levels. Add only distilled water, and fully charge immediately after topping up.
Test the voltage with a digital multimeter. With the battery disconnected and after a complete charging you should see 12.6V to 14V. Readings close to 12.4V indicate the battery is probably sulfated – a good charge may reverse this, but if it has been left for a long period the sulfation may not be reversible. If you get a zero volts reading the battery has an internal short, and if the reading is 10.5V there is a dead cell, in both cases the battery is no longer useful.
Tires are the most important part of any pre-ride or maintenance inspection, if you only do one thing – check your tires. Along with checking for proper inflation, do a complete visual inspection. Look for any physical damage like slashes, punctures or sidewall cracking, and any abnormal wear patterns (scalping). Sidewall damage is non-reparable, a slash or puncture means the tire needs to be replaced.
If your tires over 5 years old (from date of manufacture) they should be replaced (date stamp format is “WWYY”, for the sequential week in the year and year). For example, 4519, would mean the 45th week in 2019.
Check the tread depth, replace if either wear bars have been reached or depth is less than 1/16” (1.6mm).
If you did not raise both wheels off the ground the tires may have flat spots from the pressure of resting in one spot. When the motorcycle is ready for the first ride carefully proceed for several miles and the tires will loosen up and return to normal. To speed up the process you can slightly over-inflate before the ride. Afterward, reduce tire pressure to spec. Flatspots usually produce a vibration that changes relative to speed until the tires return to round shape.
Be careful – if the temperature is still on the cold side, ride extra easy on cold tires. Drive as if you are riding on a very slippery surface for at least the first few miles. This gives the tires a chance to warm up and grip the road. This applies to anytime you are dealing with cold tires. Traction can be lost without warning resulting in a crash.
For more tire information and tips – check out my in-depth post, “Should I Replace Both Motorcycle Tires at the Same Time?”
Clean the brake rotors with brake cleaner, and rotate the wheel to clean all of the rotor surfaces, and don’t forget the rear side too. While in the area, have a look at the brake pads, many have built-in wear indicator slots for visual inspection. The disc rotor’s working surface should be relatively flat, with minimal gouging. If you see any circular marking on the rotor check the working surfaces of the pads for anything stuck in them, otherwise it will continue to do damage.
Inspect brake fasteners, components and hydraulic hoses for wear or damage. Check the condition of the fluid, if you cannot remember when it was last changed consider doing it now. Note – if you are replacing hydraulic brake lines look for braided lines. Braided lines are more than a cosmetic upgrade. The braided covering reduces the amount of hose expansion resulting in transferring more hydraulic pressure directly to the pads, for increased performance.
Wheels & Suspension
Inspect the wheels, look for dents in the rims, missing wheel weights (balancers), and general damage.
With the machine on a center stand, spin the wheel and check for free movement. With hands at top and bottom of the tire see if there is any perceptible movement 90 degrees to the tire. If so you may have a wheel bearing or related bushing issue. If it was stored on the side stand, with both wheels on the ground the continuous pressure can falt spot bushings. Watch for tell-tale vibration that changes with road speed on your first drive.
With an indicator in a fixed position rotate the wheel and observe how the gap changes. The fixed position indicator can be anything, I like to use a marker or chalk-pen so it leaves marks on the rim, indicating where attention is needed. This gap is called the lateral run-out. Check your service manual for specs, in general up to 1/8″ (3 mm) is acceptable. This could indicate the need to have your wheel trued up – there are several online sources, and videos showing how this is done.
Inspect one-piece cast (aka mag) and composite and wheels for cracking, loose pieces and road damage. If there is excessive lateral run-out there is no maintenance the wheel is damaged.
If you have spoked wheels, use a small wrench and strike each one. There should be a clear “ting” sound, otherwise, the spoke is not tight enough. Be cautious when tightening loose spokes, be aware of how this can affect the wheel rim shape (lateral run-out). If excessive run-out may require a pro to do the truing, it takes skill and patience to do correctly.
Rotate the handlebars through the full range of movement, look for any rough spots or sticking, indicating steering head bearings may be bad. Don’t confuse resistance caused by control cables bunching up (this should be minor, if not fix the issue). Grab the front axle, from the front of the bike. Pull up and down – any movement indicates worn bushings or steering head bearings.
With the motorcycle on the ground, rock back and forth with your weight and brakes on, so the suspension is compressed and released. Look for any weeping & leaking around front fork seals and rear suspension. If you are planning on any long trips in the coming season it’s best to get these fixed, the seals will continue to deteriorate and can be a problem on the road.
The fuel system consists of the gas tank, fuel lines, filter, carbs/EFI (electronic fuel injection), and the throttle control.
Before adding gas, check fuel lines, look for cracking and any signs of leakage. Rubber fuel lines can also look OK, but if they are aged to the point of being hard the interior diameter may have contracted. In extreme situations, the inside diameter can be reduced to the point of causing fuel starvation (hesitation, power drops). If you replace hoses make absolutely sure they are designed for the application and made of fuel grade materials.
If stored correctly “old gas” will not be a problem, add some fresh fuel from a trusted, known quality source. If you have an older machine or suspect you may have to pull the tank I recommend putting only a small amount of gas in the tank initially. A full tank is heavy and awkward to maneuver if it is being removed.
If the gas was left in the tank and its been in long-term multi-year storage it is best to drain the tank and start with fresh fuel. Very old fuel has a unique “bad” smell (compare it to fresh fuel). If neglected and put away with no prep you may get lucky by adding only fresh fuel and a good running may clean the system out enough to be OK. Otherwise more serious cleaning and maintenance work will be needed (carb/EFI disassembly and cleaning).
With fuel in the system – inspect for leaks.
When repairing leaks use OEM gaskets, and never use a silicone based sealant. Gasoline will dissolve silicon and it can end up clogging the passages of the carburetors or EFI systems.
Inspect, or simply replace the fuel filter, if equipped. You can add an inline filter, in most cases fairly easily. If you are replacing the fuel lines now would be a great time to add a filter. Make sure the filter has enough flow capacity, so you don’t add a flow restriction to the system. Secure all hose connections with hose clamps, never rely on a push fit, no matter how firm it is.
Test the throttle for smooth operation, no sticking and make sure it snaps back when released. Inspect the throttle cables for wear and binding. Turn the handlebars full lock each way and test the throttle controls in each position.
Engine – Internal Lubrication
This next step is to make sure the internals of your engine are freely moving and lubricated – ready for the first start. Put the bike on its center stand or a motorcycle lift so the rear tire is free to move. Remove all the spark plugs.
Pour in a small amount of light engine oil into each cylinder and put a shop rag lightly over the holes.
Put the bike in a high gear, grab the rear wheel and turn in the direction of normal rotation. Rotate the engine several times to make sure the rings, pistons and cylinder walls are lubricated. As you rotate the rear wheel you will notice some spots of resistance when the valves are opening and the pistons are moving upwards. Investigate if you hear any unusual noises or feel excessive resistance to movement.
If an oil change is planned, wait for your first ride, and the engine oil is warmed up and will flow freely.
Leave the plugs out until the next test is completed.
Battery Load Test
The next battery test checks operation under full cranking load. Since you will be turning the engine over I recommend doing this after completing the engine lubrication steps (above). Connect a multimeter set to measure volts across the installed and connected battery. Disconnect the ignition, or use the kill switch since you want to cycle the starter for longer than normal and not start the bike.
You will crank the starter for a full 30 seconds during the test. As the starter turns, watch the voltage – normal range will be steadily between 9.5 to 10.5 V under load from the starter. If the volts drop to zero or are out of this range the battery very likely has a mechanical fault known as an open cell (it is basically shorting out). It is time to replace the battery before it leaves you stranded down the road.
A clutch that has sat idle in storage with the friction plates compressed together should be freed up before use. Before starting the engine, put the bike in gear, pull in the clutch and physically push your motorcycle forward. This should free up the plates. If dragging is noticed (engine is turning over), inspect and adjust the clutch cable free play and adjust. Check your service manual, the adjustment points could be in separate two places. Also, check the clutch cable for wear, stretching and kinking. If the clutch is hydraulically operated check the fluid level.
You should be able to move the motorcycle, in gear with the clutch pulled in, with some light drag. And conversely, you should not be able to move it, or possibly feel the engine turning over with the clutch released and in gear. If not, further clutch inspection is required. For more information, check out my post on clutch slipping for a lot of useful tips.
Inspect all hoses, radiator cap and connection points for leakage. If the overflow reservoir is low or empty this indicates a potential leak (or coolant is just very low).
Check hoses for cracking and stiffness from aging (lifespan is typically 5 to 7 years). Inspect the radiator(s) for cracks and physical damage from flying road debris. You can straighten out any flattened fins where something has hit them. Use a flat bladed tool (screwdriver) to carefully straighten. Be careful not to dig in and puncture the radiator. Clean off any dirt and bug build-up that could reduce airflow. Inspect for cracks, they often appear at radiator mounting points, due to fatigue from vibration.
Coolant should be replaced if it off-color or has streaks in it. Check your service manual and notes for the date/mileage it is scheduled to be replaced. In general, coolant should be changed every two years, but that can be extended with high-performance coolant. Always use manufacturer’s recommended coolant (OEM branded or to specification).
Check the electrical connection to the fan switch sensor. When road testing watch if the engine temperature gauge seems to jump up, this could indicate a sticking thermostat valve. Replace a sticking valve as soon as possible.
Controls, Instruments & Lighting
Inspect all cables and wiring going to the handlebars, look for pinching, any nicks in coverings, loose ground connections. If you have an older motorcycle be suspect that the previous owner may have done work and not re-routed correctly. Test for binding and pinching in full lock, side to side of handlebar movement. Warning – use lubricants designed and compatible with controls, especially around electrical components.
Lighting & Indicators
Check all lighting, turn signals and brake lights. They should, of course, work but also emit a steady output. If the headlight gets stronger when revs increase check all connections, battery, and charging system.
Take note of any non-functional warning lights (all should flash on as a check when first turning on the ignition). Inspect all wiring and connections also. Do not neglect to repair warning lights, for obvious reasons.
If you have a dim or even dead headlight, now is a great time to upgrade to LED technology. You will get better performance and a bonus of lower amperage draw (reduce stress on the charging system). I covered LEDs in this post about running Hi-Beams all the time, is it safer?
Air Filter – Check that critters have not made a nest inside (tip – remove the element and fill space with solid material, like pieces of wood prior to storage, more storage tips here). Take the filter out and inspect it, replace or clean as needed. I put a small amount of grease on all contacting / gasket surfaces for added sealing, just to be thorough.
Exhaust – remove any plugs or covers placed in or on the exhaust before storage. Look down each pipe with a flashlight to make sure there is no remaining blockage, or potentially collapsed interior baffles, or even rodents nests. Make sure all protective oil or wax is removed prior to starting, the heat will bake these to the exhaust and increase your work to clean off.
Side & Centerstands – check the springs on each of these. By design, they are in constant tension, they can and do wear out. A sagging kickstand can be a shocking surprise when it drags through a corner. Centerstand springs can do the same thing, be aware if either stand is not returning to its fully retracted position. Either of these springs failing while on a long trip can easily be avoided.
Riding Gear – do not neglect your riding gear. Is your helmet still OK, (has it expired?) Check condition of your jacket, gloves, boots – maybe it’s time for an upgrade or replacement?
Listen & be aware of unusual sounds and vibrations, be ready to immediately stop and investigate.
The first rule of first cold start – Do Not Rev the Engine! It is almost irresistible to cock your head, twist the throttle, and listen intently for “something”. This very bad practice, do not do it. Instead, use the choke or small throttle openings so the engine runs at a smooth idle. Let it warm up.
Immediately before the first start, turn the engine over with the kill switch on, or with ignition disabled. This will circulate oil throughout the engine. Then proceed with the recommended starting procedure. Do not crank the starter for more than 10 – 15 seconds for each attempt at starting. If the bike is not starting or showing any signs of coming to life, verify – fuel/air/spark trio versus just mashing the starter button.
When your motorcycle starts there will be some smoke from the engine. However, this smoke should go away in a few minutes of running.
Your first ride should be short, and only long enough to completely warm the engine and go through all gears, test the brakes and get up to operating speeds. On returning check for leaks, investigate any unusual sounds or vibrations. Note that the tires may need a longer run it to return to vibration-free operation.
Take a Longer Ride
Assuming there are no issues, or you have cleared them up – fill the tank with fresh fuel and for a nice long ride. Until the old fuel & stabilizer is burnt off you may notice lower power and some hesitation. If any persists after using the first tank of gas more investigation is needed. Check tire pressure several times, as well as checking oils and fluids – long idle period may have caused a failure to occur.
Wrapping it Up
Getting your motorcycle ready for the season is not hard, but it does take patience and it is most effective if done in a certain order. I am sure you could put in the battery, add some fuel and it will start up and run “just fine”. And I am also certain many people do this every time they pull their motorcycles out of storage. However, the damage done will likely not very obvious, but it will happen and shorten the life of your motorcycle, requiring more repairs sooner. By following these basic steps you will catch any issues before they become big ones and reduce the risk of being stranded out on the road. You also ensure your ride is safe and performing well for the upcoming season with minimal downtime.