What Common Bike Breakdowns Feel Like

How To -


Motorcycle Breakdown

There you are, riding along, not a care in the world, when your bike starts feeling funny. What does it mean? Here’s what common bike breakdowns feel like.

1) The Feel: Unstable Steering
As you’re riding, the steering suddenly becomes imprecise and the bars start to wag back and forth.

The Cause: Punctured Rear Tire
Your rear tire has lost enough air that it’s unable to maintain its shape and is flopping around.

What You Can Do: Pull Over
Don’t panic brake or anything like that, just carefully begin to slow down and pull off the road. You do carry a puncture repair kit, right?


2) The Feel: Brake Lever Comes Back To Bar
Applying the front brake, the lever doesn’t resist your pull and comes back further than usual with less than normal braking power.

The Cause: Compromised Front Brake
You’ve either got air in the lines, you’ve blown a seal, boiled the fluid or something else in the front brake isn’t working properly.

What You Can Do: Pull Over
Without a front brake, you’re pretty much done. Bleeding the brake properly takes specialty equipment. Either ride very slowly and carefully to home or a mechanic or call a tow truck.


3) The Feel: Engine Revs, Bike Doesn’t Accelerate
You open the throttle and the engine RPMs rise, but the power doesn’t reach the rear wheel or result in acceleration.

The Cause: Slipping Clutch
Clutch wear has reached the point where there’s no longer enough friction between the plates. You need new ones.

What You Can Do: Replace It
The good news is, clutch slip starts small. It’ll slip a little only at high RPMs and big throttle openings, then get a little worse over days or weeks. So, as soon as you start feeling it, order those new clutch plates and/or springs and replace them.


4) The Feel: Engine Cuts Out At Constant RPM
You’re cruising at a constant speed when, after a regular period of time, the engine cuts, struggles and then dies. You pull over, wait a while and it will restart, only to repeat the problem.

The Cause: Blocked Fuel Tank Breather
As the fuel pump sucks gas out of the tank, the breather isn’t replacing its volume with air creating a vacuum from which the pump can no longer pull gas.

What You Can Do: Clear The Breather
Find the breather tube and clear it. Somewhere on your tank, a rubber hose will protrude. This often happens on dirt bikes or dual sports, which get clogged with sand or muck when you topple over and their breathers are right up top.


5) The Feel: Front Brake Lever Pulses When Braking
When you pull the front lever, it vibrates at a high frequency.

The Cause: Warped Rotors
At some point, you’ve exceed the heat tolerance of our rotors, causing them to become wavy in the wrong way.

What You Can Do: Replace The Rotors
Use common sense and determine if it’s safe to keep riding your bike with somewhat diminished braking capacity. Then, replace your brake rotors ASAP.


6) The Feel: A Popping Sound, Then The Bike Cuts Out
Everything’s fine when, all of a sudden, a loud noise pops out of the bike’s depths and everything goes dark.

The Cause: Italian Build Quality
Congratulations on the Benelli! Man, that things going to look great parked in your garage.

What You Can Do: Spend A Lot Of Money
Start by checking and replacing the fuses, hopefully it’s just one of those. If not, it’s probably the generator. Order one, wait a few months for it to arrive, swap it out and see if that’s fixed the problem. No? Start writing some more checks…

Have you broken down recently? What was the firs sign of trouble?

  • TP

    Whoa, what bike is that?

    • Alex

      I am also curious.

    • Charles Quinn

      That would be the Benelli TNT that’s gonna look so good parked in your garage.

      • Alex

        But it looks so good! And, the dealer they list in my area doesn’t exist anymore, so I’ll really be the only one with one.

        • http://RideApart.com/ Wes Siler

          Looks awfully impractical as a coffee table.

          • Piglet2010

            Get some really strong brackets and mount it to your living room wall.

  • Andy Sever

    1)you’re filling up the fuel tank when gas starts pouring out of one of the underside breather hoses. the cause is rust inside the tank has eaten away from the vent pipe passing through the tank and its time for a new tank.
    2)you’re ascending a mountain pass and there is less than the usual power loss with elevation. the cause is you forgot to tighten the carb-to-intake manifold boots with your recent carb rebuild and you’re sucking in way too much air. tighten and proceed.

  • Charles Quinn

    Had a couple of older bikes (most notably a CBR600F3) where I experienced a loss of power that felt like running out of gas. If I was lucky the bike would start again a few minutes later, if not, a long push home or a tow truck. Problem: on bikes with an auxiliary fuel pump (which works harder the less gas is in the tank), contacts wear and can’t cope with low fuel levels. Bad news, a replacement pump is big bucks. Good news, with the Honda at least it was a cheap fix — a $20 kit and a bit of soldering replaces the worn contacts without replacing the whole pump.

  • Josh Jensen

    I had problems with the blinkers and break light going erratic, assumed it was a bad ground. One day I was off to work and lost all electrical, battery had charge, main fuse was intact, tried to find where the bad ground was and no luck so got a tow home. Turns out the battery ground was lose and flopping around. Felt pretty stupid after that one.

    • Luke Maffey

      Mines similar, had the battery in my monster 696 disconnected for storage, put it back in, rode for a few days then the speedo would freak out and I’d get an occasional warning light. Turn bike off and on and it goes away. Finally check the battery and the ground was still attached just loose. Smh

    • Jack Meoph

      We kicked over my friends Hardley for like 15 minutes before I looked at the switch gear and saw the kill switch on. I never use the kill switch to shut down a motorcycle (even in the stone age period of my riding so I didn’t even think to look at that), but killswitchdave did. Now when a bike doesn’t turn, that’s the first think I look for.

    • skeelo221

      Anything “erratic” as you mentioned is almost normally a bad ground. Great advice.

      Years ago on a SV650 I was cruising around at a constant 60 mph on a flat section of road. The FI light turned on and the engine just died and would not re-start. It was a loose ground lead coming from the battery.

      • Josh Jensen

        Looks like a reoccurring problem, for I own an SV650 as well.

  • Bill White

    #6 made me laugh out loud. Friggin’ Benelli…

  • Adan Ova

    Not uniform power output with constant throttle input can be caused by a clogged or dirty carburettor.

  • Zack

    My Daytona 675 used to eat 2 voltage regulator/rectifiers a year. Low fuel light would come on (even with a full tank), all gauge lights would flash, then engine would cut out. Luckily, each time it happened was during my commute so I was never stranded too far from home.

    • http://RideApart.com/ Wes Siler

      Oh man, I’ve had the dashes crap out on a bunch of Triumphs. You’re just riding along and the needles and warning lights all go crazy every few miles.

      • Zack

        I never could get it completely sorted, even after re-locating the R/R to get more air flow. Mine would always crap out when it was hot outside and/or I was getting stuck in stop and go traffic, so I’m thinking heat build up was a contributing factor (call me a rocket scientist).

        • jonoabq

          The R/R problem has been an issue with the triple motors for years across many different flavors of motorcycles. Why Triumph has not done something to fix the issue is beyond me. The decision to hide (small) heat sinks in high heat/low air flow areas is nothing short of engineering incompetence.

      • Michele Menichini

        Same problem happened to my gsxr. It was just a loose bolt on a battery wire causing electrical jumps. Tightening it resolved everything.

        • Robotribe

          Same thing happened to me on my Street Triple about a month ago! A practically flawlessly reliable bike with almost 10k on the clock and it took a piss over a stupid little thing like that. Oh well, at least it was a simple fix. Good as new.

      • Piglet2010

        Pre-Bloor Triumphs?

    • Phil Mills

      Original BMW F650 Funduro has this habit, too. Symptoms are basically “very reluctant to start (especially when cold because your battery is probably toast), runs like crap anywhere above idle, runs better the more electrical things you can turn on at once”.

      Most common solution (short term) is to limp the bike home with high-beams/aux lights/hazards/turn-signals blazing.
      Long term solution is to get the higher-rated VR from the F650GS and change the mounting location from under the seat to right in front of the air intake.

    • Alexander Dang

      My Cbr 600 F4i is exactly the same. I just finished installing the new voltage regulator today actually haha.

      • http://metabomber.com/ Jesse

        It’s the same story with almost every F-series CBR. At some point you WILL replace the regulator, and you WILL tweak the cam chain tensioner.

  • Thomas Whitener

    So, I had a clogged breather tube on my VFR 800, but it didn’t make the engine cut out. Nope, there was enough suction to BEGIN TO CRUSH THE TANK. Seriously. Created a vacuum strong enough to cause cracks in the paint, but the engine ran just fine.

    No idea.

    • nataku83

      That’s pretty strange – maybe the fuel pump is pretty strong on that bike. That’s definitely not a problem you’d have with a gravity feed, carbureted bike.

  • Mark D

    If your handlebars are wobbly or the bike feels generally twitchy and unstable, and you’ve checked your tire pressure, it could be a worn or loose steering head bearing. You can ride in that condition, but it should be fixed pretty immediately.

  • Nemosufu Namecheck

    At gas station, just filled up and bike won’t start. Want to kick over bike and walk home – kickstand is down still. Put kickstand up and bike amazingly fires right up.
    (me at 17)

    • wjung88

      Or equivalently, bike starts but dies when shifting into first….hmmmmm. Yup I’ve done that. My favorite was coming back from a long vacation and my bike won’t start. Charge the battery, nothing. Try rolling it down a hill, nothing. Turns out I used the kill switch for the first time in my life (I usually just turn the key to kill the bike) thinking that leaving it open would drain the battery when I was gone.

      • RideaTart

        I’ve got some kill switch stories that are so embarrassing, I hesitate to share them even anonymously.

        • eddi

          Don’t be shy. I’ve been failing to check the kill switch or accidentally engaging them since my first bike. I’m down to about once a year, but it still happens.

      • Piglet2010

        I have a steep driveway right up to my garage door, so I often kill the engine by putting the side-stand down.

  • nomad2495

    The picture of the benelli is great.

  • BillW

    You’re lucky the chain didn’t do any damage when it came off. I’ve read reports of some bikes breaking engine cases as the chain flails around the primary sprocket.

  • BillW

    Re #3, if you get that feeling on certain BMW boxers, it means your clutch splines have disintegrated. There will likely be no warning. You will need a tow, and if you can’t do the repair yourself, it will be expensive. Especially if it happens a long way from home.

  • zedro

    The feel: engine is sputtering at low rpm/idle, needs gas and revs to keep going. You also feel shame and embarrassment…
    The cause: your carburated engine can’t handle the minimal airflow provided by your mud soaked air filter. Mainly the cause is your lazy.
    What you can do: stop being an inconsiderate jerk and do some basic maintenance for christ sakes. And you should probably call your mother more, it couldn’t hurt.

  • Jack Meoph

    #6, good one. I guess it’s cool when someone tries to start up a Boutique Brand, but if the machine is overly complicated, bad things usually happen. The first buy ins are the Guinea Pigs, and if it makes it past that first line of cannon fodder mechanically, then you have to see if they can get past the financial hurdles. The fail rate of any new business is like 70%. With MC companies, I would suspect (and just from casual observation over the last 3 decades) it’s more like 99%.

    And after the pull over part you forgot the call AAA or a friend with a pickup. . Interestingly enough, more and more MC manufacturers are offering free roadside service during the warranty period. That’s a good thing.

  • Nathan Haley

    My riding buddy was marveling at how good his XL250R chain was looking – freshly oiled all the time somehow, even after riding through dusty dirt. It turned out he had tightened the chain too much and it yanked the countershaft spline loose. It sprung an oil leak which was then lubing the chain over time…with engine oil. He thought he was just burning bit of oil and kept refilling it until one day, the engine started losing power very suddenly – it had seized at 50mph. Check your chain tension!

  • Robert Horn

    The Feel: Tired legs
    The Cause: Walking
    What You Can Do: Stop buying classic British motorcycles with the intention of actually riding them.
    Yeah, my first motorcycle (1957 BSA) and I used to go on long walks in the together…

  • Mister X

    Circa 1975, riding friend’s Z-1, a 5 mile straightaway and I can’t resist, right at 130 mph it goes into a baaaaad tank slapper without any warning, somehow save it, slow down, pull over, catch breath for a few minutes, get back on bike and do it again just to make sure it’s repeatable (it was), keep it under 129 mph for the rest of the trip, at home friend checks steering head bearings, very, very, sloppy, flat spotted, too many wheelies, install new high quality bearings, no more problem.

  • Mister X

    Number one isn’t always caused by a flat rear tire, once for me it was the swing arm pivot bolt coming nearly completely out on the freeway on my Kawi Bighorn 350, that was fun.
    And another time on my ’80 Honda 750F SS (see photo) I was in a 55 mph sweeper and the steering went wonky bad, not quite a tank slapper, but damn close, I backed off the throttle and barely saved it before running wide all the way into oncoming traffic (some BIG eyes in the oncoming lanes), when I got home I checked everything and it turned out to be bad front wheel bearings. I found out later it was due to the previous owner power washing it. Never do that to your bike and put it away wet, never.

    • runnermatt

      Better yet never powerwash your bike or do so very carefully. I’ve heard the same thing for bicycles.

  • Mister X

    Let’s see, riding my Honda K1 836 cc one night and the head light goes bright, then out, bike loses power then dies, and then the fun started… smoke issued forth from under the seat, but thankfully no flames. Push bike home, only a couple of miles and no traffic since it’s after 11 PM, next day remove tank and seat to survey the damage. Completely burned up wiring harness, bummer. Call dealer, after long laughing I’m told it has to come from Nippon and will cost hundreds of dollars. Decide to rewire it myself (it’s not the first time I’ve completely wired a bike) and as I’m removing the old burned up harness I found the cause under the seat, apparently the previous owner when fitting the custom cafe racer style seat, pinched the harness, and over time it wore through the insulation causing a complete short circuit, watch those wires folks when making mods to your ride.

  • Mister X

    Here’s a good one, store bike outside under tarp for 2 years in locked backyard, go to start it and it won’t turn over, check oil only to find water pouring out of the oil fill hole, well, that engine was toast Then a few weeks later my neighbor gave me his old Honda XL125 that was sitting neglected in front of his house for years, I pushed it home, pulled the plug, tried to kick it over and it was locked, removed oil fill cap, and water came out, crazy, just crazy as it was in a dry climate. What I learned was never store a bike under a tarp outside, because apparently condensation will somehow find it’s way into the crankcase and fill it up.

  • Piglet2010

    Clutch slippage can also be a simple matter of the linkage needing adjustment – check that first before tearing down the clutch.

  • eddi

    (knock wood) I haven’t had a breakdown in years. It seems to me bikes have gotten tougher and more reliable over the decades. Still, the best preventative medicine is regular checks and maintenance. You’ve all heard that before, but it’s still true. Bikes are complex machines and most of the vital organs are exposed to the elements. Some things just happen, but you can reduce even those, and carry some parts and tools for most of the rest.

  • CB

    Dammit, Wes! You’ve ruined my life! I’m already infuriatingly neurotic about the feel and sound of my bikes. I obsess about the slightest buzz or tick or the slightest change in feel. Now I have an itemized list that I will unwillingly commit to memory and I’ll spend the rest of my rides hallucinating all these problems. Is there a term for a mechanical hypochondriac? Is it Mechanical Hypochondriac? I’ll seek any kind of treatment I can receive, short of putting a damn bell on my bike.

    • zedro

      I can’t be positive but your valve train sounds extra clicky today…..

      • CB

        Oh, GOD NO! *nervous twitch*

        Pardon me while I dismantle my motorcycle.

    • jgroszko

      The worst is when you hear something that sounds really wrong and then realize a few blocks later that it was the car next to you…

  • Ayabe

    “The Cause: Italian Build Quality”

    This made me spit my coffee, very nice.

    That thing would look amazing mounted on your wall though you have to admit.

  • CB

    The Feel: Total loss of power on the Motorway

    The Cause: Worked to late and forgot to flip the reservoir and you just ran out of gas on the highway.

    What you can do?: Since you are riding and ancient GN250 fully pined so you could keep up to the speed limit, you can do a high-speed bump start. Leave it in 5th, nimbly fumble with the petcock. Maybe a little clutch lever in and coast for a second, then clutch out and it should come right back to life. Continue on your way.

    I used to do this twice a week when I worked very late nights. Coming home at 4am on an empty highway, this did the trick. In traffic, I only did it once and came a little too close to a truck full of bricks. Lesson learned; if you don’t have a fuel gauge, keep an eye on that trip meter.

    • gravit8ed

      Aww jeez the first time I borrowed my dad’s 250 ds to ride around town I ran out of gas in the middle of frickin nowhere at night and had no light to see the petcock ‘instructions’ or where it even was, I felt like such an idiot fumbling around in the dark. This was long before people carried…anything electrical in their pockets so I had to walk the bike a long ways to lights. In all that pushing I’d also managed to turn off the kill switch which didn’t help me get it started any faster – once I figured out the petcock situation.
      I spent most of the next afternoon seeing just how far I could go on the reserve tank, and practicing turning that valve without looking. It’s a good thing to learn.

      • CB

        I think that’s what first rides are for, getting the dumb stuff out of the way. Then when we become confident riders, we can admit to all the dumb stuff we did for the amusement of the internet.

  • skeelo221

    #4 happened to me on my DR650. My tank bag was pinching the vent tube so that’s always a good thing to check first!

  • John S

    The Feel: Engine idles perfectly but will not rev. Also starts perfectly.
    The Cause: The top of the jet needle has broken off so there is no way to raise the needle.
    The Insanity: Trying to diagnose it.

  • kevin

    Totally off topic, but can somebody tell me what the bike is in that picture, and/or link me to more pictures of it?

    • Philip Heung

      It’s a Benelli TNT, same Benelli as referred to in problem #6…

  • Jeffrey Neill

    Bike on a battery tender runs great for 45min+ ride, park it. When you return to your bike the battery is dead. Push start to fire it up and put back on the battery tender. Rinse and repeat for a couple weeks. Before you replace the battery, check your rectifier for a loose/coroded connection. You may not be charging your battery.

  • Joe D

    The bike pictured is the TnT Café Racer and I have one. Warranty upgrade done on the alternator drive and remapped ECU. This bike is fantastic. Power, handling and looks with comfortable ergos. No regrets and not for sale. Ever.

  • Guest

    Love this one. After experiencing a punctured rear I do know how that feels. Unfortunately even if I had a repair kit I don’t think it would’ve helped the 2″ gash I found after pulling over…

  • http://metabomber.com/ Jesse

    The Feel: You just filled up with gas on your otherwise bulletproof EX500, and you’ve made it about a mile from the gas station, when your bike starts coughing and dies. And it wont restart.
    The Cause: Tank full of bad gas.
    What you can do: Be thankful you have a pretty lightweight bike, and push it back to the gas station. Buy a container of dry gas, follow the instructions, and ride it home. Check the plugs when you get there, just to be safe.

  • Kai Perez

    I was riding over the Manhattan Bridge on my SV650 when I suddenly felt a huge drop in power. I pulled over and heard a strange clicking sound. The bike felt like it had half the power before and thats because I spun one of my rod bearings. The fix: put a new motor in of course!

  • Ares4991

    The feel: Bike starts sputtering, then dies, after a week of producing heavy clouds of smoke.
    The cause: Your premix is two years old,black as the night, clogging up everything and producing enough smoke for a small cavalry division to hide in.
    Fortunately, your bike is a 70′s German 2-stroke, and nothing gets damaged, except that your sparkplug dies because there’s at least half a cc of carbon builup on there.
    What you can do(short term): Clean petcock filter, replace gas, empty float bowl, be amazed at the carbon buildup on your spark plug, replace spark plug, kick a zillion times.
    What you can do(long term): Stop filling up your bike in the dark, causing you to miss the fact YOUR GAS IS A BLACK SLUDGE.

  • Jason Smith

    #6 is brilliant!

  • gravit8ed

    The Feel: intermittent and uneven acceleration, rough idle after warm-up
    The Cause: Failing coil pack (inline 4)
    The miracle: Only about a mile from home when it finally failed, and not at my destination ~40 miles away. To be fair, I had a little warning before total failure (maybe about 50 miles of a random misfire) and 30 year old coils aren’t long for this world so it wasn’t a complete surprise.
    What I did: Called up z1 enterprises and had a new pair in the mail that afternoon.Replacing coil packs is well within the ability of almost anyone willing to ride a classic motorcycle.

  • CB

    It will take a lot more then a little neurosis to get me of my bike. You’re right, though, I should try and just relax enjoy the ride. But, while parts can be fixed or swapped, I don’t want that first removal part of the swap to happen before I’m ready. Like, while I’m still on the bike, on the highway.