The Library of All Knowledge

Play Rider to Racer Series:

Getting The Race Machine (Buying a Used Bike.)

Now I know that most of don’t have factory contracts that will supply us with a brand new shiny bike every year. I also know that most of don’t have the cash to drop on a new bike every year. So the best solution is to buy used. Dealers around here don’t have a lot of dirt bikes so often the best deals are found in the newspaper.  But it is a case of "buyer beware".  I suggest that you arm yourself with a little know how in what to look for.  So here I am supplying you with a little ammo.  Happy hunting.

Also take some tools.

This will not only help you check the bike out more thorougly, It will make the sell think you really know what you're looking for and intimidate him/her a bit. :) Out of courtesy leave the bike in the same shape you first saw it.

Things to look for:

1.) Check the spark plug. The spark plug is a record of the engine’s condition. Many mechanics can tell how an engine is working just be reading the spark plug. Pull the plug and look at it. Normally the deposits are light tan (four strokes) to gray (two strokes) and ash like.  If there are aluminum deposits then the piston is disintegrating due to a crankcase air leak.  If there are other deposits then there may be a leak or tear in the air filter that is allowing dirt into the engine.  If the plug is glazed then sand is getting in the engine.  A heavy carbon build up would indicate that there is excessive oil due to an oil rich premix or an oil leak in the clutch side of the crankshaft.

2.) Check the compression. Remove the spark plug and install the tester.  Then with your finger on the kill switch, kick the bike over until the reading on the tester peaks. Normal for an 80, 125, 200 and 500cc bike is around 150-190psi.  For a 250cc, readings of around 170-230psi are normal.  This is for sea level. If the values are far below normal then the rings need to get replaced.

3.) Check the crankshaft. Remove the flywheel cover, grasp the flywheel and give it a good shake. There should be no side to side or back and forth play in the flywheel.  If there was then the bottom end bearing may be shot.  Also look for oil at the bottom which would indicate that the crankshaft seal is shot.

4.) Check the air filter. Look for tears that would indicate that dirt was getting into the engine.  This is also a good indicator of how well the bike was maintained.  If the owner neglected something as simple as an air filter then imagine how bad the rest of the bike will be.

5.) Check the frame. Look for cracks and bends.  The worst place for this is on the under side of the bike.

6.) Check the suspension. Apply the front brakes and push down on the front end.  Look for oil squirting out at the seals.  (You might need to remove the boots on conventional forked bikes.) Also look for dents and scratches in the tubes which will accelerate seal failure.  Also when you push the bike check for play in the head stem. This would indicate that the headstem bearings are shot or the triple camp isn’t tightened properly.  At the back push down the seat and see if the suspension moves smoothly.  Also pick up the bike to check for free play in the suspension caused by worn out bearings.

7.) Check the coolant system. Remove the cap and look at the coolant.  If it is low then there might be a leak or the owner has neglected to top up the rad.  Normally the fluid will be green or even a pinkish red if the owner uses Water-wetter or purplish if the owner uses Engine Ice. If the fluid is brown then there is an internal leak in the head gasket where the combustion pressure gets into the cooling system.  Check for cylinder damage as well. If the coolant is gray to milky white and foamy, then oil has gotten into the coolant. The main culprit is usually a failure of the water pump seal.  Look for the same conditions in the transmission oil.

8.) Check the wheels and brakes. Apply the brakes and try to move the bike. It should stay put. Look for leaks around the cylinders and the calipers. Also check the fluid in the reservoir.  It should be a clean apple juice color.  Any other color and you will have to bleed the brakes. Also give the wheels a good shake from side to side to check the bearings.  There should be no free play. Apply the brakes and move the wheels any free play here could be the result of some seriously loose spokes.  If you can place the bike on a crate, spin the wheel and tap the spokes. They should have a similar musical "ting" to them. A "clunk" would indicate a broken or loose spoke. Three or more broken spokes and it would be a good idea to relace the wheel. Also take a spoke wrench and try to give the nipples a turn. Sometime nipples can seize making it impossible to tighten the spokes. Then it's cut the old ones off and relace the wheel time.

9.) Check the drivetrain. Look at the chain and check for kinked links. Also look at the sprockets for bent or missing teeth. The slack for a chain is usually 3 fingers wide at the end of the chain guard on the swingarm.  If the chain has more slack than that and the adjusters are all the way, look at getting a new chain and sprockets.

10.) Check the pipe. If the seller allows it, pull the exhaust pipe and look into the exahust port while working the kickstarter, You should be able to see the condition of the piston, cylinder walls and parts of the powervalve. Look for scoring, gouges, peeling plating, scratches, seize marks or aluminum eroded from the piston crown.

11.) Check the oil. If it has a burnt smell then somebody has been burning a clutch. Milky blobs indicate a coolant leak. Dirty oil is just due to poor maintenance. And glittery flakes announce that something is going to peices.

The test ride

Once you get the mechanical parts out of the way, start the bike.  You usually find a few more problems this way.

1.) If it doesn’t start. Check the ignition.  Remove the spark plug and see if it is wet.  If it is the then the engine is getting fuel.  Ground the plug against the engine (use vise grips for this) and kick the bike over.  See if there is a nice fat blue spark.  I have heard of the kill switch shorting out.

2.) Clutch check. Pull in the clutch and drop the bike into first gear. If the bike creeps forward when you rev the engine then clutch basket needs to get replaced. If the clutch slips then the plates and springs may need to be replaced.

3.) Throttle check. Ride the bike in 2nd gear and blip the throttle.  If the engine bogs then there is a problem with too much air of too little gas.  This may be caused by problems such as a clogged pilot jet in the carb or a crankcase air leak.

4.) Transmission check. Ride the bike in 3rd gear (the most abused gear) and accelerate while gently applying the rear brake.  Look for the clutch slipping or the transmission popping out to gear.  If the transmission pops out of gear then the shift forks might be bent.

5.) Brake check. While riding around apply the front and back brakes separately.  Feel for any pulsing which would indicate a bent rotor.  Also if the front brake feels spongy then there may be a problem ranging from trapped air in the system to a worn master cylinder.

What does all this mean?

It means that you can haggle and drop the price on the bike.  It also means that you’re going to have to do some work. All the prices I give are in Canadian funds and are very approximate. (Also have a tendency to err on the high side.)

Top end rebuild.
This is a do-it-yourself job.  You’ll need a piston kit (Piston, wristpin, needle bearing and circlips) rings and gaskets. This may set you back around $150-200. You might need to refinish you cylinder, most shops can do this for around $10

Bottom end rebuild
This is not a do-it-yourself job because you need a press and some serious know how. Screw this up and you will be going through bearings faster than I go through tear-offs. Take it to a shop and look at spending $100-200.

Worn out bearings
For most of these you will expect to shell out $30-50.  Wheel bearings however can be purchased at a bearing specialty shop for $5-7 for double sealed units.

Fork seals
This may be a do-it-yourself job but you will require specialized tools to replace the seals.  If the tubes themselves are damaged, then I think it’s best to find a set of used forks in better condition.

Water pump seal
Piece of cake.  That will set you back around $7-10 for the seal and $5 for the cover gasket.

Chain and sprockets
These may set you back around $150-200.  I personally recommend spending the extra on an o-ring chain.  Also most experts suggest that you replace chain and sprockets all at once, to avoid the worn part wearing out the new part.

New pads cost around $30-50 a set.  New rotors will cost between $150-200

This will set you back around $150-200 for a set.  If the transmission forks were bent then I would suggest looking for a better bike, because fixing it will set you back big time.

Note: To those of you who freak out about buying a used race bike I say, "don’t worry." Racers are know for keeping their bikes in fairly good shape mainly because you can’t win if you don’t finish.  Also racers are looking at being faster and will sell their old mounts when they afford a faster one.  Also you can get a bike with some really cool mods done to it.  The type of rider whom I most worry about is the Sunday play rider who doesn't maintain his bike properly.

A little story…

When I first started riding I rode an 1984 IT-200. It was beat. My friend had raced it, then sold it to me. And I raced it too. At least I raced it until the cylinder barrel cracked. I took the cylinder and had the crack welded. I rebuilt the engine and got the bike running again. I never trusted the bike for competition again so I decided to sell it. I placed an ad in the local "Buy and Sell" paper, flogging the bike off for $500. The paper hits the newsstands at about 6:30am. I received the first call about 6:45am. (Considering that I usually wake up for work at about 7:00am. I was kind of grumpy.) I received an average of one call every ten minutes. I went to work and came home to find a empty space in the garage, five bills and one interesting story. My mother answered what must have been the 50th phone call for the bike. The guy on the other end really wanted to see the bike. Mom told him to wait for me. Well that was no good, he had to see the bike that morning. Mom told him that she was leaving for work in half an hour. He said he would be there, and showed up at the front door fifteen mintues later. Dear Mom opened the door and had $500 shoved into her hand. The guy then took the bike and plunked it into his truck.

The Moral of this Story: Don’t rush the purchase. If the guy had looked, he could of seen the crack and chewed me down in price. He could of also gotten a few spare parts that I was prepared to give with the bike.
I also received calls for the bike a month and a half later. I had to tell them that the bike was sold the first day.

Moral of this Story, Part 2: If you see a good deal, act on it quickly. But not so fast that you lose your head. Say you’re interested and arrange a meeting, then cool down and take a good, long hard look at your investment.

Contents Copyright (C) Michael Fodor 2012.