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My motorcycle won’t start. What should I do?

Having a hard time getting your engine up and running? Here's what you should know.

Motorcycle Gauges Cover Photo

Motorcycles are, for the most part, designed to be reliable workhorses that can start and run on demand. While this holds true, unfavorable situations are often thrown our way, and being in a situation where a motorcycle won’t start can sometimes be a tricky one. Some riders often jump to the conclusion that your bike will now have to be towed to your nearest service center or mechanic, but a lot of riders also overlook simple diagnostics and troubleshooting that will be helpful when attempting to solve the problem yourself. The power to solve this problem is definitely in your hands – here are a few things you can do as a rider to diagnose a motorcycle that won’t start, and troubleshoot in order to make your two-wheeled machine start smoothly once again.

Don’t panic

Motorcycle Tools

The first and most important thing to do as a rider is to keep yourself calm and composed. Save the energy for diagnostics and troubleshooting instead. Remember, a motorcycle that somehow can’t start is only a symptom of the problem. Having the mind space and energy to find a solution is a must when faced with these sorts of problems. Take a deep breath, and get ready for some elbow grease.

The next most important thing you should do is to bring out your motorcycle’s toolkit. Toolkits are often supplied with the motorcycle when purchased new, and provide all the right tools for basic DIY work. If you don’t have a toolkit with you, it may be best to borrow one from a fellow rider who owns a similar motorcycle. If you’re reading this now and realize that you don’t have a toolkit, it may be the right time to start building one for yourself. After you’ve got your tool kit out, it’s now time to understand your problem a bit better.

The starter won’t turn

Motorcycle Ignition

One of the more common issues a rider may experience is finding that the starter won’t turn after the starter button is pushed. No sound, no movement. Most of the time, the underlying issue of this symptom is electrical. Either your battery might be on its way out, or you might be encountering issues with your electrical starting system. If you have a kickstart, it might be a good idea to try it. If you don’t, it might be time to disassemble a few panels and get those tools to work.

The first thing to check would be the battery. Disconnect the negative terminal first, tighten the positive terminal next, and then reconnect and tighten the negative terminal. If this doesn’t seem to work, the next thing to check would be the starting system. Locate the starter relay, and trace the electrical wires coming off from the starter button. Disconnect the battery’s negative terminal, tighten all electrical plugs and nuts, and attempt to clean your fuses and relays with a clean towel. If none of these seem to work, you might have a larger underlying problem, like a dead battery, or a faulty starting system. At this point, it may be best to attempt a push start or have your bike towed.

The starter turns, but the engine won’t start

Motorcycle Spark Plug

Another common issue would be a working starter, but an engine that won’t fire up. This issue has more to do this time with the fuelling and ignition systems of the motorcycle than it has to do with the starting system. Your bike may be encountering faulty fuelling or a weak spark.

When faced with this issue, it would be best to start with the fuel system. Check that your tank has a good amount of fuel. If you have the right fuel in the tank, the problem might be how fuel is delivered from the tank to the engine. For carbureted motorcycles, attempt closing off the petcock, and draining the carburetor’s fuel from the float chamber through the drain screw found near the bottom of the carburetor. For fuel-injected motorcycles, trace the hoses and electrical components from the tank, disconnect the battery’s negative terminal, and proceed to tighten nuts and sockets with your wrenches, and clean the relays and fuses using a clean towel.

If this doesn’t seem to work, it might be best to explore the ignition and spark system this time around. Disconnect the battery’s negative terminal again, and trace all the wires from the spark plug. Again, proceed to tighten all the nuts and sockets, and clean the relays and fuses with a towel. You can also check that your spark plug is producing spark by removing the spark plug, connecting it to the spark plug wire, and starting the motorcycle. You should see a spark jumping off the tip of the plug. If you don’t, repeat the previous few steps.

The engine starts, then dies immediately

KTM Engine

If your starting system is working fine, and your engine proceeds to start, you have a working starter, but if your engine shuts off right after firing it up, you might have issues with your air system or fuelling. The most common problem of this symptom is an engine that runs too lean – having too much air in the mixture during combustion. Apart from running too lean, your engine might also be too cold, or your fuelling system may not be delivering enough fuel to start the bike.

If you’re encountering this issue, the first thing you should attempt is to manually choke the air intake of the motorcycle. Locate the airbox of the motorcycle, remove the cover, and locate the air filter. Find a plastic bag or a thick towel, and use this to cover the air filter with your hand in order to restrict airflow. Attempt to start the bike, and keep the air filter covered until your motorcycle’s engine warms up. If this doesn’t work, it might be best to inspect the fuelling and spark systems once again. Instructions for fuel and spark system inspection can be found in the last two paragraphs of the previous section.

Attempt a push start

Motorcycle Push Start

If all of the above may not be possible because of the lack of a toolkit, spare parts, or time to diagnose and troubleshoot, it may be a good idea to attempt to give the bike a rolling start. Turn your ignition system on, walk your motorcycle to about 10 kilometers per hour or faster, get on the bike and sit on the seat, shift to 2nd gear, and release the clutch abruptly while on 2nd gear. The momentum of your wheels should spin the bike’s engine up, and should theoretically be able to start your bike. If this doesn’t work, it may be a good idea to revisit the above sections or have your bike towed to the nearest service center or mechanic.

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