It is an idyllic Sunday morning in mid-April; the sun is shining, and the temperature has finally risen high enough above the bone-chilling cold of winter that a motorcycle ride is finally in the works (if you’re anything like me after the cabin fever of winter, that’s about 40 degrees Fahrenheit).
To escape the memory of countless card games and to remember what it’s like to be anything other than a couch potato, you rush out to the garage like a kid on Christmas.
With your thickest riding gear already on, you throw up the garage door and saddle up on the hog, but to your dismay, frustration, and possibly tears, the darn thing just won’t kick over.
Well, blast it, let’s get you out on the road!
Here’s the short answer to why your motorcycle won’t start after winter:
A bad battery, damaged fuel lines, degraded fuel and lack of fuel are major reasons your motorcycle won’t start after winter. Other reasons include damaged or corroded spark plugs and spark plug wires, damaged electrical components and electric starter failure, among others.
Do a Visual Inspection First
At the beginning of every riding season, it is important to do a visual inspection of any motorcycle you’ll be riding before jumping the gun and whipping it around! Sometimes the eye can detect a problem (and solution) before you get too sad about a lifeless motorcycle.
A few things that should get the eye before even starting it up:
- Fuel & Brake Lines. Rubber hosing has a tendency to corrode over time, and crack under the duress of extreme temperatures. The older the lines, the better chance the winter has had its way with them. Braided metal brake lines, while certainly a great alternative to standard rubber lines, can corrode, wear, or rip over time.
- Try to get a 360-degree view of your engine. Take a look at your engine for any signs of micro-cracking that can be caused by extreme temperature fluctuations that happen during the winter months when the degrees rise during the day and plummet at night. Check under the bike for any oil/fluid leaks that may have occurred while the bike was hibernating. And if everything is ok, the worst that happened was that you checked out a bunch of cool chrome for a minute!
- The nose knows. Although this short section is dedicated to a visual inspection, take a sniff or two! Any obvious odors like gas or coolant can indicate that you might want to take a look at your fuel delivery system or liquid coolant system before you get going anywhere.
- Check your tires for balding or cracking. Just like the fuel and brake lines, the rubber in your tires can crack, bulge, or wear out. While this isn’t going to help you get the bike started, it’s never a bad idea.
The Battery Is Bad
One of the first things to check if a motorcycle won’t start after winter is the battery. Batteries that aren’t 100% up to snuff in the charge department are going to freeze at anything below 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
Even if you’ve kept your motorcycle stored in a heated garage or temperature-regulated storage unit, several months of inactivity can certainly drain a battery that wasn’t at a full charge when stored.
Use a voltmeter to test your battery. Most motorcycles have a 12-volt battery which should read at somewhere between 12.6 and 12.8 volts. Simply put the two probes from your volt meter on each of the battery’s terminals and switch to the V (for volts) position on the tester knob.
If your battery is reading below this choice voltage, it’s probably not going to be able to power your electric starter. No electric starter, no vroom!
One excellent way to care for the life of your battery is to invest in a trickle charger. These relatively inexpensive battery tenders make sure that your battery is living up to its full potential even during the downtime of winter.
Choke For a Cold Start
Even if the snows of winter have receded from the roads, chances are you’re going to be braving it in weather that even your motorcycle thinks is cold. And motorcycles, especially ones with carburetors, don’t like to start in the cold.
A choke lever or plunger works by ‘choking’ some of the air out of the air/fuel mixture to create a richer atomized mist of fuel. When this gas-rich mixture enters the combustion chamber, there is a much better chance of the micro-explosion needed to fire up the pistons.
To cold start a motorcycle using a choke, simply pull out the choke plunger or raise the choke lever. Now press the starter and hear it roar to life!
When a motorcycle has been choked, leave it like this to warm up for several minutes. Once your bike has reached normal operating temperature, be sure to press the plunger or lower the choke lever. It is important that you don’t ride a bike that is being choked, it can lead to further problems!
Always Check Your Exhaust for Blockage
When I store my bike for long periods of time, I make sure to place an exhaust plug in my tailpipe. This is because where I live there are lots of critters looking for places to nest through the winter, as well as desert-level dust always blowing through the air.
If the motorcycle that won’t start after the winter was originally stored by someone else (or you plumb forgot), take a look to make sure you didn’t forget to pull out whatever it is you stuffed in the exhaust pipe for the winter!
Check the Fuel Levels
This one might seem like a no-brainer, but did you top off your fuel level? If you are going to take good care of your motorcycle by garaging or storing it for winter, chances are it’s a good idea to drain the fuel tank and lines before letting it sit.
Recently I was working on a restoration and after replacing the parts I needed to get the motorcycle going, I just couldn’t start it. 20 head-slapping minutes later, I realized I hadn’t refueled it. We all make mistakes!
If your fuel tank and lines have been completely emptied, re-fuel it and let it sit for a couple of minutes to get the fuel running through the lines to the correct level.
Gasoline Ain’t What It Used to Be
It was once common lore that gas could sit in a fuel tank for 3 to 6 months before it went bad. Because ethanol has become common in most gasoline, that has changed. The oxidization (exposure to oxygen) that causes the chemical breakdown in gasoline now causes gas to go bad in 1 to 3 months instead!
This is another reason why it is a great idea to drain your fuel tank and lines at the beginning of winter or any other time you’re going to be storing a bike. Although old gas may still be flammable, noxious, and downright stinky, it isn’t going to burn nearly as well as fresh, clean gasoline.
If your bike has sat for an extended period of time with gasoline slowly deteriorating inside the tank and lines, go ahead and drain it all out and replace it with new gas. If this was the issue keeping your motorcycle from starting after the winter, you might be out cruising the streets sooner than you think!
Corroded Spark Plugs and Spark Plug Wires
Storage, especially in fluctuating temperatures and levels of humidity, can do untold damage to both metal and rubber. Even if your spark plugs were firing great when you garaged the motorcycle in the fall, they might not be now.
Interior fouling and corrosion of the spark plugs may be due to minimal amounts of humidity in the air as your bike stays dormant.
If the plugs aren’t firing consistently and burning up this negligible vapor, it can lead to corrosion on your spark plug. Black fouling from a rich fuel mixture or white, chalky tarnish from a lean fuel mixture can make spark plugs useless when they are needed the most.
Depending on the brand (and your amount of riding), most spark plug wires should be changed every 30,000 to 90,000 miles. If yours are reaching the peak of their performance and have sat through winter, they could very well have kicked the bucket.
Use an electrical tester to see if your spark plugs or spark plug leads have gone to Heaven. If so, replace them for a quick and easy fix to get your motorcycle started after the winter!
Damaged Wiring Causes Electrical Start Issues
Similar to spark plugs and their leads, damaged wiring exposed to air and humidity may have deteriorated over the cold winter months to the point that they just can’t hack it anymore.
If you have gone through the other solutions on our checklist and have determined that it is your wiring, go ahead and run through the wiring harness.
Make a visual inspection first for any frayed or burned wires, even if your bike was running beforehand. If you suspect one circuit over another, use a voltmeter to Ohm the potentially affected wiring.
Word to the wise-wiring issues can lead you down a week’s-long rabbit hole and take some of your long-lasting sanity with you. If it does end up being a wiring short, you’ll be glad you spent the greenbacks on a local mechanic’s expertise!
Electric Starter Failure
Many things in life are certain, and one of these certainties is electrical starter failure. If your electrical system has slowly been leeching the power off your battery, it could have affected your starter. Use a voltmeter to test your starter. If it has gone bad, you’ll need to replace it.
One way to see if the starter is an issue would be to push start it. If it starts right up, it’s likely an issue with your electric starter.