Gear Shift Control in a Motorcycle
When it comes to shifting gears on a motorcycle, you basically have to toggle three controls: the clutch, the throttle, and the shift lever.
Once you understand how these three controls work, you will gain a better understanding of how to shift your motorcycle properly without risking an accident or damaging the components.
Gear Shift Lever
In most motorcycles, a shift level is located at the lower left side of the bike where your foot will be positioned once you sit astride the bike. Dirt bikes and sports bikes come with short metal rods known as footpegs. If you sit on a motorcycle and place your feet on the footpegs, you will see that the shift lever is directly in front of your left foot.
Motorcycles are equipped with a sequential gear, with the first gear positioned at the very bottom, the neutral above that, and the second, third, fourth, fifth, and the sixth (if there is a sixth gear) above that.
To reach a lower gear, you need to press the lever down, and to reach a higher gear, you need to move the lever up with your foot. Every shift in gear will be accompanied by a small click which can help you identify if the gear has been correctly shifted.
Since this is a lever that is worked by the front of your foot, it is known as a toe shifter. In some racing bikes, you will find a heel-toe shifter that looks like a reverse toe shifter. To upshift, you need to tap down on the heel portion, and to downshift, you need to tap on the toe portion.
Aside from moving the shift lever, you also need to use the clutch when you are changing gears on a motorcycle. This lever is located on the left of your handlebar and can be worked by squeezing it with your left hand.
To engage the clutch, grab the clutch with your fingers and squeeze it down completely. This will fully disengage the power being transmitted to the rear wheel, preventing your bike from moving forward, even when you try to accelerate it.
As you gradually release the clutch lever, you will experience the clutch going in the friction zone. The friction zone is the point where the clutch begins to engage with the engine and start to transfer power to the rear wheel, prompting the motorcycle to move forwards.
When locating the friction zone, you need to roll on the throttle only minimally.
If you have a semi-automatic bike, it will not have a clutch and you will only need to activate the shift levers and buttons on the handlebar.
To safely shift your bike to a lower or higher gear, you need to play with the throttle. The throttle of the motorbike is placed on the right side of the handlebar and can be engaged by rolling your wrist.
Rolling your wrist forwards will result in you feeding less gas to the engine, which will slow down your motorcycle. Rolling your wrist towards you will result in feeding more gas to the engine, while accelerating your motorcycle.
That is why it is a good practice to keep your wrist in a flat position when starting your motorcycle.
How Do Motorcycle Gears Work?
Motorcycles that have manual transmissions are equipped with four to six gears, depending on their power, make, and size. When you switch the gears with the clutch lever, it moves the forks inside the transmission.
To switch the gears up and down, squeeze the clutch lever to disengage the power from the engine to the transmission. Once you have selected the gear, slowly release the gear so that it once again engages with the crankshaft and allows the bike to gain momentum.
Moving three different parts at once may seem complicated to beginners, but with practice, it will soon become muscle memory and you will be able to shift the gears on your bike without it stalling.
In addition, you also need to take care of how your bike behaves every time you shift gears. If your motorcycle is jerking when you release the gear, it could be because you are releasing the clutch too quickly which prevents a smooth and gradual transition between the transmission and engine.
If you feel that your motorcycle is slowing down during shift, it means that you may not have provided enough rev to the engine to maintain a speed that aligns with the gear. This can stall your bike. If this happens to you, you should pull the clutch again, restart your bike, switch to first gear, and get moving.
Once you get into the habit of riding your bike, you will be able to shift gears without putting too much thought into it. In the sections below, I have summarized the techniques for switching gears on a manual motorbike, so let’s get to it.
How to Shift Gears on a Motorcycle
There are basically three different situations in which you need to switch gears on a motorcycle:
- When starting your bike
- Shifting into a higher gear (Upshifting)
- Shifting into a lower gear (Downshifting)
Shifting Gears When Starting Your Bike
Putting the motorcycle into gear when starting is the easiest situation when it comes to switching gears on your bike.
- Make sure that your bike is in neutral before starting the engine, otherwise, your bike would lurch forward. Do not play with the throttle at this point.
- Squeeze the clutch lever fully against your handlebar
- Use your left foot to gently push down the clutch lever to the first gear. When the gear engages, you will hear a soft clicking sound.
- Let go of the clutch lever slowly until you can feel your bike starting to roll.
- Motorcycles usually have enough torque to start moving even if you do not rev them up. If you still feel your bike needs more engine power, then gently roll the throttle slightly towards you as you release the clutch.
- Apply only a little throttle at first so that your bike starts moving.
- Release the clutch fully and let your bike gain speed as you feed it more throttle.
As your speed increases, shift your bike to a higher gear. Let’s see how to do that.
Shifting Your Bike to a Higher Gear (Upshifting)
Once you have achieved sufficient momentum, you will need to shift to a higher gear. This is how you can do that:
- Fully roll off the throttle (close the rev)
- Squeeze the clutch lever fully and stop the power from being transmitted to the rear wheel
- Place your left foot under the shift lever and gently move it up a notch. If you have a heel shifter, press on the heel part of it to switch to a higher gear. If you are in first gear and you lift just halfway, you will enter into neutral gear. You need to lift again quickly to come to second gear. When the gear engages, you will be able to hear a small click and feel it with your foot.
- Release the clutch lever gently and apply some rev.
- Fully release the pressure from the clutch and feed some more power to the engine by rolling on the throttle
- Once you have gained enough speed, you can switch to third, fourth, fifth, or sixth gear. Just be sure to match your engine speed with it.
- If you accidentally skip a gear, it will not damage your bike just as long as you match the throttle to the gear you have shifted to.
Note: If you are an experienced rider, it is not necessary to engage the clutch to switch to a higher gear. Simply kick up the shift gear lightly with your foot and then down-blip the throttle to engage the higher gear. This will require some practice on your part, but it will save you a couple of seconds of shifting time and can reduce the wear on your clutch plates.
For beginners, it is easier to upshift than to downshift since the gears are moving to a higher level and you want to go faster. If you let go of the gear too fast, upshifting is much more forgiving and you may not experience too much jerk. However, keep in mind that releasing the clutch suddenly will send a burst of power to the rear wheel which can cause your bike to do a wheelie — which is something that I strongly recommend beginner users do not attempt.
Shifting Your Bike to a Lower Gear (Downshifting)
As a motorcycle rider, you will need to downshift if you want to reduce your speed with the help of the transmission and when stopping the bike. Here is how you can downshift step by step:
- Roll the throttle forwards and close it fully using the grip of your right hand
- Squeeze the clutch lever fully so that you disengage the transmission of power from the engine to the rear wheels
- Using your left toes, push down the shift lever to go into a lower gear.
- Gently release the clutch and feed some power to the engine by rolling on some throttle.
- In case you want to reduce speed or come to a full stop, you can benefit from engine braking. For this, you need to apply the throttle and reduce the engine’s rpm which will cause the bike to slow down.
- When shifting down on your bike to get more power from the engine, apply the same amount of rev that you had before shifting.
For beginner users, downshifting on a motorcycle can be much less smooth, unless you have slipper clutches. This means that if you accidentally release the clutch too quickly, the rear tire will lose traction and will send your bike into a skid. You will also damage your clutch plates, gear, and engine if you do this.
That is why clutch control is extremely important for smooth and controlled gear switching. You should also keep this in mind when downshifting to turn corners.
Another thing you need to keep in mind is to use the throttle and a slight blip application to smoothen the transition from a higher to a lower gear and create a seamless connection between the engine and the rear tire.
What is a False Neutral?
When shifting to another gear, it is very possible that your bike may fall into what is known as a “false neutral.” This is when you fall between gears when switching between the second and third gear, third and fourth gear, and so on.
This happens when you do not provide sufficient movement and the dogs disconnect from one gear but do not quite connect to the other gear. This means the connection is not complete and no power is sent to the rear wheel.
If this happens to you, you need to pull in the clutch once again, put your foot underneath the shift lever, and pull up to go briefly into a higher gear. This will reduce the risk of gear damage.
A good way to prevent false neutral is to make sure that you pull the shift lever with your foot and leave it there until you have released the clutch fully. There may be some situations where having your foot placed below the shift lever is not ideal, like if there is low clearance and you risk dragging it on the ground. You need to use your commonsense in these cases and prioritize your safety first.
Tips on Safely Shifting Gears on a Motorcycle
- Practice is a surefire way to learn how to shift gears the right way. Take your bike to a safe environment that has plenty of paved and even ground and does not have traffic or obstacles
- Your motorcycle will let you know when it is time to shift. All you need to do is to listen to it. If it makes a high whining noise at a high speed, it means you have waited too long to shift to a higher gear. If it makes a low whirring noise or starts to lurch, it means you need to downshift ASAP.
- Make use of your clutch lever. If you rev up too suddenly or are in need of some more practice, just squeeze the clutch completely to stop sending the engine power to the rear wheel. Then use your right thumb to cut off power to the engine.
- Make sure you wear your helmet and safety gear when riding a bike.
Learning how to shift gears on a motorcycle requires a lot of practice in the beginning. However, perfecting the right riding techniques is what makes it so fun and exciting.
However, if you are still not confident about your gear switching ability, you might consider getting yourself an automatic or semi-automatic bike, which is significantly easier to operate since it does not have a clutch.
About THE AUTHOR
Russ currently owns a Yamaha FZ6N and KTM RC 390. When it comes to vintage bikes, his favorite motorcycle is the feisty BMW R32. He also holds a particular interest in the LAMS segment and triple cylinders. Himself a riding enthusiast, Russ has had experience with racetracks from around the world including Willow Springs Raceway in California and the Imola Circuit in Italy.Read More About Russ Crowley