Understanding How the Clutch Works
A motorcycle’s clutch allows you to stop the engine from driving the transmission. This will stop the power from being transmitted to the transmission and rear wheel. This is very necessary since if you keep applying the power constantly, you would not be able to shift gear or stop your bike because the engine will keep forcing your bike to drive at an idle. In this case, shifting to neutral would be the only way to stop your motorcycle.
This is why the function performed by your clutch is critical. There are some people who would advise you to always shift to neutral and let out the clutch when coming to a stop. The truth is that it is not completely necessary as you will not cause excess wear to the clutch plates with the engines engaged.
So how exactly does a clutch work?
As a motorcycle rider, when you pull on the clutch lever, it engages the clutch. This means that the mechanism uses a rod to push a pressure plate, which has the purpose to apply and remove force from the rest of the components of the clutch. As pressure is applied to this plate, it will push against a series of springs. This will position the pressure plate to sit slightly above the friction discs and clutch plates. The subsequent decrease in pressure will allow the clutch plates to slip against the friction discs. When the pressure plate is fully engaged, it will allow the clutch plates and the friction discs to spin freely. The engine drive will also become disconnected from the transmission and we say that the bike is “freewheeling.”
When you release the clutch, the opposite happens. The rod pushing the pressure plate will retract to its original position, resulting in the clutch springs pressing the pressure plate onto the clutch pack. As the friction increases, the friction discs and the clutch plates will spin together, reconnecting the engine to the transmission.
So Why is Holding the Clutch in Not Bad in a Motorcycle?
So y7ou may be wondering why this isn’t bad for your motorcycle. The entire process seems like it should be wearing out some things because of the friction. As anything that experiences friction, it generates heat and results in wear and tear.
The point of the friction plate is to create friction, which will allow the transmission to couple to the engine. However, keep in mind that the friction is not constant — it only occurs when the clutch plates and the friction plates start to engage. At this point, these two components are just starting to make contact with each other and are still spinning independently. This will cause heat and wear and tear as they rub against each other.
Once the friction and clutch plates are fully engaged, they stop slipping and this removes the friction that causes wear and tear. Hence, as you can see, your motorcycle will only experience major heat and wear just as the clutch is engaging and just as the clutch is disengaging. This is what we call the “friction zone.”
When the clutch has been fully engaged or disengaged, the heat generation and wear and tear is minimal. That is why it is not bad to hold in the clutch in the motorcycle.
There are also some situations in which you will need to ride your motorcycle with the clutch only halfway engaged or disengaged. This situation is not as “riding the clutch” and it allows the plates to slip somewhat so that only a specific amount of power is transferred to the transmission and rear wheel
Although the clutch on your motorcycle will definitely wear faster when it is in the friction zone, there are certain situations when it is necessary to ride your motorcycle with the clutch in the friction zone. However, you should also keep in mind that the clutch in motorcycles is quite durable and advanced motorcycle riding training courses show bikers how to use the clutch in the friction zone to ride their bikes properly.
Types of Clutches
The wear and heat generation when applying the clutch also depends on what type of clutch your motorcycle is equipped with. There are two main types of clutches: wet and dry clutches. Let’s find a bit about them.
A wet clutch is more durable since it does not produce too much heat when it is in the friction zone. It engages smoothly and does not produce a lot of noise. However, its major drawback is that it can contaminate the engine oil by depositing its wear particles in the oil. However, the oil filter can largely prevent this from happening.
A wet clutch runs in oil and causes drag so there is also more loss of power as compared to a dry clutch.
Dry clutches are not submerged in oil and hence experience a lower amount of power loss, which means more power will be transferred to the bike’s wheels. On the other hand, a dry clutch wears faster and runs hotter if the motorcycle is driven in the friction zone frequently.
A dry clutch produces louder noise and is more difficult to engage smoothly. However, one upside of this type of clutch is that it is separated from the engine oil, which means its wear will not result in contamination.
Holding the Clutch in Different Riding Situations
When riding a motorcycle, you will experience different scenarios when it is necessary to use the clutch. I have explained them below.
Holding the Clutch at a Stop
It is important to be mindful of the clutch even when you are stopping. If you are simply stopping at a red light for a few short moments, rather than put your bike in neutral, it is advisable to hold the clutch and put your motorcycle in first gear. With this, you can start moving as soon as the green light turns on. It also allows you to pull away quickly in case of an emergency situation, like a car that is coming in too fast and you need to get out of its way. However, make sure that you keep a steady hand on the clutch and not let it slip since that can be very risky.
Using the clutch recklessly and unnecessarily can cause it to heat up and wear away quickly, it is fine to hold it for road pauses, if you do not hit it too hard. The great thing about motorcycle clutches is that they are far more durable than car clutches when we constantly use them.
Holding the Clutch When Braking
Your brakes allow your motorcycle to move at an appropriate speed. However, pressing the clutch along with the brakes is not a good idea as it makes your bike unstable. Instead, you should slow down your rear wear by gently applying the brakes. This will slow down the engine and allow you to shift to a lower gear without hitting the clutch. This is a much better practice than simply pressing the clutch all the way in until the bike comes to a stop.
Holding the Clutch When Riding Downhill
When riding downhill, you should not be concerned about holding the clutch. Gravity will work for us and our motorcycle will roll down on its own. When you are holding the clutch when going downhill, you will not have any problem coasting and the motorcycle will move as long as its engine is running.
You can set your bike to neutral or allow it to coast with a clutch. Both these ways are fine as long as you exercise caution and do not drive too fast downhill. In emergency cases, remember to use your brakes as well.
When your clutch is out, engine braking can help stop your bike. You can use engine braking to reduce your speed when traveling downhill. However, once you have reached the bottom, you should prepare to turn on the engine again. Holding the clutch when riding at a slow speed on hills can generate large quantities of heat on the clutch itself, so it is better to use engine braking.
There are some economical riders who freewheel downhill with the clutch fully pulled in to save fuel. Not only will this not save fuel, it can also be very dangerous. With the clutch fully disengaged, there will be no engine braking to assist you and you will only have to rely on your brakes to stop the bike. This will make your brakes work harder, overheat the brake discs and cause them to wear excessively.
Many modern bikes come with fuel injection that shut off fuel delivery automatically when the bike is coasting in gear, so you will save more on fuel by staying in gear and rolling off the throttle.
When is it Necessary to Ride the Clutch?
There may be some circumstances when riding the clutch is necessary during normal everyday biking and adventure biking.
Riding the Clutch During Everyday Riding
In normal everyday bike riding, it is hardly ever necessary to ride your clutch in the friction zone. However, in some situations, it can be helpful.
Pulling Away on a Steep Hill
One of the only times that it may be necessary for riders to use their clutch in the friction zone during everyday riding is when they are starting their bike on a steep hill. This is because you need to feed in more power to the wheels to overcome the effect of gravity but you cannot release the clutch completely as your engine may stall.
Riding on Crawling Speed
Another situation that requires you to feather the clutch is when you are riding at a very slow space in a traffic jam. This is only necessary in first gear if your bike has tall gearing like a sports bike. It is a good idea to lightly pull in the clutch and release it slowly when going over speed bumps and going at a crawling pace. This will prevent your bike from jerking when you roll your throttle on or off in first gear.
If you are expecting your ride to be slow, it helps to have a low center of gravity in your bike, so carrying a saddlebag is a good idea.
Riding the Clutch on an Adventure Bike
If you use a dual sport or adventure bike, there are a few advanced skills that riders can utilize to use the clutch frequently.There are many instances when you will have to ride the clutch in the friction zone to send more power to the wheel or to shave off power in order to make your ride safer and easier. Here are some skills that require you to use the clutch in the friction zone.
Learning how to do wheelies can be quite useful as it can get your heavy bike over potholes, ditches, and other obstacles in your path. To make your ride more stable and controllable, you need to use the clutch to feed in power rather than popping your front wheel up using only the throttle. If you go too high, you can pull in the clutch completely, which will bring down your front wheel immediately.
Hence, if you need to wheelie your dirt bike, the clutch will make it safer to do so. Your clutch will not thank you for it and it will wear down more if you use it frequently; however, it will prevent your bike from flipping over.
Riding in Deep Sand
When you are off-roading through deep sand, you will need to keep your front wheel light and maintain your momentum. You may have heard that you need to keep on the throttle to keep the front wheel light; however, this way, you may ride way faster than you intended to and risk crashing.
To keep your front wheel light in a safe way while maintaining a controllable speed on your motorcycle, you should trail your rear brake while feathering the clutch to shave off power.
Riding through Muddy Ground
Riding through slippery mud can be very tricky since it offers no traction and compromises the stability of your ride. You will need to prevent your front wheel from skidding in the mud, otherwise you will wipe out very suddenly.
I advise that you take the path slowly and keep a controlled momentum so that you do not get bogged down. If your wheel wants to spin, use the clutch to shave off power. This means you will need to ride your bike’s clutch in the friction zone until you reach the other side.
Making a U-Turn
If you want to make a tight u-turn on a heavy bike, you may need to feather the clutch in the friction zone to keep your engine from stalling due to the decrease in momentum. To reduce your speed, you also need to trail your rear brakes while slowly applying the throttle. This will allow you to maintain control of your speed when taking tight curves.
Another way to make a u-turn is to make an elephant turn. You can do this by riding up to the turning point, applying the clutch, slamming the rear brakes effectively locking the back wheels, as you turn left. Quickly select the first gear before planting your foot on the ground to catch the bike.
Make a 90-degree swing while looking over the direction you need to go. Keeping the clutch in roll on the throttle, and then release the clutch to feed power to the wheels. With your bike still leaning over, the sudden transmission of power will reduce traction, spin your rear wheel and send the back of your bike into a power slide. Make sure this power slide is controlled, however. If you overdo it, trim down the power by pulling in the clutch slightly. As you pull out of the curve and straighten, let go of the clutch and ride on with full power.
What to Expect When Holding in the Clutch in the Wrong Situation When Braking
If you use the clutch under the wrong circumstances when braking, it can lead to some troubles in the long run.
Damaging Your Motorcycle’s Clutch Plates
If you keep your clutch pulled in halfway while you are riding, your clutch will constantly be in the friction zone, and it can cause a lot of damage to your bike’s clutch plates. Although riding in the friction zone is necessary some times, as we explained below, doing this unnecessarily can result in a decreased lifespan of your clutch plates.
Typically, you need to change your bike’s clutch plates after 60,000 miles of riding; however, if you get into the habit of making this error, you will need to replace your bike’s clutch sooner.
Keep in mind that clutch plates are extremely pricey, so make sure you exercise caution when using the clutch.
Not Able to Benefit From Engine Braking
If you are riding on a steep road, you should rely on engine braking to keep your bike in control. However, when you pull in the clutch all the way, it will disengage the engine, and you will not be able to take advantage of engine braking. This means you will only have your rear brakes to rely on if you want to stop suddenly.
Decreasing the Life of Your Brakes
If you regularly keep the clutch held in when riding, your brake will be the only thing that will stop your momentum and they will have to overwork to stop the bike. This will result in increased wear and tear of the bike’s brakes and they will need to be replaced sooner.
Not Stopping Quickly
Pulling the clutch alone will not help you stop the bike quickly. You still need the help of the brakes to reduce your momentum. If you want to stop your motorcycle using only the clutch, you will need to do so from a longer braking distance.
The Right Way to Use the Clutch on a Motorcycle
A motorcycle’s clutch is extremely durable and forgiving and can withstand significant abuse. However, you should still make sure to treat it well. Following the steps below will help you maximize the life of your clutch.
If you are pulling in your clutch lever to change a gear, you should pull it in all the way. Only pulling it halfway will not get it fully engaged, and you will end up damaging your clutch plate and transmission.
Once your clutch is completely in, you can downshift or upshift.
When letting the clutch out, do not simply drop it. Release it slowly and gradually as dropping it suddenly will wear it out more.
If you need to rev up when letting the clutch out, do not give too much power before you let go of the clutch. The sudden power to your wheel can cause your front wheel to lift up suddenly and jerk forward or even flip the bike over.
When stopping at a light, it is perfectly fine to sit in first gear with the clutch held in. Since this will disengage the engine completely, it will not result in excessive wear and heat.
Follow the simple tips and see your clutch last you for years to come.
How to Figure Out If You Are Operating on a Bad Clutch
How can you tell when your clutch is wearing out? There are several tell-tale signs that can let you know that your clutch is not working optimally.
- The first thing to do is to listen to how your motorcycle revs. With a worn down clutch, the bike will rev higher than normal. This happens when your clutch takes longer to recouple the transmission and the engine. As the bike is revving higher and is working harder, you will see you will be expending more fuel, reducing fuel economy.
- The second sign is how your bike shifts. As the clutch wears out, you will notice that your bike’s shift will not be smooth and seamless. With every shift, your bike will jerk and you may even hear a metal clank that is an indicator that the clutch is wearing out. If you notice that your bike is shifting hard, then you should get the tension on your clutch cable adjusted. If the cable has been adjusted all the way, then you need to change your clutch and friction plates.
- Another sign is that your clutch lever gets stuck. This could be a sign that something is wrong with the clutch or the clutch cable. If your bike is unable to get into gear, the clutch may be a culprit and it may be going out on you.
Although the clutch of your bike is more forgiving than a car, you should still ensure you use it carefully. Doing so will ensure your own safety when riding the bike.
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