Why Is 1st Gear Down On A Motorcycle?

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When you ride a motorcycle for the first time, you may wonder “Why is 1st gear down on a motorcycle?” The reasons are wide and varied.

A motorcycle’s gear box is different from a car’s. Although there is no technical reason for positioning the 1st gear down, there are logical as well as ergonomically reasons for this arrangement, including safety. In addition, placing the first gear at the bottom makes it easier to pull away.

Motorcycle manufacturers only have a limited space to work in the compact frame of the motorcycle and they do not have many arrangements to choose from aside from the popular 1-N-2-3-4-5 pattern that is found on most bikes these days.

When I sat on my very first motorcycle, I definitely noticed the first gear is positioned the lowest, with the neutral in between the 2nd and 3rd gears, but did not give it much thought after that. Now that I have had decades of experience riding a motorcycle, I definitely see why it makes so much more sense to have the first gear at the very bottom of the gearbox. I would love to share my thoughts with you.

In this article...


Why Isn’t the First Gear Above Neutral?

Most motorcycles have sequential gearboxes for practical reasons. Some people would think that it makes more sense to make a N-1-2-3-4-5-6 pattern as opposed to the one found on motorcycles — however, those people probably have never ridden a motorcycle by themselves. Here are a few things to understand when you look at a motorcycle gearbox.

What is a Neutral for?                                                                       

The neutral gear is only for when your motorcycle is at a standstill. This is when your motorcycle is either parked or stops at a red traffic light. In a 1-N-2-3-4-5-6 gear box, if you want to slow down your motorcycle, you need to shift down each gear until you reach the 1st gear, which will keep your bike going at a slow pace. Keep in mind that to get to the first gear, you will need to pass the neutral gear, as well; however, simply switching between gears will not get you into neutral.

Now imagine if your bike’s gearbox were in an N-1-2-3-4-5-6 pattern. If you are riding your bike and want to slow down, it can be easy to accidentally shift completely down to neutral rather than to the first gear. If this happens, your motorcycle’s gearbox will disengage from the engine and your bike will not get the benefit of engine braking, which can help slow down your bike.

If you are moving at a particularly high speed or going downhill, this can result in a potentially risky situation, since your brakes will be working overtime and you will only have to rely on them to stop your bike.

In addition, if you accidentally shift into neutral when turning a corner and then try to accelerate out of the curve, you may lose control of your motorcycle easily with the sudden loss in power to the engines. Hence, neutral needs to be in a place that you can easily find when standing still but is difficult to select when you are on the move. That is why you can select neutral with just a simple nudge and not by pulling hard on your lever.

Selecting the neutral gear on a motorcycle should require conscious effort, while you should be able to select all the other gears by simply shifting up and down unconsciously. If neutral was positioned below the first gear, you may select it accidentally, particularly when you madly shift down in panic during an emergency stop situation.

What is a First Gear For?

The first gear is used for pulling away from a stop stage. This is why it is important to find the first gear easily with your foot without actively keeping count of it. If the neutral gear were at the bottom with the first gear and higher gears above it, you would have needed to keep careful count in your head every time you stop and pull away. When concentrating on the road before, that is not an easy task. Alternatively, you would need to go all the way down to neutral and then go up one position to first, which can be tricky to do in emergency situations.

If you are at a very slow corner or riding at parking lot speed where you need to shift to the first gear to prevent your engine from stalling, it would be easy to reach the neutral if it were at the very bottom. By placing the first gear before neutral, you won’t have to rely on the gear selector light, which is a feature that many bikes do not have. You can simply press the gear all the way down and know you are in first gear.

Since the first gear is at the bottom, the only other place to put the neutral gear is directly above it. It would not make a lot of sense to place neutral between the second or third gear or between the third or fourth gears. By segregating the lowest gears in your motorcycle, you can easily select first or second without hunting for the right gear.

First Gear as the Landing Gear Makes Much More Sense

Riders do not need to use the neutral gear often when they are riding. Even if you want to land into neutral, you can easily do so by pressing the clutch lever in your hand. Therefore, placing neutral as the motorcycle’s landing gear does not offer much value at all.

However, the first gear cannot be reached simply by using the clutch. If you want to achieve first gear, you will need to downshift from the higher gears by pressing the shift lever in quick succession. In addition, motorcycle riders need to achieve the first gear every time they want to slow down quickly but keep moving forward at the same time.

Because of this reason, having the first gear as a landing gear makes much more sense than having a neutral as a landing gear.

Having First Gear At the Bottom is a Safer Option

If you suddenly find yourself in an emergency situation, your primal instincts would dictate that you drag the press the shift gear down, down, down in an effort to slow down your motorcycle. This is why having the first gear at the very bottom is a safer option than a neutral gear.

If the neutral gear was positioned at the bottom, during an emergency situation when you instinctively press down to the lowest gear, your motorcycle will be left with no power. Although the engine will make a roaring sound, it will not transmit any power to the bike, which can increase your anxiety.

However, with the first gear on the lowest point, your bike will keep moving forward at a slow pace and you will retain control of the motorcycle. This will also keep your bike in a gear that keeps your engine engaged and keeps you moving at a very slow speed.

Consider this example: You are riding down the hill and you feel the brakes are not working right. You panic and quickly start downshifting without keeping the count straight in your head. If the lowest gear is neutral, you may accidentally shift to it and then realize you need to shift up to keep moving. So, in a panic, you shift up — and accidentally move to a higher gear.

However, if the first gear is placed at the lowest position, your panic will lead you to it. This will allow your gearbox to stay engaged with the engine and to make the most of the engine brake to slow you down in a safer way. Hence, this is a reason why first gear is placed before the neutral.

First Gear Is Not Used for Driving

The main function of the first gear is not for driving. In fact, it is only ever used to move your motorcycle from a full rest position to a start. Unless you have to drive up on a steep hill, there is hardly a need for first gear to drive you. Hence, placing the first gear at the very bottom and the neutral between the second gear and the first gear signals the rider subconsciously to drive their motorcycles on at least a second gear.

When slowing down, you would ideally want to shift to a second gear, rather than the first gear. The second gear is the lowest gear that the motorcycle manufacturer wants you to stay on when your motorcycle is moving. When you are riding on a motorcycle, you will understand why that is so.

If you drive on the first gear, you will experience a scratchy ride. You will only feel your motorcycle running smoothly once you put it into second gear.

Because of the reason that the first gear is used to transition your motorcycle from a resting phase to the moving phase, the first gear is placed differently from other gears. You should start riding in earnest from the second gear only. The first gear should ideally only be reserved for starting the bike.

First Gear At the Bottom Prevents You From Engaging the Second Gear by Mistake

When you stop at a red traffic light, you will place your gear to neutral since your motorcycle is at a stop. Only when the signal has turned green would you want to start moving your bike and shift your gear lever to the first gear. Once you start gaining momentum, you will switch to the second gear to enjoy a smooth ride.

However, consider if your gear shift pattern had a neutral as its landing gear with the rest of the gears, including the first gear, above it. There is a chance you may accidentally shift from neutral directly to the second gear, skipping the first gear entirely in your haste.

When you are transitioning from a stop to a moving phase, your engine cannot produce enough power to move at a gear higher than the first gear. So if you transition directly to the second gear, your bike will stall abruptly in the middle of the road, which can be dangerous.

However, if your motorcycle  has a 1-N-2-3-4-5-6 gear shift pattern, it is impossible to select the second gear when pulling away from a stop since the first gear is below the neutral, not below the second gear. The downshift will naturally take you seamlessly to the first gear. Hence, there is no possibility that your bike will stall from not getting enough power.

Why are Higher Gears Up and Low Gears Down?  

During my tenure as a motorcycle riding instructor, I have heard a lot of questions about the sequence of the gears — even ones that I never thought of. One such question is why you need to switch up to achieve a higher gear and switch down to achieve a lower gear (with the exception of the neutral and first gear).

The main reason for this is given in the US Code of Federal Regulations’ Title 49. This is how you change gears on a motorcycle:

  • The left handlebar is used for gear changing and manual clutch
  • The upward motion of the motorcycle rider’s toes shifts transmission to higher gears and the downward motion of the motorcycle riders toes shift transmission to lower gears
  • If there are three or more gears, it should not be possible for riders to shift directly from the highest gear to the lowest gear or from the lowest gear to the highest gear

Even though this is the law, it does try to make motorcycle riding more intuitive. It is easier to remember that you need to push up to go up one gear and push down to go down one gear. In addition, pushing down a lever to achieve a lower gear is easier than hooking a foot under the gear level to switch up. Therefore, you need less effort and concentration when applying engine brake if you want to come to an emergency stop. Pulling up for a higher gear also makes sense when you accelerate since the adrenaline rush from the acceleration will make it easy for you.

In addition, when you accelerate and gear up, the inertia pushes you backward, so pulling the lever up makes more sense. When you slow down and go to a lower gear, your body moves forward slightly so pushing down makes more sense.

Hence, pulling up for an upper gear and pushing down for a lower gear makes logical and ergonomic sense. So do all motorcycles have the same 1-N-2-3-4-5-6 gear sequence?

Not always!

Some Motorcycles Have Different Gearbox Sequences

There are some race bikes that come with a reverse pattern gearbox. They require you to push down to gear up and pull up to go to a lower gear. This kind of sequence is created to help with switching to a higher gear when accelerating out of a turn or corner. When the superbike is heavily leaning to one side and the rider’s knee is close to the asphalt, he does not have enough space to get the foot easily under the gear lever without risking losing their balance.

If you consider the example of the scooter, Vespa, you will need to use your left hand to rotate a cylinder around the handlebar to change gears, rather than use your foot. In this case, the layout of the gear is the same as other motorcycles: 1-N-2-3-4. However, the main difference is that the rider needs to rotate the cylinder towards themselves (anticlockwise) to achieve the first gear and away from themselves (clockwise) to switch to higher gears while pulling the clutch in.

There are more modern motorcycles that come with automatic transmissions that do not require manual shifting of the gears. For example, Honda’s Dual-Clutch Transmission shifts gears by itself and also provides you with a semi-automatic way to use the shift buttons to change gears. The DCT technology is available in several models of Honda.

There are also some older models of motorcycle in developing countries like India which have a gear pattern of N-1-2-3-4. This means you need to keep count of the gears when shifting or rely on a green indicator light to let you know whether you are in the right gear.

Why Do Motorcycles Have Sequential Gearboxes?

If you have ever driven a manual stick-shift car, you would know that you can easily shift from one gear to another in a go. However, the gearbox on a motorcycle does not allow this since the vehicle is more compact than a car and hence less space. Therefore, a car gearbox design is not practical for it. The only way to manually shift gears on a motorcycle is through a shift drum with the sequential gates cut into it.

Hence, the logical and the best arrangement is the 1-N-2-3-4-5-6 one.

Having said that, if you want to brake hard for cornering and want to quickly downshift from the fifth gear to the second gear, it is definitely possible to step on the gear lever thrice in quick succession while keeping the clutch in.

In fact, there are many motorcycle riders who come to a full stop in a high gear by pressing on the clutch all the way to the fifth. In my humble opinion, this may not be the safest and best practice as you cannot benefit from engine braking. In addition, if your hand slips from the clutch for a moment, your bike can lurch forward in heavy traffic, which can be very dangerous.

I hope that this guide made it easy for you to understand why the first gear is down in a motorcycle instead of the neutral. These may seem like a lot of words but it can raise some important questions for beginner motorcycle riders, such as “Which gear should you stop in?,” “Why should you downshift when slowing down your motorcycle?” and “When should you use a first gear on a motorcycle?”

The more you understand how a bike works, the better and more defensive a rider you will become.


Russ Crowley

Russ Crowley

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.

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