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How to Shift a Motorcycle's Gears

Tips on How to Operate a Motorcycle's Manual Gearbox

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One of the most challenging aspects of learning to ride a motorcycle is how to shift gears. The task adds a layer of complexity for those already familiar with how to drive a manual transmission car, and can be especially daunting for new riders who have zero experience with a manual transmission. But have no fear: shifting a bike can be easily mastered with practice, and is much simpler than it looks.

The Basics

There are three basic controls to operate when it comes to shifting a motorcycle: 1) the throttle, 2) the clutch, and 3) the gear selector. The throttle revs the engine, the clutch engages and disengages the transmission, and the gear selector-- you guessed it-- selects the gear. Pull the clutch towards you using your left hand, and you can rev the engine without moving the bike forward. But release the clutch while the transmission is "in gear" (ie, not in neutral), and you'll move the bike forward.

The gear pattern is selected by clicking a lever with your left foot, and is typically laid out as follows:

  • 6th gear (if applicable)
  • 5th gear
  • 4th gear
  • 3rd gear
  • 2nd gear
  • NEUTRAL
  • 1st gear

The Technique

Proper shifting technique requires the following maneuvers to be performed smoothly and deliberately:
  1. Disengaging the clutch (using your left hand to pull it towards you)
  2. Selecting the appropriate gear using the shift lever (with your left foot)
  3. Slightly revving the engine (twisting the throttle with your right hand)
  4. Gradually releasing the clutch (and not "popping" it suddenly)
  5. Feathering the throttle while releasing the clutch, which will accelerate the bike
  6. Revving the engine for acceleration until another shift is needed
The mechanics of shifting a motorcycle is as easy as those six steps, but doing so smoothly requires practice, practice, practice! Know your controls inside and out, and get a feel for how they work. Practice riding in an environment like an abandoned parking lot, so you don't have to deal with traffic or other distractions. And most importantly, stay safe and aware during the learning process so you're able to focus all of your attention on the task at hand.

Frequently Asked Questions

You'll probably find that shifting a motorcycle is easier than it sounds; once you get a feel for where and the how the clutch disengages, how much throttle is required for smooth acceleration, and how much effort the shifter needs, the whole process will become easier and require less concentration.

Here are a few common questions and answers about shifting:

Q: How do I know when to shift gears?
A: There is no mathematical equation for optimum shift points. Revving high is not required for most onroad riding conditions, and should generally be avoided, as should shifting so early that the engine can't produce enough power for adequate acceleration. Typically, the sweet spot of the engine's powerband-- ie, where it produces enough torque to provide the most efficient acceleration-- is the point at which most engines "want" to be shifted. Because engines deliver their most effective power at considerably different rpms, use your instinct to decide when it's time to shift.

Q: How do I find neutral?
Finding neutral is one of the most common difficulties faced by new riders. "Finding" neutral might take extra effort with some gearboxes, but a bit of patience and a gentle touch makes the task easier. Gently nudge the shifter downwards from second gear, while pulling the clutch all the way in. If you're not pulling the clutch all the way, it might be harder to get into neutral. Look to the instrument panel for a neutral indicator light, which is usually green in color. If you're overshooting neutral and going into first gear (which is a very common), use the edge of your boot so you don't apply too much pressure to the shifter... with enough practice, you'll get a feel for how to find neutral without even thinking about it!

Q: How can I shift more smoothly?
A: The most effective way to shift smoothly is to pay attention to your bike's behavior: if your motorcycle jerks while you're letting out the clutch, you're probably doing too abrupt with your left hand. If you're lurching ahead during shifts, you might be applying too much throttle. And if your motorcycle slows down during shifts, you might not be revving the engine enough between gear changes, which will allow the engine to actually slow down the bike. Smooth shifting is all about paying attention to the way the clutch, the throttle, and the gear selector interact, and orchestrating the three with each other.

Q: How do I slow down for a red light or a stop sign?
A: Because each gear operates within a certain range of speeds, you'll need to downshift if you end up going too slow for the gear you've selected. Let's say you're cruising along at 50 mph in 5th gear and need to come to a complete stop: the proper way to slow down is to downshift as you decelerate, selecting a lower gear and letting out the clutch while feathering the throttle to match revs. Doing so will not only allow you to use engine braking to help slow down, it will enable you to accelerate again if a light changes or if traffic conditions change and a stop is no longer necessary. If you come to a complete stop, it's best to shift into neutral, hold the brake, and only shift into 1st gear just before you're ready to go.

Q: What happens if I stall?
A: Don't worry if you stall out your motorcycle, but take immediate steps to start your bike up and get moving; staying stationary when traffic accelerates around you is dangerous, so you'll want to pull the clutch, start up the bike, shift into first, and get moving as soon as possible.

Q: Is it OK to skip gears?
A: If you wish to rev higher but skip a gear, doing so will result in roughly the same rate of acceleration (though each gear change will take longer.) Though this may not be the smoothest way to ride, doing so can sometimes save gas if it's done efficiently.

Q: Should I leave the motorcycle in gear when I park it?
A: It's OK to leave your motorcycle in neutral when you're parked on level ground, but if you're parking at an incline, leaving it in gear (preferably 1st) will keep it from rolling off its side stand or center stand.

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