“You won’t even be thinking about it within two weeks.”
This is the default response when people are stressed about learning how to shift on a motorcycle for the first time. And while it is true, it’s not especially helpful.
We thought we’d write a step-by-step guide to help with this process.
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Clutch: This is the lever in front of your left-hand grip. Your clutch transfers torque from the engine to the transmission. It needs to be pulled in while changing gears. Read about riding the clutch.
Throttle: This mechanism is located inside the right-hand grip. Roll on (pull back) the throttle to accelerate, roll off (push forward) to reduce speed.
Shifter: This is located in front of your left footpeg and is used to select gears.
The idea is to allow your speed and revs per minute (RPM) to dictate what gear you are using.
Shifting to make sure you are in the right gear for the right situation does require some hand-eye-foot coordination to learn. But it genuinely will start to feel like second nature very quickly.
Most bikes use a one down, four/five up gear pattern. This means that from the neutral position, pushing down on the shifter with the ball of your foot will take you into first gear. Second, third, fourth, and fifth require you to hook your toe under the shifter and pull up.
Neutral gear is located between first and second.
- Make sure you’re in the neutral position (most bikes have a green neutral light) and start up your bike
- With the throttle off, pull the clutch in completely
- Push down on the shifter with the ball of your foot to select first gear. You should hear the transmission click into place
- Gently roll on the throttle while slowly releasing the clutch (seriously – release the clutch slowly)
OK. This is great. You’ve gone from stationary to moving. The problem is, you’ll soon hit the RPM limit of first gear and need to shift up into second. This follows a pretty similar process to what we’ve already described.
- Once you’re approaching the limit of first gear, roll off the throttle completely
- Pull in the clutch
- Hook your toe under the shifter and pull up until you hear the gear click into place
- Roll on the throttle while slowly releasing the clutch
Nice. We’re now ripping along in second gear.
Once we start to approach the limit of this gear it’ll be time to shift up again. To do this, we’ll repeat the exact same process as above – roll off the throttle, pull in the clutch, and pull up on the shifter until it clicks into the next gear. Then slowly roll on the throttle while releasing the clutch.
This process is the same as you accelerate and shift up through the gears.
As you lose speed the engine’s RPM will drop. This means you need to shift down into a lower gear or risk stalling.
To do this –
- Roll-off the throttle, gently applying the brakes (if rolling off doesn’t slow you down enough)
- Pull the clutch all the way in
- Press down on the shifter with the ball of your foot until you hear/feel it click
- Slowly roll on the throttle while releasing the clutch
When To Shift
When you reach peak torque in your current gear, you need to shift into the next one to continue accelerating.
This usually happens at somewhere between 75 – 90% of max RPM. For most of us, this isn’t something we need to be too focused on. So long as your shifts are clean, you should be OK. People racing sports bikes at the track will try to reach the exact, optimal RPM for shifting to get the most out of their bike (often without using the clutch). But worry about that later.
When slowing down as we approach traffic lights, a junction, or roundabout, shifting down gears helps in two ways.
- It slows us down by engine braking
- Leaves us in a gear that’s appropriate for the speed we’re travelling at when it’s time to accelerate again.
If we only applied the brakes without shifting down, the gear would be too high when we roll on the throttle – potentially stalling the bike.
- When buying new motorbike boots, check that they fit under the shifter – this is especially necessary if you ride something odd or custom
- Neutral exists in its own strange dimension between 1st and 2nd. When you shift through these gears, do it smoothly and decisively so as not to end up in the N zone
- You can safely skip gears if you keep the clutch held in. There are reasons why you might do this. Sometimes when rolling fast down a steep incline, you can afford to skip a gear or two as you accelerate. You might do the same if you suddenly lost momentum riding up a steep incline, dropping two gears at the same time to find a gear appropriate for your slower speed
- You can fit an aftermarket gear indicator to give you a visual way of checking what gear you are in