Riding the Clutch on a Motorcycle

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A question that often comes up, particularly for new riders is about riding the clutch on a motorcycle.

When you are learning to ride it can be easy to fall into bad habits when using your clutch; after your CBT, you are left to your own devices and develop your own riding style pretty quickly.  

There are some circumstances where riding your clutch can be really useful but there are some when it is not necessary and can leave you with far less control than you need. 

We are going to cover everything you need to know about riding the clutch, the good, the bad, and the ugly, let’s start with laying out what we mean by the term ‘riding the clutch’. 

What does riding your clutch actually mean?

When we talk about riding the clutch, we do not mean when you are holding the clutch all the way so it is disengaged, for example when you are changing gears or at a standstill to prevent the bike from stalling. 

If you are holding the clutch partially or fully in as you are moving along, that is what we are referring to by riding the clutch. 

The car drivers among us will remember being told about the bite point when learning to drive, the friction zone that you enter between the clutch and accelerator. 

It is the same on a motorcycle but with our hand-controlled clutch lever and throttle instead. 

So, when we talk about riding the clutch we are talking about the times when the clutch is in the friction zone and is used to control the movement of the bike. 

Check out the basics of riding and clutch control here. 

When is riding your clutch useful?

In normal everyday riding, there are just a few reasons why you may ride the clutch and find that method useful. 

If you are on a dual-sport or adventure bike tackling off-road terrain, then you may need to use your clutch more frequently.

Slow speed manoeuvres

Motorcycle training site - PRT

Motorcycles tend to have quite tall first gears which make riding at a slow pace quite difficult without touching the clutch.

When undertaking your CBT, your instructor may have taught you how to feather the clutch. 

The process of pulling in and releasing the lever without letting it stall or fully engage, all the while maintaining a steady pace on the throttle and keeping the throttle hand still. 

The use of the clutch in this way controls the speed of the bike more easily and allows you to go slower. 

This is really useful for slow-speed manoeuvres like performing a U-turn or moving your bike around in a tight space like a car park or driveway when complete control is key.

It is also a useful technique to master if you undertake a lot of city riding, when you may find yourself stuck in slow-moving traffic. 

Hill starts

The second most relevant time you may find yourself riding the clutch is when you are moving from a stationary position when stopped on a hill.

You may find that you need to feed in more power with the throttle than usual to offset the toll gravity takes on you and the bike.

There are two things that can go wrong:

  1. You use too much throttle and shoot off too fast, maybe even causing a wheelie.
  2. You don’t give enough power, release the clutch too early and stall on the hill.

Neither of these is the ideal scenario. 

The best thing here is to give more throttle than you would from a flat stop, but pull the clutch in a little to the friction zone and slowly release once you have a bit of momentum going. 

Sand/Dirt riding

dirt bike

If you are on a dual-sport or adventure bike and find yourself riding in sand/mud/loose dirt then you may need to use your clutch more. 

In terrain where you could slip out or the front wheel needs to be kept light, then you need to give a lot of throttle, however, that can mean you go too fast in situations where you don’t want to when you need ultimate control. 

To counteract the power from the throttle, feathering the clutch can keep the speed down along with trailing the rear brake. 

Another really useful skill for adventure riders and off-roaders is learning to wheelie.

Yes, wheelies are just for the hooligans among us, that tear up the streets and give us all a bad name, right?

Wrong.

Wheelies can be really useful for big heavy adventure bikes to get over obstacles when riding off-road like bit potholes, tree branches etc. that otherwise can’t be avoided.

However, it is another situation where you legitimately might need to keep the clutch in the friction zone, in and out, to help gauge the height and length of your wheelie.

When shouldn’t you ride your clutch?

I mentioned earlier there are times when you definitely shouldn’t and don’t need to ride your clutch, it is important to take note of these as there are other ways to ride that leave your clutch well alone.

Pulling it in at corners

Some riders pull their clutch lever all the way in before a bend, freewheeling the bike around the corner. 

This is not good practice. 

When entering a bend you should be in a suitable gear to both take you in and out comfortably and safely. 

You don’t want to be going into bends too fast so you lose control or be in too high of a gear that you don’t have enough power to pull you out. 

Pulling your clutch in fully gives you no control over the speed and you cannot quickly blip the throttle to power out of the bend or even in the middle of the bend to counter your steering. 

Best practice is to make sure you are assessing the road ahead so you can select the correct gear and slow down before approaching the bend. 

Going down hills/traffic lights

Some riders trying to save fuel will fully compress the clutch lever as they roll down a hill, the fuel saved is very minimal and again this is not good practice.

With the clutch compressed there is no engine braking and therefore your brakes have to work harder to slow you down and bring you to a stop.

Bikes with fuel injection shut off the fuel delivery when you close the throttle anyway, so there is very little if anything to be gained. 

Another bad habit is when riders disengage the clutch when rolling to a stoplight. 

Then when stationary they select 1st gear. 

It is much better to work down the gears when slowing down as the engine braking will assist with slowing you down and you are in gear ready to move off again.

Many accidents occur when a rider is hit from behind in slow-moving traffic, if you are aware of your surroundings and in gear sometimes this can be avoided by moving off slightly if you see a vehicle approaching. 

This technique is not able to be used if you are not in gear as by the time you have engaged the clutch, it could be too late. 

Will riding the clutch damage your motorcycle?

The big question that most riders will ask is does it damage the bike? 

We know that riding a clutch in a car is a bad idea, I only have to remember my old BMW whose clutch I destroyed at West Midlands Safari Park in boiling heat. 

However, motorcycle clutches are slightly less temperamental. 

There are two types of motorcycle clutches, a wet clutch or a dry clutch.

In short, dry clutches don’t like sitting in the friction zone for long periods, the clutch plates get hot, and wear faster, which can lead to an expensive clutch replacement. 

Wet clutches can take more of a beating, they run cooler thanks to the oil lubrication and as a result, are more durable. 

Dry clutches tend to be found on Supersports from Ducati and MotoGp bikes as they lose less power transferred to the wheels than wet clutches do. 

If you are using your clutch properly and only riding it in the friction zone for short periods in the correct circumstances, then your clutch will not wear down quickly or need replacing any more often than any other component.

They are built to be tough and durable to withstand the everyday use of normal riding situations, so there isn’t too much to worry about. 

However, there are exceptions to this, for example, if you are using your Ducati 996 to do the daily commute into the city with lots of traffic and/or hill starts, it is likely your clutch will wear down far quicker than if you were using a Yamaha MT-07 with a wet clutch. 

Also, if you are riding your clutch unnecessarily and repeatedly then it will wear down quickly and need replacing which can be a pricey affair.