Probably one of the most intimidating aspects of learning to ride a motorcycle for the first time is learning how to shift and using the clutch. In this video we demonstrate proper techniques for both learning how to ride as well as more advanced techniques for shifting smoothly.
If you’ve never ridden a motorcycle before, then you need to know a few basic concepts before you hop on. Almost all motorcycles use a standard, or manual transmission. If you have driven a car with a manual transmission, you have a bit of an advantage, but there are some key differences. The first difference is obvious: you use your left foot to shift the gears and your left hand to operate the clutch. The second difference, is the motorcycle’s transmission is sequential – all that means is you have to shift the gears in order 1, 2, 3, 4, 3, 2, 1 and so on. Shift down by pressing down on the shift lever, and shift up by sticking the toe of your boot underneath the lever and lifting up. You should feel a solid click with each shift.
Shifting into Neutral
The first thing you’ll want to do when you hop on is find neutral. Most bikes have a green light, sometimes with “N” or “Neutral” on it that you’ll want to look for. Neutral is typically located between 1st and 2nd gear. First step is to click all the way down until you can’t shift anymore. This should have you in 1st gear (you’ll want to verify if this is true for your particular bike before you get started). If the lever feels very notchy or doesn’t want to go, try roll the bike back and forth just slightly to free up the gears. Once you are all the way down in first, apply a small amount of upward pressure to the shift lever, until it clicks into neutral. If your ignition is on, the green light should come on. Some bikes can be a little finicky, and may go right to second. If this happens, go back to first and try again – don’t worry, it happens to everyone.
Finding the Friction Zone
Now that the bike is in neutral, give the clutch lever a few squeezes, just to get the feel of how hard it is to pull the lever. Some bikes are more of a workout than others. Now go ahead and hold the clutch in all the way, and get the bike started. Many bikes require that you hold the clutch in, and some don’t if you are in neutral, but it’s a good habit to be in anyway. Continue holding the clutch in, apply the front brake, and go ahead and click the lever down into first gear. The bike may clunk or even lurch a bit (that’s why you want to hold the brake). Now, with the bike idling, you can start to find the friction zone. This is where the clutch is beginning to engage, which gets the bike moving. If there is one thing you remember, it’s that if you pull the clutch in the bike will NOT continue to accelerate. If you get overwhelmed or start feeling like you’re loosing control, the first thing you do is pull in that clutch lever. So, back to riding! With the clutch in, hand off the brakes, and the bike in first gear, s l o w l y let the clutch out until you start feeling the bike pull you forward just a bit. You may also notice the engine rpm’s drop a bit. Take note of how far you needed to let the lever out before anything started to happen. This is the friction zone, where the fun starts!
Now that you’ve spent some time rocking back and forth a little bit, it’s time to get going! You are going to simultaneously give the bike a SMALL amount of throttle, while smoothly releasing the clutch lever. The key here is to be SMOOTH with the clutch. If you let it out too fast, the bike will either stall out or it may take you for a wild ride if you are giving it a lot of gas. So concentrate on letting that clutch out slowly – all the way. A typical rookie mistake is to get right to the friction zone and then think it’s ok to just let it out all at once. That is incorrect! It will make for a very jerky ride.
Shifting Up and Down
Once you are comfortable starting from a stop, the rest is relatively easy. Upshifts consist of pulling in the clutch, letting off the gas, shifting up, then simultaneously getting back on the gas and smoothly letting the clutch out. This requires a lot less precision then starting from a dead stop. Downshifting is a little more challenging, as the engine will be slowing you down more and more each time you shift into a lower gear. Again, the key is to be very smooth with the clutch. Downshift 1 click, then slowly let the clutch lever out. You’ll feel the engine speed rise and the bike slow down even more. Not being smooth here can lead to a very jerky feeling, and can even cause a crash if you are shifting mid corner (not a good idea to shift mid-corner while you are still learning). A more advanced technique to smooth downshifts is blipping the throttle. This is simply giving the bike a little “blip” of throttle between each downshift. The goal is to get the engine up to the rpms it will need to be at for the next lower gear. Get it right, and you’ll have nice, smooth downshifts. The real trick is applying smooth braking pressure while you blip the throttle. And the only advice I can give you is practice practice practice! One last piece of advice: If you think you may have accidentally shifted down more than one gear (ie. two clicks at the brake lever before you let the clutch out), ALWAYS go back up a gear. Being in a gear too high isn’t that big a deal, but downshifting into 1st when you think you’re going into 2nd can get very precarious.
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