Contrary to popular belief, shifting gears on a motorcycle is not hard at all. In fact, for many people, it’s easier than shifting gears in a car! For safety reasons, all stock motorcycles have the same “first down, rest up” shift pattern, meaning that you have to shift down for first gear, then up for the higher gears. If you want to find out how to shift gears on a motorcycle, this post is for you.
We at PowerSportsGuide have compiled everything you need to do to shift gears on your motorcycle smoothly!
Motorcycle Gear Shift Controls
When it comes to shifting gears on a motorcycle, you have to basically play with three controls, the clutch lever, the shift lever, and the throttle.
Understanding how these controls work will help you properly shift gears on your motorcycle.
(If you’re already familiar with these, you might want to skip to the next section.)
Where is the Shift Lever on a Motorcycle?
As a rule of thumb, the shift lever on a motorcycle is always located at your left foot. Sportbikes and dirt bikes are equipped with footpegs, which are basically short metal rods. If you sit on a bike and place your feet on the footpegs, you will find the shift lever directly in front of your left foot.
How does it work?
In a nutshell, you can shift into first gear by pressing this lever down but to reach higher gears you simply move the lever up. Since you control this lever with the front of your foot, this design is often referred to as a “toe shifter.”
Do You Have to Use the Clutch When Shifting a Motorcycle?
Besides moving the shift lever, you also have to use the clutch when shifting gears in a motorcycle. The clutch lever on a bike is located on the left side of the handlebar, so you can control it with your left hand. To activate the clutch, just grab the lever with your fingers and fully squeeze it against the left handlebar grip.
If your bike is semi-automatic, it probably doesn’t feature a clutch lever and only has a shift lever or shifting buttons on the handlebar.
And finally, don’t forget that you have to play with the throttle as well to safely and securely shift gears on your bike. The throttle on a motorcycle is actually its right handlebar grip, which can be controlled by twisting your right wrist.
Best practice is to keep your wrist in a flat position when you start your ride.
Now, without further ado, let’s see how to shift gears on a motorcycle!
How do You Shift Gears on a Motorcycle?
There are basically three different situations in which you have to shift gears on a motorcycle:
- Starting the bike
- Shifting into upper gears
- Downshifting for more power/engine brake, or when you stop
Let’s take a look at each in detail!
How to Shift Gears on a Motorcycle When You Start
- Make sure the bike is in neutral and start the engine. Don’t touch the throttle at this point!
- With your left hand, squeeze the clutch lever fully against the handlebar grip.
- With your left foot, gently but firmly press the shift lever down. When first gear is engaged, you can hear a soft clicking sound.
- Slowly release the clutch lever until the bike starts to roll.
- Motorcycles typically have enough torque to start even if you don’t apply any throttle. If you feel your bike needs a little power, simultaneously roll the right handlebar carefully when releasing the clutch.
- Make sure to apply just a little throttle, meaning that you only have to roll the left grip a little bit.
- Release the clutch lever fully and let the bike gather a little momentum by feeding it a little more throttle.
As your speed increases, you will need to change your motorcycle into a higher gear. Let’s see how to do this!
Upshifting on a Motorcycle (Accelerating)
You can upshift on a motorcycle bike in eight simple steps:
- Fully close the throttle by rolling the right grip.
- Disengage the clutch by pulling the clutch lever.
- Place your left foot under the shift lever and move it up gently. If your bike features a heel shifter, just press it down with your heel. You have to listen and feel with your foot when the next gear is engaged.
- Carefully release the clutch lever while applying some throttle.
- Fully release the clutch and increase your speed.
- Repeat the process until you reach the desired speed.
If you shift from first to second gear, and after releasing the clutch your bike doesn’t accelerate and just revs up, don’t worry.
You probably just shifted into neutral, as it’s a “half click” between first and second gear.
All you need to do is pull the clutch and move the shift lever up once more.
Downshifting on a Motorcycle
Riders usually shift down on their motorcycles for three reasons:
- To get more engine power
- To use the “engine brake” (using the transmission to decelerate)
- When stopping the bike
Let’s see how you can downshift on a motorcycle step-by-step!
- Close the throttle completely with your right hand.
- Squeeze the clutch lever fully against the grip with your left hand to disengage the clutch.
- With your left foot, gently press the shift lever down.
- Carefully release the clutch lever while adding some throttle.
- If you want to stop or just increase your deceleration, you can take advantage of the engine brake. To do this, just apply as much throttle as your current speed desires. Then, reducing the engine rpm will cause the bike to decelerate.
- When shifting down on your bike to get more engine power, just apply the same amount of throttle as you had before shifting.
How do You Drive a Motorcycle with a Manual Transmission?
If you ride a motorcycle with a manual transmission, don’t forget that first gear is down while the other gears are up. This means you have to press down the shift lever to shift into first gear, then you have to move your feet under the shift lever and move it up for higher gears.
The majority of modern motorcycles feature five or six gears depending on the model.
You can also find neutral on a manual motorcycle between first and second gear.
How do You Shift Gears Smoothly on a Motorcycle?
Let’s face it, the only way to shift gears smoothly on your motorcycle is by practicing a lot to get used to the transmission. If your shifts are rough, it’s a clue that you are not properly timing the clutch and the throttle. Another issue could be if you are adding too much or too little throttle, or even releasing the clutch too suddenly.
If your motorcycle lurches ahead during shifting, this probably means that you’re revving the engine too much.
Another common mistake is releasing the clutch too suddenly as it often causes the bike to jerk.
The key is to release the clutch lever slowly and try to match your engine speed to the speed of the bike.
Be patient, as shifting on a motorcycle smoothly requires experience. The most you can do is to ride as much as you can!
Do You Let Off the Throttle When Shifting Gears on a Motorcycle?
Another key takeaway here is to always let the throttle off completely when shifting gears on your bike. This not only results in smoother shifting but is much better for the engine too. However, don’t forget that you have to add some throttle before your clutch starts to engage again.
When Should You Shift Gears on Your Motorcycle?
When should I shift gears on my motorcycle? This is a typical question of many beginners and the answer is that it depends. There is no “perfect time” to shift as it depends on your speed, the terrain, and the features of the bike. Generally speaking, if you are a beginner best practice is to shift gears on your motorcycle when the RPMs are lower. Keeping safety in mind you have to avoid aggressive “race-style” accelerations.
This simply means that you have to be careful with your right hand and stay away from a wide-open throttle.
Shifting gears on a motorcycle at high RPMs is for racers and experienced riders. This is because anyone can go fast, but you also have to know how to stop!
But how many RPMs is too many on a motorcycle?
Let’s get into it!
At What RPM Should You Shift Gears on a Motorcycle?
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to tell exactly at what RPM you should shift gears on your motorcycle. Since motorcycle engines are different in many ways, their performance and rev limits vary widely. But as a rule of thumb, if you are a beginner you should shift at around 30-50% of the maximum engine RPM. Don’t go any higher for safety reasons!
It may surprise you, but many experienced riders stick to this range when they’re just cruising around.
For instance, stock V-Twin cruisers like Harley and Indian motorcycles have a rev limit of 5,500-6,000 RPM. When cruising, their owners typically shift somewhere between 2,500-3,000 RPM.
In contrast, the redline of 1000cc inline-4 sportbikes is set at about 12,000-14,000 RPM. Riders on these motorcycles prefer to shift gears at 4,000-7,000 RPM when they are “not in a hurry.”
Again, please consider these numbers as ballpark figures, as all bikes are different.
Inline-4 engines typically rev much higher and put out more HP while single-cylinder and V-Twin engines offer much more low-end torque. This is the “average” shifting RPM on a big-bore sportbike, which is already at redline on a Harley.
Besides the engine power, many other factors affect shifting, from the design of the transmission to the size of the sprockets or wheels.
Last but not least, the terrain is no less important. If you’re facing a hill it’s not worth shifting into a higher gear. What’s more, you will even have to downshift if the hill is steep!
On the other hand, riding at RPMs that are too low in higher gears is also not recommended. This issue is known as “lugging the engine,” which can even lead to engine damage.
If you feel comfortable at lower speeds, best practice is to downshift to a lower gear to maintain a “healthy” engine RPM.
How do You Know When to Shift Gears on a Motorcycle?
As you already know, the best indicator to shift gears on a motorcycle is engine RPM. But unfortunately, many smaller motorcycles don’t feature RPM indicators. Are you wondering how to know when to shift gears on these bikes? Best practice is always to listen to the sound of the engine!
This is because at different RPMs the engine generates different “music.” With some practice, you will be able to judge when to shift solely based on the sound of the engine.
If the engine is screaming, it’s a clue that you should have shifted sooner. But if the bike has started choking, you should have downshifted earlier to a lower gear.
Another common practice of beginners is shifting based on speed.
Is Shifting Without Using the Clutch Bad on a Motorcycle?
As a rule of thumb, shifting without using the clutch is bad for most motorcycles. For instance, many bikes with V-twin and boxer engines feature huge gears and flywheels and shifting on these motorcycles without using the clutch can lead to various types of damage. But if you’re a beginner, it’s highly recommended that you never shift without using the clutch on your motorcycle, regardless of its type!
This is because clutchless shifting is considered an advanced riding technique, which is only recommended for racers.
Professional riders can take advantage of this technique as they want to get the most out of their bikes to save a few split seconds on the track.
On the other hand, clutchless shifting can only be done on certain types of bikes (primarily on sportbikes), and under certain circumstances.
If you want to read more about clutchless shifting, don’t miss this detailed article at RevZilla.
What is a Quickshifter in Bikes?
A quickshifter, as its name suggests, is a small unit designed to make shifting faster. Quickshifters are commonly used on race motorcycles but they have already appeared on some street bikes as well. Reducing shifting time is important on race tracks, as while the rider shifts, the engine doesn’t drive the rear wheel.
Is Shifting Gears on a Motorcycle Hard?
Don’t worry, as shifting gears on a motorcycle is not hard at all! Surprisingly, for many riders it’s easier than shifting gears in a manual car, as motorcycles feature a “sequential transmission.” This means that the gears can only be shifted in sequence, so you can’t shift into the wrong gear accidentally.
If you are a complete beginner and you’re still unsure how to properly shift gears on your bike, try to find a safe empty space to practice away from any obstacles and traffic.
FAQs About Shifting Gears on a Motorcycle
Which side is the shifter on a motorcycle?
The shifter is mounted on the left side of each motorcycle.
Which side is the shifter on a Harley-Davidson?
Just like on any other manual motorcycle in the United States, the shifter on a Harley-Davidson is located on the left side of the machine.
Which foot do you shift with on a motorcycle?
Since the shift lever is mounted in front of the left footpeg, you can shift with your left foot on a motorcycle.
What is a motorcycle gear shifter called?
A motorcycle’s gear shifter is also known by many other names such as shift lever, gear shift lever, shift pedal, gear selector, or heel toe shifter (on certain touring and cruiser bikes).
What is the function of the shift lever?
The function of the shift lever is to shift the bike into a higher or lower gear. More specifically, the shift lever rotates the shift drum inside the transmission, which controls the gears by moving the shift forks.
The shift lever is attached to a shaft, called the “gear shift shaft.” When you shift gears on a bike, the shift lever rotates this shaft, which also rotates the shift drum.
The gears inside the transmission are moved by the shift forks, which are also connected to this drum. When the shift drum turns it causes the forks to move, which finally shifts the gears into another position.
Do you have to pull in the clutch when shifting on a motorcycle?
Yes, it’s highly recommended to pull the clutch completely on your bike with each shift. Clutchless shifting is not recommended for average riders!
How do I release my bike’s clutch?
For a smooth shift, it’s essential to release the clutch on your bike slowly and carefully. A suddenly released clutch often leads to rough shifting.
Is shifting gears on a motorcycle like shifting gears in a car?
No, shifting a motorcycle is vastly different than shifting a car. The latter features an “H-shifting pattern” while motorcycles have a “first gear down – rest up” shift pattern. This means on a motorcycle you have to shift through all the gears to reach the top speed. (You can’t miss gears and shift from 3rd to 5th gear directly.)
Do you need to downshift when stopping a motorcycle?
Except for emergency braking, downshifting is always recommended when stopping a motorcycle. Just make sure to shift through the gears one-by-one and let the bike slowdown in each gear. You not only can take the advantage of the engine brake (which means less wear on the brakes) but you can also be sure that engine power is available if needed.
This is important because you never know when you have to accelerate quickly to get out of a potentially dangerous situation.
Can you skip gears when downshifting on a motorcycle?
It’s also very important not to skip gears when you are downshifting on your bike. Shifting into the wrong gear can cause the engine to overrev or even stop. All of these situations lead to a blocked rear wheel, which is the last thing you want!
Besides, if you shift into a low gear at high speeds, you can damage the drivetrain or even the engine in many ways.
Is downshifting bad for a motorcycle?
No, downshifting on a motorcycle is perfectly safe if done properly. The key is to always downshift one gear at a time.
Can you stop a motorcycle in second gear?
Although you can stop a motorcycle in second gear, best practice is to shift down to first gear due to the afore-mentioned safety reasons. If cars behind you can’t stop in time, you can escape much more quickly if your bike is in first gear!
Can you take off in second gear on a motorcycle?
Even if it’s possible to take off on a motorcycle in second gear, it’s not recommended unless you want to start downhill. As a general rule, if you start from a flat surface, you should always take off in first gear, as this is the easiest and safest way to start the bike. What’s more, it’s much better for the engine, too.
If you’re heading downhill, it makes sense to start the motorcycle in second gear, especially if the slope is steep. Rolling down makes it easier for the bike to gain momentum so in these cases taking off in second gear makes sense.
Which gear should I be in going downhill on a motorcycle?
When going downhill on a motorcycle it’s essential to shift into a lower gear. This is because besides the brakes you have to use the engine brake as well to slow down the machine. Simply put, in a high gear your motorcycle will move down a slope much faster than in the lower gears. The lower the gear the slower your bike will go downhill. There is no definitive recommended gear to use going downhill on a motorcycle since it depends on many factors like the type of bike and the slope.
Which gear should I be in going uphill on a motorcycle?
When going uphill you should be always in a lower gear than you would be on a flat terrain at the same speed. This is because going up a hill requires a lot of energy, and your bike is more powerful in lower gears. To gain engine power, simply downshift into a lower gear.
What does a higher gear do on motorcycles?
Surprisingly, a higher gear on a motorcycle delivers less power. This is because in lower gears the engine turns the drive sprocket faster as well as the rear wheel. This results in more power and faster acceleration. This means shifting into higher gears on your bike causes the drive sprocket to rotate more slowly.
The higher the gear, the slower the engine drives the chain which leads to less power.
Because of this, you should use the lower gears to reach your desired speed, and the top gear to maintain it.
How do you shift gears on a racing motorcycle?
Surprisingly, on a racing motorcycle, you have to shift gears in the opposite direction than on a street bike. This means to shift into first gear you have to move the shift lever up, while the other gears can be found down. This is because the shift pattern of these bikes is flipped with a simple trick, causing the transmission to work in reverse.
Conclusion – How Should a Beginner Shift Gears on a Motorcycle?
If you are a beginner, you should shift gears on a motorcycle slowly and carefully. Avoid clutchless shifting and make sure to pull the clutch lever completely at each shift. For safety reasons, it’s recommended to shift at about 30-50% of the max engine RPM. Don’t forget that shifting at peak RPM is for racers and experienced riders!
The key is always plenty of practice, so ride as much as you can to gain experience.
If you’re a complete beginner and just getting to know your bike, you may want to take it to an empty flat place where you can safely practice.
The most important thing is to never go into traffic until you can handle your bike safely and confidently.