A heel toe shifter on a motorcycle is a special type of shift lever. As its name implies, this shifter allows you to shift gears on your bike with your heel. If your motorcycle features a heel toe shifter it means you can find two shift levers on the bike bolted on the same shaft. The front is known as the ‘toe shift lever’ while the rear is called a ‘heel shift lever.’
If you want to find out how the heel toe shifter works, and what the pros and cons are, you are in the right place.
We at PowerSportsGuide have compiled all you need to know into this post!
What is a Heel Toe Shifter on a Motorcycle?
Motorcycle heel toe shifters have been around for decades. It’s a lesser-known fact that Harley-Davidson started to manufacture motorcycles with heel toe shifters in the early ‘50s.
Since then, this design has become popular among cruiser and touring motorcycle owners.
Through the years, more and more aftermarket manufacturers have begun to offer heel toe shifters, and with good reason.
Although many riders prefer these shifters, the majority of stock cruiser and touring motorcycles still do not feature this key unit.
But what exactly is this shifter?
Simply put, the heel toe shifter on a motorcycle is a second shift lever mounted behind the regular toe shift lever. There are two main designs of heel toe shifters. In most cases, there are two separate shift levers mounted on the gear shift shaft. The toe shift lever faces forward while the heel shifter is backward. But sometimes these two levers come as one unit.
Are you wondering how this design is being used? Keep reading!
What’s the Purpose of Heel Toe Shifters?
The main idea behind heel toe shifters is that they allow you to shift gears up by using your heel. This has many advantages as shifting this way is much more convenient and results in less fatigue on longer rides. Besides, the toe shifter doesn’t scuff your boot!
In comparing cruiser and touring bikes to other types of motorcycles, one of the main differences is that these bikes offer a different riding position and typically feature floorboards instead of footpegs.
And when it comes to shifting with a regular toe shifter, you have to move your left foot under the toe shifter’s peg.
While this is easy on street and dirt bikes, it could be a little tricky on cruisers and touring motorcycles. Why?
This is because the floorboard is mounted under the shifter, often leaving limited space for your feet. Another issue is the riding position, as on a cruiser your feet are in a different position than on a sportbike.
This is where the heel shifter comes into play!
Thanks to this invention, you don’t have to place your feet under the toe shift peg. Instead, you can conveniently shift up with the heel shifter.
Are you wondering how it works? Keep reading!
How Does a Heel Toe Shifter Work?
The heel toe shifter on a motorcycle works in a surprisingly simple way. The heel shift lever and the toe shift lever face in opposite directions and act like a seesaw. This means pressing the heel shifter down moves the toe shifter up. So, if you want to shift into an upper gear you can simply press down on the heel shift lever with your heel. This turns the shift shaft in the same direction as if you were moving the toe shift lever up.
It’s as simple as that!
It’s very convenient as you can control the transmission by pressing these two levers down, without placing your feet under the toe shifter.
If you are interested in more details, here’s a great video on how a heel toe shifter works:
How do You Use a Heel Toe Shifter?
When it comes to using a heel toe shifter, keep in mind that shifting with your heel is usually just an option! This means to upshift you can still lift the toe shifter (front lever) up. However, it always depends on the design of the shifter. On some motorcycles the toe shifter sits too low so there’s no space under it for your foot. To downshift, you have to press the front lever down just like on any other bike.
So finally, your options for shifting are as follows:
- Shifting up: press down the heel shifter (left lever), or move your foot under the toe shifter (front lever) and lift it up
- Downshifting: press down the toe shifter (front lever)
And of course, don’t forget to use the clutch as well!
Heel Toe Shifter vs. Toe Shifter
When it comes to the heel toe shifter vs. toe shifter debate, riders have mixed opinions about them. Some of them love it while others remove the heel shift lever on the first day after they’ve ridden their bike home.
It seems there isn’t a clear winner here as there are many pros and cons on each side.
Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty and talk about each one in detail.
Advantages of Heel Toe Shifters
The main advantages of heel toe shifters are as follows:
- Easy to use
- Convenient and causes less fatigue
- Allows riders to downshift if the toe lever is too low
- The toe shifter doesn’t scuff your boot
- Great for disabled riders
Many riders claim that the biggest advantage of a heel toe shifter is that it’s easier and much more convenient to use.
Let’s face it, moving your toes up requires much more muscle work than pressing down your heels.
Therefore, using your heel to shift results in more comfort and less fatigue in your foot. All of these are great points, especially on a longer tour!
They also come in handy on bikes where your foot doesn’t fit between the toe shifter and the floorboard.
What’s more, it’s good to know that toe shifters tend to cause wear and tear on the boot. If you ride in nice boots you probably want to protect your boot from being damaged!
Thanks to the design of the heel toe shifter, you don’t have to move your foot under the toe shift lever, so it won’t scuff the toe of your boot.
And finally, don’t forget about riders with joint problems and leg injuries. They can also take advantage of heel toe shifters, just like automatic and semi-automatic motorcycle transmissions.
Disadvantages of Heel Toe Shifters
Let’s move on to the dark side and see what the cons of heel toe shifters are:
- Limited floorboard space
- You have to move your foot up to shift
- Risk of shifting accidentally
- It could be hard to find neutral with the heel shifter
- Not traditional
- Extra costs and hassle to install
It’s safe to say that most riders like to change the position of their feet on the floorboards. This is especially important on longer tours for reducing back and leg pain.
The most common complaint about a heel toe shifter is that it limits space on the floorboard.
This means that the two levers confine your left foot to a fixed place, and don’t allow you to push it backward.
As you can imagine, it’s quite uncomfortable after a while. (This is a common problem for riders who have big feet!)
Another drawback of a heel toe shifter is that it requires moving your foot up to shift.
Many riders prefer to leave their heel in a fixed position while handling the toe shifter.
For heel shifting, you have to move your heel up every time you want to shift gears. It can be weird especially for those who have used a bike with a regular shifter before.
Let’s face it, a heel toe shifter is simply not for everyone. It seems many riders simply can’t get used to this type of design.
Another problem of this design is that it involves the possibility of accidentally shifting.
If your bike is in neutral and you place your left foot on the floorboard there’s always a risk of shifting your bike into second gear with your heel. The same situation can occur if you want to put your left foot down on the road and your pant leg hooks the heel shifter.
All of these issues can lead to risky situations and costly repairs!
On top of that, some owners find it difficult to shift into neutral with a heel shifter. This is because shifting into neutral requires careful movement, which is not easy to do with your heel.
How do You Install a Heel Toe Shifter?
You can install a heel toe shifter by simply bolting it onto the gear shaft. The method of installation depends on the design of the shifter you’ve purchased. If it’s a complete heel toe shifter kit you have to completely remove the current toe shift lever and replace it with the new levers. But if you’ve just purchased a separate heel shift lever it has to be mounted on the end of the gear shaft while moving the current toe shift lever towards the engine on the shaft.
Let’s look at these cases in detail.
Complete heel toe shifter kits come with two different designs. Some of these kits feature two separate shift levers, one toe and one heel shift lever.
Other shifters come as one unit, which means a big V-shaped lever with two pegs on its ends.
Both designs require you to remove the current toe shift lever and bolt the new lever(s) onto the shaft.
Other heel shifters are sold as a single unit, meaning that they have to be attached beside the factory toe shift lever. (In most cases the heel shift lever has to be mounted on the end of the shaft.)
Each aftermarket heel toe shifter comes with an installation manual. Make sure to read it carefully and follow the manufacturer’s recommendations! (Don’t forget to tighten the screws properly and apply some Loctite too.)
Also, keep in mind that not all aftermarket shifters are compatible with factory floorboards. Make sure that the shifter you plan to buy fits on your bike before you order it!
Besides aftermarket kits many manufacturers offer OEM heel toe shifters, so it’s wise to do your research to find the best solution available.
For instance, you can find stock Harley-Davidson heel toe shifters on the market for virtually all models.
Here’s a good video on how to install a heel toe shifter on a Harley-Davidson:
And here’s another one on how to install an Indian Scout heel toe shifter:
How do You Remove a Heel Toe Shifter?
To remove a heel toe shifter from a motorcycle you have to loosen the bolts on both the toe and the heel shift levers. Then, slide off both levers from the shaft, and put the toe shift lever back onto the end of the shaft. In other words, you have to bring the toe shifter to an outside position and remove the heel shifter. Keeping safety in mind, it’s highly recommended that you install a “heel shift eliminator,” which helps keep the toe lever in position on the shaft.
If you want to check out this part as well as learn how to remove a heel toe shifter step-by-step, don’t skip this tutorial video:
How Difficult is to Remove a Heel Toe Shifter from a Motorcycle?
It’s actually very simple to remove the heel toe shifter from a bike. All you typically need is the appropriate size Allen key.
Some owners remove just the peg from the heel shift lever and leave the arm in place. The idea behind this solution is that it leaves the floorboard empty while the shift arm can still be used for shifting.
It’s not a common practice, but in some cases it may work.
Another trick is to save some space on your floorboard is to replace the pegs on your shift levers with smaller ones.
Consider an Extended Heel Toe Shifter
If you want to remove it to clear the floorboard, you should consider investing in an extended heel toe shifter. These shifters feature longer levers than traditional shifters, so they offer more room on the floorboard.
How do You Adjust a Heel Toe Shifter?
To adjust a heel toe shifter, you have to slide the shift levers off the shaft and set them at the desired angle. If the levers are separated you can set the angle between the two levers. If they are mounted together you can only change the position of the main lever on the shaft. So, raising the toe lever causes the heel shift lever to move downward.
Here’s a great tutorial on how to adjust a heel toe shifter on your bike:
Is Heel Toe Shifting Bad?
It cannot be clearly stated that heel toe shifting is bad or good, as it always depends on personal preferences. But based on riders’ reviews some of them love it while others specifically dislike this design.
How do You Practice Heel Toe Shifting?
If you are new to this type of shifter, it’s recommended that you practice heel toe shifting in a large empty space. (e.g. in an empty parking lot, away from obstacles and traffic.)
Do You Need a Heel Toe Shifter if Your Bike Features Floorboards?
No, you can use a traditional toe shifter even if your bike features floorboards. However, these shifters and floorboards work well together. (As long as there’s enough space for your foot!)
Does This Type Shifter Fit on any Bike?
Yes, it’s safe to say that you can virtually bolt this type of shifter on any manual motorcycle.
As its name suggests, a heel toe shifter can be controlled with your heel besides your toe.
In a nutshell, this shifter features two levers, the toe, and the heel shift lever. They are positioned at nearly 180 degrees and mounted on the same shaft, which causes them to move in a see-saw motion.
So, if you press the heel shifter down with your heel, it moves the toe shifter upwards.
When using this shifter, you can shift into upper gears by pressing down the heel shifter or lifting the toe shifter. But if you want to downshift, you can do this exclusively by pressing down the toe shift.
If you want to invest in one, you can choose from many different OEM as well as universal heel toe shifters.
But if your bike features a factory heel toe shifter and you don’t like it, you can also get rid of it at any time!