Changing gears on a motorcycle is a skill every rider should master if they want to maximise performance and truly own the roads.
It's a lot simpler than it seems. All you're really doing is responding to the road conditions and your bike's engine. With some practise, shifting gears will become a natural part of your riding style.
With that said, don't expect any specific numbers. Most motorcycles will comfortably shift at 5,000 to 7,000 RPMs (revolutions per minute), but responding to the feel and sound of the engine is the best way to go about it.
Keep reading and we'll dive into the specifics.
Kicking off with first gear. You'll notice that first gear is located below the neutral gear, and that's because it's not actually used for driving. It's for getting the motorcycle from a rest to a start.
As a rule, the first gear should only be engaged between 0 km/h to 15 km/h. The only exception to this is when you're driving up a very steep hill. Motorcycles begin to operate smoothly from the second gear onwards.
Second gear is where proper driving begins. Second is still considered a lower gear, between 15 to 30 km/h, and it's best suited for riding in heavy traffic, crowded roads or bumpy terrain.
The biggest difference between first and second gear is that the bike starts to feel more comfortable. You'll have no issues sitting in traffic because the motorcycle no longer has that first-gear clunkiness.
Third gear can be used for speeds between 30-40 km/h. Unlike the first and second, the required speed range isn't quite as strict. Think of it more as a general recommendation.
The rpm and rate of the gears can have some small differences depending on the make and model of the motorcycle, so keep in mind what you're riding with. Remember, it's all about responding to the bike rather than forcing any particular action.
Fourth gear is where things start grooving. The ideal speed range is between 40 km/h to 55 km/h, but again this is more of a recommendation than an iron rule.
While these don't sound like very high speeds, fourth gear is when things can get dicey for riders in an accident.
Fifth and Sixth Gears
Step it up into fifth and sixth gears forspeeds over 55 km/h.
You can actually move to fifth gear at 50 km/h, but in any case, make sure the road ahead is smooth and there's minimal traffic when you move up to fifth.
With high speed comes high risk, so ride smart! Keep your head firmly on top of your shoulders while riding on higher gears so that if things go random on the road, you'll be ready.
You should always be prepared to move down a gear when sitting on the fifth or sixth. Stay in control and be ready to apply the brakes at a moment's notice.
Changing Gears According To The Speed
There are plenty of advantages to shifting gears according to speed. For one thing, it helps with the long-term maintenance of your motorcycle parts.
The clutch plates will stay in good condition because they won't get burned and damaged.
The gear doesn't get stuck and the transmission system will work smoothly over a longer period of time.
The engine won't be overloaded from the gear and transmission. Likewise, the clutch plate doesn't get burned easily and is saved from unnecessary damage.
Changing gears by speed increases the mileage of your motorcycle, improving fuel economy.
Matching by Sound and Feel
This is a tricky concept for beginners, so we'll keep it basic.
Here's an easy rule to remember: if the engine sounds high then shift up a gear, if the engine sounds slow and has a low pitch then shift down a gear. Pretty simple, right?
Of course, it takes time and experience to get this right, so don't stress if you don't nail it straight away. Don't be afraid to experiment as you figure things out. The muscle memory will come in time.
Beginner Shift Skills
Here's a quick, step-by-step guide to shift gears smoothly:
Disengage the clutch lever slowly
Choose which gear you want using the gear shift lever
Rev the engine just a bit
Gently release the clutch
Slowly apply throttle as you release the clutch
Rev the engine to gain more speed until you can justify going up a gear.
Perfecting this takes time, but it's a simple process once you've gotten the hang of things. Practise your moves in an empty, open space like a parking lot before you hit the roads.
What Happens When You Shift Gears?
The three main parts of the motorcycle used in a gear change are the clutch lever, gear shift lever, and throttle.
The clutch lever, which is on the left side of the handlebar, engages and disengages power from the engine to the rear wheel. When you squeeze the clutch it disengages power from the engine to the rear wheel, which stops the motorcycle from moving forward even if you roll on the throttle.
Slowly releasing the clutch lever will bring you into something called the friction zone. This is the point where the clutch transfers power to the rear wheel and the motorcycle starts to move forward. While locating the friction zone, it's important to use the minimal throttle.
The gear shift lever is on the lower left side of the motorcycle. Use your left foot to change gears. Just place your foot under the gear lever and lift it upwards for a higher gear. One-click means one gear change. Here's how the gears are laid out from top to bottom:
As you can see, first is right at the bottom below neutral. So a sure way of finding first gear is to shift the gear lever down until it's at the very bottom. At a stop, be sure to stay in first as opposed to neutral so you can react quickly if another driver isn't paying attention (as they, unfortunately, tend to do around motorcyclists).
Lastly, there's the throttle. This is located on the right handlebar. The throttle controls the amount of gas being fed into the engine, by rotating it either towards or away from yourself.
Rolling the throttle towards yourself = More gas
Rolling the throttle away from yourself = Less gas
Upshift vs. Downshift
Once you're in first gear, gradually add the throttle until the bike is ready to shift to second. As stated above, this will depend on your speed, road conditions, and the motorcycle itself.
In most cases, a motorcycle will shift smoothly at an engine rpm of 5,000-7,000, but judging by speed and the sound of the engine is always a more reliable option.
Moving faster increases the pitch of the engine, and once the pitch is high enough you can safely upshift. In the learning process, you'll probably shift too soon and hear the engine struggle, so learn from this as you feel out the correct timing.
As you come to a stop you will need to downshift. When the pitch of the engine drops and you can hear it struggling, that's a sign to move down a gear.
To downshift, release the throttle, squeeze the clutch then shift the gear lever down a level. Once you've done that, roll the throttle to bring up the engine speed and slowly release the clutch.
The key to smooth downshifting is to temporarily raise the engine speed to match the bottom of the higher gear, before letting it slow down, thereby achieving a smooth transition and avoiding rear wheel lockup.
HOW DO YOU KNOW YOU HAVE SHIFTED GEARS BY MISTAKE?
Most of the time, the motorcycle will let you know quite clearly by making a big, uncomfortable sound. You'll hear an awkward clash of steel and some grinding.
On the other end, shifting too early will produce an anticlimactic absence of power. From here it usually takes a while to gain that lost speed back.
Here are some signs that you've probably shifted at the wrong time:
You don't hear the smooth click sound of a normal gear change.
The motorcycle starts making some awkward, jerking movements.
A sudden release of the clutch can raise the front wheel off the ground, producing a very unwanted wheelie.
You feel a sudden shift in the weight of the bike
COMMON PROBLEMS WHEN SHIFTING GEARS
1. DO YOU NEED TO USE THE CLUTCH TO SHIFT GEARS EVERY TIME?
You don't have to use the clutch to shift gears every time. However, clutchless shifting is a somewhat advanced technique that should only be attempted once you've mastered regular gear changing.
Clutchless shifting is achieved by quickly rolling the gas on and off again, which, if timed correctly, can unload the gears and allow them to shift positions.
Timing your upshift to the exact moment that the gears unload will take a lot of practice, and clutchless downshifting takes even more precise timing.
2. CAN YOU SKIP GEARS ON A GEAR SHIFT?
While you can technically skip gears on a gear shift, it's not recommended. This is a skill strictly for advanced riders and takes some major familiarity with the engine and gear speeds.
Skipping gears is generally not considered a safe practise. It's safe to say that anyone reading this article is a beginner or near-beginner, so just stick to regular old gear shifting.
3. WHEN TO SHIFT GEARS ON A MOTORCYCLE AT WHAT RPM?
Many new riders make the easy mistake of trying to figure out exactly when to shift gears on a motorcycle and at what rpm. While precise figures are always nice, there is no magic number that will tell you the right time to shift.
The best technique for changing gears is by judging the sound and speed of the engine. It takes time to master how to shift smoothly this way, but your patience will be rewarded.
Generally, most motorcycles will comfortably shift at an engine rpm of 5,000-7,000. Here's a quick guide on the ideal speeds of each gear, to give you a rough idea.
1st Gear: 0 km/h to 15 km/h
2nd Gear: 15 km/h to 30 km/h
3rd Gear: 30 km/h to 40 km/h
4th Gear: 40 km/h to 55 km/h
5th and 6th Gear: Speeds over 55 km/h
4. IS IT POSSIBLE TO SHIFT FROM 5TH GEAR TO 1ST?
In your online search for knowledge, you might encounter some advice from riders who tell you it's possible to shift from 5th gear to 1st. Don't try it.
This is a cowboy move that will almost certainly give you the dreaded false neutral. This is the term for an incomplete gear shift, and they can be incredibly dangerous, even for experienced riders.
When the bike shifts from one gear to another, the gears need to completely disengage before moving on to the next gear. During an incorrect gear shift, the shift fork won't engage the next gear properly, making it spin between gears without actually engaging either gear.
5. HOW TO LOCATE NEUTRAL?
New riders often have a hard time working out how to locate neutral gear. It sounds tricky since neutral is located second from the bottom, and you don't always know what gear you're in at a given moment.
An easy way to find neutral is to go all the way down to first, then simply click up one gear to hit neutral. Of course, if you're in the second you can always go down, but going to the bottom is an easy method for when you're still learning the ropes.
6. HOW TO SLOW DOWN TO A STOP?
Learning how to smoothly slow down to a stop is an essential skill of motorcycle driving, and it involves being conscious of your gears. Here are some tips:
Always check the rearview mirror
Slowly roll off the throttle
Make sure to use both the front and rear brakes
Pull in the clutch lever and move down one gear
Be aware of your engine and wheel speed, and try to match it with the throttle
Slowly release the clutch as you go down each gear to apply engine braking
Move down through all of the gears until you're nearly at a stop
Last, pull in the clutch completely and move to first gear
7. WILL A MOTORCYCLE BEGIN IN 1ST GEAR?
While bikes are designed to be started from neutral gear, a motorcycle can begin in 1st gear. It's important to mention that you should only start from the 1st if the situation calls for it.
Neutral is the natural starting point of a bike, but if you're stuck in slow traffic sometimes you just want to quickly pick up speed again.
To do this, while remaining in first gear just pull in the clutch lever and start the engine. Once the engine starts, slowly release the clutch and begin to move forward.
Again, this should only be done in certain situations and not as a habit. The neutral gear exists for a reason.
8. DOES STALL DAMAGE YOUR MOTORCYCLE?
Stalling is something that plenty of new riders encounter, but does stall damage your motorcycle?
Most of the time stalls won't damage the bike, except for some rare cases. In saying that, many stalls over a period of time will eventually wear on a motorcycle. It damages important parts like the chain and sprockets.
In any case, stalling is a safety issue that can spell bad news if it happens at the wrong time, so be aware of that.
9. CAN I PARK MY MOTORCYCLE IN NEUTRAL?
You can certainly park your motorcycle in neutral. In fact, you'll be parking it in neutral most of the time.
A bike parked in neutral can be moved around easily, so if you keep it in your garage this will avoid the hassle if you need to reposition it.
Some riders do park in 1st gear, but this is really a situational thing. On a flat surface, it's absolutely fine to park in neutral, but on a hill, it's better to park it in 1st. That's because parking it in gear acts as a 'handbrake' to prevent the bike from rolling or tipping.
If you find yourself needing to transport your motorcycle, like on a trailer, keep it parked in gear.
10. CAN I INSTALL A QUICK-SHIFTER?
You can always install a quick-shifter to take the hassle out of changing gears. This nifty gadget makes gear changing as simple as clicking the gear lever with your left foot. No clutch, and no throttle, you only need to use the gear lever.
Quick shifters have become quite popular for obvious reasons. They're actually safer than normal gear changing because your mind is off messing with the throttle/clutch and focused on the road.
They can be added to almost any bike, but make sure you buy the right one. Some quick-shifters are bike-specific so do your research before buying.
THINGS TO REMEMBER WHILE SHIFTING GEARS
While motorcycles usually indicate what gear you're currently in, don't use that as a crutch. It's not 100% reliable. The best riders all learn to know their current gear by speed and sound. In the long run, it's definitely worth learning.
New riders often have trouble changing gears because they're not wearing proper motorcycle shoes. Steel-toed boots or shoes with thick heels with an edge are no good.
With those types of shoes, you're likely to change gears using the edge of your shoe instead of getting your foot properly under the lever. This can cause an incomplete shift and you'll probably find yourself slipping into neutral gear a lot.
So bite the bullet and grab yourself a pair of genuine motorcycle shoes. You'll be glad you did.
Enjoy reading more articles we wrote for motorcycle beginners like you. You can check this motorcycle gear guide to discover the best gear for you.