How Do You Shift Motorcycle Gears?

Shari Ives Beginner, Instruction

Shifting gears on a motorcycle can be challenging.  Practice is the key ingredient in mastering this task.  The more you practice, the more muscle memory you build and the smoother your shifting will become.


Parts of a Motorcycle

There are three motorcycle controls involved in shifting smoothly; the clutch lever, gear shift lever, and the throttle.

The clutch lever is located on the left side of the handlebar. It disengages and engages the power from the engine to the rear wheel.  Using your left hand to squeeze the clutch lever fully disengages the power from the engine to the rear wheel, preventing the motorcycle from moving forward regardless of how much you roll on the throttle.

 Clutch Lever Friction Zone

As you slowly release the clutch lever, you will encounter the friction zone.  “The friction what?” you might ask.  The friction zone is the point at which the clutch begins to transfer power to the rear wheel and the motorcycle begins to move forward. When locating the friction zone, we use minimal throttle roll-on.  We’ll discuss the throttle in a moment.


The gear shift lever is located on the lower left side of the motorcycle.  We use our left foot to change gears.  The gear pattern is laid out with first gear at the very bottom, followed by neutral, first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sometimes sixth gear. By sliding your left foot under the gear shift lever and lifting it upward, you shift to a higher gear. Each click equals one gear.

 Motorcycle gear shift lever diagram

You can always find first gear by tapping the gear shift lever down until it won’t go any further. And by the way, we are always in first when we stop, so we can get out of the way quickly in case a driver dozes off behind us and doesn’t stop in time.


So let’s talk about the throttle for a bit. The throttle is located on the right end of the handlebar. Rotating your right wrist towards you increases the amount of gas you are feeding the engine (rolling on the throttle). Rotating your wrist away from you feeds less gas to the engine. Always start in a wrist flat position.  This prevents you from grabbing a fist full of throttle.  If you are not sure what “wrist flat “looks like, simply lay your arm on a table in front of you, palm facing down. Now clench your fist without lifting your wrist. This is a “wrist flat” position.


Quick Tips for a Smooth Shift:

  1. Disengage the clutch by using your left hand to squeeze the clutch lever completely.
  2. Select the appropriate gear by using the gear shift lever (tap down to get to a lower gear or pull it up to shift to a higher gear).
  3. Roll on the throttle by slightly twisting your right wrist toward you (starting from a wrist flat position).
  4. Gradually release the clutch lever with your left hand (Do not pop it suddenly) while gently and steadily rolling on your throttle with your right hand, accelerating the motorcycle.
  5. Release the clutch fully and accelerate matching your engine speed with your ground speed. Then repeat the process to shift to another gear.


Closing Tips:

  1. Practice, Practice, Practice.  Find a safe environment away from traffic and obstacles with plenty of open space (preferably paved).
  2. Your clutch lever is your best friend.  If you accelerate too abruptly, or you are just not comfortable with your practice, squeeze and hold the clutch lever completely to disengage the power from the engine to the rear wheel.  Follow this up by using your right thumb to activate the engine cutoff switch.
  3. Listen to your motorcycle. It will let you know when it is time to shift. If it is screaming, you waited too long before you shifted to a higher gear.  If it feels like it is choking, you waited too long before down-shifting to a lower gear.
  4. Always wear your safety gear.


Remember, merely reading this article doesn’t improve your shifting. Take a class, practice, and stay safe out there!