Beginner’s Guide To Shifting Gears On A Motorcycle

An underrated aspect of learning how to ride a motorcycle goes beyond turning and popping wheelies. No, it’s something seemingly much more simple than that. Do you shift? Sure, shifting gears should be easy, because it’s a basic function; but shifting gear does have a layer of complexity that beginning cyclists could have problems mastering right away. 

Here’s everything you need to know about shifting gears on a motorcycle. 

Motorcycle Gears Basics

The three basic controls are ones that you might already know—the throttle, the clutch, and the gear selector. You use the throttle to rev the engine, the clutch to engage and disengage the brakes (transmission), and to select gears. For instance, if you pull the left hand clutch towards you, the engine revs without ever moving the bike. 

The gear pattern can be clicked through by using the gear selector lever and is moved by your left foot. Most bikes have the following gears, starting with the lowest first: 

• First gear
• Neutral
• Second gear
• Third gear
• Fourth gear
• Fifth gear 
• Sixth gear (depending on the bike)

As you can see, shifting fears is sequential. Up or down, neutral (N) is always put between 1st and 2nd gear. 

Technique For Motorcycle Shifting

It’s best to learn the proper technique required to maneuver through shifting gears before learning how to do anything else. 

Steps of the proper shifting technique:

  1. Disengage the clutch. Use your left hand to pull it towards you. 
  2. Select the correct gear by using your left food on the shifting lever.
  3. Slightly rev the engine if shifting up.
  4. Gradually release the clutch. Don’t pop it.
  5. Feather the throttle while releasing the clutch to accelerate smoothly.
  6. Continue revving if you which to switch to another gear in succession. Otherwise, find a nice cruising speed to maintain. 

Shifting With Sound and Feel

Have you ever heard wailing motorcycle engines on the road? You’ve probably thought to yourself, “Is that rider even shifting?” That’s you using the basic rule of sound. In basic terms, if an engine starts to scream, you shift to an upper gear. If the engine starts to grumble, then shift the engine lower. 

There a many methods to help you do this properly. Beginners should only focus on the simplest method. Afterwards, you can experiment. 

Start off by riding in first gear. Try to sense to point when you need to switch to second gear. This means the engine isn’t yet screaming, but you are feeling the natural inclination to gain more speed. The clutch will disengage easily. 

Should the engine start to scream, this means you’ve hit the red line, otherwise known as the built-in limiter. The limiter is placed in the engine to ensure the bike doesn’t overextend itself and burn up. 

If you shift a gear up too soon, the bike could stall or choke. Restart the bike. Try again. Keep working through the gears until you can hear and feel when it is time to gear up. 

Shifting Smoothly

You will notice that there’s no mathematical equation to figure out the “when” behind shifting. Every bike has a unique behavior that depends on how you handle it. For instance, if the bike jerks when you release the clutch, you’re being too abrupt. If the bike tends to lurch during shifts, you’re applying too much throttle. If the motorcycle’s speed dips during shifting, you need to rev the engine more between gear changes. Pay attention to the clutch, throttle, and gear selector, because these all interact and are dependent on one another. 

Mechanics of Movement

Let’s back-up for a moment. Now that you have this idea in your mind that you need to listen and feel and understand with muscle memory what to do when shifting, it’s time to talk about what is happening inside the bike while you’re doing the actions. 

The clutch is the first thing you touch when it’s time to shift gears, unless you have an automatic motorcycle or a quick shift. Once the clutch is engaged, meaning the lever is out and power is send to the rear tie, little springs press on the clutch plate that connect the primary drive to the part that rotates from the pistons going up and down. 

When you pull the lever, the plate separates and releases the connection to the motor. In this moment, you can change gears. 

That’s when you take your foot and move the gear selector. On the gear selector is a piece called a collar that has “dogs.” This dogs mesh together with the fork in the same way you interlace your fingers. When you move your foot up and down on the selector, the dogs and fork connect to help change the gear. Then, you find the right gear and accelerate. 

Keep this in mind while reading the next two sections about upshifting and downshifting. 


Most of this article has been devoted to upshifting. Upshifting is easier than downshifting, because you are accelerating. This means that if you do any of the steps of shifting a little too quick, there’s less of an impact. Of course, this could result in a sudden jolt of power to the rear wheel, causing the front tire to come off the ground. 

(Note: You should only practice stunts in a controlled environment and when you have gained enough experience.) 


On the opposite end of upshifting is downshifting, which tends to go a little less smoothly. If you release the clutch too quickly while downshifting, the sudden downward change can cause the gear to slow down the rear tire, compressing the front end, and causing a lack of traction in the back end. You need to be able to control the release of the clutch. 

Be careful when rounding corners and decreasing your gears for this reason. You don’t want to suddenly lose traction right when you need more grip on the asphalt. That could cause the bike to skid to the side. 

False Neutral

When downshifting, you could accidentally hit a false neutral. This can happen anywhere there shouldn’t be a neutral, including between 3rd and 4th or 4th and 5th and so on. This could happen if the dogs don’t connect with the fork when selecting gears. There is power loss to the rear wheel. 

If you end up in a false neutral, pull on the clutch, and put the bike into a higher gear. You can prevent excessive damage to the bike. Be quick and make sure you move into the correct once you get out of false neutral. 

With that, you should be able to master the basics of shifting. Practice the timing of the clutch release and working with the gear selector for a bit. You will soon be able to shift between gears like someone who has been riding for many years. 

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