Learning how to shift a motorcycle is the first step in discovering the unknown pleasures of open-air travel combined with the thrills of grin-inducing acceleration.
The learning curve and coordination required can seem daunting at first, but with this guide and a little practice, you’ll be on the open road mainlining adrenaline-fueled memories in no time at all.
Manual Transmission Basics
Let’s start by familiarizing ourselves with the parts used for shifting:
Your motorcycle shifts using three main components:
- The clutch lever on the left side of the handlebars to engage and disengage the engine power to the rear wheel.
- The lever at your left foot used to shift up and down the gears.
- And the throttle in your right hand to increase and decrease the power from the engine.
Most motorcycles will have either a “1-down, 4-up” or “1-down, 5 up” transmission depending on whether they’re a five or six-speed unit. Visualize the order like this: “1-N-2-3-4-5-6.”
That means that shifting into first from neutral is done by clicking the lever down with your foot, and all of the gears that follow as you accelerate are selected by clicking the lever up from there.
Step-by-Step Guide for How to Shift On a Motorcycle
First Gear: Shifting Into Gear From A Dead Stop
As a new rider, you'll first want to get used to using the clutch.
If you’re just learning how to shift a motorcycle, start by turning the key to “on” (but don’t touch the starter yet), then squeeze the clutch in with your left hand, and shift all the way down with your left foot until you’ve got no more clicks. Then, while still holding the clutch in, give the shifter lever a slight push up with your left foot until you feel a click.
You should now be in neutral.
You can verify that the bike is in neutral by releasing both the clutch and brake and gently rolling the motorcycle forward and backward underneath you. There should be nothing stopping the motorcycle from rolling in either direction.
Once you’ve got the bike in neutral, it’s time to start it up!
Go ahead and pull the clutch lever in again, put the kickstand up if you haven’t already, and give that starter a push.
Now, with the engine running, the clutch lever pulled all the way in, and the bike in neutral, go ahead and click the bike down into first gear.
After getting into first gear, the next step is where the coordination comes into play.
Start to release the clutch VERY SLOWLY with your left hand as you roll onto the throttle VERY GENTLY with your right hand until you feel the motorcycle begin to slowly creep forward.
Continue to SLOWLY roll onto the throttle with your right hand, gradually releasing more and more of the clutch lever as you start moving forward until the bike is at a stable speed and you’ve released the clutch lever completely. Off you go!
Repeating this step from neutral into first and then stopping is good practice for getting comfortable with the clutch at low speeds in a controlled environment.
Upshifting Through the Gears
Once you’ve mastered shifting into first gear and coming to a stop, the hardest part is done.
Your next step will be learning to shift through each of the gears as you gain speed.
To do this, once you’ve got the engine wound up in first gear, roll off the throttle with your right hand and pull the clutch lever in as you close the throttle completely.
Once the clutch lever is all the way in, push the gear lever up with your left foot until you feel a click. You should now be in second gear.
Now, just like we did in first gear, you will once again slowly release the clutch lever while gently rolling back on the throttle.
If the bike doesn’t accelerate as you do this, chances are you didn’t shift hard enough with your foot coming up from first gear and accidentally put the bike back in neutral. No sweat, just pull the clutch back in and repeat the process to click up into second.
Continue to repeat these steps to shift up through the gears until it’s time to slow back down, which brings us to downshifting.
Downshifting Through the Gears
When it’s time to slow down, you’ll want to downshift as you lose speed to keep the engine running at a smooth RPM.
Roll off the throttle and apply the brakes as needed. As you feel the RPMs drop down, pull the clutch lever in and shift down one gear at a time.
Gently release the clutch after each shift to allow the engine to help you slow down along with the brakes, taking care not to shift down too quickly while the revs are still high.
If you’re slowing down but don’t need to come to a complete stop, shift down until the engine is at a comfortable cruising RPM and leave it in whichever gear feels smooth.
If you’re slowing down to a complete stop, follow the steps below.
Coming to a Stop
When it’s time to put the party on hold between red lights, you’ll be looking to get the bike shifted back down the range and into neutral while you wait.
You can always leave the bike in first gear while holding in the clutch, and you may even prefer doing this when stopped on a steep hill. But for anything other than a momentary stop, having to constantly hold the clutch in can wear your hands out in short order.
While you can shift back down into neutral from second, one of the most reliable ways to find neutral, especially when first starting out, is to just shift all the way back down into first while holding the clutch in.
Once you feel you’ve reached the bottom of the gear range (again, no more clicks happening when you press down with your foot), you can roll to a stop, and then just repeat our first process to get the bike back up into neutral.
Nothing left to do now but wait for the light to turn green, and then do it all over again.
Closing Thoughts on How to Shift a Motorcycle Smoothly
Learning how to shift a motorcycle smoothly takes practice and is the most intimidating part of the process for many new riders.
But once you’ve mastered this skill, you’ll have opened up a whole new world of possibilities for yourself – from off-roading to cross-country tours. So get out there, get practicing, and as always, ride safe.
For more tips, check out our other motorcycle blog posts!