How To Shift Gears On A Motorcycle

Learning to ride a motorcycle can be a challenging endeavor. You have to learn how to start, steer, and handle your bike safely. But without a doubt, the most difficult aspect is learning how to shift gears.

If you already know how to drive manual transmission vehicles, you may think it would take only seconds to learn. However, shifting gears on a motorcycle is a bit different than it is on an automobile. Both the pattern and controls vary, and they can trip up even the most experienced driver.

For those who have never driven a manual transmission vehicle, this task will be even more challenging. Aside from needing to learn these same controls, you’ll also need to learn the basics of handling a manual transmission. 

With that in mind, here’s everything you need to know about shifting gears on a motorcycle.

Motorcycle Gear Shifting Systems

Before we talk about how to shift gears, let’s talk about the controls involved. 

On most motorcycles, shifting is accomplished using three basic components: the throttle, the clutch, and the gear shift lever.

The throttle is located on the right side handgrip, where you hold onto the handlebars. Rotating the handgrip in a backward motion increases the throttle, and returning it closes the throttle. In simple terms, this is how you control the motorcycle’s acceleration.

The clutch is a lever located in front of the left handgrip. When the clutch lever is pulled, it disengages the engine from the rear wheel. When the clutch lever is released, the engine and the wheel are actively connected via the transmission.

The gear shift lever is located near the driver’s left foot. Operating this lever while engaging the clutch will shift gears up or down, respectively.

This is the first thing that trips people up who have learned to drive manual transmission cars. Whereas automobile gears are arranged in a grid-shaped pattern, the shifting order on motorcycles is fixed. In other words, you can’t shift directly from first to third gear. You have no choice but to pass through second gear on the way.

Most motorcycles have five gears, although some sportbike models have up to six. And unlike automobiles, there is no reverse gear. If you need to back up, you just push off the ground.

Additionally, the “neutral” on a motorcycle is located between first and second gear. When shifting up from first gear, you’ll actually feel the transmission shift into neutral before it goes into second. This is vastly different from a car, where you can shift from any gear directly into neutral.

Motorcycle Gear Shifting Basics

Shifting is the process of switching your motorcycle from one gear to another. Lower gears have more torque but aren’t capable of achieving high speeds. Higher gears provide more top-end speed but offer little torque. As a result, you start riding in first gear, then shift up as you accelerate.

To begin learning the basics of gear shifting, start by putting your bike in neutral and starting the engine. There’s a neutral light indicator on the dash that lights up when you’re in neutral on most modern motorcycles. On older bikes, you’ll need to feel it out.

Once the motorcycle has started, disengage the clutch by pulling the clutch lever. Next, push down on the gear shift lever to set the transmission into first gear. Now comes the first challenging part. Next, you slowly engage the throttle by twisting it towards you while simultaneously releasing the clutch in one smooth, fluid motion.

As you do this, you’ll feel the clutch start to engage, and the motorcycle will start moving forward. As you begin releasing the clutch more, give it proportionately more gas via the throttle. Eventually, you’ll have released the clutch entirely, and you will be underway.

If you’ve never driven a manual transmission vehicle, you’ll definitely want to practice this somewhere out-of-the-way, like an empty parking lot. After some time and a bit of trial and error, starting your motorcycle and putting it in gear will become second nature.


Of course, first gear will only get you so far. Depending on the make and model of the motorcycle, you may want to shift up to second gear by the time you accelerate to 10 or 20 miles per hour.

Upshifting is the same process as engaging first gear, but often much easier. You pull the clutch lever, lift the gear shift lever to the next position, then release the clutch. When you do this, let off the throttle a bit. Remember, the motor will be running slower at a higher gear at any given speed.


Upshifting is only half of the process. To ride safely, you’ll also need to downshift. 

To downshift, pull the clutch lever, kick the gear shift lever to the next lower gear, and release the clutch. It often helps to give the throttle a subtle twist as you do this, as it helps speed the engine up to compensate for the change in gears.

Remember, you’ll also need to engage the clutch lever when you want to stop. Like a manual transmission car, you must first activate your clutch any time you hit the brakes. Once you’ve come to a complete stop, don’t forget to return to first gear. Attempting to start in a higher gear will likely cause you to stall your engine.

Over time, you’ll develop a feel for your bike and learn the ideal times to shift. Experiment with different timings and with shifting at different speeds. You may be surprised what you discover.

Motorcycle Gear Shifting — A Deeper Dive

A set of gears in the transmission transmits power from the motor to the drivetrain - usually via a chain - which is then transferred to the wheel. The size of these gears affects how the motorcycle performs.

Lower gears have a lower ratio, which delivers more power from the motor for each turn of the wheel, making it ideal for acceleration. Higher gears have a higher ratio, delivering less power for each turn of the wheel, but capable of achieving much higher speeds.

When you pull in the clutch lever, you’re temporarily disengaging the gears. This allows you to shift without damaging the transmission. While the gears are disengaged, you simply swap one gear out for another, in essence.

With this knowledge, you can begin to use more advanced techniques to improve your efficiency and performance. A simple yet effective example is pulling in the clutch and coasting downhill. This takes your engine and transmission out of the equation and lets gravity do all the work. Similarly, you can pull the clutch lever only partially or slip it in and out very quickly. This technique is more difficult than ordinary shifting, and it takes some experience and some practice to execute. But it allows you to switch gears much faster than traditional shifting.

Highly experienced riders can even shift without clutching at all. If you know exactly how to match your engine speed to your transmission, you can briefly let off the throttle while upshifting or engage it while downshifting. This is the fastest method of all but is only performed by advanced riders, as errors in the process can cause damage to the transmission.

In Closing

Learning how to shift gears on a motorcycle is a process that requires some time investment. To become efficient and gain the ability to change gears fluidly, you have to practice. Practice, practice, practice! Always ensure you are doing so in a safe environment away from traffic and obstacles. Make sure there is plenty of open space, and don’t forget to wear your safety gear! Take your time and get comfortable with shifting. With a bit of time and a lot of practice, you’ll be on the open road in no time!