One of the more revealing ways to find out how well a rider shifts gears and manages the clutch on a motorcycle is to ride as their passenger. With no handlebar in front with which to brace yourself, any lack of shifting smoothness or clutch dexterity on the rider’s part (not to mention skilled throttle application) will have you lurching about like a Weeble with arms and legs. More importantly, clutch slipping and mangled shifts are hard on your bike’s clutch and transmission, and simply aren’t cool besides.
The most common shifting mistake is made during downshifts, when the rider fails to raise the engine rpm to where it will be when the clutch is re-engaged. If you don’t “blip” the throttle—a quick, small twist of it with the clutch disengaged—while downshifting, during engagement the clutch will have to overcome the engine’s inertia at idle or thereabouts to raise engine rpm and match your road speed to the lower gear. At best this creates a sudden lurch in your ride and wears the clutch—at worst the abrupt change in engine speed can momentarily lock the rear wheel. Practice with some methodical downshifts and gradual throttle application until you can match engine to road speed with a quick, smooth downshift and a short blip of the throttle.
Blipping also serves to momentarily release the pressure on the transmission gear “dogs”—the teeth on the sides of the sliding gears that engage with the slots in the freewheeling gears—allowing the dogs and slots to disengage more easily, the first half of a smooth shift. This works both up- and downshifting. Blip the throttle “off” when upshifting, and “on” when downshifting. The second half of a good shift is to be quick about it—lazy shifts can grind the dogs against the rotating slots. Make your shifts certain, quick and clean, and they will be quieter and smoother. You can help things along if necessary by preloading the shift lever with your toe.
For good clutch work, remember the words I always tell beginning riders—the clutch lever is your friend. Most riders who have trouble using it were never taught about the mysterious band between complete engagement and disengagement called the “friction zone.” It extends from the point in the clutch lever travel when the clutch begins to engage, to the point when it’s fully engaged. There should be a little free play or initial travel in the lever after the friction zone to ensure that the clutch engages fully.
Coordinating the use of the friction zone and throttle application are key to starting out smoothly and making clean shifts, and like anything else mastering this takes practice. You can do so at a stop with the engine running and the bike in first gear, clutch disengaged (lever pulled in). Slowly let the clutch lever out until the bike begins to move—that’s the start of the friction zone and the point at which you would normally begin to apply throttle—but then pull it back in. Let it out to the friction zone again, pull it back in, out, etc., till you’re seesawing back and forth a foot or two but your feet remain in place on the ground.
Eventually the force and feel of the clutch engaging and disengaging will become familiar, and you can move on to adding throttle at the beginning of the friction zone. Practice until you can start out cleanly without slipping the clutch. Mastering the friction zone is also crucial for “fanning” the clutch well, a technique in which you partially disengage and engage it to maintain your momentum at a speed lower than the stall speed in first gear (in a U-turn, for example). Dirt riders must learn how to fan to survive, but some street riders aren’t even aware of the technique.
Master the friction zone, learn how to fan and shift cleanly and we’ll keep the Weebles on eBay where they belong.