TOTW: Your gear shift is for managing your engine speed

The riding tips on these pages are my personal opinion about matters related to motorcycle riding. They are not the official position of any organization, and are for your consideration only. They are not hard and fast rules, they should not necessarily be applied in all circumstances, and they should not be applied without thinking. Always use your judgement and take all current safety factors into account while riding. You are responsible for your riding, not anyone else (especially me). These tips were originally published by a motorcycle riding course, called “Tip of the Week” (the reason for the TOTW in the titles).

What’s the problem?

Beginning riders often ask, “How do I know what gear I’m in?” (Many motorcycles do not have a visual indicator showing what gear is currently selected.)

The solution

There’s a clever answer.

“You don’t need to know what gear you’re in. You need to know you’re in the right gear.”

This is an important concept and we discuss it in detail below. It is, however, useful to know when you are in first gear and when you are in your top gear.

First and last gear

It’s useful to know you are in first gear so you don’t try to downshift anymore, and so you are sure you are ready to pull away from a stop. Since you will seldom be asking yourself whether you are in first gear except when you are stopped or stopping, the way to be sure is simply to downshift a few more times than are necessary. For example, if you are about to stop, have the clutch pulled in, and are not sure what gear you are in, downshift one or two times more than are probably necessary. Then you will be certain you’re in first gear. You won’t hurt anything by gently downshifting even if you are already in first gear.

It’s also useful to know when you are in top gear (fourth, fifth, or sixth, depending on your bike). This will prevent you trying to shift up when you are already in your maximum gear. Trying to upshift when you are already at your maximum causes an unnecessary lurch as you engage the clutch and adjust your throttle speed for a gear change that never comes, and might bruise your toe. To help you know when you are in top gear, you should memorise the RPM reading that shows on your tachometer when you are in top gear and travelling at your favourite speed. For example, it might be “5000 RPM at 100 km/hour.” This won’t help you know if you are in top gear at other speeds, but you will usually be asking yourself this while travelling at your favourite cruising speed.

Other gears

Aside from the conditions described above, it really doesn’t matter what gear you are in, in the sense of it being “#3” or “#4.” What matters is that you are in the correct gear for the speed you are going. In other words, you have the engine operating in the power band.

The “power band” refers to the range of engine speeds in which the engine produces power efficiently. The range varies from bike to bike, generally being higher for smaller engines. On most modern bikes, only the lower end of this range is important, as they produce power efficiently from that speed right up to the red line. The power band can start quite low, like around 3000 RPM, on big-engined bikes, or even lower on big cruisers. On small and mid-sized four-cylinder bikes, especially modern sport bikes, the power band is often much higher. These bikes can produce usable power from around 4000 RPM, but there is a major increase in power at higher revs — around 8000 or so.

You’ll learn where the power band is on your bike by feel. You will note that, if you role on the throttle in a given gear and let the engine speed increase, there will be a point on the tachometer at which the acceleration of the bike increases dramatically. That is the beginning of your power band.

So, your concern with gear selection should be to keep the engine revs in an appropriate range for the circumstances. If there is any chance you’ll need to accelerate quickly, or if you need extra power (e.g. for climbing a hill) you should have the revs well into the power band. If you are cruising at constant speed on a clear highway with no threats nearby, you might like to have the revs at the bottom edge of the power band, or even slightly below it, to reduce vibration, conserve fuel, and avoid annoying your neighbours with a screaming engine.

Think of your gear selector as the control you use to manage your engine speed, not your ground speed.

Occasionally, you will find yourself needing extra power when your engine speed is too low. For example, this can happen if your speed has drifted downward and you wish to pull out to pass a vehicle you have overtaken. Under these conditions, if you simply roll on the throttle, the engine will respond very slowly. Instead, you should downshift to put the revs back in the power band, then roll on the throttle. Much stronger acceleration will result.

(This technique really applies only to smaller-engined bikes with high power bands. Large-displacement bikes can produce adequate power even from very low revs.)

So, don’t worry about what gear you’re in. Worry about whether you are in the right gear.

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