Smooth Shifting On a Harley-Davidson

Smooth Shifting On a Harley-Davidson

There is nothing like shifting flawlessly, and the sound gives you the feeling of exact control of your motorcycle.  A perfect shift is safer and increases the amount of time you have control of your bike. In addition, it prevents your rear wheel from locking up and keeps the bike easier to handle. 

Shifting perfectly will require time, hard work, and many hours of practice. The good news is once you've got it down, the rest of your rides will be smoother, safer, and much more enjoyable. Of course, if you want the easy way out, you can always get a quick shifter.

Unless your bike is equipped with a quick shifter, shifting smoothly will require some practice. The good news is, once you’ve committed it to muscle memory, you’ll be a smoother, safer, better rider.

The key to upshifting smoothly is pretty straightforward. But, first, you need to approach shifting as a singular fluid movement instead of separate steps in the process of shifting. 

A smooth shift starts by knowing where the clutch sweet spot is. On some bikes, it’s right next to the grip; on others, it’s way out almost to the end of the lever movement, and most often, it’s somewhere in the middle. Practice finding your individual bike's friction zone until it's almost an instinct to reach the perfect spot. Everything functionality happens inside that sweet spot. So, for example, if your friction sweet spot is close to the grip, you know you’ll need to have the lever pulled in quite far before anything happens. Then, upon release, the clutch will re-engage immediately. It's just a matter of practice and experimenting on your bike to find exactly where this sweet spot is and how it affects your bike.

We recommend finding a parking lot without much traffic or activity. Anywhere with low traffic or just generally a safe place without distraction is what you need to find. Put your bike into first gear and slowly let the clutch lever out until you feel the bike start to move. That means the clutch is engaging. Take note of where the lever is to find the Sweet Spot. Slowly continue releasing the lever, and apply gentle throttle if you feel the bike start to stall. You will feel the clutch has fully re-engaged, and the bike will steadily roll forward. You’ve found your Sweet Spot!

Practice this until you can hit the sweet spot consistently 5 - 10 times in a row.

Next, slide your toe under the lever and apply upward pressure but not enough to push it into gear. Note how much force it takes before you can feel it resist—that’s the exact shift point.

Your goal is to pull in the clutch lever and apply more pressure from your toe as you approach the friction point. Then, the bike will shift into the higher gear, and you can release the clutch lever, remembering where that re-engagement point is.

When upshifting, especially when you’re accelerating rapidly, such as when merging into fast-moving traffic, you only need to close the throttle partway as you’re shifting. As you get smoother and faster with your shifting, the engine rpm won’t have time to drop, and your throttle movement will be negligible.

For your next practice exercise, find a long, straight section of pavement  (a big parking lot works too), but make sure, like before, it's very low activity and a safe place for you to practice. 

Start by keeping pressure on the underside of the shift lever as you practice clutching. Again, keep bike movement to a minimum; you might have to experiment with the throttle to determine precisely how much you need to accomplish this. You’ll know you've got this down when you can feel the bike smoothly accelerating with no pauses, even as you shift. It'll be very much like an automatic transmission on a car.

But, we still have to address downshifting. This can be intimidating, but with focused practice, you will master it faster than you think. The hardest thing about downshifting is that it's less forgiving than upshifting. You need to have more throttle and clutch control. 

Imagine you’re approaching an S curve on a stretch of road. First, you need to close the throttle, pull the clutch into its sweet spot, and downshift a gear. Hopefully, by now, you're a pro at finding it. The first thing you will notice is engine rpm is falling, and you need to get it back up. Release the clutch lever, and the lower gear will re-engage smoothly. 

But, be careful because if you miss your timing, your rear wheel could lock up and cause a slide or what we call “rear-wheel hop.” Usually not a problem if you are on a straight shot, but a massive issue if you are entering a turn.

There are two main approaches to handling this situation.

First slipping.  Rather than letting the clutch out in one quick movement, which necessitates that throttle “blip,” you buy yourself some time and slip it a little as you smoothly open the throttle. Feel for a sweet spot where the clutch re-engages, and you’ve opened the throttle enough that the bike smoothly picks back up where it left off.

Most bikes today have what’s called a slipper clutch, which does the slip work for you, and they do a pretty good job. Of course, the primary goal of a slipper clutch is preventing rear-wheel hop, but it's still a very good idea to practice matching throttle and RPM, and it will reward you with buttery smooth shifting.

The second technique is called Blipping. We mentioned it earlier in the first technique. This is a classic move used chiefly by motorcycle racers. Essentially you “blip” the throttle to match the engine’s increased rpm immediately when you downshift. It takes a lot of practice, but there is a reason they use it in racing. You'll be rewarded with a much smoother and faster downshift once you've got it down.

As you’re letting the clutch lever back out, just as you reach the edge of its friction point, give the throttle a “blip.” Be prepared because the bike will jump; at Valley Harley-Davidson, we've never seen anyone get it right on their first attempt. Make sure you practice this on an open straight area with no potential hazards. 

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