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Motorcycle Controls

Module by: James Cooper. E-mail the author

Summary: What controls you will need to ride a motorcycle, what they do, and how to use them.

A motorcycle has most of the same controls as a car does, but they often look and work very differently. Most people will be rather confused by the scheme until they have used it for a while, but in the end it works well. We will take a look at what these are, where they are, and how they work. But be careful: knowing how to operate the controls is not nearly enough to make a good motorcyclist, or even to just ride around the block; there are many techniques and considerations not covered here. When and where to use the controls is important in any vehicle, and especially so on a motorcycle!

Note:

The modern standard motorcycle controls have evolved over the years into their current form. Today every motorcycle follows the same scheme, as presented here. However, older motorcycles often had controls significantly different from a modern bike. Things you now find at the foot were operated by hand, things now on the left were on the right, and they might even have controls (like the spark advance) that modern machines don't have. If you find yourself wanting to ride an older bike (anything older than 1980, as a rough rule) make sure you know how it works, and start slow. (That's good advice for any new machine, really.)

Motorcycles are operated by both hands and both feet. There are six major controls: steering, throttle, clutch, gear shift, front brake, rear brake. These are fairly evenly distributed to hands and feet. There are also minor (but still important!) controls like the starter, ignition, horn, turn signals, etc, which vary a good deal per model. We'll take a look at the major controls first.

The Right Side: Stop and Go

The right side (that is, right hand and right foot) is in charge of making the motorcycle accelerate and decelerate. Both brakes and the throttle are located on the right side. The right hand is the most important, controlling the front brake and the throttle. The rear brake is worked by the right foot.

Brakes

Brakes stop the motorcycle. Simple enough, but it's a bit more complicated than that. Most motorcycles have brakes on both front and rear. The front brake is by far the most important, due to a simple behavior of braking: when slowing down, the weight of the bike and rider move forward, pressing down on the front wheel and taking weight off the rear. You can see this with stunt riders who can brake hard enough to come up on their front wheel. Obviously, when this happens 100% of the braking occurs on the front wheel! But even when both wheel stick to the ground, the front brakes make most of the effort. You will want to concentrate most of your energies on proper operation of the front brake, though don't neglect the rear: the 20% or 25% coming from the rear could make the difference between a successful stop and a close encounter with the back of a car.

Front Brake

The front brake is controlled by the lever on the right grip of the handlebars. Normally it will be spring-loaded open, and the rider will squeeze it shut, towards the grip, to apply the front brake. The lever is much like the one on a bicycle. (The right lever on a bicycle works the rear brake, not the front, but in that case the rear brake is the most important, so bicycle skills should be helpful. But the left lever is completely different, so it's not exactly like riding a bicycle.) As the rider squeezes the handled closed, brake force increases; for hard stops, squeeze harder. But be careful: most motorcycle brakes are very good, and can lock up the wheels if applied too strongly. This is very bad!

Rear Brake

The rear brake is controlled by a pedal on the right peg or board. The exact configuration will vary slightly per model. Push down to engage the brakes; the further the pedal is pushed the harder the braking force. The rear wheel is even easier to lock up than the front, since weight is coming off of it during braking, so don't push too hard.

Using the Brakes

Most stops should involve using both brakes together. While you can get away with just using one most of the time, it's good practice to always use both together so that it will be automatic in a situation where you really need the stopping power of both brakes. Apply both brakes simultaneously and smoothly. Jerky movements may upset the balance of the motorcycle or lock the wheels, both of which are very bad. It is difficult to use the front brakes and the throttle at the same time, but that should not be a problem, as using both makes little sense. When moving slowly or when stopped on an incline it may be helpful to use just the rear brake.

Advanced Brake Systems

Some models of motorcycle have additional features in their brake systems. Two are most likely to be encountered: linked brakes and anti-lock brakes. Linked brake systems work the brakes on both wheels when you use the controls for just one. Most commonly you will find systems that lightly engage the rear brake when using the front brake, in case the rider fails to use the rear. Since you should be using both brakes most of the time, this should not change much. Systems that engage the front brake when using the rear can pose some difficulties at low speeds, especially if you're used to using the rear brake only for that type of riding. Anti-lock brakes (ABS) use a computer and wheel-speed sensor to determine if you have locked up the wheels while braking and "pulsing" the brakes to get the wheel rolling again, which avoids dangerous skidding if the brakes are applied too hard. The makes panic stops somewhat less dangerous, especially for the unskilled rider. But anti-lock brakes are not magic and cannot replace attentive riding and braking.

Throttle

The throttle controls the flow of fuel to the engine. More fuel means more power; more power means more speed. On a motorcycle, the throttle is a twistable grip on the right side of the handlebars. Normally it is spring-loaded in the closed position, and the rider twists it to open the throttle and accelerate. The closed position is all the way "forward". To open the throttle, grip it in the right hand and move the wrist down so that the grip rotates "backwards". To close, rotate the wrist upwards or let go of the grip and the spring will rotate the grip forwards. To keep the throttle open you must maintain a constant hold on the grip and keep it from rotating forward.

Different models will have differently powered springs, so be cautious when operating a new machine. Even though the throttle will snap close, it is best to close it in a controlled and smooth manner. The spring-close is a safety feature to keep the motorcycle from running away on its own. It is possible to buy devices to hold the throttle in the open position; these defeat the safety purpose and should only be used carefully and disabled when not on the highway. Other devices allow throttle control with the wrist instead of the hand; these reduce fatigue but remain safe in all situations.

The Left Side: Shifting

The engine of a motorcycle rotates an output shaft with a certain amount of power, depending on how much fuel it gets from the throttle; this rotational power is directed via gears and chains to the rear wheel. Most of the time the engine rotation and the wheel rotation are locked together by the gears and chains, and will rotate in sync, though perhaps at different rates. (The gears can make the engine RPMs a certain ratio of the wheel RPMs; the wheel might, for example, rotate once for every time the engine rotates twice, which is a 2:1 ratio. The ratio can be pretty much anything an engineer desires to make the bike work best.) This mechanical linkage between engine and wheel is the transmission because it transmits power. When the power from the engine meets the road through the rear wheel, it determines how the motorcycle moves: if the engine power is greater than resistance from the wind and other friction (and maybe gravity if going up a hill) the motorcycle accelerates, and if the engine power is a lot greater, it accelerates very fast; if the power from the engine is the same as the opposite forces, it goes steady; if the power is less than the opposing forces, it slows down.

However, the transmission isn't quite that simple; it has some controls that must be manipulated by the rider for various purposes. In the standard layout, the left side of the rider controls the transmission. The left hand controls a lever (much like the brake lever) that operates the clutch, which allows the engine to disconnect from the drive wheel; the left foot controls a lever that shifts the transmission into various gears, which controls the ratio of engine speed to wheel speed.

Clutch

We can't have the engine and the rear wheel locked together all the time. Otherwise, starting the motorcycle would start the machine rolling! And you couldn't sit still without turning the engine off. The solution is the clutch. It sits between the engine and transmission, and usually links them together. But, if you pull the clutch lever (or, in a car, push the clutch pedal) you can slightly or completely separate the engine and rear wheel speeds.

The clutch lever, like the front brake lever, is in front of the grip and spring-loaded open. To disengage the clutch and separate the engine from the wheels squeeze the lever toward the grip. Let it out again to re-engage the clutch and link the engine and wheels. Also like the brakes, the clutch can be partially used, but only briefly. (See below for why.) The clutch pull has the following phases for the rider to feel for and learn:

  • no pull, the normal position: fully engaged, engine and wheel linked
  • slight pull: still fully disengaged
  • engagement point, where the clutch starts slipping
  • middle of the pull: clutch is slipping, transferring 99% down to 1% power, depending on position
  • disengagement point, where the clutch is entirely disengaged
  • hard pull, all the way in: fully disengaged, engine and wheel separate
The clutch can be quickly disengaged (pulled), but putting the engine back in use should be done smoothly; "popping" the clutch can lead to a dangerous jerk, and is hard on the engine and transmission. When using the clutch, the throttle should be reduced as well, since the engine will speed up when the load is removed.

The clutch should be disengaged when starting the motorcycle; in fact, many will not start unless the clutch lever is pulled. The clutch therefore is let out slowly when starting from stopped to make for a smooth take-off. Most motorcycles are not strong enough to launch the bike from idle, so the rider has to apply some throttle at the same time, applying more power as the engine starts to lose speed from the load of driving the bike forward. The clutch is also used when shifting gears (see below).

How it works

There are many ways to make a clutch; an early method, on motorcycles driven by a leather belt, was to put a drive pulley on a lever than could control its pressure against the drive belt. Move the pulley away from the belt completely, and the engine is isolated; push it hard against the belt and the engine is completely linked; somewhere in-between and the engine power can slip the pulley against the belt a little, transferring partial power to the ground. The modern clutch is more advanced and more reliable, but still relies on friction between two components, each connected to a different end of the power train. In a modern clutch, you will usually find two plates of different materials (usually steel and some friction component a lot like brake pads) that are spring-loaded to connect and lock together. It works a lot like brakes, but in the opposite direction. Pulling the clutch lever minutely separates the plates. Partial separation can allow the use of a percentage of engine power, but since the clutch uses friction to do this, it wears out the plates and creates heat. You can "feather" the clutch to get a smooth start and speed control at low speeds, but over-doing this will over-heat or wear out the clutch.

Gear Shift

The engine shaft rotates at a certain RPM (rotations per minute), and the rear wheel also rotates at a certain RPM But because of the characteristics of the internal combustion engine (pretty much every motorcycle around uses a gasoline engine) An internal combustion engine, because of the laws of physics, only works well at a narrow RPM range. This requires a variety of ratios between engine speed and wheel speed to get acceptable performance, and the transmission does this for us. Without a transmission, a motorcycle would either start well and have a top speed of maybe 20 miles per hour, or would start very slowly (if at all!) and have a normal top speed.

Almost all motorcycles have a manual gearbox, where the rider must select the gear. Motorcycles have a sequential gearbox, meaning that you can only shift to the gear immediately higher or lower than the current one. This is unlike manual transmission cars, which allow you to pick any gear fro many other. Typically the order of gears (which includes neutral) is: 1 N 2 3 4 5. That is, first gear (the "take off" gear) is at the very bottom, from which you can shift up to neutral, the up to two, and all the way up to the top gear. Motorcycles vary in number of gears, from 3 to 6. The N gear causes the engine to spin unconnected to the wheels, and is usually a "half step": you can shift lightly up into neutral or go past it in a stronger shift into second. Similarly, you can shift lightly down from second into neutral, or shift harder down into first. This may seem like an odd system, but it is designed to let you shift all the way to the bottom without counting gears and be sure to end up in first gear when there are no more gears to shift. If N was at the bottom, you'd have to be much more careful so as not to wind up accidentally without the bike in gear. Note: older bikes or racing machines may have a different gear setup.

The gear shift is worked by the left foot. Typically it is a lever that is pushed down (stepped on) to shift down, and lifted with the toe to shift up. Some bikes have a rocker where you can step on the front to shift down (like normal) or step on the back (or lift the front) to shift up. This reduces wear on the toes of your boots; most motorcycle boots have reinforced toes because of this shifting arrangement.

The gear shift should generally be worked with some force to make sure the shift is completed. It is possible, if the shift action is too light, that the shift will fail halfway through, resulting in being out of gear or grinding the transmission. Don't worry, it can take being stepped on: it's built for it.

It is actually possible to shift without using the clutch, and just using engine speed modulation to match speeds between gears. This works best on lighter bikes. It is an advanced topic, however, and we won't cover it more here.

Steering

A motorcycle is steered with handlebars that turn the front wheels. The ends of the handlebars have grips on them; the right grip turns and is the throttle, as discussed above, but the left grip doesn't turn. The handlebars do not need to be moved much, so steering shouldn't move the throttle much. At low speeds, you turn the handlebars so that the front wheel tracks in the direction you want to go. This means the you pull the right grip towards you to turn right, and pull the left grip to turn left. At high speeds, you turn the handlebars such that the front wheel moves out from under the current direction, which causes the bike to lean, which causes it to turn. In this case, you want to push the right grip away from you to turn to the right, or push the left grip away from you to turn left (though not very far in either case). This is called "counter-steering", and can be hard to understand, but it does work and should be the primary method to turn the bike. If you don't believe in counter- steering, try this experiment: ride the bike at a reasonable cruising speed and steer with only the palms of your hands. You will find that a push to one side will tend to cause the bike to lean to that side, which will make it turn in that direction. Some people believe that steering is done with weight shifts or some other input; while these can help you turn better, no amount of leaning will reasonably steer a motorcycle at speed. The specifics of counter-steering are an expansive topic, and will not be covered here. Don't worry, it's not all that complicated, and most people pick it up naturally even if they don't understand it.

Minor Controls

Motorcycles also have several other controls that tend to differ in look, operation, and location between manufacturers and models. You will simple have to inspect your motorcycle and maybe read the manual to locate all of these. Where minor controls have a common location, we note that here.

  • Key/Ignition: Makes sure not just anybody can start the engine by requiring a key, just like a car. Unlike a car, the "on" position of a motorcycle usually just turns on the electrical system, allowing the engine to start, but not actually starting it. On some bikes the "off" position may include a fork lock, which keeps the forks pointed hard to the side to make the bike harder to roll away. Can be located on the neck, the tank, the engine, or several other places.
  • Kill switch: Immediately stops the engine when switched into "off". Must be "on" for the bike to start or remain running. Usually a prominent toggle switch on the right control cluster.
  • Starter: Runs the starter motor to start the engine, but only if the ignition and kill switch are on. Usually also has other interlocks (transmission in neutral, kickstand up) to make sure you don't lurch forward on start. Usually a push button on the right side control cluster.
  • Horn: Sounds the horn to signal other people. Usually a push button, probably on the left hand side control cluster.
  • Turn signals: Blinks lights to indicate your intended direction of turn. This control varies widely among manufacturers and models, but is most commonly a three-way switch (left-none-right) on the left control cluster. Most motorcycle blinkers must be manually canceled, since it is hard to determine when a turn has taken place, unlike in a car. (A steering wheel moves a lot in a turn, but handlebars hardly at all.) So, get into the habit of checking and canceling your turn signals.
  • High-beam: Switches headlamp from low brightness to high brightness mode. Most motorcycles have always-on headlamps, but older models might perhaps also have a headlight switch. Often a toggle switch on the left hand side control cluster..
  • Choke: An engine control to temporarily give the engine more air to make it easier to start. Newer bikes will not have chokes, as they have electronic fuel injection. The choke may be a lever on a control cluster, a pull knob on the engine, a lever on the engine, or some other option. If you have a choke, use it to start, but turn it off as soon as the engine will run smoothly without it.
  • Fuel Reserve: Some motorcycles carry a small amount of gasoline only accessible by flipping a reserve lever. If you have one of these, if can be handy if you run out of gas.
  • Tripmeter reset: Many bikes will record the mileage of a trip. There will be a button somewhere to reset this. Locations vary widely.
  • Clock set: Many bikes have a clock. There will be a way to set this, but methods and locations vary. The manual may be needed to figure it out.

Your motorcycle may also have other controls. These may include traction control, automatic braking, navigation units, radios, telephones, and more. These are all too diverse to cover here, but make sure before you use them while riding that you can do so easily and automatically. Fiddling with the radio while riding is a bad idea!

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