How to Shift a Dirt Bike and Use the Clutch

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It may seem like an impossible feat to drive what could be considered a manual dirt bike, but there’s nothing that says it can’t be taught and done. I’m here to teach you how to do it all in just a few easy steps.

To shift gears on a dirt bike, first, grip the clutch. The clutch is on the lefthand side of the dirt bike located on the handle. Simultaneously press down or lift the peg, located on the left side, with the left foot. Doing this will shift the gears of the dirt bike up or down.

In order to learn more about this process and how to get it down quicker, continue reading!

Where and What is The Clutch?

So you’ve decided to be brave and purchase a manual dirt bike. Are you insane?! Absolutely. Insanely brilliant to purchase a dirt bike that is unique and certainly isn’t as difficult as some might think. When looking directly at the dirt bike, it may be confusing, as there are two pull levers on the handlebars.

There’s no need to worry, as it will only take a few tries and braking too hard before you realize that the clutch is on the left and the brake is on the right. But there’s a way of remembering how the go-getter is on the left and the brake is on the right, because everything that goes and stops is on its own side.

On the righthand side of the dirt bike is the brake. That is a crucial part of the dirt bike and can prevent accidents and is what stops the bike, of course. On the lefthand side of the dirt bike is the clutch. Both of these levers look very similar, so it is vitally important to go slow when first riding a dirt bike so as to get the hang of learning which hands go where.

The location of the clutch is half the job of learning how to drive a manual dirt bike. But after you have gotten that down part, you’ll realize that the purpose of the clutch is to assist the shifting pedal in moving up or down in gears on a dirt bike.

It’s the first thing you pull before you push on the shift pedal. Otherwise, it will cause damage to your dirt bike, especially around the engine and major parts of the dirt bike.

Where and What is The Shift Pedal?

It should not be so hard to remember where the shift pedal is after you have learned where the clutch is, as it is also located on the lefthand side of the dirt bike. They go hand-in-hand, in all honesty, which makes it a lot easier to remember and more user-friendly.

Now that you know where what does it do exactly? The shift allows for easy and much quicker access to shifting up into higher gears while coasting along. You’re going at a great speed, gliding along the track and smoothly moving, and then you itch to go just that one inch faster, and there is the shift, and you simply clutch, press, and move faster.

The easiest and safest way to shift a dirt bike is to keep your foot on the foot pedal, where you can rest your foot when you are not shifting. Then, when you go to shift, you want to go under the bike, and then come back out to rest on the pedal, go forward to rest, and then repeat. If you go to shift and then swing your foot out and back, you have a higher chance of hurting your foot or off-setting your bike and hurting your entire body.

With both of these in mind, now it’s time to learn how to use them in a quick and efficient way so as to have as minimal accidents and damage as possible.

Five Easy Steps to Using the Clutch and Shift

There are five simple steps to follow that will get any dirt bike properly shifted and moving, but following that is more information on how to do it and how to effectively move your dirt bike in a way that protects you and the bike.

  1. Find an open space; someplace with no trees or rocks that will trip up beginning riders, with room to make mistakes or coast.
  2. Start your bike with the kickstart.
  3. Let your bike warmup; winter or summer, it allows for the fuel and oil to warm up and lubricate the bike.
  4. Now that you’re warmed up, pull the in the clutch and step down on the shift pedal and go into first gear.
  5. Gently give the bike gas and slowly release the clutch.

The first step is to go out in an open area; the more room the better. Open spaces give room for riders to learn how to slowly move up gears without damaging the bike in any way. Do not try learning a manual amongst trees and rocks, find the plains and go for a ride.

Second, start your bike with your kickstart. This is what starts a dirt bike, what gets the engine roaring. If your dirt bike is missing this vital piece, you’re going to need to take it in for a checkup and get that replaced.

Now, let your bike warm-up for a few seconds, especially if it is cold outside, the oil and fuel need to get rolling through the bike. Even if it isn’t cold outside, allowing the bike to warm-up is a great exercise to get in the habit of, as it allows to get juices flowing and prepare the bike.

Next, now that the bike is warmed up, it’s time to pull in the clutch, step down on the shift pedal, and put the bike into first gear. The first gear is just enough power to start the bike and move, but it won’t scare you, especially with the clutch still firmly gripped.

Gently give the dirt bike a little gas while slowly releasing the clutch at the same time. Use the shift pedal in order to go up in gears. If you are not shifting it will tear up the bike and can cause serious damage to the engine or other major parts of the dirt bike. It is also important to know that you do not have to use the clutch when shifting down.

When shifting up to second or third gear, remember to use the same basics as step 4 and 5. Hold the clutch in as you shift the bike with your left foot, then slowly let the clutch out.

These five steps are the easiest, simplest ways of learning where the clutch and shift is, and how to best use it in order to use the clutch and shift in sync in order to effectively move the bike into higher or lower gears in a way that isn’t permanently damaging to the bike or the rider.

When to Shift

Timing is everything. Something that tends to happen often is riders will get too enthusiastic and will shift too quickly and stall out their dirt bike, or even grind gears that will make a screeching sound bound to horrify anyone within a half-mile radius. Bikes know when they are ready to move into a higher gear, and it’s when the engine reaches high RPMs and needs to be moved into the next gear.

If you are wanting to shift down, take it easy on the bike, and don’t get going at a speed that will grind your engine. Shifting up is merely a matter of listening to the engine and checking the gauges to make sure that your bike is at an appropriate speed and RPM to not only effectively but safely move into the next gear.

Always remember, you don’t have to worry about using the clutch when shifting down. It can be easy to get confused, and using the clutch doesn’t damage the bike or anything of the like, but it is best if you as the rider just shift and move the bike down until the speed is more comfortable.

Your bike knows when and where, and it’s entirely up to the rider to choose what is the next best move to either shift up or down according to what the bike is saying either gauge-wise or what noise the bike is making.

Why You Should Shift

I have said it, and I will say it again. Shifting is important, but remember, you really only have to shift when moving into a higher gear. Your dirt bike is a well-oiled machine, and it knows when it’s ready to move into a higher gear. Something that may come up is your dirt bike will start to make a high-pitched noise, which means its time to either move up or down a gear.

Shifting is a nice way of letting your bike know that it’s time to go faster, which in turn the bike will respond by making a noise and alerting the rider that it’s time to rotate again.

You shift to keep the bike going. If you don’t shift, the bike won’t go faster or coast. Just like a manual car, if you don’t clutch and shift, it will cause damage. This is obviously something that we want, especially with expensive toys like these.

It’s Kind of Like Driving a Manual Car

The best way to think about the dirt bike is that it is designed almost exactly like the manual car, or also known as stick-shift. Manual cars come with a clutch pedal on the floor-board, next to the brake pad, and a stick in the center console that helps accel or deaccelerate the car in any way the driver sees fit.

Manual cars are designed with a clutch on the far lefthand side of the car, which needs to be pushed in exact sync with the gear shift of the car. If the clutch isn’t pressed alongside the stick being moved up or down, then the car will stall, and you will have to turn the car off and on again in order to try again.

Both of these, the pedal and the handle, are nearly identical to what is on the dirt bike. If you have driven a manual car before, then it will be incredibly simple to drive a manual dirt bike. It’s almost exactly like riding a bicycle. One that has two levers that need to be pushed and pulled at the same time or you will go absolutely nowhere.

Just like the manual car, it will be difficult to catch on the first time, it always takes a few tries. However, it’s important to still consider that it could destroy the engine, grinding together gears that aren’t supposed to be shoved together without a little help from the rider and the other pedals and levers will mess up any reliable engine.

It is a relatively easy concept, so don’t worry if you don’t catch on right away, just go with what’s comfortable and go from there. Everybody makes mistakes, and there will always be those days, but nobody is perfect.

Common Mistakes

There are many mistakes that dirt bike riders make, especially beginners, who don’t quite know yet what a clutch or kick-start is and what they mean in accordance with how the bike works. These words are all important to understand in order to learn how to effectively shift the bike and ride it longer than a foot or two.

As I have stated above, the clutch and shift are two very key elements to riding a dirt bike, and they are used to push the bike farther and faster so the rider can go over obstacles or push through brush and mud. However, there are other terms I will outline as follows so as to increase the riders knowledge and understanding of common mistakes and then how to rectify them.

A common phrase you will want to learn and know well is the friction zone. This is where riders learn how to properly release the clutch so that the bike doesn’t move away from you faster than your body is ready for, and how much throttle to give so as to move the bike safely. When your bike is moving forward, and you need to release the clutch to allow for speed, this is the amount of pressure and timing that is known as the friction zone.

Listen closely to your dirt bike and the sounds it makes when shifting up or even going down in gears. If your dirt bike is not in the proper gear, it will be slower in power from the motor and may even stall out. This is damaging to the bike and is important to know how to shift and move the bike into a speed that is not only comfortable and manageable for the rider, but also for the bike.

Don’t grab the brake while trying to shift, it’s easy to get confused which hand goes where! Considering there are two levers on each handle, many beginning riders pull on the brakes instead of the clutch to shift, which can cause accidents. Riders have been thrown over the handlebars and harmed because of a sudden brake at high speeds. Always remember the things that control speed are on the lefthand side of the bike.

You DO NOT have to use the clutch to downshift. It’s not as critical to downshift on a dirt bike because it’s simply moving the gears down, whereas, with trying to kick a dirt bike into a higher gear, it causes less wear and tear on the engine if you use the clutch.

I usually use the clutch to shift up just to be as nice to my engine as possible, but I never use it to shift down.

Dirt Bike Planet

The clutch is your friend, so don’t be afraid to use it when necessary. Your dirt bike will thank you in the long run.

Ways to Fix Mistakes

Just because we make mistakes doesn’t mean they can not be remedied. It’s best to learn how to fix mistakes quickly so as not to cause lasting or permanent damage to your dirt bike. Here are some quick ways to fix the problems we stated above.

In order to know when your dirt bike is in the wrong gear, your bike will make noises that should immediately alert the rider to the fact that something isn’t quite right. If your bike is having high RPMs and the motor is making loud noises, it’s time to downshift so as to get into a more comfortable gear that won’t grind your bike.

If your bike is in lower RPMs, your motor is bogging, it means it’s time to move the gears into something that is more manageable for your bike. The bike recognizes that it is in the wrong gear and needs to be moved into a higher gear.

As many young kids do, they either immediately grab the brake when they don’t feel comfortable, or they grab the brake thinking that it’s the clutch and can fling themselves over the bars. Something I would suggest doing is making lettering the handlebars for younger, inexperienced riders so as to help them remember which is where until they get the hang of it.

Using the clutch is something that is difficult for the first few times, and then it just becomes second nature. If you’re really having a hard time figuring out and remembering which is where and why maybe consider going to a dirt bike class or even a friend who knows more and have them guide you until your comfortable.

If It’s Not Working, Here’s What to Look For

Sometimes, it’s not a rider error that causes the dirt bike to refuse to move. There are a few things that should be checked if your dirt bike isn’t starting or the clutch and shift aren’t doing what they are supposed to be doing.

Some of the mechanical things to check for are whether you have gas and if your fuel is on. On a dirt bike, there is a small lever that is on the left-hand side of the engine, on the same side where the shift pedal is located. Make sure that the little arrow is pointing towards on. Your bike needs fuel to consume to move. But not just on, make sure that there is gas in the tank, of course.

Is your clutch too loose or stiff? There’s a little mechanical lever that controls the clutch located on your handle, and if you can’t properly clutch your clutch, that is where you will either loosen or tighten the bolt that is in there. It is located on the righthand side of the bike and can be easily found to fix your clutch dilemma.

Occasionally, your shift will be clogged with mud, which can prevent it from moving in a way that helps push the bike into the next gear. Check to make sure that your shift is free of debris and that you are able to easily push it whenever your bike is ready, otherwise it may not start or stall out really easily.

The vibration and constant jolting of the bike can knock things loose or even cause things to get taken off, so it’s a good idea to check your bike consistently, if not after every ride so as to ensure that your bike is performing at what it should be.

Ways to Improve Form and Riding Skill

There are dozens of manuals and tutorials that show riders what to do in order to be more effective in their riding technique, and how to protect oneself from being harmed while going for a simple ride and just beginning. Here are some tips for riding safely on a dirt bike.

The first safety tip is to make sure that your arms are in a rectangular shape. This will help in maneuvering and controlling the bike. When your arms are close to your chest, it is more difficult to control the handlebars, grip onto the brakes and clutch, and maneuver the bike in whatever direction the rider wants. When your arms are placed in a rectangular shape, elbows up and boxed, it gives riders a stronger form and more stability.

Do not stick your foot out when shifting and then bring it back to rest. When you stick your foot out, it is more likely to get caught on something and either severely hurt your foot or rip you off your bike. It’s advised to slip your foot under to shift, slide it back out, push it forward to rest for comfort, pull back, slide under to shift, and repeat.

It’s better to be safe than sorry, and hopefully, these tips will be useful in assisting riders, especially beginners, in being able to ride their dirt bike in such a way that they are safe and efficient and know how to pull the clutch and shift in after only a few tries if not even just the first time.

Practice Practice Practice

There is only one way you can get better, and that is simply stated by practicing all of the time. Any spare time you have just go out on an open patch of land and make sure to take your time practicing where the clutch and shift is and speeds that are comfortable. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect.

If you follow the steps and guidelines above, it will become second nature, and learning how to ride and control a bike like this will take no time. Checking and changing anything so that it better fits your riding style and is more comfortable and controllable is a great thing, because it’s up to you how you want to ride.

It’s encouraging when you can get it down once, but after you’ve done it ten and fifteen times feels so good. You can see improvement and remember which is where and do it in quick succession. That’s when you feel like you’re a pro! There’s no right or wrong way of learning how to drive a manual dirt bike, just do what you enjoy and you’ll be riding like the pro riders in no time.

Jim Harmer

I'm the co-owner of Dirt Bike Planet. I live in Star, Idaho and enjoy dirt biking with my wife and two boys throughout the Idaho mountains.

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