How the Gears on A Dirt Bike Work

dirt bike gears

When you first start riding a dirt bike (or any motorcycle for that matter), the shifting takes some getting used to.  The shift pattern doesn’t make sense, half of your friends tell you to never use the clutch, the other half say always use the clutch, and using your feet and hands to shift the bike seems like a nightmare.

However, you will get the hang of it pretty quickly.  I actually now find shifting on a dirt bike to be more straight forward and easy than shifting on a car.

So let’s take a look at how the gears on a dirt bike work, why the work this way, and how you should use them.

Dirt Bike Gears Shift Pattern

dirt bike gear shift pattern

The shift pattern on a normal dirt bike or motorcycle is going to have first gear at the bottom (shift lever clicked down until you are no longer getting any lower of a gear).  Then in between first and second there will be neutral, and the rest of the gears are on top of that.  Your dirt bike may have between 4 and 6 total gears, but the shift pattern doesn’t change.

Why is the shift pattern set up this way?

Before people were whipping and scrubbing dirt bikes, people used motorcycles as a normal means of transportation.  If you are riding on a road, having neutral be kind of hidden is really a safety matter. 

Let’s say that you need to slow down quickly from a high speed.  There is your front brake, back brake, and engine braking that you can use.  So as you are applying the front and back brakes, you can down shift.  If as you are downshifting, you get into neutral, then you completely lose your engine braking.

There is another reason for the shift pattern being set up this way.  If you are using a motorcycle as a commuter, being able to be in traffic and shift from one gear to the next without dropping into neutral is a must.  Additionally, if traffic is stopped, and starts moving again, you can just bang the shift lever to the bottom and get going.

That is why the shift pattern on a motorcycle works the way it does.  Since a dirt bike is really a motorcycle, this original shift pattern moved to dirt bikes.

There are a couple of exceptions to this.  On a kids dirt bike, there may be an automatic transmission which negates the need to shift.  Same thing with some cruiser motorcycles.  But by and large, you will be seeing the shift pattern be uniform across dirt bikes.

Where is Neutral on a Dirt Bike?

If you look at the above diagram, you will see that neutral is half way between first and second gear.  What occurs when you shift to neutral is you pop out of first gear without engaging second gear.  This seems like a real pain in the neck upon first glance.  And sometimes it can be a pain in the neck to find neutral.  Luckily, you don’t need neutral very often!

Why the “hidden neutral” is a good thing

Imagine for a moment that you are ripping around a dirt bike track and come to a turn.  You drop it into first gear so you can fly out of the turn.  As you start picking up speed, you kick it up and the engine screams but no power is being delivered.  This is completely undesirable, but would be possible if neutral was designed in a different way.  When you are riding, you need to be focused on many things, and worrying about accidently getting into neutral is not one of them.

There are cases where a false shift happens.  This mostly happens with newer riders who aren’t kicking hard enough when going from first to second.  If this is happening to you, just train that behavior away by doing deliberate shifts.

How to find neutral on a dirt bike

If you need to get into neutral while on your bike, there is a relatively easy way to do it.  First, shift all the way down to first gear, then take your toe and slowly lift up on the shift lever.  Generally going about half way between first and second will work.  Now, release the clutch to ensure that your bike doesn’t try to move.  If it does, just shift down to first and try again.  With practice, it will be easy enough to do this repeatedly.

Should you use neutral?

I rarely use neutral unless I am starting my bike before a ride.  Even then, it is for convenience so I don’t have to pull the clutch in while I am kick starting it.  I typically ride on a motocross track, so there is not much stopping to wait on friends to catch up like you would see with trail riding. 

When I am out riding, I never use neutral.  I get on the track, ride until I am ready to stop, then go back to the truck for some water or snacks.  There just isn’t the opportunity on a track to stop and hang out.  If I am trail riding and stop, I either turn off my bike, or just hold the clutch in until I am ready to go again.

Whether or not you use neutral is up to you and the style of riding that you do.  I would wager a guess that outside of pushing the bike around your truck or starting it up, you can get away with never getting into neutral.

How a Dirt Bike Clutch Works

A dirt bike utilizes what is called a wet clutch system.  This means that your clutch is actually sitting in an oil bath.  If you ride a 2 stroke, this is oil bath is the 2 stroke gear fluid.  If you have a 4 stroke, then the oil bath is motor oil.  A car on the other hand (and some street bikes, namely Ducati’s) have a dry clutch, meaning they are not sitting in oil.

A wet clutch is made up of several friction plates separated by steel plates.  These are all sitting inside what is known as a clutch basket.  On top of the clutch plate pack is a pressure plate.

The way the clutch works is when you pull the clutch in, the pressure plate raises up, taking the pressure off the clutch pack.  This allows the clutch pack pieces (i.e. the friction plates and steel plates) to no longer be in firm contact with each other.  Since it is a wet system, they are lubed and can easily slide by each other.

When you release the clutch, the pressure plate comes back down, mashing the clutch pack together.  Since there is now pressure on the clutch pack, the individual plates can no longer spin freely and spin as a complete unit.  This delivers the power to the rear wheel.

Using the clutch for shifting

Many people believe that since dirt bikes use a wet clutch system that you don’t need to use the clutch to shift.  Since it is lubed, any damage will be lessened, so no need to use the clutch.  I think that this is incorrect, and many mechanics agree.

When you are upshifting, your dirt bike is under power.  This power should be removed before shifting otherwise you risk damaging the shift forks in the transmission and causing excess wear on the clutch plates.  So, when upshifting, use the clutch.

When you are downshifting, your bike is not under full power.  So, you can downshift without damaging the clutch and transmission components.  Using the clutch will not damage anything, it is just not necessary.

To throw another wrench in it, if you shift up mid-air during a jump, you don’t need to use the clutch.  This is because no power is being delivered to the ground so it is safe to shift without damaging components.

If that seems like a lot to remember, then I would recommend that you use the clutch every time you shift.  If you get in the habit of doing that then it will become second nature and you don’t risk messing anything up.  This is what I have gotten in the habit of doing because I enjoy riding more than I enjoy replacing clutch plates.

Wrap Up

So now you know how the gears on a dirt bike work, and why they work the way they do.  When you first start riding, dirt bike gears can be a little difficult to conceptualize. The whole shifting process can be a little daunting, but trust me, you will get the hang of it.  Sometimes neutral can be a little tricky to find, but luckily you don’t need to use it very often.  Finally, if you get in the habit of using the clutch every time you shift (either up or down), you don’t have to think about when to use it and when to not use it. 

Practice shifting a lot and eventually you won’t even have to think about it.  As a self-confessed over thinker, this was hard for me to wrap my head around.  Now I don’t even notice it.  Ride hard and stay safe out there!

How to ride a dirt bike