Most motorcyclists have encountered the following nightmare situation: you just pulled up to a stoplight and want to shift into neutral, so you attempt to click out of first gear into neutral. (First off, am I the only one who always types neutral “nuetral”? Ok sorry I’m dumb moving on.) You then spend the next two and a half minutes clicking back and forth between first and second gear like an idiot until the light finally turns green.
If only there was an answer to this catastrophe that could put it to rest once and for all. I have boiled down the most common causes into a top-five list of items to check off before writing off riding altogether.
As a general rule, a motorcycle won’t engage neutral if the clutch is not operating properly or if the maintenance hasn’t been performed at proper intervals. There are various reasons a clutch won’t operate properly which include poor adjustment and excessive wear.
Quick Tips To Try Before Attempting Repairs
You might be able to end this diagnosis before you start by trying some of these quick tips. If your bike is shifting up and down through gears smoothly but struggles to engage neutral when stopped, work your way through this list.
- Rock the motorcycle back and forth
- Attempt to engage neutral while moving slowly
- Visually inspect left-side rearset for damage or obstructions
Remember, the neutral position is typically in between first and second gear. When in first gear, click the lever up slightly as to avoid shifting into second.
1. Motorcycle Clutch Not Adjusted Properly
One of the first things you should check when diagnosing a shifting issue is your clutch cable adjustment. In some instances, the metal cable or lever hinge assembly may be damaged, which will result in system malfunction.
In the instance where the clutch is simply out of adjustment, follow these steps to return it to factory specs.
- Perform an inspection to determine if the cable is too tight or too loose. The cable should not be so loose that the clutch lever is floppy with excessive slack, but also shouldn’t be so tight that the lever is difficult to pull or even binding.
- Use the circular dial near the hingepoint of the lever to release or add tension to the cable.
- Make small adjustments and recheck multiple times rather than overcompensating
- Road test to confirm proper functionality.
It’s worth spending a minute to describe at a foundational level how a motorcycle should ride and shift with a properly adjusted clutch and things to look out for that should raise red flags.
If when accelerating the bike feels sluggish, your clutch may be slipping which will result in not all power getting its way to the rear wheel. If when the clutch lever is pulled all the way and the bike is in first gear at a stop, if the bike still wants creep forward then the clutch is dragging and needs adjustment.
This can prematurely wear the clutch as it will heat up excessively if not addressed immediately. Additionally, you will have a heck of a time engaging neutral which will likely be less of a concern in this instance.
Quick side note…some bikes have a hydraulic clutch that uses brake fluid to actuate the clutch rather than a cable. If this is your situation, simply inspect the reservoir, lines, master cylinder, and slave cylinder for fluid leaks. Any fluid leaks in this system will result in the clutch not disengaging fully and thus the motorcycle not shifting properly.
2. Overdue Maintenance Of Oil
As mentioned in the previous segment, motorcycles with the more common “wet clutch” setup involve the clutch plates and basket spinning working in the engine oil. Logically, if the engine oil is old, dirty, or burned, the clutch will wear more quickly and potentially malfunction.
Recommended Motorcycle Oil And Filter Service Interval
I typically replaced my engine oil and filter every three-thousand miles which is a shorter interval than most service manuals call for but I considered to be “cheap insurance”. This allowed for my internal engine components, including clutch, to operate in ideal conditions and reduce premature wear.
When oil breaks down as a natural reaction to time and use, it loses its lubricative properties and needs to be changed to prevent damage to the engine and clutch.
If you ever change your own oil, compare how old dark oil feels compared to new gold oil. You’ll notice how slippery fresh oil is and can only imagine how much excessive heat was building up inside your engine with the old oil circulating.
Old burned up oil also leaves behind contaminants and a sludge residue which will remain behind on hard parts in your engine like the valves, cylinder head, and clutch.
3. Clutch Failing And Needs Replacement
If you still have the shifting issue after adjusting the clutch, you may be staring down the barrel of a failed clutch assembly. The clutch pack on most motorcycles is actually very easy to service given you have some standard tools.
Typically, the clutch will be on the right side of the engine (oriented if you’re sitting on the bike) covered by a case that’s bolted onto the engine and sealed with a gasket. The clutch rotates in a bath of engine oil which is why the cover must be sealed.
Another side note…some Ducati motorcycles were engineered to operate with a “dry clutch” with no oil passing over the clutch pack. The result is a unique “clacking” noise instead of a typical smooth idle found with most motorcycles.
The Ducati 1198s is a great example of a bike using a dry clutch setup. Notice the exposed clutch cover to show the clutch pack pressure plate spinning.
How To Determine If Your Motorcycle Clutch Is Bad
The telltale sign of a smoked clutch is excessive slipping when attempting an aggressive acceleration. As you are trying to accelerate, the RPM’s will climb but the bike will not increase in velocity accordingly.
In this instance, the plates are just slipping when they rotate instead of driving the motorcycle. This is a natural process of the friction plates wearing down over time and simply requires maintenance.
4. Binding Linkage
A less common issue could present itself in your foot-actuated shifter linkage. The shifter lever mounts to the rear sets by means of a bolt going into the frame.
If this bolt is over tightened or the rear sets are not properly lubricated, the linkage may bind up which can cause clunky shifting.
Sometimes this can happen if a rider decides to replace their rear sets with an aftermarket setup or after installing a quick shifter. When reassembling the left-side footrest, make sure to refer to the service manual to identify joints to lubricate and the proper torque for the mounting bolt.
5. Damaged Components
The final reason is obvious but necessary to report. If your motorcycle is involved in a crash, there may be some unforeseen consequences beyond what is initially reported.
After repairing a crashed motorcycle, if it’s not shifting properly or will not engage neutral, consider any components that may have been missed when assessing the damage.
Check likely items first like rear sets, shifter linkage, clutch cable and lever. If all checks out, there is a chance that in a hard enough impact there could have been some internal transmission damage.
This is last on the list because it is a last resort item to check. If you are at this point hopefully the bike is at a repair facility and is worth enough to spend the thousands of dollars you are likely being billed.
A good way to protect your motorcycle is with a set of frame sliders or clutch cover protector. This allows for protection when the bike falls to one side and reduces damage.
Not All Motorcycles Are Created Equal
If you’ve owned / ridden multiple makes or motorcycles then I don’t need to tell you that not all bikes feel the same and work the same way. Go from a brand new S1000RR to an old Ninja 250 to Goldwing and you will get three totally different experiences, especially regarding shift feel.
The modern superbike likely has a quickshifter and will blast through gears smooth as glass. The older commuter bike will be more clunky and rough when shifting. The big bagger will fall somewhere in the middle, but the point is that maybe if you think something is wrong with your bike, in reality, it’s just different than what you’re used to.