Riding Hacks: Downshifting

Tips for becoming a better rider

By Gigi Pridmore

When it comes to learning to ride a motorcycle, I have to admit I have been blessed. I got to know Reg before I ever learned to ride. Our first day spent together consisted of an airplane ride in the morning, and a motorcycle ride in the afternoon. Once we were together more, it was the track. My first 500 laps were on the back of a 3X AMA Superbike Champ. To me, watching from pillion, the throttle, the clutch, the brake, the sound of the engine, the giddying acceleration and ridiculously late braking I likened to watching a concert pianist grace and make magic with the keys. What a rush! When Reg was in the classroom, I’d jump on the back with Jason. Who was better? Back in the 90’s I’m not sure there was any difference on those VFR750s.

The visual I was given was one of how a motorcycle should look, feel and sound. It was smooth and synchronized and it was perfection. For me, learning to ride, the learning curve – the trial and error was only in getting there. I didn’t have to figure out what was important.

Smooth Matters. There are a lot of phrases over the years that got my attention, but maybe the most memorable was from Nicky Hayden during a track walk at Sears Point: “How fast I get into turn 2 depends on how smooth I can make my downshift”.  How smooth

Matching Revs. When you close the throttle and pull in the clutch to downshift, the RPM drops dramatically but the rear wheel has no idea what’s going on. It’s happily humming along at speed. Kick it down a gear and dump the clutch and when the engine and rear wheel hook back up, the rear wheel locks up and it’s seriously un-coordinated. The bike is trying to tell you “stop this!” I do this on my dirt bike, usually without even using the clutch, just matching the revs. In the dirt, the tire is free to spin and it adds to the fun. But on the asphalt it’s a different story.

Now if you’re a really good rider, a racer and have perfect control while the rear wheel is wildly spinning on the asphalt, more power to you. In all those laps as a passenger, I saw a lot of downshifting and when a really good rider is late braking, the clutch, brake and throttle are moving together at a dizzying speed. But that is not where most of us are and getting it right starts with planning ahead. If you want to be a better rider, let’s put the horse back in front of the cart and get the sequence for smooth in order.

Plan Ahead. To make those downshifts smooth and seamless, I learned long ago (on the back) that planning ahead matters. For simplicity sake let’s say we’re on the track and we’re in 3rd gear going maybe 80 mph or so and we need to slow for a corner.  Before I get to the corner, I have planned my entry speed so I need to go down a gear. As I approach, while my revs and speed are still up (I have not yet closed the throttle), engine and rear wheel are in harmony, I lightly disengage the clutch, pulling it just enough to do its job. In synchrony I click the gear shift lever down one (still have not closed the throttle) and gently feed the clutch back in. This is basically one quick motion. The rear wheel and the engine now smoothly go to a higher note as my revs go up to match speed. With higher compression as I roll off the throttle now the bike responds with confidence to slow my speed for the corner. A little (or a lot of) brake, into my turn and back on the throttle. Planning that corner a little earlier just made that turn sweeter than ever. Did you notice I braked after I downshifted? Did you notice I had this all done before I began my turn? I’ve freed up my concentration on making that turn smooth and on the gas.

Blipping. In the example we’re not talking about blipping, just matching the throttle. The reason to blip the throttle is to match the revs with the speed to effectively do the same thing. It also sounds pretty cool. It’s especially useful if you have let off the throttle and your revs have dropped below rear wheel speed. It takes practice to do it smoothly and if your timing is off ie: blip before the clutch is disengaged, the bike will lurch. But practice in a large empty parking lot early on a Sunday morning or even statically imagining the timing can be a useful process.

On the Street. When you’re on city streets and running between traffic lights, style and early planning look a little different. In traffic your planning should include keeping the revs a little higher using lower gears for engine compression, and have your hand perched with fingers ready to brake. But on the open road or in the twisties, this plan ahead works well. You see the curve ahead and you smoothly downshift one (or more) to give you control for deceleration and acceleration as needed. When Reg and I are on the street two-up, if something comes into view, like an intersection with a car waiting for us to pass, or anything that might make him think he may have to brake, the first thing he does is downshift. It allows for control with the throttle and the rider and the bike are ready for what comes next.

There are many factors that will amend the process, especially where good experience and even trail braking come into play (and that’s a hack for another day). More than one downshift will also add another level of planning and skill to work on. But if your downshifting needs some help, it helps to make new habits to replace old bad ones – stop putting the cart before the horse. Plan ahead and make it smooth.

Slipper Clutches. Some of you have slipper clutches. To us, not being able to have exacting riding technique can really make bad habits feel like a comfortable old pair of slippers. Maybe they won’t get you today or even tomorrow because your bike takes skill out of the equation. If that’s you, we challenge you to add some spice to your life. Listen to your engine and transmission. Challenge yourself to be a better rider.

Using your engine in this way is a very confidence inspiring way of riding. Practice control and good technique and you will become a smoother, safer rider. Hope to see you at the track!

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2 thoughts on “Riding Hacks: Downshifting

  1. Hey Gigi,

    Well written, as always. These concepts can be difficult to learn and master and just as difficult to break down and describe to others. I feel very fortunate to have begun my CLASS education so long ago and to have been inspired to listen, learn and practice all I was taught and exposed too. These days, 90% of my riding is two-up on a ’91 BMW GS on wonderfully challenging roads in the South of France. Back in California though, I really enjoy practicing these concepts on what Reg refers to as “The Stone Axe”, my ’74 R90S. Both bikes require planning and smooth operation to be enjoyed.

    Reading your description of planning ahead and executing smooth downshifting, I was brought back to learning to shift another sort of beast. Back in the early eighties, I was a young fireman learning to drive fire engines. The rigs we had in those days all had constant-mesh transmissions, meaning the rear wheels and engine speed needed to match precisely or the shift could not be completed. This was accomplished with a double de-clutch technique and precise throttle control. Most were six-speed transmissions, though some had as many as 13 gears! Making matters worse was the fact that no two transmissions were the same from rig to rig, even on the same make and model of apparatus. Some boxes were tight, some incredibly loose. Gears were never in the same place from rig to rig. It was a handful to learn to say the least.

    Now, imagine heading up a grade with 30,000 lbs of fire engine beneath your seat and realizing the rig is slowing, very fast. Downshifting through neutral from fourth to third gear, a rig that size will immediately come to a stop if not being propelled forward by the engine. I can’t say how many times I came to a stop and had to restart in first gear when trying to learn to downshift a constant-mesh transmission. One afternoon I was riding with a colleague who made seamless downshifts while climbing grades. I asked him how he managed this.

    He told me the same thing you wrote above. Maintain your throttle, gentle de-clutch (double de-clutch on the fire engine) and gently slip the lever into the lower gear. Shifting up and down on various fire apparatus became second nature. Just as important responding through traffic to an emergency as when riding a motorbike on the track. And with lights and siren thrown into the mix, “hearing” the engine rpm was a luxury.

    Thanks for the tips. Please say bonjour to Reg and the gang from us.

    Cheers,
    Stacy and Carol
    Carces, France

    Like

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