There are few things worse than starting your motorcycle to go for a ride, only for it to die when you select first gear. This has happened to me more than once on different bikes for different reasons. So what could cause a motorcycle to die when selecting first gear?
The most common cause for a motorcycle engine to die when selecting first gear is a faulty side stand switch. If the motorcycle stalls with a jerk when put into gear, it may be due to the clutch plates binding together, a stretched clutch cable, a leaky master cylinder or a poorly tuned engine.
A motorcycle can cut out or stall for various reasons and finding the fault can be frustrating if you don’t know where to look. To make matters worse, some stalling issues may only show up intermittently, making it even more difficult to diagnose. Let’s have a look at the most likely reasons why your bike would die when you put it into gear.
Reasons Why a Motorcycle Dies When Put Into Gear
If your bikes starts okay but then dies after selecting a gear you need to follow a process of elimination to find the fault. The first question is: Does the engine just cut out (like when you use the kill switch), or does the bike jerk forward and stall?
If you landed here because your bike just won’t start, check out my comprehensive post on how to diagnose and fix a motorcycle with no spark.
Engine cuts out without a jerk
The most likely cause for a motorcycle to cut out when selecting first gear is a faulty side stand switch. The switch itself could be broken, the plunger may be stuck due to dirt and grease, or the wiring has been damaged. In some cases, a motorcycle will start and die when put into gear if the security key fob battery is flat.
Faulty side stand switch
Many motorcycles (I want to say most) has a safety switch on the side stand (or kick stand) that prevent you from riding off without putting the stand back up. Riding with the stand out can be very dangerous, especially if you ride over a bump in the road or lean over to turn left.
The side stand safety switch is wired into the neutral safety circuit. Basically how it works is that, when the stand is down, the motorcycle can only be started in neutral. If you try to start the bike in first gear, nothing will happen (as if the kill switch is in the off position). Starting the bike in neutral with the stand down will work, but as soon as that green neutral light goes off, when you select a gear, the engine will be killed.
The side stand switch either operates with a small plunger that pops out and gets pushed in by the stand. If the plunger gets stuck due to grease and dirt, it will operate as if the stand is always out. Some stands work with a Hall effects sensor where a magnet on the side stand moves into a magnetic field on the frame.
HOW TO FIX THIS: Clean the contacts, plunger or magnet at the side stand switch with parts cleaner (conveniently available from Amazon and not expensive). If this doesn’t work, test whether the bike will run in gear when the two wires leading up to the switch is shorted to close the circuit. If this works, the switch will need replacing.
You can bypass the side stand switch altogether (I did this on my old Kawasaki KLR 650), but then the onus is on you to remember to put the stand back up.
By far the most common reason for a bike to die when selecting first gear is the side stand safety switch. If the switch is clean and in working order, a broken wire leading up to the switch will result in the same symptoms. I’ve heard of a motorcycle where rats ate through the wires leading to the kickstand switch. This will result in an ‘always open’ circuit and the bike will only run in neutral.
HOW TO FIX THIS: Solder the wire and insulate it. Or by-pass the switch temporarily by shorting the two wires together.
Security key fob battery
Now I’ve never experienced this before, but I read on a forum somewhere of a rider of an Indian motorcycle (the ones that looks like Harleys) who explained that his bike would start and only die when selecting gear. The cause was a flat battery in the security key fob. I am not sure how this works, but apparently his bike would start in neutral and idle fine, but wouldn’t run in gear. The engine just cut out.
HOW TO FIX THIS: Well, he said it was fixed immediately after replacing the batteries in the key fob.
Faulty clutch lever switch
The clutch safety switch is another safety cut-out that is wired into the neutral safety circuit and it can embarrass you when you least expect it. Like when you take your old, beat up Kawasaki KLR 650 to an all BMW R 1200 GS off-road rider training course. I know, because this happened to me.
The clutch switch prevents you from starting the bike in gear by cutting power to the starter when the clutch is pulled in. You have to start the bike in neutral. This is very annoying when you stall the bike riding over a slow obstacle and then you can’t quickly start while in gear. Even worse is if the switch acts up and the bike won’t start at all.
HOW TO FIX THIS: The symptoms will be different from a side stand switch, but if you’ve tried everything else above and the motorcycle still dies when selecting first gear, check whether the clutch switch terminals are clean and in good condition. Or bypass it altogether like I did.
Engine stalls with a forward jerk
A motorcycle will stall with a forward jerk if the clutch plates are binding or seized together due to standing for a while. If the clutch cable is stretched or there is air in a hydraulic clutch system, pulling in the lever won’t fully disengage the clutch causing the bike to stall with a lurch when being put into gear.
Clutch is not pulled in
The most obvious reason for a bike to stall with a jerk when selecting first gear is that you forgot to pull in the clutch. Don’t beat yourself up if this happens. Most beginner riders will experience this at least once.
HOW TO FIX THIS: Pull in the clutch when selecting first gear!
Clutch plates binding or seized together
It is not uncommon for the clutch plates to bind together after the bike has been standing for a while, especially if the motorcycle has not been ridden in months. This will result in the engine and the gearbox being mated together. When you pull in the clutch lever, the springs will compress but the clutch plates stay seized together.
If you now select first gear, the bike wants to move forward. But since the engine doesn’t generate enough power at idle and you may still be applying the brakes, the bike stalls with a forward jerk. If the engine oil is low in a wet clutch system, the clutch plates may also be dry and bind together, causing the same situation.
HOW TO FIX THIS: First test whether you can push the bike around in first gear with the clutch lever pulled all the way in. If the bike moves freely, binding clutch plates in not your problem. If the bike struggles to move, pushing it may free up the clutch plates. Another way to free up binding clutch plates is to blip the throttle a couple of times with the clutch lever pulled in.
If this happens often, especially when cold, you may have the wrong engine oil in the bike. If the viscosity is too thick there might be too much friction between the clutch plates causing it to bind together when the engine is still cold. Replace the oil with the correct viscosity oil.
If nothing helps and the clutch plates still bind up, you’ll have to inspect the inner hub and basket of the clutch pack. If there are grooves in the back plate of the basket, the clutch plates may snag on it and bind up. Luckliy, replacing the clutch basket is not a huge job on most bikes.
Clutch cable stretched
The clutch cable connects your hand lever with the release mechanism in the clutch. If the cable is stretched, pulling in the lever all the way will not be enough to fully disengage the clutch. When you select first gear, the bike will lurch forward, since the clutch plates are still pushed together transmitting the power form the engine to the gearbox and the back wheel.
If the clutch cable came loose at one end, the same will happen, except you’ll notice this as the lever will be loose and floppy.
HOW TO FIX THIS: Adjust the tension and free play in the clutch cable. The cable should be tight enough to fully disengage the clutch plates when the lever is pulled in all the way. But there should also be enough free play on the lever, otherwise the clutch will be slipping all the time while riding which will wear it out much faster.
If the clutch cable came loose at one end, secure it back in place and adjust the free play. Also make sure your clutch cable is clean and lubricated for smooth operation. This is very easy to do yourself with a cheap cable lubing tool like this one.
Hydraulic clutch: leaks or air in the system
If your motorcycle has a hydraulic clutch, you won’t have to worry about the stretched clutch cable woes. A similar thing could still happen though. Air in the lines or a leaky master or slave cylinder will cause the clutch to not fully disengage when the lever is pull in. You may notice this since the clutch lever won’t feel as tight as usual.
HOW TO FIX THIS: Inspect the clutch fluid reservoir. If it is below the minimum mark, fill it up and try again. Look for leaks around the reservoir, hydraulic lines and the master and slave cylinders. If you see any wet spots, have it fixed. There may just be air in the system. This will usually be as a result of a leak or running too low on fluid. In that case, you need to bleed the system to rid it of the air bubbles. The clutch lever should have resistance when pulling it in.
Idle is set too low
On a cold engine, there will be more friction between the clutch plates than on a hot engine. This is because the oil is still thick. If the idle is set correctly, the engine will deliver enough power to overcome the friction between the clutch plates. In some cases, if the idle is set too low, the engine will stall due to too little power to move the plates past each other.
HOW TO FIX THIS: Set the idle slightly higher or push the bike in first gear with the engine off and the clutch lever pulled in until the clutch plates are moving freely. Now try again.
Reasons Why a Motorcycle Stalls When Pulling Away
A motorcycle will stall when releasing the clutch too fast or not applying enough throttle. If the bike is not tuned properly, the carburetor is dirty or the choke is still closed, it may stall when pulling away. A clogged air filter or restricted exhaust may also prevent the bike from moving off without the engine dying.
Clutch released too quickly
The one thing beginner riders struggle most with is clutch control. Letting out the clutch too abruptly will stall the motorcycle’s engine.
HOW TO FIXED THIS: The clutch needs to be release slowly until it starts to bite and the clutch plates starts to engage and transfer power from the engine to the gearbox. When you feel the bike starting to move, throttle needs to be applied to increase the power generated by the engine. This will prevent the motor from stalling as it tries to overcome the friction of the clutch plates.
Poorly tuned motorcycle
If the bike’s spark plugs are fouled, the ignition timing is incorrectly set or the carburetor is dirty, the engine may start and idle but stall when you attempt to pull away. This is more likely to happen on a cold engine. I once had water in my old Yamaha XT 500’s carburetor float bowl. The bike would start and idle okay, and then die when I try to pull away.
HOW TO FIX THIS: Make sure the spark plugs are clean and properly gapped. Drain some fuel from the carburetor’s float bowl and check for water. It will accumulate at the bottom and drain out first. Spray some carb cleaner (only a couple of buck on Amazon) into the throat of the carburetor on the air cleaner side and make sure the choke is open (once the engine is hot). You may also want to have the ignition timing checked.
Restriction in air flow
If the motorcycle’s air filter is so dirty that the airflow is severely restricted, the bike won’t have any power and stall when pulling away. An exhaust that is pinched shut due to a dent from a hard knock will also cause a lack of power.
HOW TO FIX THIS: Inspect the air filter and clean or replace it if it is very dirty. Also check the exhaust for dents, especially close to the manifold. If there is damage to the pipe, have it repaired or replaced.
Next time your bike idles, but dies after selecting first gear, take a deep breath and start the fault finding process. An even better plan, now that you know what could cause your bike to die on you when you will least appreciate it, is to make sure your motorcycle is clean and in good tune.
Prevention really is better than cure. Especially if you plan on taking your old KLR to an all-GS riding party.
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