Many motorcycles have tall first gears which makes it difficult to ride smoothly at walking pace without touching the clutch lever. In a stick shift car, the clutch needs to be left alone to avoid excessive wear. As a result, a question that often pops up on motorcycle forums is whether it is bad for your bike if you ride the clutch.
Riding your clutch in the friction zone on a motorcycle with a wet clutch will not cause damage. The clutch plates are submersed in oil to keep it cool. Riding the clutch is useful to keep the bike from stalling at walking speeds or to control power delivery in slippery conditions like mud. A dry clutch will generate more heat and wear faster.
Beginner riders often ask whether it is okay to use the clutch while riding. I’m referring to pulling in the clutch while moving along, either fully or half way in. I am not talking about using the clutch to change gears or to prevent it from stalling when standing still.
Some riders report turning corners with the clutch lever fully pulled in, coasting down a hill with the clutch in to save fuel, or holding the clutch in all the way while braking to stop at a traffic light. This is different from ‘riding the clutch’ of your motorcycle in the friction zone, halfway between fully in and fully out. The latter is a no-no in a car, but may be useful on a bike in some cases.
But will it mean a new clutch in the near future?
Will Riding the Clutch Damage My Motorcycle?
There are two types of motorcycle clutch systems. The wet clutch consists of several disc-shaped clutch plates packed together on a shaft. Half of the plates are driven by the engine output shaft, and every second one drives the final drive going to the gearbox and drive train. Strong springs compress the plates together and the resulting friction transfers the power from the engine to the gearbox and the wheels.
Pulling in the clutch lever releases the pressure of the springs and cause the plates to rotate freely past each other without any friction, thereby disengaging the engine and the gearbox. ‘Riding the clutch‘ is the term used for pulling in the clutch lever halfway so that the plates are allowed to slip somewhat so that only some of the power is transferred but not all of it.
While the clutch will definitely wear faster if often used in the friction zone, there are certain situations where it is unavoidable on a motorcycle. Motorcycle clutches are very durable and even advanced rider training courses teach riders how to use the friction zone to help ride the bike properly. We’ll discuss the special situations where using the clutch is useful later in this article.
On a manual transmission car, it is not a good idea to ‘ride the clutch’. The friction will cause the clutch plate to heat up quickly and will make it wear much faster, or completely burn out resulting in an expensive clutch replacement. In a wet clutch system on a motorcycle, the clutch pack is submersed in an oil bath filled with engine oil. The oil helps to cool the clutch plates.
A dry clutch on a motorcycle, is very similar to a clutch on a car, with one or two large clutch friction plates. The BMW R 1200 GS uses a dry clutch, and so does some Ducatis and Moto Guzzis (oh, and MotoGP bikes!).
A wet clutch runs cooler and is therefore more durable. It engages more smoothly and run quieter than a dry clutch. The disadvantage of a wet clutch is that it contaminates the engine oil due to depositing its wear particles in the oil, but that’s what the oil filter is there for. Because a wet clutch runs in oil which causes drag, there is more power loss than in a dry clutch setup.
Dry clutches have less power loss due to not being submersed in oil, which will mean more power being transferred to the wheels. That’s why MotoGP bikes use dry clutches. A dry clutch will run hotter and wear faster if ridden in the friction zone often. It will make a louder noise than a wet clutch and be more difficult to engage as smoothly. A dry clutch is separated from the engine oil, and therefore won’t contaminate it as it wears.
Is it Good Practice to Ride the Clutch on a Bike?
Newbie riders often learn bad habits when starting out, like turning a tight corner with the clutch level fully pulled in. The problem with free-wheeling around a corner is that you don’t have proper control of the bike. You may need a little more speed to counter the lean of the bike or to avoid a dangerous situation. It is much better practice to pick the correct gear before entering the corner, holding your speed with the correct throttle position, and accelerating out of the corner when the road opens up again.
Some frugal riders free down hills with the clutch fully disengaged to save fuel. Not only will this not save significant amounts of fuel, it is also dangerous. With the clutch pulled in, there is no engine braking and your brakes have to work harder to stop the bike. This could overheat the brake discs and cause the brakes to fade. Modern bikes with fuel injection shut off the fuel delivery when coasting in gear, so you’ll save more by staying in gear and just closing the throttle.
The same applies when riders approach a red traffic light. It is much better to gear down and let the engine assist with the braking, than simply holding the clutch in all the way. I’ve written another post explaining the correct way to stop a motorcycle. Check it out HERE.
I’ve also read that some riders have the habit of pulling the clutch to the cut the power when riding along in traffic, instead of gearing down. While using the clutch to cut the engine power is useful in some situations (which we’ll discuss under the next heading), it is not good practice to use the clutch. Shifting down to the correct gear is a much better habit in the long run.
When is Riding the Clutch Necessary?
In normal day-to-day riding, it is rarely necessary to ride the clutch in the friction zone, but there are situations where it is helpful. When riding on dirt with a dual sport or adventure bike, there are some advanced skills that require you to use the clutch more frequently.
Riding the clutch during normal daily riding
The only time that it may be necessary to ride the clutch in the friction zone during daily riding is when pulling away on a very steep hill. You need to feed in more power than usual to overcome gravity, but can’t release the clutch all the way immediately as it will stall the engine.
Another situation that requires some feathering of the clutch while moving is when riding at crawling pace, like in a parking lot of very slow moving traffic. This is only really necessary in first gear on bikes with tall gearing (like sports bikes). I’ve found myself lightly pulling in the clutch and releasing it slowly while going over very steep speed bumps while sitting behind walking pace traffic. It just prevents the bike from jerking when you open and close the throttle in first.
Riding the clutch on an adventure bike
On a dual sport or adventure bike your clutch might be in for a tough life. There are many situations where riding the clutch in the friction zone, in order to feed in or shave off power, will make riding much easier and safer. Let’s have a look at some popular skills that require you to use the friction zone of you motorcycle’s clutch.
You might me asking, why would you ever need to wheelie. Aren’t that just for hooligans showing off? Well, mostly. But it can be a very useful skill to get your big heavy adventure bike over obstacles, pot holes or ditches in a dirt road.
Using the clutch to to feed in the power is much more controllable than popping the front wheel up with just the throttle. You can also cover the clutch mid-wheelie, ready to grab it if you go to high. This will cut the power and bring the front wheel down immediately.
Don’t trust me? Check out how the wheelie master, Chris Birch, explains it in this wheelie class:
If you have to wheelie your street bike, the clutch will make it much easier and safer too. The clutch won’t like it, but your bike won’t like you flipping it over either. Just don’t let the cops see you.
Riding in deep sand
Riding through deep sand on a heavy adventure bike requires you to maintain momentum and keep the front wheel light. Most people have heard that you need to give a lot of throttle to keep the front light. The problem is that you will end up going way faster than you would want to crash.
In order to keep the front light while keeping the motorcycle at a controllable speed, you can trail the rear brake and feather the clutch to trim power (instead of cutting the power by closing the throttle).
Check out how Bret Tkacs explains it much better than me in this video:
Riding through slippery mud
Riding through mud on an adventure bike can be very tricky. With negligible traction you need to prevent the rear wheel from spinning, which will see you wipe out very suddenly, like I did in Namibia in the image below:
The suggested method is to take is slowly, making sure you keep momentum so you don’t get stuck, and the using the clutch to trim the power if the wheel wants to spin. This means riding your motorcycle’s clutch in the friction zone until you are out the other side.
Making a u-turn
Making a tight u-turn on a big adventure bike may require you to feather the clutch in the friction zone to keep the engine from stalling. In order to reduce the speed even further, you can trail the rear brake while applying throttle. This will keep the speed down while maintain momentum.
A more spectator friendly way to do a u-turn is the elephant turn. Ride up the the turning point, grab the clutch and stomp on the rear brake, locking up the rear wheel as you start to turn left. Select first gear before putting your left foot out to catch the bike.
As you swing through 90 degrees, look over your shoulder in the direction you are headed. Roll on enough throttle (with the clutch in), and release the clutch to feed in the power. With the bike still leaned over, this sudden increase in power will break traction and spin the rear wheel, sending the bike’s rear into a power slide. If you over cook it, trim power by pulling the clutch in slightly. As you come upright and straighten out again, let go of the clutch completely and ride it out on full power.
A motorcycle clutch is generally more forgiving than a car’s if ridden in the friction zone. While it is not good practice to ride the clutch during normal riding conditions on the public roads, it may be necessary during slow maneuvers to prevent the engine from stalling, like in a parking lot.
Adventure bikes tend to live a harder life, as many experienced off road riding skills requires the rider to ride the clutch in the friction zone in order to modulate the amount of power going to the rear wheel. While this will reduce the life of the clutch on your adventure motorcycle, they are quite durable and even experienced off road riding trainers will tell you that “your clutch is your friend”.
Make Sure You are Protected
Beginner riders often skimp on protective riding gear as it can be quite expensive. Most motorcycle accidents happen during the first few months of riding, and a study published in the Journal of Trauma showed 56% of injuries happen to lower extremities (ankles and legs). Bike boots are therefore a must.
A helmet is a no-brainer, and so is a jacket. The hands are also high up on the list of injuries, due to the natural reflex to catch yourself when you fall. While I always recommend getting the best gear you can afford, it doesn’t have to be the most expensive. Below is a list of some good value gear available on Amazon that I recommend:
* To find out whether you should get a full faced street helmet or a dual sport, check out this post.
Is it bad for your bike if you stall it?
Stalling the bike by letting out the clutch too quickly happens to most beginner riders. How bad is this for your motorcycle? Read this post to find out.
How should I stop my motorcycle smoothly the right way?
One thing that beginner riders often ask is how to properly stop their motorcycle smoothly. Should you pull in the clutch while braking, or only once you’ve stopped. Read about the correct way to stop your motorcycle in this post. There’s a helpful infographic in the post too.