Why is Your Motorcycle Clutch so Stiff? (13 Reasons with Fixes)


Every time your ride your motorcycle, you will be using your clutch repeatedly. So when your motorcycle clutch starts feeling stiff or hard to pull in, it can be very annoying and tiresome.

Your motorcycle clutch will feel stiff if the cable is dirty or damaged, got stuck somewhere, or is not properly routed through the frame. A poorly adjusted clutch cable, clutch springs that are too stiff, or a clutch lever in the incorrect position will also make it hard to pull in the clutch lever.

Whatever the cause of your stiff clutch lever, you can get it working properly again if you follow a methodical approach. Take a deep breath, make a cup of tea, and read on.

Here are 13 possible causes of a stiff clutch lever and what you can do yourself to fix the problem.

#1 – Clutch Cable is Dirty or Damaged

Your motorcycle’s clutch cable runs through a housing from your clutch lever to the clutch actuator on the side of your engine. Over time, water, dust and dirt will get into the cable housing and basically clog it up around the clutch cable.

If the cable housing gets too dirty inside, the clutch cable will not be able to slide back and forth as smoothly anymore. This will require you to pull harder on the clutch lever to overcome the internal friction and get the actuator at the other end to move.

Over time, the clutch cable can start to fray due to friction in the housing. This will also result in more friction and therefore make the clutch lever harder to pull in.

HOW TO FIX THIS: Inspect the cable for any damage around the entry points into its housing. Replace the cable if it is frayed at all. If the clutch cable looks to be in good condition, it most likely just needs a proper clean.

Attached a cheap cable lubrication tool like this one to the top of the clutch cable where it enters the housing. You may have to release the tension of the clutch cable and dislocate it from the clutch lever in order to fit the tool. Then simply spray general purpose lube (like WD40) into the lube tool until it runs clear at the other end (where it meets the clutch actuator).

You should feel an immediately improvement if a dirty cable was your problem. You will also see the grime seeping out at the bottom end of the cable.

#2 – Clutch Cable is Stuck Somewhere

Your clutch cable could be snagging somewhere along its route to the clutch housing. If it is pinched somewhere, you might find it hard to pull in the clutch lever. If the lever pulls in some way and then suddenly meets resistance, it could be hung up on something.

If these symptoms developed immediately after you’ve done some maintenance on the bike, like removing the carburetor, it could be that you did not reroute the clutch cable in the same way it was before.

HOW TO FIX THIS: Visually inspect the full length of the clutch cable and its route from the clutch lever to the actuator at the clutch cover. It should run as straight as possible without any kinks or sharp turns. The cable should also leave the clutch lever as straight as possible (i.e. not at a sharp angle).

Check that the cable is not getting hung up or snagged on anything as you pull in the clutch lever. If it does, remove the cable from the clutch lever and reroute it so that there is more freedom of movement.

If you ever have to remove any parts that affect the routing of cables or wiring, take many photos with your cellphone so that you can reroute all the cables and wires in the same way as it was before.

#3 – Clutch Cable Tension is Too Tight

Your motorcycle’s clutch cable needs to have a specific tension to operate correctly. It is a routine maintenance task to periodically inspect and adjust the clutch cable tension so that it has the right amount of free play.

Usually, over time, a new clutch cable will stretch and you will have to tighten the tension to remove the slack at the clutch lever. As the clutch friction discs (inside the clutch basket) wears, however, the cable might become more tight until the point where it is constantly applying pressure to the clutch return springs.

Due to preload applied to the clutch springs, it may feel more stiff at the lever which makes it more difficult to pull in the clutch. This is not good for the clutch plates, as you are effectively always slipping the clutch a bit while riding, which will wear out the clutch friction discs sooner.

HOW TO FIX THIS: Adjust the free play at your clutch lever to about 3-4 mm by loosening the lock nut and turning the adjustment dial to release some of the tension. Retighten the lock nut against the adjuster wheel. Rather set the tension a little too slack than too tight.

If the cable has no adjustment left at the lever, you need to adjust it at the actuator arm

If the adjuster is turned all the way in and there is still no free play at the lever, you will need to adjust the cable at the actuator arm end at the side of the engine. It is a very easy job and there are many videos on YouTube that will show you exactly how its done.

#4 – Clutch Lever Pivot Point is Dirty or Too Tight

If the pivot point of your clutch lever is dirty, rusted or too tight, the clutch lever will not move as freely and will feel stiffer than it should. This could be as a result of dust and dirt from riding off-road or it could be corrosion from the bike sleeping outside in the rain.

HOW TO FIX THIS: Clean the pivot point thoroughly with soap and water, and lubricate it with WD40. Wipe away the excess lube to prevent dirt from collecting at that point again.

If the pivot point is corroded and you are mechanically inclined, you can try taking it apart to clean out the rust and grime properly. It might be easier to simply replace the whole clutch lever.

#5 – Clutch Lever Needs Adjusting

Many motorcycles have adjustable clutch levers so that you can set it up just right for the size of your hands. If your lever is not adjusted properly, it may feel like the clutch is hard to pull in. For example, if your clutch lever is adjusted too far from the handlebar, you will have to fully extend your fingertips to reach the lever. This may make it more difficult to pull in the clutch.

Adjustable clutch lever on a 2021 Suzuki VStrom 1050 XT

HOW TO FIX THIS: To check whether your clutch lever adjustment is your problem, first establish whether your clutch lever is adjustable. Look for a dial on top of the lever, close to the pivot point. It should have small numbers on it. If there is no dial, it is most likely not adjustable and your clutch is stiff for another reason.

If your clutch lever is adjustable, turn the dial until the throw of the clutch lever is just right for your left hand. Ideally, you should be able to pull in the clutch with only two fingers.

#6 – Clutch Actuator Needs Replacement

A stiff clutch is usually as a result of problems with the clutch cable or at the clutch lever end. In some cases, however, you may want to inspect the other end of the cable. The actuator arm that sits on top of the clutch cover transfers the movement of the clutch lever and cable, to the pushrod inside the clutch assembly. This in turn, releases the tension on the clutch springs to disengage the clutch plates.

If the actuator arm or pushrod is damaged, corroded or bent, it could become difficult to move which will result in a clutch lever that feels hard to pull in.

HOW TO FIX THIS: Visually inspect the actuator arm and pushrod for damage or signs that it is bent. Don’t worry if you can’t pull the actuator with your fingers. Some are quite stiff and require a lot of force to move. With the cable, however, it should move freely.

If there is noticeable damage to the clutch arm and pushrod, you may want to take it to a mechanic to open up the clutch cover and replace (or properly clean) the actuator. You can do it yourself, but just remember that you will most likely need a new clutch cover gasket if you damage the old one while removing the cover. You will also need to drain the engine oil (on most bikes).

Some motorcycles use a worm drive attached to the actuator lever. If this worm gear gets dirty and corroded, the clutch will also be hard to pull in. You’ll have to remove the components, clean it properly with a wire wheel and lubricate it for it to operate smoothly again.

#7 – Clutch Springs are Too Stiff

Your motorcycle has a set of four to six return springs. When you pull the clutch lever, the actuator and pushrod applies pressure to the pressure plate to compress the clutch springs. This releases the clutch friction plates form each other, disengaging the drive from the engine to the transmission.

The clutch springs need to apply enough tension when the clutch lever is not pulled in so as to allow the friction between the friction discs to transfer all the power from the engine to the gearbox. If these springs are too stiff, the clutch lever will be difficult to pull in.

Some motorcycles require stiffer clutch springs, especially if it is a very powerful motorcycle. Modern bikes with hydraulic clutches do not usually pose a problem. Older race bikes may have stiffer clutches due to being cable operated with stiff clutch springs.

HOW TO FIX THIS: If your clutch springs are too stuff, you can install weaker clutch springs. Just ensure that they are the correct parts for your particular motorcycle. Also make sure that the new clutch springs are not too soft, otherwise the clutch friction discs might not properly engage and slip under hard acceleration as a result.

If you have a very powerful bike with a cable-operated clutch, you may have to get used to pulling quite hard on the clutch. You could move the clutch lever as far to the right (middle of the bike) on the handlebar so that you pull on the outer tip of the lever. This will result in more leverage making it easier to pull in the clutch lever.

You could also install an aftermarket hydraulic clutch like this one from Amazon. This will make it much easier to pull in the clutch, even with stiffer clutch springs.

#8 – Clutch Plates or Basket is Scored or Damaged

While it is less likely, the problem causing your stiff clutch could be behind the clutch cover. If the clutch plates or the basket (in which the plates are moving) are damaged or scored, they could bind on the edges making it difficult to pull in the clutch.

You need to seriously neglect your motorcycle to cause damage to the clutch discs before wearing them out. Either way, if you cannot find the cause of your stiff clutch lever and you are opening up the clutch cover anyways, it is worth inspecting the friction discs and clutch plates.

HOW TO FIX THIS: You’ll have to open the clutch cover and remove the pressure plate and clutch return springs. Then simply slide out the friction plates and inspect them for scoring or damage. If there is any visible damage to the clutch plates, replace the whole set.

On most motorcycle this is not a difficult job and can be done by anyone with some basic tools. It is a bit messy though, as the clutch is submersed in engine oil on most bikes. You’ll most likely have to replace the clutch cover gasket as well.

On motorcycles with a dry clutch, like the BMW R 1250 GS, it is a very big job that a professional mechanic will have to do. Sorry!

#9 – Low Transmission Oil Level

Most motorcycles have wet clutches where the clutch basket is submerged in the engine oil. If you regularly check your engine oil level (as you should!), then your transmission will also have enough oil as it uses the same oil sump.

On some motorcycles, like Harley Davidsons, the transmission has a separate oil sump. If this is the case, you need to periodically check the transmission oil level as well. If it is too low, your clutch may run dry which could cause binding or other problems.

On bikes with dry clutches, like the BMW R 1250 GS, this won’t be a problem.

HOW TO FIX THIS: First check that you indeed have a separate transmission oil sump by looking for the Harley Davidson logo on your gas tank… lol. You should also see a separate (from the engine) oil filler hole on the transmission. Check the level and top it off with the correct transmission oil for your model Harley if it is too low.

#10 – Clutch Lever is Too Short (or Broken)

If your clutch lever is too short because the tip broke off during a fall (this happens very easily), it will be harder to pull in due to less leverage. The longer the lever the more torque you will be able to apply at the outer tip, which will make it easier to pull in the lever with fewer fingers.

HOW TO FIX THIS: Replace the clutch lever if it is broken. If your bike is fitted with a rather short lever and it is not broken, you may want to replace it with an aftermarket clutch lever. You can also fit a hydraulic clutch kit if your bike still has a clutch cable. This will make it much easier to pull in the clutch lever with less effort.

#11 – Clutch Lever Position is Incorrect

If your clutch lever is mounted to the handlebars incorrectly, it could make it more difficult to squeeze the clutch lever. The best position for your clutch lever is so that your wrist is not bent up or down when you are in the normal seated position.

If your wrist is not straight, your forearm will get tired after after long hours in the saddle.

HOW TO FIX THIS: Rotate your clutch level on the handlebars by loosening the bolt on the clamp and moving the clutch lever up or down until your wrist is straight. You need to be in your normal riding position with a straight wrist for the least effort when pulling in the clutch lever.

Your wrist should be straight (arm and hand aligned) to assist in pulling in the clutch lever

Once the clutch lever is just right so your forearm and hand are aligned, tighten the clamp nut.

#12 – Sticking Master or Slave Cylinder

If your motorcycle has a hydraulic clutch, the master cylinder or the slave cylinder may be sticking. To check whether your bike has a hydraulic clutch, have a look at where the clutch lever is mounted to the handlebar. If a cable comes out of the lever close to the pivot point, it has a clutch cable and you can skip this section.

If there is a little fluid reservoir with see-through sides or a little sight glass, then your bike has a hydraulic clutch system. You can check for leaks around the master cylinder (close to the lever) and the slave cylinder (around the clutch cover area), but leaks will most likely cause a much lighter clutch feel.

The piston, seals and spring inside the cylinders could start to bind if it gets dirty or damaged. This may result in a clutch lever that is harder to pull in.

HOW TO FIX THIS: If you have a hydraulic clutch and you suspect worn or damaged cylinders, you might be better off taking it to a mechanic to rebuild. There are rebuild kits available and it is not a difficult job, provided that the cylinder bores are in good condition. If not, they may require replacement or at least honing out.

#13 – Weak Hand and Wrist Muscles

If you’ve gone through possible causes 1 to 12 above, it may just be that you have weak hand muscles. Sorry! If you are new to riding, or have recently changed to a new style of riding that requires a lot of gear changes (like motocross or hard enduro) your arm and hand muscles may be struggling to cope with the continuous strain of pulling in the clutch lever.

If the clutch lever feels fine when you are rested and haven’t ridden for a couple of days, but then starts feeling stiffer as you ride for longer, you may need to work on your hand and arm strength.

HOW TO FIX THIS: After adjusting your clutch lever and position, and checking the whole system for signs of wear, dirt or damage, you need to improve the strength of your arm and hand muscles. Start slowly and rest when you start feeling an increased effort.

You could strengthen your hand and arm muscles while not riding with a hand grip strengthener like this from Amazon.

Conclusion

While there are many possible reasons why your motorcycle clutch could feel stiff or hard to pull in, the most likely cause is poor maintenance. Make sure you clean and adjust your clutch cable regularly as part of your routine maintenance.

In case the clutch suddenly starts feeling stiff, take a deep breath and methodically check each component in the system. You will find the cause and then you can fix it yourself.

Happy clutching!

Francois Steyn

I've been riding motorcycles since I was in school and have traveled thousands of miles on various bikes through more than 10 countries. For more info, check out my about page: https://adventurebiketroop.com/about-us/

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