Why is Neutral Between 1st and 2nd Gear on a Motorcycle?


If you are completely new to motorcycles you may wonder why neutral is between 1st gear and 2nd gear. I remember I did when I first rode my uncle’s bike on his farm. I’ve never given it any thought since, until I saw the question pop up on a forum. So I did some research and here’s what I’ve found.

Neutral is only ever necessary when you stop the motorcycle. By locating it between 1st and 2nd gear you can’t accidentally select neutral while riding or while trying to select 1st gear to pull away. Placing first gear at the bottom makes it easier to find first gear.

Motorcycle designers are limited to what they can fit into such a confined frame and consequently, they didn’t have many alternative arrangements to choose from. Let’s have a look at why the common 1-N-2-3-4-5 pattern found on most bikes makes the most sense.

Why Can’t Neutral Be Below 1st gear?

For practical reasons, motorcycles have sequential gearboxes. Now try to think how you could possibly arrange 5 or 6 gears and a neutral for stopping in a sequential order. To get this right, you need to consider a few things first.

What is neutral for?

You only ever need neutral when you are standing still. Either at a red traffic light or when parking the bike. Accidentally shifting into neutral when trying to slow down will disengage the gearbox from the engine and remove any assistance from the engine to slow the bike down (engine braking). This is a potentially dangerous situation, especially on a steep downhill where the brakes will have to work overtime.

If you shift into neutral mid-corner and then try to accelerate out of the bend, you can easily lose control of the motorcycle with the sudden loss of power. Neutral has to be easy to find when standing still, but difficult to accidentally select while moving. That is why you are only able to select neutral with a small nudge and not by stomping or pulling hard on the lever.

Neutral requires a conscious effort to select, while all the other gears are simply grabbed by going up or down. If neutral was right at the bottom, it would be very easy to accidentally select it while shifting down.

What is first gear for?

First gear is only ever used to pull away. It is important to be able to find first gear easily without having to search for it with your foot. If neutral was right at the bottom, with the rest of the gears above it (N-1-2-3-4-5) you’d have to carefully keep count of the gears every time you stop and pull away. Or you’d have to go all the way into neutral, and then back up one position to first.

Neutral light on a motorcycle
A green neutral light indicates that you are in neutral

In a very slow corner or at parking lot speeds where you do need to ride in first gear to prevent the engine from stalling, it would be easy to grab neutral if it was right at the bottom. By placing 1st gear below neutral, you don’t have to think about it or rely on a gear selector light (which many bikes don’t have). You can simply go all the way down and know it will be first gear.

Trying to pull away in neutral, while thinking you are in first, may have embarrassing consequences at best or it may result in a disaster.

With first at the bottom where it is easy to find, the obvious place to put neutral is right above it. It would hardly make sense to put neutral between 3rd and 4th gear, right? And by separating the two lowest gears, you can easily choose 1st or 2nd to pull away without hunting for the correct gear. You also can’t grab second gear by skipping first by accident.

Why Are Higher Gears Up, and Lower Gears Down?

There are many opinions as to why most motorcycles shift up for a higher gear and down for a lower gear. The main reason these days is Title 49 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations. It states three requirements for gear changes:

  • The left is used for shifting;
  • Up for higher gears, down for lower gears; and
  • If there are more than 2 gears, you must not be able to directly shift from the highest to the lowest gear and vice versa.

So it is law, but does it make sense? I’ve found various opinions on bike forums and all lean towards the idea that it is intuitive, for example:

  • Push up to go up one gear, step down to go down;
  • Pushing down to engage a lower gear is a more positive action than hooking a foot under the lever to gear up, and therefore it is less effort to apply engine braking in an emergency when slowing down;
  • Some riders suggest that you move backward when you accelerate and gear up, so pulling the lever up makes sense. And when you slow down and have to select a lower gear, your body mass moves forward, so pushing down makes sense; and
  • Pushing down under braking (when you are busy with other controls) should be easier than pulling up (which is aided by the adrenaline rush from your bike’s amazing acceleration).

So there you have it! Up for up, and down for down not only make logical and physical sense, but it is regulated in the United States. Does that mean all bikes work the same way everywhere? Not entirely.

Some Bikes Have Different Gearbox Setups

Some race bikes have the shift pattern inverted. Step down to gear up, and pull up to gear down. The main reason for this is to help with up-shifts while accelerating out of a corner. With the bike is leaned all the way over onto its side with your knee scarping the asphalt, there is not enough space to get your foot in under the gear lever.

On some scooters, Vespa being the most well-known, you use your left hand to change gears. The left-hand lever is still the clutch, but you need to rotate a cylinder around the handlebar to shift gears. The layout is similar to most bikes, 1-N-2-3-4. The difference is, you need rotate the grip toward yourself for 1st, and away to select the higher gears, while pulling in the clutch.

Then there are bikes with with automatic transmission. Honda’s DCT (for Dual-Clutch Transmission) system shifts by itself or you can use the shift buttons in semi-automatic mode. No clutch needed. This is available on many models, including the Honda CFR 1100 L Africa Twin.

Some older models in countries like India has shift patterns of N-1-2-3-4, which means you need to rely on a gear indicator light or you need to keep count of the gears!

Why Do Motorcycles Have Sequential Gearboxes?

In a stick-shift car you can switch straight from any gear to any other gear in one go. On a motorcycle there is a lot less space to fit a gearbox, and therefore the same shift plate design is just not practical. The only practical solution is a shift drum with the gates cut into it.

As a result, the only option is a sequential gearbox and the only logical arrangement is chronologically through the numbers. That said, if you brake hard for a corner and want to down-quickly shift from 5th to 2nd, there is nothing preventing you from stepping on the gear lever three times in quick succession without releasing the clutch.

In fact, many motorcycle riders come to a standstill in a high gear by simply holding in the clutch all the way from fifth. In my opinion this is not best practice as you lose out on engine braking. If you want to learn more on how to stop a bike properly (with a helpful infographic), check out this post.

Final thoughts

While the reason for the neutral position is probably not something that will make most motorcycle riders lie awake at night, it does raise some important questions for beginner riders.

Should you stop in first gear or neutral? Should you gear down when slowing down? Is it okay to freewheel down a hill in neutral or around a corner?

The more you understand how your motorcycle works, and the more questions you ask, the better rider you will become and the safer you will be. Enjoy the ride!

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:

Helmet: HJC i70 (Street) or HJC DS-X1 (Dual sport)*
Boots: Fly Racing Maverik
Jacket: Alpinestars T-Faster Air
Gloves: Alpinestars SP-8 v2

* To find out whether you should get a full faced street helmet or a dual sport, check out this post.

Related Questions

Is it okay to brake with the clutch in or should you gear down?

Read this post on how to smoothly come to a stop in the safest way possible.

How bad is it for your motorcycle if you stall it?

Beginner riders often stall their bikes when learning clutch control. Will this cause any harm to the gearbox or engine? Find out more in this post.

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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