You’ve adorned your riding gear and are all set to roast the pavement.
After idling your iron steed for some time, you ease it onto the pavement.
At the next traffic stop, you find out there’s a problem. You decelerate and try to slow the bike, only to find out it won’t downshift gears.
In this article, we will take a deeper look at why your motorcycle won’t downshift gears and offer some solutions to get you back on the road.
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Here’s the short answer to why a motorcycle won’t downshift gears:
A motorcycle will not downshift properly because of a chain without enough tension, clutch fluid level too low to release the clutch, a loose clutch cable or simply a worn clutch. Any of these issues greatly reduce the rider’s control over their bike, and that throws safety out the window.
Why Can’t I Downshift My Motorcycle’s Gears?
Not being able to downshift when you need to (and it will always be when you need to) can be scary in certain immediate circumstances like traffic stops or cornering long curves, especially ones with any elevation gain up or down.
If you find yourself in one of these sticky situations, you are going to want to pull off to the side of the road slowly and very carefully.
Now, your bike’s going to stall out if you cannot downshift to neutral, so make sure to have your weight as centered as you can and be ready for that all-too-familiar bucking jolt of a stalling motorcycle.
If you are a more advanced rider, you may already know how to downshift without a clutch, which might solve your problem. At least temporarily.
If you want to learn this technique, I suggest learning carefully because downshifting like that can really damage your clutch and eventually blow your transmission, so beware.
Once you have gotten out of the road, or at least to a safe enough location, there are a few easy inspections you can do that might help trouble-shoot your malfunction.
Here Are Some Things You Can Easily Investigate
- Clutch cable tension
- Clutch fluid level
- Bike chain tension
Clutch Cable Tension
You can inspect your clutch cable tension by simply putting some pressure on your clutch lever and lightly squeezing.
As a rule, you are going to want to see 3-4 millimeters of free play at the perch (the mount on the handlebars).
Unless you are prone to carrying around a metric ruler or tape measure, note the free play of your clutch lever when you know it has been adjusted properly.
Over time, you will get used to this clutch action and you can use that to gauge the ‘feel’ of a loose clutch.
Changing Your Clutch Cable Tension Using Lever and Barrel Adjusters
The clutch cable will stretch out a little over time, so it is important that you adjust any clutch slack over the life of your clutch cable.
If you do not adjust it, eventually you will not be fully activating the release mechanism and the clutch will not be disengaged. This is known as clutch drag and it can make downshifting difficult and loud.
When your plates are dragging against one another, shifting gears can be difficult and noisy. Eventually, this can wear out a clutch beyond repair, so you need to adjust the clutch cable accordingly.
This can be done by turning the adjuster on the perch to tighten or loosen your free play.
If you have turned the adjuster on the perch by the lever to its full play and you still have too much slack, you can adjust the barrel adjuster down by the engine oil port cap on the right side of the bike.
All you need to do is follow the clutch cable back through the frame to where it comes down by the engine and adjust it accordingly.
You might have to move back and forth between the two adjusters a couple of times to fine-tune your free play.
Are you like me and can’t eyeball the 3-4 millimeters of free play at the lever? In a pinch, the width of 2 nickels is exactly 4 millimeters and you can use it as a gauge between the lever and the perch.
If they fit in the gap, you are in the sweet spot for free play.
Your Clutch Fluid Level Might Be Too Low
Most motorcycles on the market have a lever-tension cable clutch, but if you have a hydraulic clutch cable, the pressure of the fluid is what engages the clutch and lets you shift gears.
If your clutch fluid is low, you will experience a spongy (or soft) feeling in the clutch pedal and resistance when shifting, if you can even shift at all.
Grinding gears caused by the plates dragging on each other will be audible and you can feel it as well.
Doing routine fluid checks on your bike can save you some headaches down the road and topping off your clutch fluid can save you from some costly repairs.
Here Are Some Really Easy Instructions to Top Off the Clutch Fluid
Checking and changing fluids can sound scary to a new owner, but you don’t have to be a mechanic to do it!
On the left side of your handlebars, right above your clutch lever, is the clutch fluid reservoir.
All you have to do is remove the clutch fluid reservoir cover, being careful not to strip the machine screws, and top off your clutch fluid.
Now close the reservoir lid and pump your clutch lever several times. Try to shift through your gears. With enough pumping of your clutch lever, your shifting should become easier quickly.
Clutch fluid will most likely be the exact same brake fluid you use for the brakes on your bike, and in either case, it’s good to know what kind your bike uses.
The symptoms of a loose cable clutch and a hydraulic clutch are nearly identical. The solution just depends on which system your bike has.
Is Your Bike Chain Too Loose?
A third common reason your bike won’t downshift gears is a loose chain.
This applies more to bikes that are chain-driven and not shaft or belt-driven, so I’ve included it last, but it is the primary reason a bike won’t downshift gears.
The bike chain connects the countershaft sprocket in the engine to the rear sprocket on your rear wheel.
If the chain is too loose or too tight, it can cause some pretty serious jumping and skittering at low RPMs.
Your bike’s specifications dictate how much play to leave in your chain, so if it is loose or even too tight, you can adjust it pretty easily.
How to Change the Tension on Your Motorcycle Chain Even If You Don’t Have a Center-Stand
If you’ve ever changed the tension on a bicycle chain, you can the change the tension on a motorcycle chain. It’s just bigger, but not necessarily harder.
Just pop the bike up on the center stand and loosen the two axle nuts that connect the wheel to the bike.
Carefully turn the adjusters on both sides a ¼ turn at a time until you are in the acceptable range of free play in the chain, using the tick marks on the swing arms and axle plates to ensure you keep the wheel straight.
Tighten the axle nuts, but be sure not to over-tighten.
If you are adjusting the tension on your motorcycle chain, why not take a little bit of time to clean and oil your chain to prevent future chain erosion or malfunction?
If your chain won’t tension up to the bike’s specifications, it’s time for a new chain and you should replace it.
So, what do you do if you don’t have a center-stand and your loose chain is causing downshifting problems?
You have to lift the rear wheel off the ground to do any of this adjusting and if your bike is only equipped with a side stand, you might be left scratching your head as to how to lift the back of the bike.
Well, I’ll tell you, but remember that this technique is far, far safer to do with two people instead of just one, but it can be done under the gun if you take the necessary precautions.
Butt the front tire up against a curb or embankment and use something solid like a 2×4 to prop up the swing arm on the other side of the bike from the kick-stand.
Make sure your bike is on stable, dry ground to try this-loose or wet gravel and dirt can make this process far more difficult, and you don’t want your bike to jolt down on the wheel if you are in the middle of the adjustment.
Again, this is for an emergency, like if you are stranded on the side of the road somewhere, but there are plenty of videos and instructions on how to do this technique and learning it early on might help you in the future.
Other Problems Keeping Your Gears from Downshifting:
- Worn or bent shift linkage, rails or forks can cause grinding and difficulty shifting
- Worn out clutch
I have gone into a lot more depth in the earlier sections of this article because I believe that even a new rider can troubleshoot and even fix their cable tension, adjust the chain tension and top off the hydraulic clutch fluid.
But if you are still experiencing difficulty downshifting gears, or are unable to shift at all, it might be time to take the bike for service by a professional.
Some bikes have easy access covers to pop into the clutch to take a look at wear and tear, but be very careful trying to split open your case if you don’t know exactly what you are doing.
You can damage parts, or worse, the functionality of your bike if you take it apart and that will cost you some high premiums in just about any bike shop.
All motorcycles have maintenance specifications by timeframe or mileage. Do your research on components of your clutch, transmission and chain to make sure they won’t fail you at an inopportune time or cause you or other motorists harm.
If you can’t find the reason your motorcycle won’t downshift by checking the cabling, chain, or in the case of hydraulic clutches checking the fluid, best to leave any further troubleshooting to your trusted mechanic.
Safety First for Riders
If your bike starts showing signs of difficulty or inability to downshift, it’s time to take her off the streets until you can properly diagnose and fix the problem.
Riding a bike with a failing clutch or transmission will quickly deteriorate these components and can seriously endanger your or your passenger’s life.
If you can’t downshift, cautiously pull over and check for any problems. This alone will keep you safer. If you can’t fix the issue quickly using these troubleshooting techniques, haul it to a shop for a diagnosis and repair.