Shifting problems on a motorcycle can be easily detectable because of the high resistance experienced while shifting your bike’s gears.
But while symptoms of shifting issues are easy to detect, the culprit behind your shifting problems can be challenging to nail down.
This article explores the most common reasons why a motorcycle won’t shift up into first gear from neutral.
1. You Have to Shift Down From Neutral to Shift Up Into First
For beginners, the most common reason a motorcycle won’t shift up into first from neutral is how the shifter functions on most motorcycles.
Unlike some manual vehicles, the neutral gear position on a motorcycle rests between the 1st and 2nd gears.
Most beginners have shifted their motorcycle up to 1st gear from neutral because, on most motorcycles, you have to shift up from neutral to put the bike into first gear. Once you’re in 1st gear, you move your shifter up to get into second gear.
Here’s a quick breakdown of how to shift up into the first gear from neutral and then shift up through the gears:
- Put the bike in neutral and hit the starter switch to start your motor.
- Kick up the side stand and balance the bike between your legs.
- Pull in the clutch lever to deactivate your transmission.
- With the clutch lever pulled in, use the ball of your foot to press the shifting lever down from the neutral position to put the bike in first gear.
- Once in, use the top of your boot (the toe) to click the shifter up into 2nd gear from 1st, and then into 3rd, 4th (depending on your bike, 5th, and 6th) as needed.
It’s helpful to remember that you can only shift up one gear at a time on most motorcycle designs, meaning you don’t have to be shy about shifting up through the gears.
The confusion also comes from the fact that you have to shift down from neutral to get into first gear, then shift up to get into second, third, and so on.
Similarly, when shifting back into neutral at the end of your ride, you have to shift down from 6th to 5th to 4th down to 1st and then shift up to neutral, which hides between the 1st and 2nd gear positions.
Doing a complete upshift from 1st gear will put you in second gear because the neutral position is halfway between 1st and 2nd gear, meaning that shifting up into neutral from first gear requires a “half shift.”
Still, when shifting up into 1st gear from neutral, you are technically half-shifting downward through your gearbox, which leaves many new riders asking themselves why their motorcycle won’t shift up into 1st gear.
2. Your Clutch Cable Is Out of Adjustment
Most motorcycles use a clutch cable to manipulate the clutch according to the rider’s input on the clutch lever.
If the slack on your motorcycle’s clutch cable is restricted or excessive, you’ll have trouble shifting into 1st gear.
The earliest symptom of a poorly adjusted clutch cable is fierce resistance and jerking motions while shifting, eventually leading to grinding sounds from your gearbox while changing gears.
- Non-hydraulic clutch cables utilize a system of tension and slack to move the clutch out of neutral. The rider’s input manipulates the free play and pressure by the rider’s input onto the clutch lever moves it out of neutral.
- Maintaining the harmony between tension and slack requires the consistent inspection, adjustments, and upkeep outlined in your owner’s manual.
- Failing to comply with the recommended service schedule will lead to your clutch cable falling out of adjustment with either too much or too little slack, hindering your motorcycle’s ability to shift up into 1st.
- If the tension is excessive, the cable won’t have enough force to disengage your clutch.
That said, if the clutch cable is overly slack with too little tension, the extra free play reduces the amount of force the line pulls the clutch with, and you won’t be able to shift down into first gear.
Refer to your motorcycle’s owner’s manual for the exact adjustment required by the make and year model motorcycle.
A worn, frayed, or damaged clutch cable won’t hold its tension for long and will need to be replaced.
3. Transmission Failure Interfering With Shifting or Gear Action
Failing to maintain the gearbox on your bike will cause problems shifting up into 1st gear that can eventually lead to total transmission failure.
There is no shortage of transmission issues that cause difficulties shifting out of neutral and up through the gears, and we’ve listed a few of the most common below:
- Seized, warped, or fused gears.
- The dealership technician installed gears incorrectly during the motorcycle assembly.
- The shifting shafts, primary chain, or gear teeth are bent or out of alignment.
- Road debris, alien objects, or deterioration interfering with the gears functioning, jamming them into place.
Since your gearbox houses multiple components interplay with one another to create the clutch and transmission system, inner transmission failures can manifest in various ways.
Therefore, an unresolved problem with one part can almost always result in more extensive failures down the line, many of which will add to your motorcycle’s problem shifting up into 1st gear.
Please read our article about reasons a motorcycle is making hard gear shifts.
4. Worn or Poorly Adjusted Drive Chain
One of the more typical causes behind a motorcycle that won’t shift up into 1st gear is a worn or poorly adjusted drive chain, as the tension is a critical component of effective shifting.
Improper drive chain tension will cause severe shifting problems regardless of if the tension on your drive chain is your chain has too much free play or is over-tightened.
Not all motorcycles are chain driven, mind you. Many modern bikes utilize both shaft-driven and belt-driven primary in their gearbox.
That said, some of the most popular motorcycles in production still come stock with chain drives, making this issue as relevant as ever when troubleshooting a bike that won’t shift into 1st gear or shift out of neutral.
- When you pull in your clutch and shift into 1st, your clutch releases onto whatever gear ratio is your 1st gear.
- However, before shifting, your owner’s manual likely suggests slowing your RPMs down to the ideal rotation for the gear you’re attempting to shift up into.
- Once you shift, the chain rotates at a different speed than in neutral or any other gear.
- The new chain acceleration rate should correspond with the desired rear wheel speed since it’s the chain responsible for converting power from the clutch to the rear wheel to move your bike.
The primary drive chain is a critical part of a chain-driven motorcycle.
Therefore, regular examination, lubrication, and routine adjustments are imperative to securing its tension and matching it to the spec outlined in your owner’s manual.
If your motorcycle chain’s tension is out of the range your moto manufacturer planned for it to be within during operation, you’re changing the fundamental running specifications of your bike.
You’ll notice hard shifting and jerking motions when shifting up into 1st from neutral and likely when shifting up and down through the rest of the gears.
A loose chain can knock around and damage other motor parts if left out of sync for long enough.
In this situation, the shifting problems will be accompanied by a metal-on-metal clanking sound we call “chain slap.”
5. Insufficient Oil Level, Quality, or Engine Lubrication
Rather than the dry, open belt primary of the vintage motorcycle days, modern bikes equip a sealed, wet clutch system.
A wet clutch system is composed of parts that need to be saturated in engine oil while the bike runs to prevent friction, overheating and metal expansion that interferes with shifting up into gear.
If the oil level is lower than spec, or if you’re using dirty oil or the wrong oil type, the clutch and gearbox parts will dry out and overheat, resulting in a seized clutch.
Not only should you be checking the oil level of your motorcycle before and after every significant ride, but examining the oil quality and changing it per the maintenance schedule in your owner’s manual is also a crucial part of bike ownership.
6. Inadequate Hydraulic Clutch Fluid
This final section is dedicated to any readers whose motorcycle utilizes a hydraulic clutch.
A bike with a hydraulic clutch uses hydraulics to manipulate your clutch into action without causing jams and collisions in your gearbox.
- Running a hydraulic clutch system with low or expired fluid causes transmission problems, resulting in issues shifting into 1st gear; an increase in shifting difficulty is the earliest symptom.
- If you’re using the wrong class of fluid, or if it’s been overused and is thickened, air can penetrate the clutch system and hinder it from disengaging fully when you attempt to change gears.
- If the shifting is impaired significantly, your motorcycle will fail to shift up into 1st gear.
At this point, your difficulty putting your motorcycle into 1st gear will be accompanied by an abrasive grinding noise.
Here are a few failures that cause low hydraulic fluid levels on a motorcycle with a hydraulic clutch:
- Hydraulic lines are leaking.
- The fluid reservoir is leaking
- A seal in the hydraulic system is stretched, ripped, or compromised.
- Your clutch components are worn, so the engine consumes more hydraulic fluid for basic operation.
Related: Motorcycle Won’t Shift Into 1st Gear