You’re sitting in the saddle of your cold iron steed, ready for action.
You push the starter button, but nothing happens.
Then you look around, realize the bike is not in neutral, and you can’t help but ask yourself, why won’t your motorcycle start in gear? Read on to find out.
Here’s the Short Answer to Why Your Motorcycle Won’t Start in Gear:
Most motorcycles won’t start in gear unless you disengage the clutch, due to an interlocking safety feature to prevent the bike from lurching forward upon ignition. If the bike doesn’t start even with the clutch lever pulled in, it’s likely due to interference with fuel, compression, or sparks.
Of course, determining where exactly the issue lies will require some troubleshooting—Motor and Wheels is here to help by exploring 12 reasons your motorcycle won’t start in gear.
1. Low or Empty Fuel Tank
If your motorcycle’s fuel tank is empty or low on fuel and your motorcycle is on an angle or slope, you might not have enough fuel to start the ignition process. This will prevent your motorcycle from starting in gear or in neutral, regardless of whether your clutch is pulled in.
This may seem like some basic info, but not all motorcycles have fuel gauges; even some of the most experienced riders I know have failed to shake their tank and peek inside while they’re out and about.
And although most modern motos have fuel gauges that let you know where your capacity’s at before you even try to start the bike, gauges and sensors can wear out.
If your bike doesn’t start, give the fuel tank a slosh to ensure you’ve got enough to ignite. If it’s good, and your motorcycle happens to have a fuel pump, make sure your fuel pump is functioning properly before moving down the list.
2. Clutch Is Still Engaged
A motorcycle won’t start in gear unless the clutch lever is pulled in and the clutch is disengaged due to an interlocking safety feature on most bikes that prevents the motorcycle from jumping forward when starting it in gear.
We realize we’re starting with the basics here, but I’ve learned from experienced pros that, when troubleshooting, the basics are where you start.
If you’re starting your bike in first gear, you have to pull in the clutch lever to disengage the clutch before the bike can ignite. In fact, some bikes won’t even start in neutral unless the clutch lever is pulled in.
If you’re on an older or hard-ridden motorcycle, your clutch switch may be worn or torn. You can bypass a damaged clutch switch by pumping your clutch lever a few times to reset it, and often that’s enough to get the bike to start.
That said, pumping your clutch is a short-term solution for a failing clutch switch; you’ll want to replace the worn-out switch as soon as possible.
3. Side Stand Sensor
If your motorcycle has a side stand sensor safety feature, your bike won’t start if the side stand or kickstand is extended unless the transmission is neutral.
A side stand sensor operates by using a plunger or something similar. When the side stand is engaged, the plunger is depressed, interrupting the bike circuitry and preventing the starter from engaging.
You’ll be able to start the bike in neutral, but even once it’s started, once you put it in gear, the bike will die. You’ll have to kick up your side stand and try again.
If the bike doesn’t start in gear, even if the clutch is pulled in and the side stand is up, you might inspect the side stand sensor itself and see if it has malfunctioned. They’re often mounted low to the ground on the bike’s frame and can incur damage from road debris, etc.
4. Bad Spark Plugs
The ignition process starts with a spark, so if a spark plug fails, your motorcycle won’t start when in gear.
The good news is that inspecting and replacing your spark plugs is one of the easiest troubleshoots on the list.
Symptoms of bad spark plugs on a motorcycle that won’t start when in gear include:
- Gas Mileage Dips
- Frequent Engine Misfires
- Power Loss
- Lagging Throttle
- Motorcycle Engine Won’t Start in Neutral
- Motorcycle Won’t Start When in Gear
While electrical problems can cause fast death to spark plugs, they all wear out eventually. Spark plugs are easy to get to on most bikes, though, so we suggest making this an early step in your troubleshooting process.
Pop the rubber boot cover off your spark plugs and wrench your plugs out of your cylinders one at a time. If they’re wet, clean them off and put them back, and the bike might start right up.
Myriad online guides can walk you through what to look for while inspecting your spark plugs to tell you if they’re bad, and spark plug inspection should be part of routine maintenance.
5. Fuel Valve Turned Off
If the fuel valve on a carbureted motorcycle is in the off position, your carb won’t have access to the fuel it needs to start the ignition process, both in neutral or in first gear, with the clutch lever pulled in.
Carbureted motorcycles use valves to switch between fuel sources, say if your bike has a reserve tank.
One of the valve settings seals the valve completely and trunks the fuel flow off.
If your motorcycle won’t start in gear, even with the clutch pulled in, and you know for a fact there’s fuel in the tank, but your bike’s not getting enough fuel, check and make sure your fuel valve is set to the “on” position.
If it’s off, turn it on, but give the carb float bowl a few minutes to fill before you start jamming on the starter button, so you don’t flood the carb.
6. Clogged or Faulty Petcock
A motorcycle with a clogged petcock will experience problems starting, as the petcock is a valve for fuel control, and regardless of whether the bike is in gear or in neutral, no fuel means no ignition.
Your petcock controls the flow of fuel. Like we discussed elsewhere in this article, the valve lets the rider manually input between the main fuel tank and the bike’s reserve tank and gives the additional option to turn the fuel valve off.
If your motorcycle’s petcock is clogged, your motorcycle won’t start even if the fuel valve is set to the on position.
The petcock uses a small screened filter to keep debris and gunk buildup from clogging the fuel flow. If enough debris builds up in front of the screen to block fuel flow, your ignition process won’t fire up.
Another possible petcock issue is corrosion eating through an old screen, letting debris inside the valve cause a clog.
You can attempt to shake or tap on your petcock to rattle the clog loose, but a deep clean and filter replacement should be the eventual goal.
7. Faulty Fuel Injection System
While a bike with fuel injection is less likely to experience starting issues than a carbureted motorcycle, a faulty fuel injection system will prevent a motorcycle from starting, whether in neutral or first gear.
Fuel injector systems are regulated by CPUs and ECUs, and electronic circuitry. While a self-regulating system is lower maintenance than an old-school carb, it’s a lot more complicated to diagnose and repair in the home garage.
If you suspect that your motorcycle’s fuel injection system is irregular, get it diagnosed by a competent motorcycle mechanic.
8. Damaged Vacuum Lines
If the vacuum lines transporting fuel or air to your motor are damaged and leaking, your air-fuel ratio will be thrown off, and your motorcycle won’t start.
Cracks, burns, or damage from road debris can all cause leaks in your vacuum lines. You might be able to seal the line for a temporary fix, but replacing the faulty vacuum line with a new one makes for more reliability starting in the future.
9. Blown or Burned-Out Fuses
A blown motorcycle fuse will cause the bike’s wiring harness to fail, interfering with your starter, your ignitor, and the ignition process, whether the motorcycle is in neutral or in first gear with the clutch disengaged.
Fuses are a critical part of a motorcycle’s electronic system that integrates both the starter and the ignitor. If the fuse blows, the electronic system malfunctions.
Some of the more nomadic moto-maniacs I know keep spare fuses in their toolkit, as a fuse can blow for various reasons. Of course, you’ll want to be sure you’re holding fuses with the proper amperage.
If new fuses blow soon after you put them in, you’ve got a bigger problem with the wiring harness.
10. Kill Switch Still Engaged
If your kill switch is still engaged before you press the starter button, nothing will happen regardless of whether the bike is in neutral, in gear, or if the clutch lever is pulled in.
Your kill switch kills the ignition and prevents the bike from running until switched back into the “Run” position.
This probably seems like basic advice, but I know plenty of riders who keep their kill switch disengaged at all times for a quick start-up.
They’ll flick it to the kill position without realizing it, then pull their clutch in and try to fire up their bike in first gear, and nothing will happen.
They put it in neutral—still, nothing happens, and sooner or later, they realize that a simple switch of the kill switch could solve their starting problem.
11. Loose or Damaged Wires
Wire harness damage or frayed and corroded wires can stop a motorcycle from starting when in gear.
A loose battery terminal, for example, can cause serious problems on the motorcycle that nothing more than a few quarters turns could solve.
Electrical issues can be hard to diagnose since they’re generally out of sight, out of mind, but checking them periodically can save you a lot of time troubleshooting down the road.
12. Blocked Muffler
A blocked muffler can prevent the exhaust system from functioning properly. Because air is an important component of combustion, a clogged muffler will stop a motorcycle from starting when in gear.
If your bike has been in storage for a while, or if it’s been kept outdoors, you may find leaves, debris, or even a rodent’s nest in your muffler.
Take care not to shove anything further back in there as you clear it out, then see if your motorcycle will start.