Riding Skills Series: Braking and Downshifting
Shifting gears smoothly is one of the hallmarks of a competent rider. Downshifting properly poses the greatest challenge for novices because miscues lead to an unsettled chassis at inopportune times-like entering a corner. What makes the task difficult is the right hand must manage to brake and blip the throttle to match the engine speed to the road speed. Having your hand in the proper position will make the process easier. When the throttle is completely closed, your wrist should still have a slight downward bend (right)-not choked-up drag-racer style (left). Now practice maintaining constant pressure on the brake lever, while quickly rolling the throttle on and off. This is how you'll match the engine speed to the lower gear, and prevent the front end from bobbing up and down due to uneven brake lever pressure.
While you're braking and blipping the throttle, the left side of your body is busy shifting gears and modulating the clutch. Almost simultaneously, slightly preload the shifter (to get slack out of the linkage) by lightly pressing down on it, pull in the clutch, make the downshift and release the clutch when you blip the throttle. You only need to pull in the lever far enough to disengage the clutch plates. Pulling the lever all the way in is wasted effort and makes it more difficult to shift smoothly. One way to make this slight movement easier is to only cover the lever with two fingers. Your other fingers will remind you when you pull it in too far as you become accustomed to the technique.
When combining braking and downshifting through multiple gears, follow the above steps for each gear. Let the clutch out fairly quickly between each shift. Never change more than one gear at a time. If the rpm drops and then rises as you let the clutch out, you need to give a little more throttle before each shift. If the bike surges forward, give less throttle. When downshifting while decelerating at partial throttle (instead of braking), you can use an alternate shifting method. Simply keep the throttle constant while you pull in the clutch, snick the downshift and ease the clutch out. Of course, use all four fingers to pull in the clutch at a stop.
Since mastering downshifting while braking is challenging enough, don't make it more difficult than it needs to be by having the clutch lever and shifter improperly adjusted. The clutch lever should be adjusted so that the point of full engagement is as far out from the bar as possible, while making sure that it has 2mm-3mm of free play at the end of the lever. This allows you to disengage the clutch with a minimum of finger movement. Similarly, you should not need to lift your foot off the peg to press down on the shifter. Once you have the shifter height tailored to your riding position, make sure that you haven't adversely affected your upshifts. Eliminating unnecessary movement from gear changes will help downshifts go much smoother.
This article was originally published in the December 2001 issue of Sport Rider.