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How to Shift a Manual Scooter

If you've picked up an older scooter, or a retro scooter such as Stella, you are going to need to learn how to clutch and shift. Period. For people who've never driven anything with a standard transmission this can be a very daunting task - a lot more daunting than it truly needs to be! Seriously, anyone who has ever said to me "I'd love a Vespa, but I'm too afraid of manual shifting to get one" is just out of their mind! The fact that you're getting out of the car and onto a bike would indicate that you don't scare easy, and if you DO scare that easy maybe you should just stay in the car. Riding a scooter is going to be an all-new experience for you. No, it's NOT "just like riding a faster bicycle" at all. It's a completely new thing unlike just about any vehicle you've ever driven or ridden. SO, if you're going to be learning how to do something new and foreign anyway, why should the equally-new experience of manual transmission be of any difference? Embrace the manual transmission, don't fear it! With a little practice (and when I say "a little" I mean less than 25 miles' worth) it will become like second-nature to you, I promise!

The Clutch

The first and biggest hurdle to leap is the act of clutching and shifting into first gear from a dead stop. You will spend hours stalling and swearing in your parking lot if you do it all wrong.

First thing's first - find your "friction point." In a nice empty parking lot, start your bike up and give it a few minutes to warm up. Pull in your clutch lever (left hand, kids) and turn the handle from the neutral position to the 1st gear position, and keep squeezing that clutch lever in. Now, give the bike just a little bit of gas (you'll only need as much gas as it takes to get the motor to start putt-putt-putting a little faster than it did when it was idling) and slowly release the clutch lever until you feel the bike start to move a little. Once you feel this pull the clutch back in, then slowly release the clutch again, same as you did before. Do this over and over and over, and think of it as the Mister Miagi school of de-clutching - that point at which your clutch is starting to engage the gears is called your friction point - you'll know exactly where it is by doing this exercise a good dozen or more times.

After getting used to the friction point exercise, we're going to put your scooter in motion. Put on your helmet, point your scooter in a safe direction, pull in the clutch and put it into gear. Now release the clutch a little bit at a time and give the scooter a little gas. When you find that friction point DO NOT let go of the clutch too fast or it will stall. The bike will start feeling like it wants to move, at this point give it just a little more gas and let the clutch out just a little bit more. The clutch is not an on-off switch, there are varying stages of "clutched" from the moment you pull the lever in to the point where it is all the way out, so when you feel the bike start to move don't let go of the clutch all the way, just let it out a little, and then a little more, even after you've started moving. As you're letting out the clutch you'll hear the motor more and more sound like it wants to bog-down and stall, turn the throttle a little bit at a time here, and you'll fix that bogging sound and get the bike moving. By the time you've moved a good 20 feet your clutch lever will be all the way out and the bike will be fully in gear and moving.

Now We're In First Gear...

The bike is moving a bit and it's feeling great, but we're not going to put it into second gear yet. Before you do that we're going to make the bike stop, and then start it moving again. If the clutch is the first place at which a new manual-shifter will mess-up, the second place is going to be when you're in first gear and you slow the bike down too slowly (or braking) without pulling that clutch back in. To stop the bike don't roll all the way off the throttle or you'll stall. Roll slowly off the throttle, and when the motor starts sounding like it's getting to that bogging-down spot pull in the clutch all the way. This disengages the gears and you're now just rolling. Apply the brake to stop altogether. The brake is another one of those things you don't want to do while the bike is moving slowly and the clutch is not pulled-in, or you will stall. Once you're stopped, start all over again with letting out the clutch and giving it a little gas. Again, you're going to do this a few times until you've got the action down before you start worrying about putting the bike into higher gears. A little clutch, a little gas, and don't drop that clutch all the way - even if you're starting to move. If you're going slowly in first gear you'll stall if you close the throttle too far, and you'll stall if you apply the brakes too much. Just rememeber those things while you're practicing first gear in a parking lot.

Ready to Up-Shift

Once you've got first gear down the rest is going to seem easy by comparison. To learn where to upshift you're going to need to listen to your engine. You know the sounds, you've heard enough cars and motorcycles shifting gears to know what the sounds are when it's time to go from a lower gear to a higher gear. As you open up the throttle more and more the engine is going to climb and the pitch get a little higher. In this climb there is a point at which the throttle doesn't accelerate nearly as much as it did in the beginning, and the higher-pitched engine sound is starting to sound like it's high enough. That means you're going to need to switch to a higher gear to get any more power. At this point pull in the clutch, close the throttle, turn the handle to the 2nd gear position, and then slowly let out the clutch while giving it gas. You'll not need to let the clutch out as slowly as you did when going from neutral to first, because once the bike is in motion the gears engage much more easily. The action is easy: de-clutch, de-throttle, shift, re-clutch/throttle simultaneously. Practice for awhile, maybe even try third gear once you get comfortable with second.

Down-Shifting and Stopping

One of the ways to slow a motorcycle is to do what is called "down-shifting." Down-shifting is done by shifting down the gears one at a time, with the throttle open a little at the "top" of the lower gear and then rolling off the throttle to slow the bike, repeated for 2 or 3 gears. However, this is not something you're going to do on a scooter. Downshifting on a motorcycle is utilizing the pressure within the cyllinder to slow down the motion of that piston, but the cyllinder in a scooter doesn't have enough pressure to actually slow the scooter, so all you'll be doing when down-shifting from fourth gear to third is to slam that piston into a much higher RPM all of a sudden - not good for the bike at all, and it might even seize the piston.

When you're riding your scooter and you want to slow down and stop, you're going to do so with your brakes. You're still going to mimic down-shifting, but it's going to be a little different. Let's say you are in fourth gear and a light about 100 feet in front of you is turning yellow. You're going to need to stop soon. Pull in the clutch and apply the brakes to slow down the bike (don't lock the brakes of course). As the bike is slowing down, while your clutch is pulled in roll the shifter to third gear (don't de-clutch yet), then to second gear as it slows further, then when you're completely stopped shift to neutral. The reason for that slow shifting to lower gears, what if the light turns green all of a sudden and you need to get moving again? If your scooter shifter is in the 4th-gear position, but you're only going at 2nd-gear speed, you're going to need to roll that shifter handle two positions before you can de-clutch, rather than just smoothly de-clutching and continuing on.


That's it. Practice all this and within 25 miles or so you're going to find manual shifting start to feel like second nature. The important thing is that you do practice, and that you practice a little every day. If you let too much time span in between your practice sessions you're going to have a harder time building up that memory and it's going to take you longer to get accustomed to manual shifting.

Article by Kevin Montanaro

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