Basic Skills: bike controls explained

Published: 29 July 2009

Anyone who's ridden a bicycle will be familiar with one of the controls of a motorcycle.

The front brake lever is mounted on the right handlebar and operates the brake caliper(s) mounted on the forks.

When you squeeze the brake lever hydraulic fluid is compressed in the master cylinder next to the brake lever to push the brake pads against the discs.

The front brakes do the majority of the braking as the weight of the bike pitches forward onto the front wheel, so it's important that you learn a 'feel' for those brakes.

A good way is to find a deserted stretch of road with a good consistent surface and do a number of runs at different speeds, pulling the brakes on harder and harder each time.

Eventually you'll reach a point where the front wheel begins to skid, but if you are focused on your braking and have built up to it gradually you simply release the pressure and the tyre will grip again.

Next to the front brake on the right handlebar is the throttle.

For all you drivers out there, this is your accelerator pedal, increasing the revs of the engine as you twist it towards you.

As you use your hand and not your foot it's far more precise and responsive than a car throttle with a full range of movement in less than a twist of your wrist.

Moving across to the left handlebar there's another lever, but this one operates the clutch. Before you engage first gear and set off, spend a little time getting a feel of it, how hard or easy is it to pull closer to the bar.

Do your fingers reach comfortably over it? Sometimes there are adjusting wheels on the lever.

Once you select first gear, ease the clutch out gently until you feel it start to 'bite'‚ as the gear engages, then progressively release it and you're off.

The gearlever that got you started is operated by your left foot, either pushing the lever down with the sole of your boot, or by hooking your foot under it to click it up a gear.

Bike gearboxes are sequential, so you can't go from first to fifth like an H-pattern car gearbox, but you can click very quickly up and down the box. Once you are on the move, say in third, it's also easy to change gear without the clutch.

Simply shut the throttle and click up into the next gear. Going down the box really needs the clutch and a blip of the throttle to help the engine revs match the road speed of your bike for that gear so you make smooth progress.

Over on the right side of the bike next to the right footpeg is the rear brake lever. This also uses hydraulic pressure exerted by the sole of your foot.

Again, it's a good exercise on a deserted road to see how hard you can brake before the rear tyre starts to skid.

Be careful that you don't let your foot rest on this pedal. It's easily done and will mean other road users think you are braking permanently and you will also overheat the pads and rear disc if they are constantly rubbing against them.

It won't do much for your fuel consumption either.

Although the rear brake is the minor partner when you're riding one-up, doing 25% of the work, if you are carrying a pillion that extra weight over the rear wheel means it can do more work, and it also lessens the pitching effect, which makes for a more relaxed ride for your passenger.

The ancillary controls on the handlebar are the indicators, horn, dip and high beam on the lefthand cluster, and the engine killswitch and perhaps lights on/off switch on the right side (unless it's a BMW, who persisted in their own system of an indicator button on each bar for many years).

Further reading:
Bike skills