There's an easy way to make most bikes feel better. It's not a secret – in fact, it's so simple that many people don't even give it a second thought. For those already in the know, it's a mystery that everyone isn't already doing it. What is it? Use a lower gear.
know what you're thinking: you know when to change up. After all, once you've been riding for a while, changing up to keep things smooth becomes second nature. This is true… but it's equally true that most advanced instructors will, at some point, suggest that using a lower gear would help.
Bikes often feel good when short-shifting: progress is smooth, relaxed and changing up at low revs is great when carrying a pillion. But the bike will feel even better in a lower gear. We're not talking about screaming along just shy of the redline with engine howling, exhaust roaring and petrol consumption through the floor – just holding a few more revs, so the engine is more responsive and the bike feels lighter.
The key principle is to match the gear to the road speed, to use the engine’s midrange. Where this is will vary from bike to bike – that might be 4000-5000rpm on a middleweight V-twin like a Suzuki V-Strom 650, but 7000-8000rpm on a sporty inline-four like a GSX-R600.
There are two easy ways to tell if the bike's at the right point in the rev range. First, while the engine shouldn't be screaming, the bike should accelerate instantly when the throttle is opened – rather than slowly, after it's had a second to let the revs build. Second, when the throttle is closed, the bike should slow instantly. If the speed doesn't fall when the throttle shuts, the bike is in too high a gear. If going down a gear is the only way to get any engine braking, the bike is definitely in the wrong gear.
The third telltale sign is more subtle and concerns how the bike takes a corner. In too high a gear, there’s a tendency to understeer – to push deeper into a corner and turn more lazily. Other factors do affect cornering as well, but if you’re riding with friends who always seems to take tighter lines than your bike will hold, that’s probably their secret: they’re in a lower gear.
Using lower gears isn’t about blasting around the back roads, playing racer. It is simply about making the bike feel more responsive, agile and better to ride – at any speed. The aim is not to over-rev the engine, just to use the gear that keeps it in its midrange sweet spot for any speed, from 20mph onwards.
Rather than watching the revs fall as speeds rise and higher gears are selected, it's better to keep the revs steady by selecting the appropriate gear to translate engine speed into road speed. That might well mean fourth gear for 60mph, not sixth. Higher gears have their place: for saving fuel and delivering a more relaxed ride for cruising or when carrying a passenger. But for roads that need riding, the bike needs to be ridden in a responsive gear.
Using lower gears also makes it a lot easier to control your speed, as you can hear more obviously if you’ve added a few unnecessary miles per hour. For example, if holding a steady 30mph is a struggle in fourth gear – it’s all too easy to creep up to 35 or higher without realising until it’s too late – in third or second the engine note will warn of any increase. Rolling the throttle even fractionally will bring it back, with immaculate control.
Ultimately, that’s the aim of precise gear selection: it delivers better control to all areas of the ride.
Words: Simon Weir