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Do you hold the clutch lever at lights?

Clutch traffic lights

Does it damage the bike’s clutch to keep your motorcycle in gear with the lever pulled in while waiting at traffic lights and is it safe?

RACQ technical officer and Triumph Bonneville rider Steve Spalding says the mechanical issue largely depends on the type of clutch your bike has.

“Most bike clutches are wet which means they run in oil ( usually the same oil as the engine and transmission) but some, such as many old BMWs, use a dry clutch that’s essentially the same as a car,” Steve says.

Steve Spalding RACQ void
Steve Spalding

Clutch wear

“Either way, there is still an element of additional wear by holding in the lever for long periods.

“With a dry clutch the thrust bearing (or sometimes called a throw-out bearing) rubs against the pressure plate fingers while on a wet clutch a rod pushes against the clutch pack – the purpose of both types is to separate the friction plates.

“Both types add unnecessary wear if the clutch is held in for prolonged periods. It’s also holding the clutch cable and linkage under tension.  

“Also, with a wet bike clutch there is always a level of drag because wet friction plates never fully separate. That’s why most bikes have a firm clunk when first gear is selected.

“This drag is friction and therefore wear, it also places additional stress on the oil and tension on the chain.

“So it’s better for mechanical reasons to put the bike into neutral.”

Safety issue road rage tailgate tailgating rear-ender motorcycles BMW S 1000 RR lane filtering lane splitting gap

For safety, it is advisable to leave your bike in gear at the lights, at least until you have a couple of cars pulled up behind you to avoid a rear-ender.

The reasoning is that you are ready to take off in case the driver behind you (and sometimes the driver behind them!) doesn’t pull up in time.

Leaving the bike in gear in this crucial stage means you are ready to move away and avoid a rear-ender, which is one of the most common types of motorcycle accidents at intersections.

Keep an eye on your mirrors for a vehicle about to rear-end you and plan where you can go in an emergency.

You should have your right foot on the rear brake and your left foot on the ground for a quick getaway.

Once the line-up of cars behind you is stationary, you can pop the bike into neutral if the traffic light sequence is long.

You can also filter and sit between the lanes of traffic for further protection.

  1. I have ridden for 30 years and always leave the bike in gear and hold the clutch. I am a commuter rider and stop at many lights. I have never replaced a clutch or any related components on any of my road bikes. My current road bike is a ’06 Honda ST1300 that I have ridden this way for 124,000km of its 145,000km and the clutch operation is excellent. I’m more than happy to one day replace a clutch or bearing knowing that I can get out of the way of some moron running a red light or out of control, not just coming up behind me. I’ve had to do it. Watch some You Tube “motorcycles vs ___” and you will be a convert to staying in gear, holding your clutch and being ready to move. Clutches are cheap. Hospitals or worse are not.

    1. Very good comment. I totally agree. It’s never been and issue with me. I have owned over 30 Japanese brand bikes and never had problem. I have one Harley Sportster which is nothing but problems. I’m glad I didn’t get that Ducati

      1. Spot on Russ, I do the same and agree clutches are cheap to replace. Vulcan Nomad 102,000km and same clutch actually same every thing, gotta love the Jap bikes.

  2. We should bookmark this article and drag it out in a few years when everything’s electric. Will be hilarious reading about all this stuff then – like someone talking today about crank handles on Model T’s.

  3. Its safer to sit between 2 cars at the lights ideally at the front of the queue that way you can leave your bike in neutral thus reducing wear on the clutch.
    Its also a safety issue as it reduces your chances of being rear ended im suprised that you left this out of the article.

    1. No so sure I would want to be stuck between 2 cars if there was ever if there was ever a rear ender two cars back. No way for escape. But I do see how you may see it as a safe spot as other cars can see each other over trying to see the bike. Cheers!

  4. A very informative article, and while it does not completely address the issue and leave out some necessary information, it does technically answer the question. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Mechanically, it is definitely better to release the clutch at every opportunity.
    This has been my life long (long life?) practice and I have yet to replace any internal clutch component in any vehicle I have ever owned, so no argument mechanically speaking.
    But I certainly accept the argument about rear-ending too, especially at highway road works stops..
    But there is one other factor too;
    If you waiting at the lights holding the clutch in, and the cable chooses that final stress to let go, you are rocketed in to the intersection when you really don’t want to be there.
    So I will be keeping my clutch released, AND watching the rear like a hawk.

    1. The breaking clutch cable is a potential catastrophe no matter when it happens. If you are stopped at a light, you should have the brake held in (if for no other reason than to keep your brake light on). Maybe there are bikes that can overpower their brakes at idle, but I’m dubious.

      More commonly, I notice people that pop it into neutral and release the clutch tend to also release the brakes. Probably not a huge issue if there are a couple of cars behind you, but the brake lights are there for a reason.

      My two principal reasons for holding the clutch are (1) the delay added by having to put it in gear in an emergency (even though we all think we are faster than physics) and (2) because finding neutral on my Nighthawk is such a giant PITA that the light is usually ready to change by the time I get the (sometimes erroneous) light. Yes, you can put #2 under the category of “I’m jealous that you have a choice”. 🙂

      1. The clutch cable snapping isn’t going to “rocket you into the intersection”. It’s more likely to just stall. Even if you do move more than a foot I don’t know that I’ve ever ridden a bike that idles at a speed I would describe as “rocketing” out with enough power to overcome the brakes. Shouldn’t be any concern unless you have an insatiable habit of revving hard at a stop.

        1. Agreed Benny i ride a 155kw 153nm torque zx14r, and i can say (yeah it doesnt have a clutch cable ) if you suddenly let the clutch out without throttle it still stalls instantlyi’d go so far as to say even if it was idling high @2k rpm, sudden clutch release would still stall it … rocketing isn’t much of an issue i can see 😛

  6. I have always gave myself distance and an angle to flee from the well trained drivers on the road. I am in neutral but at the ready.

  7. The advice about keeping the left foot down and right foot covering the rear brake pedal is generally quite sound, but for people like me whose are “challenged” in the leg-length department, not always possible. On roads where the camber is excessive, it’s often impossible for me to put my left foot down without sliding half off the seat and even then I’m always on tip-toe, so find it necessary to put my right foot down; as a result of doing this for almost fifty years I’ve become quite adept at controlling the throttle and the front brake simultaneously with the right hand. The old British design, which had the brake pedal on the left and gear-change lever on the right, made perfect sense for countries in which we drive on the left; the camber in that situation actually helps to get the left foot on the ground. Right brake and left gear change only really makes sense in those recalcitrant countries that insist on driving on the right (hand) side of the road.

    1. It’s called the right side as it is the correct side. 😉

      Nonetheless as a vertically challenged rider I guess riding in other countries may be somewhat more difficult.
      I have always tended to stay to one side of the lane and always modulate the brake light with approaching vehicles.

      1. Would depend if you are right or left leg dominant. I had never heard to this until a couple of physiotherapists pointed it out to me. I am right side dominant. So right leg down. Linked brakes mean the bike isn’t going anywhere when I right hand on on the brake lever.

        1. Oh yes, use your clutch, use neutral, AND use your brain.
          PS if your left handed (like me), there is a certain percentage of people, especially in worcester england who still think left handers are pariahas, ie tied hands behind backs etc etc, anyhow, if your lefthanded your brain is predominantly righthanded and vice versa, tell that the royal county, (worcester, ) they can’t process the info & tell you to eff off, nuff said
          PPS I love left hand bends

  8. Of course I use the clutch and am in gear right to when the light changes. I constantly monitor the rear and modulate the tail light as cars come up behind.

  9. Anyone who has ever owned an older British, Spanish, or Italian bike will know that you NEVER stop at an intersection with the clutch lever pulled in. Because, even with the clutch lever pulled right back to the bars, within a minute you will be riding into the intersection whether you like it or not as all the crap metal parts in the engine expand with the heat and engage the clutch. Oh, and don’t think the brakes will stop you, they’re even more crap than the metal in the engine.

    1. Yes I’ll vouch for that, had loads of brit bikes, and now ride a yamaha sr500 and a xs650, the xs drag and slip is just like a 60s royal enfield, now sorted with a homebrew hydraulic system

  10. I own a Ducati with a dry clutch. Even if I am in neutral I still hold the clutch in to reduce the noise.

  11. I have always stayed in gear, for a short stop at the lights, and put it in neutral for obvious long stops.
    I have never replaced clutch plates on any of my machines, predominantly Japanese, their good engineering can take it, dry clutches that Ducati fitted in the early years, cannot.

  12. I have a ’55 Norton. If I don’t get it into neutral before I stop the clutch drag will have me out into middle of the junction!

  13. Either way, make sure you have good insurance. Under insured and no insurance. Secondly, find a lawyer you’re comfortable with giving you the reach around.

  14. Living in Brisbane my entire life I’ve become to familiar with the lights & generally know when they are ready to change (a bit weird in the head I reckon) But it is always good to be ready for a quick take off if you hear the squealing of tyres behind. Just hope the police are not around, you will be fined for running a red light. : (

  15. Live and ride in a motorcycle-friendly place like California and filter to the front of the line. Problem solved. I love riding out here. It’s motorcycle nirvana.

  16. I have to disagree as an ex riding instructor. The idea of major wear n tear to a clutch held in is of little importance. The safety aspect is more important. All my pupils including prospective Police riders were taught to stop comfortably then smoothly preform the shuffle., as required by the examination body. Finishing in neutral with left foot down and right foot covering the rear brake. Breaking smoothly depending on traffic speed with both front and a little less rear braking which keeps the bike horizontal. Never only the front brake as large heavy bikes with twin discs can stop sharply with their suspension bottomed and the rebound can cause the rider to loose balance and fall over. In slow traffic the rear brake applied by itself will stop the bike with no fork dive.

    As to the point of keeping the clutch in at lights it is very dangerous. The vast majority of accidents happen in split seconds. The writer suggests that if you hear tyres squeal you drop the clutch and ride out of danger. No no no! What about the pedestrian walking over the crossing in front of you? What about riding through a Red light and the traffic camera clocking you? You will not persuade the authorities that it was to prevent you getting tail ended. What about the 40 footer passing in front of you as you try to escape the tail ending? But worst of all the reason you don’t keep your clutch in and in gear is exactly because of being tail ended!. You will end up dropping your clutch the bike will pop a wheelie and you will end up on the pedestrian crossing causing them more damage than being pushed or you will end up decorating the side of the 40 footer with a large Red splatter.

    I have seen this happen to other riders during my many years riding and never have I been tailgated because I flash my brake light off and on whilst stopped at lights or making turns from main roads into side roads (particularly at night) when I have to wait for a safe break in oncoming traffic.

    I had one pupil who talked the same “crap” about riding away from a tail ending. He came back the new week and apologized as he had seen what I had described on the main road outside his house. A super bike rider was obviously sitting at the Red light when a car tail ended him, he dropped the clutch did a spectacular wheelie through the lights straight through the next roundabout and ended up with a very wrecked piece of machinery, fortunate for him no big lorry to prevent his space flight.

    1. Well, I can for certain say that leaving the bike in gear in stopped traffic on a freeway saved my butt from getting smushed by a car that couldn’t stop in time. I saw the car coming from behind, and I quickly zipped in between the car I was behind, and the car next to it. I didn’t go any further forward, and that saved me and my bike. The car I moved for, was able to stop without hitting the car that was in front of me, but only with about a foot between it and that stopped car. So at bare minimum, my bike would’ve been destroyed. Yes, I always tap my brakes, while stopped to alert people that I am there. Everything is situational. Of course you wouldn’t shoot out into an intersection without knowing what you’d be getting into.

    2. “Breaking smoothly depending on traffic speed with both front and a little less rear braking which keeps the bike horizontal.”

      Call me old fashioned, but I prefer my bike vertical.

    3. Further to my statement about big wheelies when tail ended. I have noticed a few stupid remarks about bikes stalling if you drop the clutch!
      Have any of you ever been hit from behind by a large object weighing 1, 2 or 3 tons that is your full throttle and thus wheelie. This has nothing to do with a bike idling at 1500 revs with clutch in that probably stale if the clutch was dropped I am talking about the energy produced by the rear shunt far exceeding simple tick over revs.

      Clutch in+ in gear+ idle+ heavy impact from behind = wheelie

  17. You’re stopping at a set of lights, stay in gear until the traffic behind you has stopped, then select neutral ‘if’ you feel comfortable.
    I was taught in 1972 to always be in gear at a red light, ready to proceed….you actually lost marks for a pass back then.
    Horses for courses, do what makes you more comfortable gauging in the safety aspect 🙂

  18. Regardless of your preference of in or out of gear, the most important thing is where you stop behind another vehicle. Stay left or right far enough to leave an escape if the need arises.

  19. I always sit in neutral at the lights. If I am first I look in the mirrors until a few cars are behind me. If I’m not first in line I’ll try and filter to the front, legal or not.

    I ride a Ducati and it definitley doesn’t like sitting in 1st with the clutch held. Anyone with mechanical sympathy will feel this naturally.

    How long does it take to grab the clutch and select first gear. I reckon I can do it in less than .5 of a second.

    You should also have eyes on what’s in front and at your sides. I would never just launch into an intersection to escape a rear-ender without knowing what I was heading into.

    The best course of action is to put yourself in a safe place rather than be prepared to escape a dangerous location. That’s how I have survived 35 years of riding.

  20. Horses for courses. There are some cases where in gear and clutch in are suitable and some cases where in neutral and clutch out are more apt. I make the decision on the spot at the time, depending on circumstances, eg. traffic volume, speed, whether the road is wet, (increasing stopping distance of following cars, etc.

  21. Bloody silly idea to add unnecessary wear. Guess it depends on how long you keep the bike and whether you actually like it or don’t care. I nearly always just tap/ease the gear lever (no clutch required) into neutral as I glide the last few meters to a stop.
    Just for interest sake you wouldn’t want to hold the clutch in on a late 60s early 70s Suzuki T500 for too long. The oil pump ran on a gear off the front gear shaft, which was disengaged at the same time, so when it didn’t turn neither did the oil pump. Being a 2 stroke this was OK for 20 seconds or so, but really not a good idea. Oh and older Harleys , Shovels and Pans, the clutch on them would allow a certain amount of play and if you didn’t have the clutch completely in it could (and would…personal experience!) wobble enough to engage and launch itself into cross traffic. Awesome experience.

  22. All this talk of “left foot on ground, right foot on rear brake” is a bit strange to me. Most people I know or see stoped (myself included) have right foot on the ground and just hold the front brake. This makes more sense to me as I can hover over the gear shifter and fingers at the ready over the clutch for a quick getaway if needed. Am I missing something?

    1. A rider I know told me he used to always put his right foot down on his Suzuki Boulevard when stopped. One day a pedestrian ran out across in front of him, He began a quick stop. It turned into an emergency brake when the woman BEHIND her followed without looking. “My right foot came off the back brake early and went down out of habit, leaving me with a front brake only emergency stop”. After that he always stopped right foot up, to keep the dual braking habit.

  23. If you downshift as a habit when braking you will be in 1st gear, cluthch in , your left foot down allows your right foot to hover the brake and the front brake engaged if needed. if you need to take off quickly your rear brake will keep your front wheel on the deck, Fast takeoffs , emergency braking, u turns ,full lock turns shoud be muscled memoried on a carpark regularly. I agree with th previous comments i brake t slow th flooring vehicles well before i stop, and look for a n exit . Islow ride he last 20 metres and have my front wheel facing the outside of teh car ifront . Wheni stop at hte lights i st back about 2 lenghts nad have my bars aim to one side of the car in front. At ths point i am very confident tha ti am ok, but if i get a shunt i will be oushed forward andmiss the car in front, betee nthat bein quashed , filtering is the answer , evne i f yu move in just 4 cars , beng the first away at lights is always dangerous , i dont fiketr at teh front at a crossraod ,, if i race off ill be the first one hit with no protection, if i am in 2 lanes i will b ein th elane protected by a car beside me ,, Crossroads are extremely dangerous as the consequences can be dire

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