Which side motorcycle
gear lever is best?
Left change | Right change | Classic bike | Modern bike | Shift pattern | Gearbox
Pre-war motorcycles generally had right-side gear levers. By the 1970s most motorcycles featured left-side gear levers. Today, pretty much ALL new bikes have left-side gear levers (note; there are exceptions).
The main questions relating to gear change for riders interested in buying, or at least riding, older/classic bikes are:
1. How easy is it to switch over to right-side gear levers?
2. How to avoid confusion when switching between modern and old bikes?
3. How do I remember the correct shifting pattern when on the move?
4. Which classic bikes have left side gear levers?
5. Which side gear change is best?
Regarding the first question, it's actually fairly easy for most people to switch from left side to right side. It's similar to riding your bike from the UK into mainland Europe. At first it feels very odd riding on the wrong side of the road. But within a few miles it starts to feel natural. The tricky part is when you have to suddenly react to a crisis. When that happens you could swerve the wrong way.
Or maybe you wake up in a French hotel one morning, have breakfast, then take off on your classic on the wrong side of the road, and whoops!
Same fundamental problem with gear levers. But it's not so much that the gear lever is on the wrong side on a right-side change motorcycle. It's more a problem that the brake isn't where you expect it to be (on the left) in an emergency.
So how to avoid confusion? Well that's tricky. Generally, a few miles down the road really will sort you out safely—and with experience (and multiple rides), you'll simply get used to the switchover. But you might try another trick or dodge.
If you've last been riding a "left-side bike" and then switch to a "right-side bike", before you go anywhere "in anger", try riding gently up the road and dabbing the left-side brake a few times. First do it gently. Then try braking fairly hard. That can help program your mind and tell it what to do in an emergency.
However, you might have to do the same thing on the opposite side when you return to your left-side gear change bike. Dab, dab, BRAKE HARD! Dab, dab, BRAKE HARD!
Modern bike gear changes
As for the gear change pattern itself, pretty much all modern bike gear levers operate the same way; click down for 1st, then (through neutral) and up to 2nd, up to 3rd, up to 4th, for the next four gears (or maybe there are five gears on your bike). Do the opposite when changing down from top: Down 3rd, down 2nd, through neutral and then up for 1st.
Pre-1970 "Triumph" gear changes
Pre-1970s Triumphs with a typically right-side gear change operate in the same way, but instead on the right: click down for 1st, and then up through neutral up to 2nd, up to 3rd, up to 4th. When changing down: Down to 3rd, down to 2nd, through neutral and then up for 1st.
Pre-1960s "BSA" gear changes
However, some older bikes have a different pattern. Take early BSAs. These are all right-side gear lever. But the pattern is: Up for 1st, (through neutral) and then down to 2nd, down to 3rd, down to 4th. Or from top gear: Up to 3rd, up to 2nd, through neutral and then down for first.
Things can become complicated (mentally speaking) when you ride bikes with, say, rear-sets. In many instances, the gear levers are reversed to accommodate the rear-set linkage. Then you can have a Triumph right-side (reverse) lever with an early BSA pattern. Or a BSA (reverse) lever with a Triumph pattern. And note that mid-way through the 1960s BSA switched to the Triumph pattern (right side). And then later Triumphs switched from right to left and adopted the conventional pattern that most modern riders are used to.
In practice, you don't really worry about the pattern. You just adapt naturally, and very quickly. Occasionally you get caught out. But you soon know when you're clicking the wrong way and so promptly switch your action.
The crucial thing is to remember where the brake is. In a pinch, you can usually pull in the clutch lever and forget about the gear lever for a few seconds while you worry about what's coming at you. And in that couple of seconds, your foot is usually back "on message".
Yes, two seconds can be a long time on the road. But fortunately, most classic bikes are travelling at lower velocities. That can give a rider slightly more time to react.
Finally, which side gear lever is best? And it's not a moot question. There is a rationale here. We'd say that modern left-side gear changing is best. That's because most folk are right handed. That usually means that their right foot is better developed and more controllable, and you need more control there for precise braking. With your left foot, however, you've got less precise movement to contend with (except sometimes when trying to get neutral).
To conclude, most riders can switch between classic bike gear levers without any problem. But if you really can't, and if you fear the gear, stay well away from "right side" changed bikes. Just pick a late 1970s Triumph T140, or a left-shift Harley-Davidson Sportster from the late 70s onward. Or something similar. And there are plenty of other manufacturers that made the switch from right to left.
Arguments will continue over why, and which side works best. But we've given our reasons. You can now decide for yourself.
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