Riding a motorcycle down the open road can be considered one of the best leisurely experiences. That is, until you try to shift gears and you can obviously tell there is something wrong.
Being able to smoothly shift gears on a motorcycle is a big part of the motorcycle riding experience. Without that, it can leave you frustrated as well as embarrassed as people nearby may be able to hear your struggling motorcycle.
How can you tell if a motorcycle clutch is bad? To tell if your motorcycle clutch is bad, you’ll need to look for signs such as unexplained high revs and lowered gas mileage. Other signs of a bad clutch may also include a stuck clutch lever, hard shifts accompanied by a clunking sound or jerk, and difficulty getting the motorcycle to shift gears.
I have owned over a dozen motorcycles in the last few years, most of them older bikes. I ran into every problem imaginable with them including clutch problems. This is what I’ve learned about how to diagnose clutch issues as well as how to address it.
How To Tell If The Clutch Is Bad
In a motorcycle, there are usually 5 or 6 clutch plates. When the handle is released, those plates intertwine and stick together. They almost look like very small brake pads lined around and formed in about a 4 inch circle. When the plates are intertwined and stuck together, they cannot rotate.
But when you pull in your clutch handle, those plates separate and allows them to spin freely. Essentially, it releases the engine from the transmission so the engine can spin at a different speed than the transmission. This allows you to change the gear and when the clutch is released, it locks the transmission and engine back together again, but this time with a different gear ratio that allows you to go faster.
The first way to tell if your motorcycle clutch is bad is by listening to and getting a feel for the revs. If you know your motorcycle pretty well, you’ll be able to tell the clutch is going bad by how much higher it is revving. This means those plates aren’t moving the way they should be. The clutch plate may take a longer time to engage with the flywheel’s speed and torque.
The second sign to look for that coincides with high revs is if you notice your motorcycle getting worse gas mileage. If your motorcycle is constantly revving at a higher RPM, that in turn means the engine is also working harder and is burning more fuel. Click here to see my article about other reasons a motorcycle may get bad gas mileage.
Another way to tell if the clutch on your motorcycle is bad is if the clutch lever is stuck whether that means it’s stuck completely released or if it is stuck pulled in. This could mean you have a bad clutch cable, but is a sign of a bad clutch as well.
Sometime those disks can get stuck together or stuck apart due to dirt or grime that has gotten inside the clutch. This may also be caused by faulty springs inside the clutch. If those aren’t working, the plates can lean or turn and end up jamming up. If they get stuck apart, your gears aren’t going to lock together and you won’t be able to get it in gear.
Another sign to look for is if your gear shifts are hard. This means you hear an unpleasant clunking sound and may even feel a bit of a jerk coming from the bike when you are shifting during a ride.
This is caused by worn plates which are not separating enough to engage into a different gear. The plates are expected to separate a certain distance so those teeth don’t hit each other, so when they don’t distance themselves as far as they should go, those parts grind together which will give that loud clunking sound as well as the jerking feeling. This can be caused by a loose clutch cable or malfunctioning springs.
The last sign I’ll mention that indicates your motorcycle clutch is bad is if you simply can’t get the bike to go into gear at all. A lot of motorcycles require that it’s put into neutral in order to start it (especially kick start bikes). If you can’t get the motorcycle to shift into certain gears and your gear shift lever by your foot just goes up and down freely, your clutch is bad.
This is due to the clutch being stuck or seized altogether which in turn doesn’t let you change gears. This is usually caused by lack of lubrication and oil which causes those parts to get too hot, warp, and even fuse.
How To Fix A Motorcycle Clutch
Before you start to take things apart and attempt to replace parts of the clutch, I recommend you play with the clutch cable a little bit first. Follow your clutch cable down to wherever it enters the engine by a small little arm. It usually slides through a groove on that arm. Try tightening the cable either at that location or by the handle bar and see how your motorcycle responds.
If you have found yourself with a motorcycle that has a bad clutch and it needs to be replaced, rest assured that this is actually not a completely complicated fix if you have a little bit of experience.
Your clutch is usually located underneath one of the side engine covers. Once you know which side it’s on, you’ll need to take anything off that may be obstructing your access to the side cover (brake pedal, etc.).
Once the engine cover is off, you’ll notice the stator (the iron man looking contraption), a small gear in the center, and then the clutch. You’ll likely need to take the timing chain off of the stator and the clutch and use a grabber tool that looks like a claw that wraps around the clutch and will easily remove the clutch for you. This is a tool you can rent from an auto store.
Disclaimer: you’ll need to have some level of expertise if you’re going to take the timing chain off. This needs to be placed in the exact right position when it’s put back on or else it could cause timing issues within your engine.
You’ll need to buy a new clutch rebuilding kit. This will come with new disks that will likely solve your problem. Make sure you put the correct amount of clutch disks inside.
Understand that every motorcycle is different in their anatomy. I have worked on dozens of motorcycles and this is the basic and most common layout I have seen when accessing the clutch. If you are attempting to replace the clutch on your motorcycle, refer to your owner’s manual and/or look up information specific to your motorcycle to ensure you do it right.
I have created a video series about restoring motorcycles and within this series includes a detailed video on how to rebuild a clutch. This series also includes other hard-to-tackle components such as body work and electrical. I give dozens of tips and tricks that you won’t find anywhere else online. Click here for more information if you’re interested in viewing multiple videos that will help fix up your bike or if you’re interested in completely building your dream motorcycle!
Is Fixing A Clutch Something A Beginner Can Do?
As I had mentioned before, fixing a bad clutch on a motorcycle can be an easier task if you’ve worked on motorcycles a little bit before. But is fixing a clutch something a beginner should be doing?
Even though it can be a simple task, I don’t recommend a complete beginner to do it. Because it’s a smaller task to complete, it won’t be very expensive to have a shop do it for you.
Though it can be an easy fix, a beginner might not know what to look for and place something in the wrong spot. Anything that is misplaced inside an engine clutch or under that side of the engine cover in general can cause a lot of expensive problems in the future.
Sometimes clutch issues are inevitable because of the age of the motorcycle. That’s a common fix among older bikes and it’s probably a good idea to fix it if you’re having issues on your older bike.
However, there are several steps of maintenance you can do to prolong the health of your clutch. First and foremost, you’ll need to stay on top of changing the fluids regularly. A lot of motorcycles have a specific fluid made for the clutch called crankcase oil which is a heavier type of oil than most.
This oil needs to be changed on a regular basis. It doesn’t need to be changed as regularly as your motor oil, but if you ride regularly it’s probably a good idea to change out the crankcase oil every other year.
There is a little fill cap you should see on the side of your engine cover. When you unscrew that, you can stick your finger in and check the level of the fluid as well as examine how the fluid looks (notice any metal slivers, etc.).