We at Jalopnik have been talking manual transmissions lately, as starry-eyed gearheads often do, and I have found a new hill to die on: If you don’t yet know how to drive a manual transmission, sign up for an MSF course and get your motorcycle endorsement.
There are many benefits to taking a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course, even for veteran riders. But if you’re new to the joys of clutch/throttle coordination, the classes will not only induct you into the happy lot who reside within the Venn diagram of motorcycle and car enthusiasts, but it will also get you two-thirds of the way to learning how to drive stick in a car. And it’s all because of the clutch.
You see, in a manual-shift car, you engage and disengage the clutch with your foot. On a motorcycle you use your left hand. The clutch lever on a bike is just that, a lever! It’s easier to control and modulate a lever than it is a pedal because hands have more dexterity than feet, so when you’re learning clutch control and friction zones it’s easier to start on a motorcycle.
With a pedal, it’s harder to find that friction zone, so the maneuver to sync clutch and throttle is harder to master in a car. Again, on the bike you have levers that are more intuitive. (The same applies to the lever for the front brake, but that’s another topic.)
Pedals on the other hand, can intimidate learners because they seem like switches. It’s on or off, or seems that way to those just learning. On a bike, the clutch lever has a range that’s easier to recognize. But that’s not all. There are other tidbits that contribute to the ease of learning manual shifting on a bike.
For example, stalling on a bike is less jarring than in a car. Cars tend to lurch forward and roll for a second when you stall; it takes you along for an awkward glide, short-circuiting the learning process.
When you stall a bike, it still jerks you like the car but the leverage that your arms provide on the handlebars braces you a little bit — you end up just rocking in place on the motorcycle. It’s almost gentle. OK, maybe not gentle, but it is definitely more controlled.
Yes, gear selection on a bike can be a mystery, but mostly when it comes to getting into neutral. We’ve heard the jokes about finding neutral, but otherwise gear selection is super simple. On most modern bikes, a tap down with your left toe gets you to first gear and all other gears are up. Easy. Also, the bike will have a light to let you know you’re in neutral, and late models often have a digital display of which gear you’re in.
In a car, the gears are not sequential like that. To navigate gear changes, you pull sideways and then up or down. Don’t get me wrong — it’s very satisfying to slide and push into third gear when you’ve learned the H-pattern, but it takes some time and effort to master.
Overall, I think that learning manual on a bike is a shortcut to learning the basics of manual transmissions. It doesn’t mean that riding a bike is easier than driving a car. But once you absorb the basics of the clutch and throttle on two wheels, it gets you damn close to mastering those controls on four.