Jun 13, 2022

Motorcycle Controls Explained

Adrianna Barrera

Before you get started riding a motorcycle, there are six major controls that you absolutely need to know. You can see them listed in the infographic above. Knowing all the controls (which are discussed later in this article) and how they function with one another is an invaluable skill when it comes to riding, as it gives you more control and leverage over your motorcycle. You will combine the motor use of both hands and feet when operating a motorcycle. It’s really crucial to understand and be able to differentiate between each function and also to know which limb they apply to. For the most part, these controls are universal and can be applied across all motorbikes that maintain a manual transmission and are gasoline powered. 

Clutch Lever

The clutch lever is located in front of the left handgrip. You can use this lever by pulling in and releasing slowly with the fingers on your left hand. Its function is to connect and disconnect power from the engine to the rear wheel. Squeezing in the clutch disconnects the engine power and easing it out engages it. Unlike cars, most motorcycles don’t have automatic transmissions (besides scooters and the small number of motorcycles). It is very common that in your MSF courses one of the first things you will do upon mounting the motorcycle, is to learn how to use the clutch. One key aspect you will need to get a solid understanding of is something called “friction zone.” On the clutch, this is the space where the clutch is slipping and the transmission is gripping. You’ll find yourself using this area a lot at slower speeds and on hills. 


Handlebars are used to control which direction you want to go (for the most part). On each end is a handgrip. The handlebars are connected to a front fork. Handlebars also help you find your balance on the bike. Handlebars come in a variety of packages, depending on what style you want or your comfort level. These factors can be customized, but before you decide on changing your motorcycle handlebars, think critically about your skill level and comfort. Some handlebars positions offer more control than others. One way to have more comfort and control over the vibrations of the handlebars are by wearing motorcycle gloves.

Front Brake Lever

On the right side of the handlebars, in front of the right handgrip is the front brake lever. You’ll operate this control by using the fingers on your right hand. In your MSF course, you’ll be taught to use all four fingers, but it is widely practiced to just use the first 2-3, depending on your grip strength. A major point to be aware of, is how it is different from the clutch lever. Although they look the same, they are to be maneuvered differently. Unlike the clutch, you do not want to pull the front brake lever as fast as possible. This is a gradual, smooth and slow pull. If you were to yank it in, you can lock up the tires and skid, which is extremely dangerous, especially in situations where there is a lot of traffic. In some bikes, the weight displacement is 50/50 (between rear brakes and front brakes). However in sportbikes and cruisers, this displacement can vary and is usually higher on the front brake. When you’re first starting out it is good to get into the habit of using both brakes, and to keep your fingers curved over the throttle until you need to reach and apply your front brakes. This gets you into the habit of being smoother with front brake applications and to prevent you from panic-braking. 


On the right handgrip is the throttle, which controls the engine speed by rotating. To increase speed, pull the throttle inwards smoothly, and to decrease speed twist the grip away from you. When you let the throttle go, it releases back into its neutral position. There are many advanced techniques you can use when applying throttle that can give you other options to operate the bike, such as clutch-less gear shifting. However, for new riders, I would recommend using the throttle just to apply more engine speed to the bike. Further, when you’re just starting out, it’s good to note that you do not need to twist the throttle so fast that you rotate the grip too much. This will cause you to have a jerky reaction and can get scary for new riders. Just gently give the bike some throttle, not even more than a millimeter or two of pressure. It may even be a good idea to get a feel for your bike’s throttle in an empty parking lot, because all motorcycles can have different ranges of motions. 

Gearshift Lever

 On the left side, just in front of your left foot peg is the gearshift lever. You control this with the top side of your left foot (to shift up) and the bottom pads of your foot (to shift down). To shift up—either from neutral or first—lift the lever firmly until you hear a click. For downshifting place your foot over the lever and push downwards as if you’re pointing your toes to the floor. On most motorcycles you will find that they have up to five or six gears. However for beginners, you will pretty much stick to 1-3 and potentially 4 depending on where you are driving. 

Rear Brake Pedal

The rear brake pedal is located in front of the right foot peg. You operate this very similarly to car pedals. When working through curves or tight turns, you may find that using the rear brake pedal can help immensely with controlling the bike, as well as maintaining your balance. As I said before, utilizing this brake along with the front brake lever all depends on how you ride, and the type of bike you have. 

Other Key Motorcycle Controls 

Besides the six primary controls we talked about above, there are some other very important controls you need to know for riding motorcycles. Besides the turn-signal switch listed below, these will essentially help start and turn off your motorcycle.

Fuel Supply Valve

In your MSF Course, you might’ve learned an acronym that details how one can start their motorcycle called ‘FINE-C’. The first part of this acronym (F) stands for the Fuel Supply Valve, and is the first thing you must turn on in order to start your motorcycle. This is usually located under the fuel tank. This valve controls the flow of gasoline to the engine. 

Fuel Supply Valve Switch In 'On' Position

Ignition Switch

The ignition switch on a motorcycle is very similar to that of a car. You simply put in the key and turn the ignition to on, and if your Fuel Valve is on, the bike is in neutral, you can then simply flip the engine cut-off switch and your motorcycle should roar to life. 

Ignition Switch

Choke Control

The choke control on a motorcycle is used to enrich fuel mixture to help start a cold engine. The choke lever is usually located on the right side of high/low beam buttons on your motorcycle.  It works by restricting airflow from the carburetor to the engine. This is especially useful in colder temperatures, as it gets the engine warmed up quickly. Once your engine is warmed up, you should turn off the choke as soon as you can. If you have a fuel-injected motorcycle you do not have to worry about this control. 

Choke Control Circled In Green

Engine Cut-off Switch

The engine cut-off switch, or more commonly known as the kill switch, is the big red button located on the right side of your bike near the right handgrip. When you’re starting up your motorcycle, pushing this button on will be your last step (besides making sure your clutch is pulled in). As well as turning on your bike, this button works to cut the engine off just by the press of your thumb. 

Red Engine Cut-off Switch On Right Handlebar

Turn Signal Switch

The turn signal switch is simply a switch or button that signals your turn to other motorists on the road. You operate it with your thumb, and once the turn/lane switch is made, it cancels out on its own (on most bikes). This button is located on your left hand side.

Turn Signal On the Left Handlebar


Motorcycles are a fun and efficient way to travel, but they can be dangerous if you don't know how to control them properly. The most important thing to remember, as a beginner rider, is to always stay in control of your motorcycle and never ride beyond your abilities. With a little practice and common sense, you can safely enjoy the many benefits of motorcycle riding.

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