What is motorcycle engine braking?

woman on motorcycle

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People forget that motorcycles have 3 brakes… The front brake, the rear and your engine. For those who may not be familiar, we try to answer the question- What is motorcycle engine braking?

Is it okay to engine brake on a motorcycle?

From the moment you let off of the throttle, the engine on your motorcycle is already working to help slow you down.

The thing is;

There are a few techniques to engine braking to help you slow your motorcycle down and help reduce the wear and tear on your brakes.

If you’ve just purchased your first motorcycle and are working on your skills, I would recommend finding an area where there is no traffic, or an empty parking lot to get the hang of engine braking.

Motorcycle engine braking is going to be a skill that you will use every time you ride, so the better you get at it, the safer and smoother it will be.

As we’re about to find out in this article, not only is engine braking okay on a motorcycle, but happens all of the time.

What is motorcycle engine braking?

Essentially, all engine braking means is this;

If a rider applies less throttle than it would take to maintain a desired or constant speed the internal friction of the engine moving parts (and engine compression) will create a bit of inertia. This friction and/or inertia is in turn applied to the rear wheel causing the motorcycle to slow down or “brake”.

Seems simple enough right?

Downshift vs engine braking

There’s a fine line between downshifting and engine braking. So fine, that it’s a bit negligible because if you downshift, engine braking just happens. Assuming you let out the clutch of course!

What we can do is a bit of a breakdown on downshifting and engine braking.

There are two types of engine braking.

The first, is what was mentioned in the basic definition of engine braking.

Throttle is applied to maintain a constant speed and when you release the throttle, the motorcycle slows down.

The second type of engine braking (which is the motorcycle engine braking that everyone is familiar with) is not only letting off on the throttle allowing the engines compression to slow you down, but shifting (or downshifting) into a lower gear.

Keep in mind that engine braking may or may not involve downshifting, for the reasons we’ve talked about.

How to downshift a motorcycle smoothly

The trick to all this, is to be able to utilize engine braking and/or downshifting in a way that’s smooth and doesn’t jerk you or your passenger around.

Riding won’t be much fun for you (or a passenger) if they get whiplash every time you downshift when you ride!

If your new, it will take a bit of practice to get the timing down just right. I highly recommend that you take some time with your motorcycle and practice these basics in a safe area. You’ll want to have this down before you start riding in traffic and certainly before you take your license exam!

Basic steps to downshifting and engine braking on a motorcycle:

Pull the clutch in

After pulling the clutch in, ensure that the RPM’s aren’t too high. Every motorcycle is a bit different, to check your tachometer and listen to how the bike sounds. For my Goldwing, I need to shift around 2500 to 3000 rpm’s (give or take) and I know what it sounds like at those rpm’s without having to look at the gauge. Get to know your motorcycle.

Downshift one Gear.  At whatever gear the motorcycle is currently operating in, shift down one gear. For example, if you’re in fourth gear (4th) shift down to third gear (3rd), If you’re in second (2nd) shift down to first (1st) gear etc.

Release the clutch slow. You’ll want to make sure that you release the clutch slow so that you have a smoother transition between the gears. If you just let it go (or pop the clutch) you may get jerked forward by the slow down.

Motorcycle slows down. After releasing the clutch, the motorcycle will slow down naturally through engine braking.

What is rev matching?

We’ve talked about being able to shift without the sudden jolt or a hard braking feeling.

Rev Matching is revving the engine slightly to acceptable level for your bike and then shifting up or down.

It’s is a bit of an advanced technique that can help you shift smooth without the jerkiness or sudden jolt that you can experience by straight downshifting.

Using my Goldwing as an example again, I said earlier that it shifts best around 2500 to 3000 rpm’s or so.

Let’s say I’m cruising at around 2500 rpm’s and I want to shift from third gear (3rd) to fourth gear (4th). I rev the engine slightly to around 3000 rpm’s and shift almost simultaneously.

This makes for a smooth transition from third to fourth gear without the sudden jolt.

As you can see, I have a pretty good idea of the rpm level for my motorcycle. Again, you want to get to know your specific bike and how it behaves.

Rev matching steps

Pull the clutch in.

Rev the throttle slightly. Get the rpm’s to an appropriate level for shifting. You don’t need to get crazy here. Again, you need to be familiar with your motorcycle so that you know what rpm level works best.

Downshift or upshift one gear. While the rev or rpm’s are at the appropriate level, shift the motorcycle.

Note: Revving the throttle and shifting should be done quickly or together, before the rpm level drops. It will take some practice to get the timing where it needs to be.

Release the clutch.

Bike shifts smooth. If everything went according to plan, you will have shifted the motorcycle from one gear to another like butter!

loaded motorcycle

Motorcycle engine braking pros and cons


Proper gear for road hazards.

When you downshift from a higher gear down to a lower gear you can bleed off any excess speed and be in the appropriate gear to deal with sudden hazards.

Those hazards can be anything debris in the road that you didn’t see, sudden traffic light changes or a sudden stop by the vehicle in front of you.

It also places you into the best gear for acceleration away from a bad situation.

Slows down the motorcycle

If you get the technique down, it can be good way to slow the motorcycle down, and give you that feeling of ‘one with the motorcycle’ that a lot of people enjoy. Riders enjoy the feeling of being more connected to the bike and like to feel the power.

Saves brake pads

Utilizing the engine brake and downshifting combo helps to save wear and tear on your brake pads.


Sudden Slowing in traffic

If you slow down too quick or aren’t watching the traffic that’s behind you, you could get rear ended. This is even if your brake lights work during an engine brake/downshift maneuver, but chances are they don’t.

Whether or not your brake lights work will depend on your specific motorcycle. If your curious, have a friend follow you while you engine brake/downshift to see if your brake lights come on.

You’ve seen it;

People are very distracted in this day and age while they drive, Usually by their cell phone.

Make sure your looking behind you and can gauge the distance between you and vehicle behind you.

Planning ahead while riding is always essential to stay accident free.

Entry level rider safety

There are safety concerns for entry level riders that perform techniques of shifting from a higher gear to a lower one.

If a rider goes from a high amount of rpm’s to lower gear the motorcycle may skid (possibley from rear wheel lockup) and damage the transmission or gearbox of the motorcycle.

Engine wear

Constantly using the engine as a brake to slow you down can put undo wear and tear on the engine and the gear box itself.

Keep this mind if you’re going to use this as your mainstay of slowing and stopping the motorcycle.

In conclusion….

Motorcycle engine braking itself is very straightforward, as we’ve seen. Let off the throttle, and the engine helps you scrub some speed. It’s a natural part of riding!

Many experts have pointed out that using downshifting and engine braking as a combo works best when the motorcycle is slowing down. For entry level riders, using this combo to make the bike slowdown is not recommended at least until they have gained a solid feel for their bike and have practiced.

Get to know your bike, and be safe out there!

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