Riders entering the ranks of motorcyclists often face a bewildering cascade of unique terms – and that’s before we consider the alphabet soup of motorcycle names. Perhaps no motorcycling descriptor confuses neophytes more than “friction zone.” However, new riders will never be able to smoothly pull away from a stop without a proper understanding of what the friction zone represents and how to use it correctly.

What is the friction zone?

When the clutch lever is pulled all the way in, the clutch is disengaged, and no power reaches the rear wheel.

Let’s consider the clutch and its relationship to the clutch lever. When the lever is all the way out, the clutch is fully engaged, and all of the engine’s power is transferred to its drive system, be it a belt, a chain, or a drive shaft. When the clutch is pulled all the way in, none of the engine’s power is transferred to the drive system. Simple, right? Well, a clutch is not a light switch that is either on or off.

When the clutch lever is slowly released, at some point the clutch will start delivering a portion of the engine’s power to the rear wheel. This is the engagement point. The friction zone is the section of the lever’s travel between the engagement point and the point where the clutch is delivering all the engine’s power to the rear wheel. Throughout the entire friction zone, the clutch is both slipping and giving power to the rear wheel. Controlling this slippage is how a rider starts a motorcycle from a standstill smoothly – later it will be a key element in seamless downshifts.

What is the friction zone?

The friction zone begins as the clutch starts to engage and transfer power to the drive train.

As an exercise in learning where the friction zone is on your motorcycle, stand flat-footed astride your bike with it in first gear and the clutch lever pulled in completely. Without adjusting the throttle, slowly release the lever until the bike begins to creep forward at idle speed. Pull the clutch back in to stop. Now, rock back on your heels and use the friction zone to move the bike forward until you’re flat-footed again. Do this a few times until you’re confident of where the friction zone begins. Next, instead of rocking back and forth, use the friction zone to walk your bike around a parking lot. Increase and decrease your speed with the clutch only. Leave the throttle alone. If you begin to go too fast, pull the clutch all the way in to cut the power to the rear wheel.

For riders who think they’re too advanced to benefit from this exercise, consider this: Every MO staffer does an abbreviated version of this little clutch lever test whenever they get on a new motorcycle because every engine’s friction zone is in a different place in the lever’s travel, and we want to be able to pull away and shift smoothly.

What is the friction zone?

At some point before the clutch lever is fully released, the clutch will completely engage to transfer all of the engine’s power to the rear wheel. This is where the friction zone ends.

Master the use of the friction zone, and you’ve begun your journey down the path to being a true motorcyclist and not just a rider.

  • Jim

    I once failed to do a pre-ride friction zone test on a cable-actuated Harley Ultra Classic during a test ride. I nearly dumped that sucker on its side, in front of numerous onlookers. Those bikes engage just millimeters from the grip, and I wasn’t prepared for it at all. I stalled the bike, but I managed to keep it upright. When test riding an Aprilia Caponord, the opposite was true. The engagement was so far out, I thought something was wrong. Needless to say, I spun that engine up quite a bit taking off. We can all look like newbies sometimes!

    • Sayyed Bashir

      I ride three bikes and each one is adjusted differently. Also the controls location, type and feel is different.

  • DickRuble

    It’s not only about figuring out where it is, it’s also about figuring out how to adjust it to your liking. It’s not difficult and you better do it yourself. During an inspection, a mechanic knowledgeably shook his head and said that my clutch cable had too much play , so he decided to tighten it. He did and in the process moved the friction zone to the end of the clutch lever play, making the bike almost unrideable. I should have checked the friction zone before leaving, but I didn’t and had a few miles of really rough stop and go in traffic, on wet pavement, at night.

  • Mister X

    Funny… just yesterday I adjusted my clutch lever, a little bit, so I thought, and I was revving the crap outta it until I figured it out and readjusted it back to where it was.
    About 45 years ago, my sister started riding and stopped, in one lesson, when she dumped the clutch on my Hodaka Ace 100 and wheelied into a fence, she was done, she never got a chance to explore the friction zone at all.

  • Sayyed Bashir

    The fourth paragraph should be “and the clutch lever all the way DISengaged”.

    • Evans Brasfield

      While I disagree with your statement, I do agree that it is confusing. So, I have changed the sentence. Thanks for pointing the issue out to me!

  • Sayyed Bashir

    In off-road riding you have to use the friction zone while climbing a uphill gnarly trail slowly to keep the engine from stalling if your first gear ratio is too high or you have a high revving engine. I am always afraid I am wearing out the clutch.

  • TC

    Don’t miss next week’s article, ‘What is the throttle zone?’

  • HazardtoMyself

    I really like the fact that you are all doing some more new rider / riding technique articles.

    When I decided it was time to start riding it was your beginner series that gave me more knowledge and insight then anywhere else. I knew nothing and didn’t really know anyone else who rode. I just knew it was something I had always wanted to do. The people I did know no longer rode and gave more your crazy, enjoy your donor cycle, and put me on your life insurance policy comments than actual helpful information.

    With little options for training in my area other than the MSF BRC course, your riding technique articles helped me practise and improve. Even now after 7 years and about 140,000 miles I still feel like a newbie. Still trying to learn and improve.

    Seems too many now turn to YouTube kids. Hey look at me, I got a 300, it’s okay though it’s really good enough. 6 months later, hey I bought a 600/1000 those 300s are garbage and not worth starting on. Anyone can start on a 1000 if your responsible. Few weeks after that, hey i crashed. Poor me, here is a go fund me so you can help pay my medical bills.

    I hope you continue with these articles. We need more quality experienced riders helping people getting into motorcycles and improving their skills.

  • Jamie Daugherty

    Kind of questioning the choice of gloves……

    • Evans Brasfield

      Personally, I never wear gloves without armor, but since I shot the photo, I know the elastic wrist closure is snugger than it looks.

    • Douglas

      FYI, those happen to be WORKINGMAN’S motorcycle gloves, worn w/Wranglers, denim jacket, engineer boots, etc., not the designer ATGATT type stuff (jackets w/racing stripes, psychedelic helmet, multicolor boots w/logos, etc). So there….

      • Strat

        They could be Iron Man’s gloves and some “Expert” would still question it.

    • ProDigit

      Those gloves may work very well, as long as you’re sliding forward with the hand.
      I think as soon as the asphalt slides from the palm to the fingers, they will last just a second.

  • Don Orton

    I owned an MSF curricula-based rider school in Phoenix from 2001 until I retired in 2016. Our training fleet of 36 bikes consisted of Honda Nighthawks and Rebels, with a few Kawasaki Eliminators thrown in. The differences in clutch engagement areas, even on identical new models of motorcycle, is often quite a surprise.

  • ColoradoS14

    After years of marriage I may print this out and give it to the wife in hopes of her finding the “friction zone” a bit more frequently….

    • Douglas

      A double entendre….?

      • Old MOron

        Ha ha!

        When you feel stiffness in your husband’s lever, this is the engagement point. You are starting to transfer power to his central nervous system. Throughout the entire friction zone, you are both slipping and transferring power to his system. Controlling this slippage is how a wife starts her husband smoothly.

        With your husband’s lever fully engaged, rock back on your heels and…

        • Douglas

          Indeed! Masters & Johnson would fully agree…..

  • michael32853hutson@yahoo.com

    the last part makes a good point but i imagine anyone with any experience at all does this unconsciously-it is almost a truism that all bikes are different so the point of engagement would be as well- even in the same make/model; also the clutch could be out of adjustment

  • Douglas

    A combination that makes this very touchy is a bike with both a hydraulic clutch & a driveshaft…..that is if you’re interested in seamless shifts/downshifts. Throttle & clutch application have to be spot on or you have lurch…takes considerable practice.