Riding Skills 101

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Do you need to blip the throttle on a downshift?

In case you're not familiar with what I mean by a 'blip', it's a little tweak of the throttle, just as we pull in the clutch lever, to raise the revs momentarily. And there's always an argument about whether or not we need to 'blip' the throttle on a down-shift, with many experienced riders telling novice and newly-qualified riders that it's a skill they need to learn. Why?

The usual argument in favour is that it matches the engine speed with the road speed ready for the lower gear, and it thus kinder to the gearbox. I've seen it argued that blipping the throttle stops the dogs in the gearbox clashing as they engage, thus resulting in a quieter and mechanically more sympathetic change. Maybe that's true, but I've never broken a gearbox and most of my bikes have reached high miles. A couple have gone over 100,000 miles and one despatching GS500, which must have done more gear changes per mile than most, lasted to over 140,000 miles. I'm not saying the reasoning is wrong but in terms of wear and tear on a modern bike, I doubt it's anything the average rider needs to worry about.

A second argument is weighted towards 'spirited' riding, where riders are generating a lot of engine braking to slow the bike, so changing gear at relatively high revs. It's true if we do that and dump the clutch again, it can momentarily lock-up the rear wheel as the lower gear ratio tries to spin the engine faster. It's why some machines have slipper clutches. So a blip of the throttle helps avoid this lock-up. But to be honest, I'm rarely riding that rapidly on the road that I need to avoid this issue.

A third argument is that if we don't blip, but let the clutch out slowly, we're 'reverse loading' the clutch. Imagine slipping the clutch from a standstill. It's doing the reverse, and that supposedly wears out the plates. Well, that GS500 was on its second clutch, but my 80,000+ Hornet is still on the original, despite lots of gear shifts.

At number four is my favourite explanation. "Blipping is a more skilful technique". Says who? And why is making life more complicated automatically equated as greater skill? And it IS more complicated, and having spent many years training riders, it's actually quite a tricky skill to master. Remember, the usual reason for selecting a lower gears is because we're slowing down. We may be braking to slow, and now, if we want to blip, we have to make a wrist movement to open the throttle at the same time as we have our fingers pulling on the front brake lever. If we don't this right, each tweak of the throttle also give the front brake an extra tug. And now the bike slows in a series of jerks rather than a smooth progression. Not so easy, after all. So many riders - including some with a lot of experience - dispense with braking entirely to rely on engine braking alone. Now, to lose a lot of speed, they end up forcing the bike down into unnecessarily low gears because it's the only way to generate the deceleration that would have been achieved far more easily with the brakes.

So, let's backtrack and see what we're actually trying to achieve. The answer is a downshift, where the transition between gears is made smoothly.

Once we figure that out, it should be obvious that just HOW we accomplish the smooth shift is less important than making the shift smooth!

There's a much simpler way, and we teach it to new riders; we pull the clutch lever in, shift the gear, then ease the clutch back out so that the clutch slips initially as it spins the engine up to the higher speed. Whilst the clutch smooths out the gearshift, we can focus on using the front brake effectively without the complication of trying to tweak the throttle. It's much easy to brake smoothly.

Why this slipping technique is frowned on in certain circles I have no idea. After all, we have to slip the clutch to pull away. The clutch is there to smooth the transition between gears, and can equally well be used on down changes as well as up changes.

My own opinion is that for a road rider, the technique is a bit of a hangover from the clunky old gearboxes of yore. It was certainly useful to get a smooth shift on some 70s and 80s Moto Guzzis and BMWs I rode, but I genuinely can't remember the last time I rode a Japanese bike that really NEEDED a blip of the throttle for a smooth downshift. It's also useful on the track, where we are downshifting at high revs.

Now, that's not to say that raising the revs momentarily is NOT useful in certain circumstances. Personally, I do twist the throttle slightly to lift the revs a little, but then I'm rarely trying to use the front brake at the same time - if for some reason I'm having to brake hard, I tend to leave the gears for later and focus on getting my speed off. But a little blip also helps to match revs when maintaining speed - perhaps when downshifting to a better gear prior to overtaking, or ready to climb a steep hill.

When I do blip, I don't give the throttle a big twist sending the revs rocketing skyward. It's a subtle movement with a subtle result. It's always seemed to me that the big handful approach is not only obtrusive in terms of environmental sensitivity, it's ham-fisted too. And it's just as unlikely we'll match the revs accurately as if we simply dumped the clutch on a closed throttle. If the back tyre is playing hopscotch, then it's likely we're shifting at too high revs and mis-matching our blip to the clutch movement.

If you do want to learn to blip on a down change, remember the object of the exercise is NOT to bounce off the rev-limiter on every blip, but a subtle adjustment of the revs upward to allow the smoother selection of the lower gear. Don't shift when the revs are too high either - so long as the motor is spinning somewhere around the middle of the rev-range, that's about right for the road - we have the ability to generate more engine braking as needed, or we can accelerate away again. The easiest way to develop the technique is to roll off the throttle earlier than usual (remember to keep an eye on the mirrors) so that the brakes aren't needed, then it's relatively easy to practice the blipping technique without getting the front brake in a a tangle.

To sum up, my conclusion is that like many techniques, there's no clear cut 'yes, we must' or 'no, it's not necessary' answer. It's neither right or wrong, but one more technique to learn and use when appropriate.

So... blip if you want to... learn to blip if you can't... but don't feel there's a problem if you don't.

Kevin Williams
Survival Skills Rider Training

...because it's a jungle out there


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What is Survival Skills all about?

How are Survival Skills Courses put together and taught?
The Making of a Good Instructor - musings on my Driver Education course

Would a National Standard for advanced training be appropriate?
Writing a riding tip - what detail is necessary?
What to do if you've had an accident
Accident Statistics - dispelling some myths

Improver or advanced, pragmatism or perfection?
Piling on the miles
Compartmentalisation & Practice -  the key to learning new skills
Countersteering - Question and Answer

Braking Rules and Tips
Over-confidence and Riding at the Limit
Practice makes Perfect
The Danger of Misunderstanding
Learning from your Mistakes
A Moment of Inattention
Staying Warm
Staying Awake
Don't just ride for yourself, ride for others
Filtering - what's legal and how to do it
Cornering Problems 1 - Lean or Brake?
Springing into Summer - polishing off the winter rust
Group Riding - Rules and Tips
Awareness of Risk and Risk Management
Cornering Problems 4 - Stability and the "Point and Squirt" technique
Cornering Problems 3 - Staying out of trouble! Pro-active Braking or Acceleration Sense?
Cornering Problems 2 - Staying out of trouble
What is Risk?
Avoiding Diesel
The Vanishing Point - is it enough?
Posture - the key to smoother riding
When the Two Second Rule is not enough
Riding in the Dark
Roundabouts - straight lines, stability and safety
Slow Speed Control
Aquaplaning - what it is and how to deal with it
Rear Observation - when to & when not to!
Staying upright on icy roads
KISS - 'Keep it simple, Stupid' or Low Effort Biking
Overtaking Safety - avoiding vehicles turning right
Proactive versus Reactive Riding
Living with  Lifesavers
Which Foot? The Hendon Shuffle - Question and Answer
Carrying a passenger - Question and Answer
Riding in the rain
Riding in strong winds
Sorry Mate, I didn't see you - an analysis of SMIDSY accidents
Ever gone into a corner too hot and had it tighten up on you?
The Point & Squirt approach to corners
A time to live...
Target Fixation - Question and Answer
The Lurker, the Drifter and the Trimmer
The five most important things I learned as a courier
Overtaking - Questions and Answers
Precision riding - or keeping it simple?
Wide lines, tight lines, right lines - the law of Diminishing Returns
Surface Attraction
Euphoria - when your riding is just too good to be true
Straight line -vs- trail braking
Sit back, close your eyes, relax... and hope for the best
Before you overtake, do you...?
Do you need to blip the throttle on a downshift?
Holiday Riding Tips 1 - Dealing with hairpins (a new occasional series)
Holiday Riding Tips 2 - The (drive on the) Right Stuff
Why SMIDSYs happen
Avoiding dehydration - riding in hot weather
Riding errors - and avoiding them
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness - riding in fog
Where does Point and Squirt come from?
Overtaking - lifesavers and following distances
Offsiding - what is it, and why you should think before you do it!
Anger Management - dealing with "red mist" and "road rage"
That indefinable gloss
Overtaking on left-handers - experts only or best avoided?
Apex or Exit - what's important when cornering?

Developing 'Spidy Sense'

Armchair Riding - how to improve summer skills in winter

Working towards a BTEC in post-test instruction part 1

Working towards a BTEC in post-test instruction part 2

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