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What revs should I ride at?

“Apologies that the question is a bit basic, but I’m not quite sure about precisely when I should be upshifting. I’ve been driving for years but I’d normally change gear in my car at much lower revs. I read a tip of Spin’s in a previous thread to the effect that he’d be looking to shift from first to second at about 25mph.

“That makes me think I’m upshifting a bit early as I’d change up probably more about the 20mph mark and ride at 30- 35ish in 3rd gear but Spin’s comments made me think I should probably be in 2nd at that speed. Trouble is I tried that the last couple of days and to me the engine sounds like it’s screaming.

“The bike I have is a Kawasaki ER6f and the redline is at 11k. So far I don’t think I’ve ever had it significantly over 6k so I’m probably being a total wimp about it.”

This question cropped up today on Visordown. It’s an issue I’ve looked at before, but I put a reply together again, then hit the word limit count when I tried to post. So I thought rather than split it, I’ll make a blog entry out of it.

“What revs” used to be simple… no-one worried about it and just got on with the job of riding the bike! Then all of a sudden it became a hot topic thanks to the ‘performance riding’ articles.

First things. You’ve mentioned what kind of machine you’re riding so I can give a reasonably specific answer but for other readers the speed/revs question and also the revs/power delivery equation will depend on the size of your bike and the power output, the overall gearing and the engine configuration.

Second point. The point of shifting from 1st to 2nd at ~25 is based on the need to get the bike moving and away from following traffic more than anything else. The problem is that when you dip the clutch in the car, it doesn’t really slow down, the mass of the car keeps it moving. By contrast, the bike slows quite suddenly. This can mean that if you change gear at the same kind of place as the car driver might, he’ll be running into your tail light – it’s best to get the bike moving and up near the urban speed limit before shifting up.

The third issue is changing gear in the middle of a hazard – revving the engine a little further tends to let you get clear of physical hazards before shifting. If you shift in the middle of a junction, you’ll do it 999 times and it won’t be a problem. On the 1000th time, you’ll miss the gear and the bike will either be unstabilised (missing gear mid tight turn isn’t fun) or you’ll get stuck with no drive in a hazardous position. I remember towing a mate across a staggered junction years ago, I could have just done the whole junction in first, but for some reason I decided to go for 2nd, and naturally I missed the gear (it was a Moto Guzzi!)… the weight of the Guzzi rolled me clear of the junction, and at the same time amusingly towed my mate out of the side road and left him stranded in the middle of the main road! It’s easier just to use the revs available on any bike bigger than a 125 to ride clear THEN change.

So, what’s the “right revs”? Well, all I can say is “where the engine is ‘responsive’ for the situation you’re in at that moment”. You’ll know pretty soon if it isn’t. My rule of thumb is that you should be somewhere in the middle third of the rev range, because this gives you flexibility in both directions. So with a typical four cylinder, the motor smooths out around 2000rpm and hits the red line at 13,000 rpm, that gives a range roughly 5-9k and in that zone is where you should plan to be, towards the bottom of that 1/3rd if you’re in town, towards the upper section if you’re pushing on a bit.

What are the advantages of riding the middle third? If you slow, the engine can still drop some revs without you being forced to change gear immediately – useful if the car ahead doesn’t go as quick as you expected or the bend tightens up a bit. If you speed up, you aren’t forced to change gear immediately either – useful if the overtake you’re in the middle of turns out to be a bit tighter and need a bit more speed than you planned.

Keeping the revs in the middle of the range also allows you to ride the bike more like an automatic – you can find a gear that “fits” most rural roads and just stay in the one or two gears, riding the revs that the bike makes rather than constantly shifting up and down the box. It’s not natural to a car driver for whom the “auto” gear is usually top, but you’ll soon get used to it.

I’ve not ridden an ER6 but the CB500/GS500/ER5 and a few other odd-ball twins I’ve ridden like a Laverda Ghost 650 all preferred to be kept over 2500 to 3000 rpm, and I’ve no reason to suppose that the ER6 will be much different, so with a red line around 11k, that gives you 4-7 or so as your middle third.

It’s really not “buzzy” at 5k, it’s just beginning to get going. That’s just the car owner in you listening. So don’t worry about it.

Though it might appear I’m suggesting precise figures, in reality, it’s not an exact science and needs fine tuning for the bike you’re riding. The 600 Hornet can still hit 60mph in first gear but compared with the GSXR has a more flexible engine and can pull from tickover. This means that I can actually ride it in top in a 30 limit. The engine isn’t turning over much more than 2500, and it’s not stressed, it feels perfectly relaxed and pulls smoothly if I open the throttle. But it’s not got a lot of acceleration there, and so normally I ride in 4th in town, where there’s a bit more response. Out on a reasonably twisty B road, I’ll usually be running with the revs a little higher and swapping between 3rd and 4th.

My GSXR has a flat spot at 4k, which means I have to keep the revs over 4500 for reasonable response. 4500 – 5000rpm is fine in town. True, it goes better over 7 which is good for twisty roads and flies over 9 up to the red line which I occasionally need for overtakes, but I don’t need those revs in urban riding. But if I try to ride with the revs any lower, whilst it’ll pull from 1500rpm, that flat spot is waiting to catch me out if I need to accelerate.

As a contrast to the above machines, I’ll also refer to you to a mid 90s Yamaha Diversion 600. This bike was very low geared in first (which gave it a good turn of speed off the line for its modest power output) but it meant that you hit the redline at about 45mph, so changing gear on this bike at 25 means you’re already nearly 2/3rds of the way round the rev counter. Rural riding would have this bike swapping gear a bit more; third on the slow bits, fourth for most of the other bits and top (fifth) for the faster bits.

Other bikes need yet different solutions. Twins generally rev lower, but the same general “middle third” rules apply. Two strokes tend to need the revs kept up towards the red line to keep moving; if you tried to ride a TZR250 at 1/3 of the way round the rev counter, not much would happen. Big singles take a bit of getting used to -with very restricted rev ranges, they often don’t have much choice of gear! The old BMW Funduro 650 really only liked being in one gear at any particular road speed because it was lumpy under 3k and hit the rev limiter at 6k!

You’ll hear some people saying you should be keeping the bike at peak power for best response. Away from the track on all but the smallest bikes this simply isn’t an issue. It wasn’t even an issue on my 77 Honda 400F which put out about 30hp tops, because the bike is low geared to make the most of the limited power it does produce. Even the TZR would still pull tractibly outside the power band. And in any case, even on the open road, you’re better off being able to pull up and into the peak power band rather than have to shift gear almost immediately to stay in it.

And around town peak power simply isn’t an issue. I don’t need to be wailing along at 9000rpm. I can also keep the noise down by keeping the revs lower – the GSXR bike has a semi-legal system with a race mid-section and a road can so it’s fruity but not ear-splitting, but even so it makes more noise than the stock system on the Hornet.

You’ll also hear that you should keep the engine revs up to deliver good engine braking. If you did CBT, I’ll remind you of what you learned – it’s the FRONT wheel that delivers good traction under braking, not the rear. Neither does closing the throttle illuminate your brake light which would be important for any following traffic to judge your actions – it’s not easy to spot that a bike is slowing from behind. Whilst small reductions in speed can be made by closing the throttle, for anything serious your front brake is your straight line stopper.


About Kevin Williams / Survival Skills

Motorcycle trainer, motorcycle author, motorcycle safety consultant, motorcycle forum moderator, former courier and ever a recreational rider. Is there a common theme here?


2 thoughts on “What revs should I ride at?

  1. Thanks for the nice words, appreciated!

    As the article states, modern machines tend to have a relatively high first gear with the rest of the ratios fairly closely spaced, so the Hornet will actually get to around 60 in first which makes it a proper ‘driving’ gear. I nearly always accelerate to around 25mph in first, then snick up a couple of gears and ride in busy 30 limits in 3rd or 4th. With a 13000rpm red line, it makes the Hornet sound and feel very ‘buzzy’ even in the middle of the rev range compared with a lower-revving, older machine, but you’ll soon get used to it. The nice thing is that you’ll find you can ride it almost like an automatic!

    Posted by Kevin Williams / Survival Skills | April 5, 2015, 7:05 am
  2. Really useful article , just what I was looking for, moving from my old torquey 750 Honda four to a Honda Hornet 600, I find the Hornets buzzy motor a little confusing when in 1st to 2nd gear, at traffic lights, sounds like I just need to give it more revs to 25mph

    Posted by Alastair | April 5, 2015, 2:47 am
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