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Engine braking is the process of reducing speed by closing the throttle when your bike is in gear and allowing engine drag – internal friction and vacuum – to slow you down. You may find that, when approaching a curve, you can simply roll off the throttle and allow engine braking to slow the bike to an appropriate speed, and not have to use the brakes.
If you are not applying enough power to maintain a constant speed, you will experience engine braking – the bike begins to slow down at a rate much faster than would occur if you were coasting with the engine disengaged from the rear wheel because you’ve pulled in the clutch lever or have shifted to neutral.
Engine braking is more pronounced in a vehicle with a manual transmission – such as a motorcycle – than in a car or truck with an automatic transmission. For this reason, a motorcycle rider can amplify the engine braking effect by downshifting one gear. This will increase engine speed relative to road speed and thus increase the engine drag effect.
When downshifting an advanced technique is to “rev match” so your shifts are smooth and controlled. This is accomplished by “blipping” the throttle while the clutch is disengaged – the idea is to match the engine rpm close to the anticipated engine speed in the next lower gear. This will ensure that the engine and transmission are moving at about the same speed when you release the clutch lever. Also practice easing out the clutch lever, rather than suddenly releasing it, to more smoothly re-engage the engine with the rear wheel.
When done correctly, engine braking will not damage the motorcycle. However, downshifting when the engine is already at a high RPM, or downshifting more than one gear, can cause the engine to over-rev (exceed the “red line” on the tachometer) which could damage the powertrain. The Harley-Davidson® Operators Manual offers guidance on recommended downshift speeds.
Employing engine braking to control vehicle speed can be especially useful during long descents, such as riding down a miles-long mountain pass. Downshift to engage more engine braking to help manage vehicle speed and you won’t need to constantly use the brakes in this descent situation. This saves wear on the brakes and can help prevent the brakes from overheating. During everyday riding situations, engine braking can be combined with the stopping power of the front and rear brakes.
An abrupt downshift when the road surface is wet or traction is compromised can cause rear wheel slip which could result in a skid and losing control of the motorcycle. Harley-Davidson® motorcycles equipped with Rider Safety Enhancements by Harley-Davidson feature Drag-Torque Slip Control (DSCS), technology designed to reduce excessive rear-wheel slip under deceleration. When DSCS detects excessive rear wheel slip under deceleration it will adjust engine torque delivery to better match rear-wheel speed to road speed.
Keep in mind that when slowing under engine braking, the motorcycle brake light will not be illuminated, so drivers behind you might not be aware that you’re slowing down. A light touch on either brake control will flash your brake lights and warn vehicles behind you that you are slowing.
Most motorcycle riders are using some level of engine braking every time they ride. With practice, smooth downshifts can result in enhanced engine braking performance and will not damage the motorcycle.