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Gary Bailey Trackside - In the Clutch

by The "Professor" Gary Bailey


What Can the Clutch Do For You and Why

Been saving this on my wall of fame. I took this out of a magazine and blew it up because it’s funny. Oh, by the way James, I still have that stick if it will help.
photo: Gary Bailey

For years riders have asked should I use the clutch? If so, how much? Should I keep a finger on the clutch all the time? If not, then when and where should I?

Why discuss this now? Well, after the Stewart crash at Daytona, and then after watching Indy SX and all the saves Stewart made, I thought it was time because I think clutch use could have saved Stewart a great deal of trouble in both races and many other times.

I have always thought that using the clutch and using it right is important. This is true whether you are riding a two-stroke or four-stroke.

Historically, most two-stroke riders used the clutch to keep the bike in the power band and to make the bike respond quicker. Then, along came four-stroke bikes. At first four-stroke riders used the clutch because that is what they had done on the two-stroke bikes. But, then riders realized that the new four-stroke engine had lots of bottom end power and much better power, so they thought they didn’t need the clutch anymore. I never understood this because I always thought good riding was as much about controlling the power as having better power and you just cannot control your power without using the clutch.

As I watch the riders today at all levels I wonder why they don’t put their finger on the clutch lever and keep it there. This enables them to use the clutch readily to make the power come on better and also to be able to control the power better.

Before I start this analysis let me state it is not intended to rag on James Stewart.

Let’s move on to how this applies to James Stewart, and especially to what we saw in the last two SX races. Before I start this analysis let me state it is not intended to rag on James Stewart. It is just an opportunity to analyze the riding of a top rider as a learning tool. If you can learn to ride better by relating to a rider you are already watching and if you can understand how arguably the fastest man on the planet, can be even faster and smoother, then certainly something here might help you no matter what your riding level is.

The fact is Stewart has always used very little clutch. I know you are thinking if you can go that fast without the clutch, then why do you need it? Let’s use a few Stewart instances to answer this question. I have thought for years that many of Stewart’s crashes were because he could not control the bike, not as a rider, but the power of the bike.

Crash One: The year Stewart went over the bars at Daytona going into a turn because he hit a braking bump, hit the gas, and got spit on the ground. Then just behind Stewart, I watched Reed hit the same kicker bump and make the corner. The big difference is that Reed had his finger on the clutch lever so he could better control the power and where the bike was going.

Crash Two: The battle between Carmichael and Stewart at High Point where James launched the bike off a jump and crashed again. There is no way to control the power when you don’t have control of the power.

Crash Three: Daytona crash this year. If Stewart had a finger on the clutch lever, he would have been able to pull it in a little and drop the front end so the bike would have set on the face of the jump. A little pull on the lever would let the wheel drop a little while keeping the rpm’s up.

Lesson learned here: Think of your clutch as a back up plan for when things go wrong or when you need to control your power. Without the clutch and knowing how to properly use it, you don’t have a back up plan or anything to go to when you are in trouble.

As far as any rider at that speed, when something goes wrong when you are wide open, what do you do to fix a problem? We have all been taught, “when in doubt, gas it” to apply power to the rear wheel. But, if you are already wide open, what’s left? You cannot gas it if you are already pinned like Stewart often is. So, in these situations what are you going to do? Maybe back out of the power? That’s a bad idea. Let me repeat, that’s a very bad idea. So I guess the only choice is to “hang on and hope for the best” which is what we see Stewart do. This works for Stewart because he is such a strong athlete that he can just muscle the bike and somehow save it. But let’s face it, not all of us are James Stewart, not even close, so hanging on and hoping you pull it off, seldom will, which is why you and sometimes even Stewart ends up on the ground.

While watching the Indy SX this week, I saw so many times when James should or could have crashed, but somehow he didn’t fall. If you watch each time Stewart comes up short on a jump or over jumps and hits the face of another jump, he has little or no control over the power of the bike. He has no back up plan because he does not use his clutch to control his power. Stewart is just on the “hang on and hope for the best” plan.

The clutch can be your back up plan to make all things better. I like Villopoto, Reed and Dungey for that reason because they almost always have a finger on the clutch lever just in case.

I am not sure why Stewart prefers to ride without the clutch. I have noticed that when Stewart does use the clutch he always uses two fingers. I am sure it would be hard to ride with two fingers on the clutch lever all the time. So lesson one: learn to use the clutch with just one finger and learn to ride with your finger on the clutch all the time so that it is there and ready if you need a little clutch to control your power.

It is important to understand how the clutch works to use it properly. You should think of the clutch as having a little traction control device. Think about how you use the clutch when you do a start. If you understand that how you release the clutch is important on a start, then you can understand can that how you apply and release the clutch is important everywhere else on the track too.

Let’s think about how important traction is to racing.

We all know that in a drag race from point A to point B, the rider that carries the best momentum and hooks up the best will go the fastest. The one that is smooth and does not spin the tires wins in a drag race. Likewise, in motocross, the one that smoothly feeds the clutch to build and maintain power and traction wins.

This is true in all types of racing. Consider even NASCAR, it is more than cars just going round and round. Look deeper at NASCAR and you will see that starts and restarts are important. There needs to be a quick reaction without spinning the tires. Top NASCAR drivers know that car setup is important and that when they get on the gas they better not get loose and spin the tires or they are going backwards.

But MX riders don’t typically think about what is happening when they let their rear wheel get loose and there is a little swap. This is actually caused by a loss of traction that can be controlled with that little lever on the left side of the bar, your clutch. In these situations, use a little pull on the clutch to control the bike and the power better. Use it, don’t abuse it.

There can be a plus to not using the clutch. It can make you more aggressive by letting you listen to your bike to make sure you are in the right power band and not bogging or over revving it. But at some point, this aggression needs to be improved upon by becoming smoother and that is where the clutch comes in.

And, you can use the clutch too much. Many riders use too much clutch by using it at the wrong time, especially in the corner. This happens when a rider does not carry their momentum through the corner and then they try to correct this loss of momentum by using the clutch to exit the corner quicker. If you watch these riders, it may sound like they are going fast, but actually they have slowed too much in the turn.

The idea with the clutch in the corner is to use the clutch to control your power better. Clutch use in the corner is about the power coming on more smoothly and then about how much traction you have.

Another important place to use the clutch is in a timing section. In a timing section, you can use the clutch a little so the bike will have the best power possible all the time. And, if something goes wrong in the timing section and your finger is on the clutch, you can use the clutch to take control of your power. This small adjustment puts you in more control so that a small mistake doesn’t become a costly crash.

I like almost every thing I see Stewart do. Frankly, I am amazed at what he does. But, at the same time, it is no surprise to me when he crashes. Usually when I go back and replay the crash I notice that Stewart is not using the clutch. I think a little more clutch use could keep both Stewart and you as a rider off of the ground some of the time.

Ironically, when Stewart was on an 85 he came to one of my motocross schools. I tried to get him to use the clutch and gave him a little tap with my famous stick to make my point. Reportedly, he did not like my stick and never came back. I guess that didn’t work so well. (see below)

Ryan Dungey with a finger on clutch and ready to drive away. No matter what happens he can control it.

photo: Gary Bailey

Same thing, RD with a finger on clutch and ready to drive away. No matter what happens he can control it.

photo: Gary Bailey

Same with Chad Reed; same look, same idea, ready. The point here is you may not always need the clutch, but when you need it you are ready.

photo: Gary Bailey

Different photo, same look.

photo: Gary Bailey

Same again with Trey Canard. Sounds like a broken record, but these guys are in control and going fast.

photo: Gary Bailey

Different photo, same look.

photo: Gary Bailey

Different photo, same look.

photo: Gary Bailey

I don’t want to say this again, but how fast is he and that finger on the clutch does not seem to slow him down. It’s not that this will make a rider at this level go faster, but it may. What it will do is help you to make fewer mistakes and have more control.

photo: Gary Bailey

Different photo, same look.

photo: Gary Bailey

Different photo, same look.

photo: Gary Bailey

Well, no matter where you see Stewart he will most likely not have his finger on the clutch.

photo: Gary Bailey

However, he will use it in the turn to control that most of the time.

photo: Gary Bailey

So why is he so fast? Because he is James Stewart and he does so many unbelievable things well. So, why should he try keeping a finger on the clutch? So he will have more control and spend less time on the ground. We don’t need to lose Stewart because of a preventable injury we need this guy.

photo: Gary Bailey

Different photo, same look.

photo: Gary Bailey

Different photo, same look.

photo: Gary Bailey

Different photo, same look.

photo: Gary Bailey

No matter what level rider you are if you want to be perfect and spend less time on the ground think clutch, use it don’t abuse it. Like the old saying says, 9 out of 10 can’t be wrong.

photo: Gary Baile

Thank you for checking out this article. Other similar articles can be found in the archive section. I hope all of my articles help you become a better, safer rider no matter what your skill level. Because I am in semi retirement after 43-years teaching full-time, I only do private one-on-one coaching or with a small group of riders. Most of my time is spent in Virginia, however, if you are on the west coast I do spend some of the winter months in California visiting my kids and grandkids. If you are interested in scheduling a coaching session shoot me an email or go to my website. You can come to the mountain or the mountain will come to you!

That's it for now, until next time, good luck with your training and remember, if you have a question, log on to the Virtual Trainer Expert Forum and have your question answered by a panel of experts. In addition, be sure and check out the Racer X Virtual Trainer archive section. Your complete one-stop information zone for motocross fitness. VT Signature

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  1. Gravatar
    Joe Dirt March 17, 2011 at 11:29 am

    Thanks for telling us to use it but you didnt tell us under what situations and how to use it and what it does re lift or drop the front end . Thanks.


  2. Gravatar
    Laker23 March 17, 2011 at 11:39 am

    Bailey is on too something here. I have been to his schools and this teaching point has transcended eras, 4 strokes - 2 strokes etc. I remember him talking about James way back in his 125 days on this very subject.

  3. Gravatar
    playridr March 17, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    Anyone know if Stewart is using a Rekluse auto clutch? His bike never shuts off when he falls, and he doesn't seem to use the clutch very often in corners.

  4. Gravatar
    ACBR March 17, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    What about rutted corners? Should I still use the clutch? Thank you very much

  5. Gravatar
    Zak393 March 17, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    I have a question, not to do with using the clutch, but, kind of similar lol.....Should you keep 1 finger on the front brake all the time? So your ready to use it in an emergancy?

  6. Gravatar
    hollywoo506 March 17, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    i have never been trained formally or had any kinda of motocross training what so ever, but ever since i started riding a 125 yeas ago and now onto a 250 fourstroke, its always felt more natural to ride with a finger on the clutch and a finger on the brake. its actually more of a nusance to ride if i dont do it. and helps way more with control in my mind. i never have to lift my finger off the bars to hit the brakes or clutch. i have always wondered if thats how i should be riding, thanks for the article gary

  7. Gravatar
    Tbill March 17, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    The "stick" worked on thousands of others, though. You whacked my right hand to remind me to use my front brake - maybe 1972. I never forgot it. I'm 55, still ride and still remember some of your lessons on maintaining corner speed. I have attended three or four MX schools over the years and yours was by far the best. Thanks.

  8. Gravatar
    Mike Flanagan March 17, 2011 at 7:01 pm

    Why does'JS7 do this and why doesn't JS7 do that? Because he has the "ride like Bob Hannah" mentality...and he will never change until someone removes that bone from his head. Purely by accident, i caught my first...and only episode of "Bubba's World" where papa Stewart is out there coaching the kids on how it's done. I've never seen or heard in my 43 straight years of motocross...such stupidity from one person on how to win at MX. And, oh yeah! We all know how Brad Lackey took his seat off when he practice back in his championship days. But, taking the seats off of youngsters mounts risking serious injury for the sake of Papa Stewart's fat-bellied ego was obscene. It only goes to show you that there should be no question in anyone's mind inherited the un-removable bone in his head. Although, JS7 himself will NEVER top the bone-headed manuver for not showing for the 2009 outdoor season...because the bastard didn't have "a contract." Far too self serving egos in that family sport fans!

  9. Gravatar
    skidsteer16 March 17, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    Mike Flanagan = douche

  10. Gravatar
    Racer X Virtual Trainer March 18, 2011 at 10:09 am

    Thanks for giving us you opinion on JS7 Mike. But what purpose does it serve in the context of this article? If you want to hate on people that you have never met kindly go to a moto forum and vent all you want. I am neither a fan or hater of JS7 and his family but I am sure if the situation presented itself and you were given the opportunity to say these things to James or his dad you would not. So if you don't have the balls to say it to someones face, don't act all brave and go spouting off on THIS website. You don't have the slightest clue how to run the professional life of a rider of Jame's caliber. I may not like Bubba's world but I can appreciate the business aspect of it. OK, now that that is straight, lets hit the gym and work this aggression out there.

  11. Gravatar
    RF817 March 18, 2011 at 10:10 am

    I took a Gary Bailey school over ten years ago and he taught me the same thing back then. I took four pages of notes on the two day school. The clutch was probaby the biggest thing he tried to pound into our heads back then , and it still applies today.
    Gary told me directly, "the clutch controls the power of your bike, not the throttle". Think about that, I was using the clutch before I started his class, but not enough. Now it is automatic and I don't even think about it. Of course there is a correct way to use it, a way that can cut your lap times.I'm so anal about it that I ride with my finger on it on my street bike!
    Thanks Gary for teaching me, everything still applies today, 2 or 4 stroke.

  12. Gravatar
    Joshua Stein March 18, 2011 at 10:59 am

    I also wanted to comment on the Recluse clutch (Centrifugal Clutch). I've been hearing on many moto sites that Stewart is using one, and that woudl make sense about how he can go on the on/off table tops without a clutch. I can tell you supercross on off tables are seriously not easy with a clutch, let alone without one. Any input Gary? I have to think either he has the worlds strongest low end motor, or he uses that fancy clutch. And I have to wonder why he uses 2 fingers on the clutch as well.

  13. Gravatar
    gary bailey March 18, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    Yo, you guys are going to make me work aren't you. First let me touch on the front brake. No you don't need to have your finger on it all the time. In fact if you have it on the front brake all the time it is hard to keep the right grip and it is impossible to do a regrip so you can stay more over the front end and so your right arm won't drop down to low under full throtle. If you look close at all the top riders you will see that no one rides with your finger on the front brake all the time. Now for the clutch, when and where and how much? I thinkthat would be another good when and Why to artical. Oh ya not sure about that Rekluse or is that RECKLESS clutch, must not be reckless because that's not working. I don't think so but I will see what I can find out. Here is what I do know James has alway rode that way. He is not the only guy out there doing those step ons without the clutch. Until then ride smart and safe.

  14. Gravatar
    RF817 March 18, 2011 at 5:30 pm

    Ok Mr. Bailey, I'm going to shift gears on ya here and ask about riding on the balls of your feet. I watch the riders position a lot and seem to notice that a lot of riders don't do this on a regular basis. Is it because of the speed that the riders are going or the design of these courses that cause the lack of concentration required to keep on their toes? Shouldn't this become a natural thing?
    I also remember in your teachings that by riding on the balls of your feet, your ankles become part of the suspension and actually work as part of the bike by bending and absorbing the shock. Do these guys at this level apply this to their racing ?

    Thanks for your input.

  15. Gravatar
    gary bailey March 19, 2011 at 8:00 am

    Interesting you ask that. I was helping a top pro rider a few weeks ago and ask him why he never rides on the balls of his feet. The answer was a big surprise," I never thought about it." I don't want to mention his name but I am talking about a very fast rider, this guy could win a supercross main if all went his way. When I explained all the advantages of it he went out and tied it and could not believe the difference. Some riders don't know, and on some tracks you will do it less. If you are on a tight track that requires a lot of shifting and braking it is going to give you less time that you can be on the balls of the feet. rf817 you are right that will help the suspension work better and it will put you more in-tune with the bike.

  16. Gravatar
    simo8 March 20, 2011 at 3:07 am

    I've often noticed James not having his finger on the clutch, even back in the days when he rode the 125 against the 4 strokes, I always put it down to him being an exceptional rider with an amazing ability to carry speed and use the raw power of the bike, without the need to control it, I've never analysed any of his crashes though to determine a reason. You notice it more watching guys ride 2 strokes, they use it to steer the bike to an extent also around corners, tightening their line etc. One thing I have noticed is how back in the day it must have been a sin to use the clutch, because from the pictures I've seen, guys from the 60's and 70's never seem to have a finger on the clutch. But bikes weren't as good then I guess. I personally hate the sound of a slipping clutch and the sound of it being abused, but when done correctly is beautiful to see and you don't notice it. I like to think I don't abuse the clutch but I do however keep a finger on it at all times, I don't feel right if I don't. Very interesting article, thanks,

  17. Gravatar
    gary bailey March 21, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    Thanks simo8, in the early 70s late 60s you used the clutch only when there was a problem. The main reason for no clutch was they were so hard to pull in. Find an old one and give it a pull.

  18. Gravatar
    YZTwoStroke March 24, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    One thing that I find peculiar is that how Trey now rides with a finger on the clutch when in the Transworld Skills 3 video he talked about how he hardly never rode with clutch because he felt that most of the time it would get him into trouble. Ive learned from several different riding schools that braking without the clutch allows you to carry more speed into corners because the back wheel doesn't lock up and slide, it chatters from the engine braking. Also, ive seen shifting with the clutch become more popular these days.

  19. Gravatar
    ACBR March 29, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    Mr Bailey, what about rutted corners? Should I still use the clutch?
    I'd like to know if I should be breaking with or without the clutch too.
    Thank you very much.

  20. Gravatar
    gary bailey March 30, 2011 at 7:46 am

    Let start with YZTwoStroke - I have always said that you can ride without the clutch BUT if you want to do it better MORE PERFECT then the clutch is the way to do that. Like Chris Rock said one time about things we can do, I CAN DRIVE WITH MY FEET, but it's not a good idea. I don't think it will get you in trouble if you learn to do it right. Some times you may need to put a little more free play in the lever so you don't pull it in at the wrong time or to much. As far as letting you go faster, it's more about it giving you more control going into the corner. With the clutch in you have no feel of the rear brake until it locks up. Then when it is locked up it slides and you have no control, JUST LIKE LOCKING UP THE WHEELS ON A CAR, NO CONTROL. Remember you have three good stopping devices, front and rear brake and the engine. Shifting with the clutch is not new, it's always been the best way. Everyone just got lazy with the clutch. WHY WAIT FOR A PROBLEM BEFORE YOU USE THE CLUTCH? Use it to help PREVENT THE PROBLEM. When you are at the top with the best it's who makes the fewest mistakes and the clutch can help that.

    ACBR - Let me say this, with the clutch first DO NOT PULL THE CLUTCH IN going into the turn, unless you are trying to slide the rear end around to get more to the inside coming out of the corner. How ever if you do this incorrect you will lose a lot of momentum. AS FAR AS THE CLUTCH in the rutted corner? This can make it way easier, that is how you control the drive thru the corner. More clutch slip or feed here than anywhere. You need the clutch here so you always have some power thru the corner. If you only use the throttle and you get in trouble you will back out of the power. Backing out is not good in a rutted turn as the front wheel will start plowing the inside edge and you will start chasing it. If you hit the gas to hard the bike will stand up making you go over the rut. So get the gas on and control the corner more with the clutch. The more problem you are having with the rut, use more clutch. USE IT SMOOTH. Again use it in the corner, be careful going in not to pull it in too soon. Use it, don't abuse. Hope this helps you, RIDE SAFE!!!!

  21. Gravatar
    finger sandwitch April 03, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    Hey Dave...maybe Stewart took the stick whacking as a racist thing..

    maybe you should ask him about it.

    could be a chip on his shoulder...i heard from a little birdy

  22. Gravatar
    fingers again April 03, 2011 at 7:54 pm

    Sorry not dave...I ment Gary.

    My appoligies

  23. Gravatar
    Comedian April 12, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    Forget Recluse ..San Manuel tried to correct JS7's clutch deficiences with a traction control device, and got they lay low for awhile...crash he wins St Louis...look closely at his bike in any pic from that race....Its Baack

  24. Gravatar
    Glenn Brown January 07, 2014 at 11:34 pm

    I remember Gary and the stick back in '83...

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