A motorcycle engine can create an enormous amount of power, which must be delivered to the wheels of the vehicle in a controllable way. The motorcycle transmission delivers power to the rear wheel through a series of structures that include the gearset, the clutch and the drive system.
A gearset is a set of gears that enable a rider to move from a complete stop to a cruising speed. Transmissions on motorcycles typically have four to six gears, although small bikes may have as few as two. The gears are engaged by shifting a lever, which moves shifting forks inside the transmission.
The job of a clutch is to engage and disengage power from the engine crankshaft to the transmission. Without the clutch, the only way to stop the wheels from turning would be to turn off the engine -- an impractical solution in any kind of motorized vehicle. The clutch is a series of spring-loaded plates that, when pressed together, connect the transmission to the crankshaft. When a rider wants to shift gears, he uses the clutch to disconnect the transmission from the crankshaft. Once the new gear is selected, he uses the clutch to reestablish the connection.
There are three basic ways to transmit engine power to the rear wheel of a motorcycle: chain, belt or shaft. Chain final-drive systems are by far the most common. In this system, a sprocket mounted to the output shaft (i.e., the shaft in the transmission) is connected to a sprocket attached to the rear wheel of the motorcycle by a metal chain. When the transmission turns the smaller front sprocket, power is transmitted along the chain to the larger rear sprocket, which then turns the rear wheel. This type of system must be lubricated and adjusted, and the chain stretches and the sprockets wear, requiring periodic replacements.
Belt drives are an alternative to chain drives. Early motorcycles often used leather belts, which could be tensioned to give traction using a spring-loaded pulley and hand lever. Leather belts often slipped, especially in wet weather, so they were abandoned for other materials and designs. By the 1980s, advances in materials made belt final-drive systems viable again. Today's belts are made of cogged rubber and operate much the same way as metal chains. Unlike metal chains, they don't require lubrication or cleaning solvents.
Shaft final-drives are sometimes used. This system transmits power to the rear wheel via a drive shaft. Shaft drives are popular because they are convenient and don't require as much maintenance as chain-based systems. However, shaft drives are heavier and sometimes cause unwanted motion, called shaft jacking, in the rear of the motorcycle.
The other components that make a motorcycle a motorcycle are part of the chassis.