You ask we answer. Here's the latest in our "Ask A Mechanic" series.
Q: How much tension do you normally leave in a clutch lever?
A: On a cable actuated clutch the amount of play in the lever before the cable is actually pulled is called free play. Between 1/8-inch to 1/4-inch of free play is common and somewhat a personal preference. A good clutch lever set will have adjustments so that the actual blade can be set closer to the handlebars so a rider could run a little less lever free play. In other cases when the blade is further from the bars a rider might add just a bit more free play in the lever so that the reach of their fingers is more comfortable.
The free play doesn't make much difference in how easy or hard the actual pull of the lever is - that has more to do with clutch springs, the clutch actuator arm spring, cable health (lube/quality), lever quality, and sometimes a few other factors. The free play allows you to rest on the lever with your fingers and not be actuating the clutch by resting. Riding without any free play can cause your clutch to actuate, lifting the pressure plate and allowing the clutch to slip. This wears out your clutch, adds unnecessary stress on the cable and makes the ride suck over all.
Keep in mind hydraulic and Rekluse equipped bikes are a little different.