What’s the problem?
Most untrained riders (including many experienced ones) don’t understand how motorcycles steer. Probably they just don’t think about the mechanics of steering at all. The problem is that your intuition on how motorcycles steer is wrong. Above crawling speed, motorcycles steer differently than cars and tricycles.
In every day driving you may be unconsciously correcting for incorrect steering, but not having as much fun as you could. Worse, in an emergency situation you won’t have access to the bike’s full ability to avoid a collision unless you are steering the motorcycle properly.
The ultimate symptom of this misunderstanding of motorcycle steering is that untrained riders often steer right into obstacles that surprise them, rather than away from them.
If you’ve been riding a motorcycle for long, you’re about to read something you will find hard to believe. This isn’t mysticism; It’s physics, and it’s true. Try it and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
What steers the motorcycle?
What makes your motorcycle turn?
Don’t be embarrassed if you said “the handlebars,” although that is not correct. The handlebars don’t make the bike turn. Leaning makes the bike turn. The handlebars make the bike lean.
Let’s take that one step at a time.
You probably won’t have any problem with the first concept. A motorcycle must lean to turn, and it will turn in the direction of the lean. So, this rider is turning to the right, the way the bike is leaning.
Here’s the step that may surprise you. Get on a motorcycle, move at a moderate speed, and gently turn your bars slightly to the left without adjusting your balance. The motorcycle will lean to the right. That’s what the rider in this picture is doing — turning the bars slightly to the left. This is basic physics, although we’ll skip the vector algebra that explains it.
So that means. . . ?
Yes, turn the handlebars left, and the bike leans right, and then goes right. So the bike leans in the opposite direction to the turn of the handlebars. Unless you fight it with your body weight, it will turn in the direction it’s leaning — opposite to the handlebars.
Because the bike goes in the opposite direction from where the front wheel is pointing, most motorcycle literature refers to this phenomenon as “countersteering.” However, that’s not the best term for a novice rider, because you have enough on your mind while riding without thinking in opposites. (“Ok, there’s a bus in my way, I need to turn right. But they said countersteer, so that’s left. So I turn the bars left. But the opposite of left is right. But do I have to reverse that? No, wait, . . .”)
So if we want to turn right, instead of saying “turn the bars to the left” we say “push on the right bar.” That’s the same thing, but it’s easier to remember and doesn’t involve unravelling opposites in your head. To go left, push on the left bar. To go right, push on the right bar. For beginners, I think the term “push steering” is a better reminder of what to do. Remember, “push” means pushing forward — rotating the bars — not pushing down toward the ground.
Nonsense. I’ve been steering bikes for years.
Perhaps you have. But you haven’t been experiencing how quickly and accurately they can turn.
Here’s what’s been happening when you approach a corner, planning to turn right, and believing you should turn the handlebars to the right.
- I slow ‘way down ’cause cornering isn’t easy. I really don’t like corners.
- I start to turn the bars to the right. At the first slight movement of the bars, the bike responds by starting to lean left. I interpret this, incorrectly, as problems with my balance, berating myself. After enough scares, I probably form the habit of skipping this unpleasant step — leaving the handlebars entirely alone, going straight to the body weight lean below.
- (I think to myself, “#$^%#$: this bike doesn’t turn well. I wish I had one of those expensive model such-and-such bikes — I’ve heard they handle really well.”)
- I adjust my body to the right, first to regain my balance, and then further, forcing the bike to lean right with my body weight.
- Eventually, I get around the corner, and speed ‘way back up to my straight-line speed. That wasn’t fun, but I got through it.
Here’s what you could be experiencing:
- Approaching the right turn, I slow to a safe cornering speed (but this will be faster than what I was comfortable with before).
- At the point where I want the bike to begin turning, I push the right bar forward, smoothly and firmly, just a little.
- The bike immediately drops into a controlled right lean and turns right precisely and quickly.
- As I complete my turn, I push the left bar forward and accelerate, straightening the bike out. I love corners, and am beaming happily.
Want More evidence? Look at a good head-on photo of a rider executing a tight turn at high speed — photos covering motorcycle racing are ideal. Look at the orientation of the front wheel in the photo to the right — you’ll find it is turned away from the direction the bike is leaning, and that it is turned only a very small amount. Countersteering requires only small inputs at speed.
Rider training courses have a variety of tricks to use that can help convince riders who are having trouble believing in countersteering, but the best thing you can do for your riding is try it to see that it works.
Steering, one of the most basic and critical motorcycle techniques, needs to be completely automatic — you can’t be taking time to consciously think about technique while moving. To help make countersteering automatic, do not think about the direction the front tire or handlebars are turned — that is backward thinking and will slow your reaction time. Think only about the direction in which the bike is leaning.
When you push the right bar forward, the bike leans right. It’s easy to feel, mentally, that you pushed the right side of the bike “toward the ground”. Push forward on the bar, and that side of bike goes toward the ground. So, although you are pushing forward on the bar, mentally think you are pushing the side of the bike toward the ground.
So, when I want to turn right, I push the right side of the bike toward the ground. When I want to turn left, I push the left side of the bike toward the ground.
It’s important to understand this isn’t another way to steer a motorcycle, it is the only way to steer a motorcycle. Some courses and books suggest countersteering is a technique you use in emergencies. That’s incorrect — it’s a technique you use every time you steer. Every time you turn, at speeds above a parking lot crawl, you should turn by pushing the appropriate side of the bike into a lean.
You must practice this until it becomes completely automatic, so you don’t think about it, and so trying to turn the “tricycle way” feels unnatural. Not only will your everyday turns be more enjoyable, but should you face a sudden obstacle, your swerve reaction will be to push on the side of the bike toward safety. If you revert to “tricycle steering” when an obstacle surprises you, you will steer right into it.
If you take a rider training course, you will likely spend a lot of time practising proper turning technique. One exercise I used to like to use when teaching was a simple slalom — a series of 3-4 consecutive S-curves, well away from obstacles and threats. I would have students try to move through the entire path in one smooth motion, smoothly pushing one side of the bike then the other into the required lean. I would tell them to “consider it one path, that happens to be curved”, rather than a series of 4-5 turns to be executed. I would ask them to force themselves to negotiate the curves by push-steering, not by leaning. A bystander might not have been able to tell which technique they were using, but the student would know. And I could tell when they “got it” because they’d return with a big smile on their face. It wasn’t uncommon to have someone return from this exercise and say something like “holy shit!”.
Any new riding technique is best learned with supervision and expert coaching, so I highly recommend you practise this technique by taking a professional rider training course.
What about slow speeds?
At very slow speeds (creeping into a parking space, slipping the clutch in 1st gear) the amount of lean induced by the handlebars is not significant, and motorcycles steer like tricycles. You’ll feel this naturally and combine slow-speed steering with keeping your balance without having to think about it.
The critical point is that at any speed sufficient to balance comfortably, lean steers the bike and countersteering induces the lean.
Why not just lean?
Why not just lean the bike with your body weight, instead of all this push-steering stuff?
You can, but forcing a heavy bike with a low centre of gravity to lean by moving your body weight takes time and effort, while push steering will initiate the lean more quickly and with less effort. And on any bike, moving your body weight around is a coarse, imprecise technique. If you try to use weight shifting to swerve around an obstacle you will probably hit it. Push steering is almost instantaneous and, with practice, will give you very precise control.
This is actually a controversial point. There is one prestigious track-instruction school that teaches “body steering”, meaning leaning by shifting body weight, while another prestigious school disagrees with this point (and teaches handlebar-induced countersteering) so strongly that they have actually built a special motorcycle with non-functional handlebars, on which they challenge believers in “that other theory” to try to steer it by shifting body weight.
If you’re interested in the mechanics of what’s going on here, there are many excellent articles on motorcycle steering on the Internet and in engineering manuals. There are 3 forces at work, in combination: gyroscopic precession, camber-induced roll, and inertia.
All track images on this page were courtesy of Red Bull Yamaha racing, used with permission.