Ask RideApart: How The Hell Does Counter Steering Work?

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Ask RideApart inquiry: “I have looked everywhere and can’t find an answer for my question on counter steering: Why do you push on the handlebars in the direction that you want to go instead of pulling on the opposite side? It would seem to me, that when you lean, it would be easier to pull on the bars, pulling yourself into the bike; pushing would push your body away from the bike and out of your lean.” – Tyler via Facebook:

Hi Tyler, this is the age-old question, why do you push against the direction you’re going when entering a turn? This points the handlebars away from the turn and doesn’t seem natural. Known as counter steering or deliberate counter steering, because every time you roll through a corner—whether it’s on a sport bike, naked bike, Honda, Harley, or bicycle—you push against the side of the handlebars in the direction of your turn (push right, turn right) and pull on the other side. You do it without noticing, but if you pay attention to this action it can greatly improve your riding. Let’s simply answer your question and then dive into the science of counter steering for those of you, like me, who can’t just be told something is the way it is without understanding how it works.

I trained as a motorcycle instructor for beginners aspiring to get licensed, but never officially instructed. We constantly repeated, “push, pull” to students and asked them to say it to themselves while riding. This gave them tremendous confidence with tackling corners. To simply answer your question Tyler, you do both push and pull.

My instructor Bob Penn retired as a site director for the Forsyth County, North Carolina, and instructed for 15 years. He recently told me what he tells his students. “In a car with your hands on either side of the steering wheel, if you’re driving towards an object like a tree, you lower your left hand and raise your right to turn left, avoiding the tree,” said Bob. “If you carry that mode onto a bike, then you’re going right into that object.” For those riders who jump on a bike once a month or just every so often they usually keep that car mentality. Your object-avoidance techniques for a car are the opposite for a motorcycle, here’s why:

Gyroscopic Precession Steering

You don’t have to be a physicist to understand how it works, merely understand basic laws of motion. Your motorcycle—or bicycle—is a single-track vehicle that pivots at the steering neck. All single-track vehicles must bank or lean to make a corner. Try sitting still on your bike and push the handlebars to the left, with the front wheel facing left. You and the weight of your motorcycle will then fall to the right. So when you enter a turn and push the other direction, the weight leans into that turn.

For a single-track vehicle, the two wheels do not follow the same path during a turn. Called out-tracking, the front wheel rides outside the track of the rear wheel. Counter steering before a turn points the rear wheel in the right direction you want to go, while simultaneously creating a lean. There are forces on the rotating mass of the bike (wheels, tries, etc.) that resist changing directions. Those forces apply pressure to the back and side of the corner on the front tire. When you turn right, your contact patch on your front wheel is behind the axle on the right.

While body movement is useful, many wanna-be racers force the motorcycle into a corner, thinking body movement is more important than technique. Forcing a motorcycle into a turn by slinging your body off of the bike, throws off your center of gravity and creates sloppy cornering. You can use counter steering solely for leaning your bike over and perform the turn without shifting your body. So Tyler, don’t shift your body when counter steering! If you have to exert so much force to counter steer that you’re pushing yourself away from the bike, than you’re doing it wrong. It takes very little effort in the handlebars to produce effective counter steering and leaning.

Shifting your body weight throws off the bike’s center of gravity and shifts the roll momentum center, creating imprecise cornering. This is a major topic of debate that I’m sure you commenters will jump all over, but what some experts say, steering is based on the push, pull technique first and body movement second. “Do not utilize any body lean at all,” according to the Police Motorcycle Operator’s Course booklet. Motorcycle cops are some of the most talented riders in the world. They’re forced to sling big heavy bikes around, more than 40 hours a week and trained with military-like obedience.

Gyroscopic forces and inertia resist our attempts to turn the front wheel. The force we apply to the handlebars turns the wheel along the longitudinal plane, tilting the axis of the rotating mass (ie the axle of the front wheel), banking the motorcycle. This creates the entire counter steering effect, push right to turn right. Most motorcycles will experience the adequate gyroscopic inertia over 15 mph. Weight, wheelbase, and wheel and tire size contribute to how much power you need to overcome the forces Mother Earth applies on your bike. So Tyler, a small-cc Honda will be easier to steer than a decked-out Harley dresser. It’s one of the reasons why smaller bikes are generally more nimble and easier to throw around corners.

Conclusion

Tyler, you must do both push and pull to get your motorcycle around a corner. Counter steering is an important technique for riding, but it doesn’t require a ton of force. I hope this has inspired you to get back out and ride.

  • Joseph Schmoski

    Excellent article — thumbs up !!

  • Lee Scuppers

    Wikipedia suggests that the effect is thought to be largely due to the contact patch pulling the front wheel out from underneath the rest of the bike, which tends to stay put laterally due to inertia. Of course gyroscopic precession is significant as well — any force that can keep the bike upright is a factor in what the bike does.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Counter-steering

    • Justin McClintock

      Yeah, I’ve tried to wrap my head around all that’s going on there a couple times as well. Seems they’re both definitely coming into play, along with several other forces. In short, bicycles and motorcycles have so much going on that make them work, it’s like they were simply meant to be, end of discussion.

    • Jesse Kiser

      Thanks Lee, yeah you’re referring to out tracking where the front wheel tries to whip out from under the bike and travels outside the path of the rear wheel. You’re right that the contact patch changes in a turn. I reached out to a tire company and waiting to hear back. I figured they would know the most as I believe they take counter steering into consideration with front tire development.

  • Gonfern

    Keith Code…read his books or watch his videos on the subject. The man has a great explanation and even demonstrations of it working that make it easy to understand

    • Justin McClintock

      There was somebody who ran a hot lap at Road Atlanta a few years back specifically talking about body position and how/when it matters…I believe it was Keith. Anyway, he wouldn’t change his body position except when needed so he wouldn’t upset the chassis. As a result, he’d come out of a sharp right hander hanging off the right of the bike and STAY there for a gentle left handed sweeper. Weird. But he certainly had plenty of clearance as it was a very gradual left hander and you couldn’t argue with the results, fast as always.

      • Gonfern

        That may work on the track…where you can see and know what the next turn is…it hasnt changed since the last lap. Would you go into a corner on the street that you cant see the exit of on the wrong side of the bike?? My logic is for those surprise moments when you have to rely on instincts and stretch your and the bikes capabilities to overcome a mistake or misjudgement. If you are well positioned to react correctly, theres a better chance that you will. Good habits make predictable reactions

        • Justin McClintock

          Oh yeah, I’d never dream of trying that on anything but a track. I just thought it was kinda interesting his approach. Not something I would have ever thought to do, but it kinda makes sense.

  • LS650

    Why do so many people have a problem with this? It’s a pretty straight-forward concept to visualize, yet some people seem to have a hard time wrapping their head around it.

  • Ayabe

    Can-Am rider – “It doesn’t!”

    I have a tendency to pull on the outside more than push on the inside, it’s something I work on constantly.

    • blackcayman

      its NOT a motorcycle

    • daveinva

      Which is why it’s always a bit of a conscious chore when I swap between my Spyder and my Ninja. “Unlearn what you have learned,” and all that.

  • zion

    I just taught a class yesterday. I had two, soon to be, motorcycle cops in the class. One officer has been riding 20 plus years. When I mentioned “Counter-steering”, he just looked baffled. I explained it in as simple layman terms as possible. I eventually said, “Don’t over think it, you’ve been doing it for years without realizing it”.

    Sometimes, with students at least, it’s easier to just keep it simple. As has been said, it’s hard for people to wrap their head around and as you get into technical explanations their eyes just glaze over.

    It’s physics and gyroscopic effect. Going beyond that explanation usually puts people to sleep. For those who want to dive into it, try reading “Proficient Motorcycling” by David Hough. Kind of dry, but he gets the point across. Plus there’s some decent videos on You Tube that help illustrate the points.

    Look at this way. You breathe oxygen. You don’t see it and can’t prove it’s there (yes you can with a monitor, I know.) But, you’re alive right? Just believe in counter steering and enjoy.

    • PleaseSpareUsYourNonsense

      your comment might actually make sense if it wasn’t entirely possible for people to turn bikes without countersteering

      and in fact, many never actually countersteer.

      but you’re a wonderful example of the difference between doing, teaching and understanding

  • Adan Ova

    Moving my body towards the corner makes me lean less, making the tires have more contact with the pavement. In wet conditions or when I don’t know the route well, it lets me go fast and safe. It’s just how I experience it. Please tell me if there’s a better way.

    Also, you had an article on correct body position: http://rideapart.com/2013/10/10-things-you-need-to-know-about-motorcycle-body-position-for-sport-riding/ .

  • Stuki

    Its really enough to note that in order for the bike to lean into the turn, the tire contact patch must be outside of the bikes center of gravity. The only reasonable way of getting it there, is to steer the bars away from the turn. Its also important to note that you only countersteer to initiate the turn. In order for the bike to actually turn left, the tire, hence bar, must be turned left. But the steering geometry of a bike will take care of that by itself.

    While gyro effects et al undoubtedly play a part, a singletrack snow cycle with a front ski works the same way. You simply need to move the bottom part of the vehicle out from underneath the cog, in order for the bike to lean in.

  • Tupack Shackur

    The “don’t shift your body” part confused me. How does that play into hanging off?

    • eddi

      For the advanced student. In 30+ years if riding, I have yet to stick out a knee, let alone my whole upper body. Although I have felt the outside of my foot scrape along, I prefer a more laid-back riding style

    • Tom Gabriele

      We are in the everyman riding phase at RA now. The Wes Siler school of unnecessary motorcycle theatrics is closed.

      This article contains better advice. If you need to worry about maximizing your contact patch while riding on public roads, you may want to reevaluate your style, or get thee to a track.

  • Gromit

    It’s always seemed simple to me. In a right hand turn, you need to make the bike bank right. To do that, turn the bars a little to the left – this makes the bike fall to the right. To stop it falling too far, turn the bars to the right a fraction.
    The fact that a stationary bike will fall to one side if you turn the bars to face the other side suggests that gyroscopic precession has nothing to do with it.

  • eddi

    Always nice to see the basics get a short, clear explanation.

  • Joe D

    Centrifugal force, folks. Cars lean away from the turn. Bikes want to fall away from the direction of front wheel travel for the same reason. Shure, other factors contribute to handling qualities but centrifugal force gets the process going.

  • Dave

    Used to be everyone thought that corners were navigated by “body english”. I taught on a Navy base where a large number of students didn’t consider themselves beginners, and in fact had ego’s that were pretty hard to penetrate. This was back in the days when MSF instructors were actually allowed to do more than run a DVD player, so I modified a bicycle to “prove” to unbelievers the mechanics of counter steering. I had my metal shop tack weld the bicycle’s steering head so that the front wheel tracked straight only. Then I let the unbelievers have a go at a gentle corner. They could witness each others’ try at the corner, and see with their own eyes that each of their automatic responses was an attempt to counter steer. To a man, they could be seen tugging and pushing at that handlebar trying to set the bike into an appropriate lean for the turn only to run wide into the grass. Unfortunately, that kind of creative instruction is no longer tolerated, which is why I gave up instructing several years ago.

    • PleaseSpareUsYourNonsense

      “They could witness each others’ try at the corner, and see with their
      own eyes that each of their automatic responses was an attempt to
      counter steer.”

      No, it’s an attempt to STEER. By locking the steering straight you have ruled out steering into the turn as well as countersteering. Therefore you can’t logically say that they naturally countersteer to turn the bike. And this is why I hate MSF instructors and other people who half know what they’re talking about. You know facts without understanding the logical basis behind them, and therefore leap from fact to erroneous, illogical conclusion…in total blindness. And with complete confidence that you are right. When you’re wrong. When you mistake your erroneous conclusion for a fact and lecture erroneously with your cert as a stick to convince the unbelievers, then you become outright dangerous.

  • di0genes

    I always had problems with the gyroscopic precession and contact patch, all those vector arrows, finally what works for my understanding is, you are driving a car, preferably some old 70′s boat with bad shocks and limp springs. You turn, what happens to the car? It leans in the opposite direction you are turning. Now grab an old tire, bicycle or motorcycle, and give it a kick. First it goes straight, it hits a pebble or slows down, and leans in one direction or another. It is no longer going straight, as it falls it makes tighter and tighter circles. What confused me and probably others is that after countersteering you steer ever so slightly into the direction you are turning. You learned countersteering when your dad took took the training wheels off your first two wheeler. It has since become instinctive.

    • PleaseSpareUsYourNonsense

      “What confused me and probably others is that after countersteering you
      steer ever so slightly into the direction you are turning.”

      …true, some people do that, and that’s a 2nd issue, the fact that you can actually turn a bike by steering into a turn (despite the fact that so many say that it can’t be done, people do it all the time), and by steering into the turn you can tighten the turn. The problem is that you can only do this to a limited degree before the tire breaks loose and the bike lowsides. The only way to keep from lowsiding the bike is therefore to not turn into the turn too much. It’s a fine line, even the best get it wrong, as this technique is world-class. But there are other ways to lowside, mainly to lean the bike over so much that you ride up on the sidewall of the front tire.

      Proper countersteering and body-angle and bike lean angle are hard to get right and the rewards are somewhat elusive.

      It is much easier to either steer into the turn or lean the bike WAY over, in order to get it to turn adequately.

      And that’s fine. People do that all the time. The problem is that the turn limits are much lower using those two techniques than they are with proper countersteering and lean-angle. But again, that’s fine as long as you stay within the limits of the techniques that you use.

      If you really want to get a handle for where you personally stand in this whole mishmash, just try riding a bicycle, using your motorcycle skillset.
      Note the bike will turn easily regardless of the technique used, because the bike is very light and therefore has low linear momentum.
      It’s easy to turn.

      But try turning it like you’d turn a motorcycle. Just try it and see what happens.
      Then note, carefully, just what you do, to turn the bike.
      My guess is that you do not turn it like Adey makes turns while racing GT3s on Mulholland.
      Leaning off the bike to the inside, knee scraping the ground, shoulders tilted to the outside of the turn.
      The bike very low beneath you.
      If you did that, you would ride off the tread and crash in seconds.
      No. On a bicycle, you probably countersteer naturally, with proper body position. Leaning well to the inside, with the bike nearly upright, on the meat of the tires. Simply because you have no choice.

  • RyYYZ

    Your response to Tyler seems to have answered a question that they haven’t asked. What Tyler asked was why to push on the bar which is to the inside of the intended turn, rather than pull on the opposite bar. The answer to that, of course, is that it makes no difference as far as counter steering goes, and in fact one tends to do both at the same time.

    As to how counter steering works, I believe that it has little if anything to do with gyroscopic forces of any kind, other than that the gyroscopic forces generated by the spinning wheels do tend to resist the bike’s changing lean angle. On bicycles the need to countersteer is almost unnoticeable because the bicycle itself is very light, as are its wheels, producing very little gyroscopic effect, so the bicycle will fall into a turn with just a little shift in weight. Steering a bicycle “no-hands” is quite easy (with practice) and the bike can be made to turn quite sharply without touching the bars. I think it was/is Keith Code’s school that had/has the “No BS” bike which had a second set of fixed (not attached to the forks) handlebars which riders could take out and experiment with seeing just how well they could get it to turn using only body English. The answer was “not much”.

    Anyway, it doesn’t really matter why it works, just that it does, and that it’s really the only way to get a motorcycle to change direction reasonably quickly. People who say they don’t do it have probably been doing it unconsciously – just like I did after I learned how to ride a bicycle as a kid. Only later did I notice, for example, that if you let your wheels get too close to an edge (like the shoulder of a paved road) it’s very difficult to steer away without your wheels going over the edge, because the front wheel first has to countersteer in the direction of the edge in order to get the bicycle turning away from it.

    • PleaseSpareUsYourNonsense

      But it does make a huge difference as countersteering goes, because the effect of the countersteering force changes with the angle of the bike in the turn.
      Countersteering is far more effective if the bike is upright than if it’s leaned over. If you countersteer while the bike is leaned over, it will just lean over more. If you do it while the bike is relatively upright, it will actually change direction.

      This is why they say that to turn the bike you need to countersteer.

      Instead of, “to turn the bike you need to lean it”.
      Leaning the bike over does practically nothing in terms of turning it. Which is why you have to use huge lean-angles just to turn it a little-bit.
      So if you pull on the outside bar, you are pulling the bike into your body AND countersteering.

      Pushing on the inside bar pushes the bike away AND countersteers.

      Guess which is more effective at turning the bike
      Of course this is complicated by the fact that pushing and pulling don’t just act in the horizontal plane, they also act vertically.
      When you push on the inside bar you also tend to push the bike down, and make it lean over more.

      It’s pretty hard to pull the bike up by pulling on the outside bar. Again what happens is you tend to pull it into your body.

      Trust me if it were easy, people would hop on bikes and ride them like Marquez. It ain’t easy.

  • http://victorlombardi.com/ Victor

    I think the reason counter steering is confusing is because it frames the issue around what the bike is doing (which way the wheel is pointed) instead of what the rider is doing (IMHO moving your body). I’m careful not to say lean here because y’all are anti-lean, and that’s fine. But if you focus on what your body is doing there is some shifting of body weight going on, hips are turning, etc. Anyone who has ridden a bike or a bicycle a while does it intuitively. And if you focus on what your body is doing (instead of the bike) it all makes sense. What I do is to consciously move my body the right way in the turn; counter steering is not the technique, it’s the result. This is speaking as a normal dude on the street; I know if you watch pros at the track in slow motion there handlebars are turning more significantly than what I do.

  • PleaseSpareUsYourNonsense

    Even for RideApart, this article is stunningly wrong in the basic facts. Otherwise I would just say it’s another sad failure in the long history of RA “motorcycle lectures”. But ignoring the blatant ignorance, illogic and factual errors with regards to countersteering Mr. Not-A-Physicist displays here. The original question really refers to body position with relation to the bike, not steering into the turn or countersteering, so much. And you will see plenty of so-called “experienced, trained professionals” doing exactly what the question describes: pulling the bike into the body and leaning it down into the turn while remaining upright themselves. I think that is the real point of the question. But as for the rest, no gyroscopic precession has very little to do with the turning of the bike (precession clearly is far beyond your understanding), leaning the bike isn’t necessary to turn it (nor is countersteering) and there is a laundry list of other errors here that in the end just point out that “the basic laws of physics” may be a simplified form of general mechanics but that doesn’t make them simple or easy to apply correctly. Yes, you still have to be something of a physicist to know what you’re talking about when it comes to physics. Same with any other field of science. As, you know, “non-scientists”, please stick to what you do best: buying wholeheartedly into manufacturer claims with no concern for any sort of independent testing in the name of objective validation, analyzing whether something is “cool” or “bad-ass”, and making-up lists of what is and what is not either. At least until Ben Stller needs more material for his next movie.

    • Ellory P

      you really are a sanctimonious douchebag. you and your explanations of counter steering show no more understanding of how it works than anyone else, yet you berate, dismiss and insult everyone. if you dont have anything constructive to say please dont say anything.

  • WindowToYourSoul

    Ignoring the authors’ chatterings there are two ways to turn a motorcycle.
    Either steering into a turn or countersteering.
    Both can be done at just about any speed or turn-radius, if you are good enough to do it without wrecking.
    The thing is that the only way to get the bike to TURN really quickly in relation to its wheelbase
    -regardless of how light it is or how much you lean it over or lean off or whatever-
    is to use a lot of force at the bars.

    And therein lies the problem.

    Some people, even experienced riders, corner all the time by dropping the bike down below them and steering slightly into the turn.
    The more that you steer into the turn, the better the bike turns.
    So it’s just wrong to say that people countersteer “naturally” because the fact is that some just don’t, ever.
    Cruiser-riders and noobs are notorious for this. It’s easy to do, the results are immediate, and most of all, you personally don’t have to lean over very far.

    But it is also dangerous. If you use too much force while steering into the turn, the front tire will wash out and the bike will lowside.
    This will be even more likely if you hit any sort of disturbance on the road that causes the front wheel to bounce.
    If you use too much force while counter-steering, the bike will fall over on its side, into the turn.
    But the front wheel is much less likely to wash out while countersteering.
    So it becomes critical to push the bike up and out while countersteering in order to make the bike turn nicely and quickly.
    There does not seem to be, in my experience, any real limitation on how much force one can use when countersteering correctly,
    and the bike will turn nicely and quickly regardless of how much it weighs or how long the wheelbase is.
    The back end will swing around just like a sail, as long as you keep the bike relatively upright and push on the proper bar.
    And you push on the tank with your inside knee while doing this. This improves the cornering noticeably.
    If you don’t do it right, or you don’t use enough force, the bike will not want to turn and you will quickly run into trouble.
    If you do it right, then everything is right with the universe and you can sail through turns at high speed, with confidence.

    You’re not going to find the explanation for this in a physics-book (much less in the ramblings of an incompetent) because this is a highly-complex balance.

    You get it right, it works just fine. You do it wrong, you fail to make the corner and have to resort to desperate measures.

    It’s really that simple.
    The main thing is that you are not going to learn how to countersteer right from people who don’t know how to do it right themselves.