Ask RideApart: How The Hell Does Counter Steering Work?

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.

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