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Counter-Steering Voodoo

Posted on Saturday, August 16th, 2003

Dave!Well that was quick. Though I posted my last entry just 45 minutes ago, I've already got an e-mail from a new friend (and prospective motorcyclist) asking about my rather vague reference to "counter-steering" which is the method used to steer a motorcycle at speeds faster than 5-10mph. Essentially you push the handlebar on the side with the direction you want to travel. Need to turn right? Push right. It's weird, because you're essentially "turning left" but that's the way it works when you're leaning into a turn on a two-wheel vehicle.

Even though I've been riding my new BMW F650 GS for only a month, I am not a complete novice. Fourteen years ago, I had a Honda 250 that I played around with. I wasn't endorsed, had no formal training, but had a blast riding around the surrounding backroads from time to time (after learning how to ride from a book I got from the local library and a lot of trial-and-error!). But then one fateful day, I ran into some loose gravel while coming around a corner and took quite a spill. My girlfriend completely lost it, and that was the end of my short foray into riding (hey, at that moment in time, she was worth it!). I sold my ride, gave away my gear, and abandoned my dream of owning a BMW R100 GS (that was the dual model at the time). Well, as they say, eventually dreams can come true (even after over a decade of hibernation).

Counter-steering is not something I was consciously using until it was brought up in my MSF Basic Rider Course a month back. First of all... yes, it's really true. When making a turn you are actually turning the handlebars opposite of the intended path of travel. Yes, it's a little freaky when you are first practicing it. No, you don't have to pay attention to the physics of how it works in order to make it happen. Basically, what you need to know is that the only way to turn a motorcycle at speed is to make it lean. The best way to do this is to push the handlebars away from your turn, which puts the bike into a kind of "controlled fall" that slips the front tire's contact patch with the road out from under you and leans the bike. A kind of gyroscopic effect kicks in... to turn right, push right... to turn left, push left... and the harder you push, the more you lean and the tighter your turn. Obviously, you do have to maintain speed to keep from tipping over, but once you get the hang of it, it's not a big deal. In fact, it's one of the things I've come to love most about riding. Cornering is fun.

I've read where some people say they don't use counter-steering, and instead just lean their motorcycle by pushing down on a foot peg, slapping their knee against the side of the tank, shifting their weight, or whatever. Other things I've read tell me that these people are, in fact, counter-steering but not realizing it. All I know is that when I try leaning my body and restrain myself from steering, nothing happens, so I am inclined to agree with the latter assessment. The good news is that by actively counter-steering you get a sense for it, which could save you a lot of grief in a crisis (always a horror to read stories of novice riders who panic and attempt to steer away from an obstacle but, due to the counter-steering "effect," actually turn into it!). So don't let the bizarre physics of motorcycle steerage keep you away... that's just the way it works and, if you embrace it as part of the fun of riding, you'll end up being a better rider because of it.

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