Common Tread

What is a steering stabilizer?

May 28, 2018

A steering stabilizer, also called a steering damper, is a device that manages forces acting on a motorcycle’s front end.

Most importantly, a stabilizer can help absorb abrupt turning movements that might otherwise lead to loss of control. 

How does a steering stabilizer work, exactly?

At their most basic level, steering stabilizers add resistance to a bike’s steering. The handlebars require more input to turn from side to side, which means an unintended motion, like a head shake at high speed, will have less effect on the front end (and therefore the handlebars). This helps the rider maintain control. For example, hitting a pothole while leaned over in a turn could momentarily unload and deflect the front wheel. The steering stabilizer's job is to prevent uncontrolled movement as the front wheel attempts to recover.

A Shindy Daytona steering stabilizer mounted on a Ducati Sport 1000. Dennis Bratland photo, via WikiMedia Commons.

Early steering stabilizers used stacks of friction discs, but hydraulic systems are the standard today. Hydraulic stabilizers use two main construction types: linear and rotary. Linear stabilizers slide a piston through oil, similar to what you might see under an off-road truck or Jeep. Rotary stabilizers sit on top of your steering stem, and force oil through small passages inside the unit. Some stabilizers are adjustable, usually with a small knob. Still others have electronic components that vary resistance, usually in relation to speed. The faster you go, the more it ramps up the resistance. Non-adjustable stabilizers can still be “adjusted” by changing the fluid inside to a different weight. Do some research on your model before attempting this. 

A linear damper, mounted near the head tube. Dampers mounted like this typically have a shorter stroke than the frame-to-fork mounted variety. Bumper12 photo, via WikiMedia Commons.

Why would I want to use a steering stabilizer?

George's Scotts Performance unit helped him reach this view on his WR250R. George Armenante photo.

Steering stabilizers really shine in a few key scenarios. First, a well set-up stabilizer on a sport bike can tame speed wobbles or tank-slappers. It’s not uncommon for race-replica 600s and 1000s to wear them from the factory. Some race events even require them to pass tech inspection. Powerful engines, short wheelbases, and aggressive geometry mean a sport bike’s front end can encounter all kinds of influential forces. By suppressing them, your wheel is more likely to stay where it’s supposed to be. 

Another application where steering stabilizers can really shine is off-road. Though dirt bikes average much lower speeds than sport bikes, uneven terrain can forcefully twist the forks. At best, this constant twisting fatigues a rider over time. At worst, an obstacle could whip the bars out of the rider’s control. Through the magic of hydraulics, a stabilizer can bring those abrupt movements down to a reasonable level. I mounted a very mild one to my favorite B-roads bike, which often sees ruts, washouts, and potholes. After a year of riding with it, I have no plans to take it off.

But a steering stabilizer makes it harder to turn my handlebar, so doesn’t that get annoying?

With conventional oil dampers, more force applied to the fork means more resistance from the unit, so you’re unlikely to feel much of anything just turning your handlebars from lock to lock, or pushing your bike into a parking space. Get your bike moving, and that's where you'll feel a difference. As Spurgeon noted in his Tiger mods article, steering stabilizers can make low-speed, technical maneuvers a chore. Without a “true bypass,” even a stabilizer set to zero has some effect.

Spurgeon shows a Scotts Performance radial damper. Note the adjustment knobs. RevZilla photo.

I want one because they look cool. Am I putting myself at risk by adding equipment I don’t need?

Steering stabilizers are specialized equipment, designed to do one thing really well. If your motorcycle doesn't need help in the stabilization department, then you'd get better value for your money by investing elsewhere. (Why not tires? Suspension?) But as with many performance accessories, steering stabilizers are a popular choice for making motorcycles look like they mean business. Adding speed parts is fun! If you want to add an unnecessary stabilizer to a motorcycle, go for it. Just choose a model that's correct for your application, and understand that mounting something to a bike that doesn't need it may make your riding experience less enjoyable. I've got to admit, I do like the look of a linear steering damper, especially on old race bikes.

Will a steering stabilizer prevent tank-slapper/fix a weird shake my bike has/make me invincible?

No, a steering stabilizer won’t make your bike slapper-proof. But it might give you a fighting chance if you’ve pushed it too far. If your motorcycle has funky vibrations, head shake, or frequent speed wobbles, get those sorted out before attempting to hide the problem with a steering stabilizer. A damper unit is no replacement for taking proper care of head bearings, tire wear, and other front-end maintenance. And a steering stabilizer isn’t a license to ride beyond yours limits — on the street, at the track, or in the dirt — just because you have some metal and oil bolted to your forks. Instead, they’re valuable tools for the right riders, and maybe the difference between a bad situation and a good save.