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Common Tread

What is countersteering?

Sep 03, 2018

If you want to have a hot debate, you talk religion or politics.

If you want to have a hot debate among motorcyclists, you talk about oil preferences or countersteering. I think it’s a hot topic because it’s not well understood.

Countersteering as a concept is simple: to initiate a turn, turn the handlebars and point the wheel opposite of where you wanna go. If you don’t believe me, run outside to your motorcycle and try it. I had to do just that many moons ago when I first was told of this black magic. (It’s noticeable at speed. I can’t even notice it at low speeds. Apparently it still happens, it’s just not always perceptible.)

Are you back? Good. Countersteering is often hotly contested among riders because there are some very specific steps that happen in rapid succession, making countersteering a series of events, rather than an action. Countersteering is often subtle, but sometimes it's easier to spot among racers, who have to change directions as fast as possible. In the top photo, look particularly at 33 and 50 and see how they are initiating their turn left by having the front wheel turned right.

Here’s a video clip that illustrates it. It is lighting fast, but if you slow it down and play it at quarter speed, it shows that the wheel points in one direction as the bike drops in the other.

I’ll explain what’s happening as simply as I can.

Motorcycles need to lean to turn at speed. If they didn’t, centripetal force would pull the top of the bike to the outside of the turn, causing a highside. There is an optimal lean angle for every corner and speed, where the lean exactly cancels the centripetal force, the bike tracks true.

Assuming we’re riding a motorcycle and wish to move to the left, one would press the left handlebar away. The wheel, now turning to the right, adheres to the pavement. As the front wheel spins around its axis (the axle), that centripetal force pulls on the top of the motorcycle, which then begins to fall to the left. That’s the initiation of a lean. The bars turn right, the bike leans left, and the bike then goes left.

Easy peasy. Here’s a terrifying video that actually shows the concept again in action really well. There is an analysis in the video, but if you pause the video and use your comma and period buttons, you can see it frame-by-frame.

I'm sure you've had a heart attack, but setting that aside for a second, you can totally see countersteering in motion in that clip. It can be weird to your brain if you've never thought about it. (When I found out about this as a kid, I ran right out, fired up my bike, and rode around for 10 minutes before I believed it.)

Even little kids on bicycles countersteer naturally. You've probably been doing it for years. Seriously, though, go take your bike out and give it a try. It's a real kick in the head! More importantly, understanding the concept and doing it deliberately and aggressively, such as in an emergency maneuver when you have to swerve — push left, go left — can also save your hide.