By David L. Hough
Biker Bob just got back into motorcycling, and his new bike seems to have a mind of its own. His new heavyweight machine doesn't respond the same way his 250cc scrambler did 20 years ago. His scrambler would lean just by throwing his weight toward a turn. Today he's on his way home from a ride, approaching the narrow side street where he'll be turning off from the wide boulevard. Bob signals, rolls off the throttle, and leans the bike into a right-angle turn. But the bike doesn't seem to want to turn as tightly as Bob wants it to.
He tries leaning it a little farther by leaning his shoulders toward the right and nudging his left knee against the tank, but the front wheel continues to roll wide, across the centerline. Fortunately, the driver of a car coming up the street sees the bike, and brakes to avoid a collision. It's embarrassing not being able to control the bike as accurately as he'd like. Bob is not alone. Lots of motorcyclists haven't figured out how to steer a bike accurately, especially a big bike at slower speeds.
The action is down at the front tire contact patch
It's very important to understand that accurate two-wheeler steering is a matter of pushing on the handlebar grips, not just leaning weight in the saddle. Obviously, a bike needs to lean toward the curve in order to turn. And you can make it lean just by shifting your weight in the saddle, or nudging the tank with your knees. But the easiest and most accurate way to control lean is by momentarily steering the front wheel opposite the way you want to go. The out-tracking of the front tire forces the bike to lean. To turn left, press on the left grip. To lean and turn right, momentarily press on the right grip. It's called "countersteering".
That momentary push on the grips is just the first part of a process of balancing and steering a motorcycle. That initial input is called "countersteering" because you momentarily steer the front wheel opposite, or "counter" to the direction you want to go. But as the bike leans over to the angle you need to make the corner, you allow the front wheel to recenter, and even steer slightly toward the curve. Leaned over, front tire traction forces the bike to turn. The bike is held at the same lean angle by gravity being balanced against centrifugal force.
Pressing the grips right causes the front wheel to track left, and tire traction forces the motorcycle to lean toward the right.
This process repeats over and over again as a rider makes adjustments to balance and direction. Front end geometry also contributes to balance--the front wheel keeps trying to recenter itself with the bike vertical. But even in a "straight" line, the front wheel weaves slightly from side to side as the bike's geometry and the rider's steering input work together to control balance and direction.
Countersteering is just the first part of the cornering process. As the bike rolls over to the angle of lean you think is about right for the corner, you allow the front wheel to recenter. The front tire pushing the bike toward the turn generates "centrifugal force". The bike is kept from falling over by centrifugal force balanced against gravity.
In a turn, you can control the direction of the bike by small adjustments to steering. To turn a little tighter, push the grips a little more toward the curve. That's what Bob needed to do to avoid crossing the centerline and staying within his lane. Press right to lean right. And what Bob needed to avoid those parked cars on his right is to lean a little more left. Press left to lean left.
It might seem easy enough to countersteer, but sometimes a rider's brain subconsciously confuses the issue, signaling the left and right hands to do different things. It's not uncommon for a rider to be pushing on one grip to lean the bike, and subconsciously resisting that push with the other hand. If it sometimes seems that your bike just doesn't want to lean even when you are pressing hard toward the direction of turn, it's a hint you need to get your hands coordinated.
In simple terms, pressing on the right grip causes the bike to lean (and turn) right.
Lee Parks, author of the book Total Control, suggests steering with one hand. That is, in a right turn, do the countersteering with your right hand. In a left turn, steer with your left hand. What's important is to make a point of relaxing the other arm, to ensure that you aren't subconsciously strong-arming the opposite grip and resisting your "steering" hand. For instance, when turning left, steer with your left hand, and relax your right arm. In a right turn, relax your left arm. If you're having trouble only with left-hand turns, it may be because you're strong-arming the right grip as you manage the throttle. Try flapping your elbow a bit to help relax the "non-steering" arm.
Or, you might try concentrating on moving both grips toward the direction of turn. That is, leaning into a right turn, consciously press both grips toward the right. You might actually be pushing on the right grip and pulling on the left grip, but you can imagine that it's moving the grips toward the curve that pushes the bike over. Press both grips toward the right to lean right. Press both grips left to lean left. It's OK to lean body weight toward the curve while holding onto both grips. Leaning pulls both grips toward the curve, which is actually countersteering, but focusing on leaning can smooth out the steering input.
Or, try moving both grips toward the turn. You might actually be pushing on the right grip and pulling on the left grip, but you can imagine that it's moving the grips toward the curve that pushes the bike over. Its OK to lean your body toward the curve.
It's not just countersteering
While countersteering is the basic technique for accurate steering control, there are some other considerations when cornering, including your cornering line, where you're placing your weight on the bike, and what you're doing with the brakes and throttle.
...continue on to Part 2
David Hough is a long-time motorcyclist and journalist. His work has appeared in numerous motorcycle publications, but he is best known for the monthly skills series " Proficient Motorcycling " in Motorcycle Consumer News, which has been honored by special awards from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Selected columns were edited into two books Proficient Motorcycling and More Proficient Motorcycling , both published by Bowtie Press. He is also the author of Driving A Sidecar Outfit and a pocket riding skills handbook,Street Strategies .