Riding Skills Series: The Art of Countersteering

Working with your subconscious

To practice countersteering, find a quiet, straight stretch of road and push on one handlebar. Once you get more accustomed to the affects of the “push left go left” technique you can use the skill consciously in real-life situations.

In order to change direction or initiate a turn on a motorcycle, the rider must provide certain inputs to the bike. These inputs can come from a number of methods, but the most common of those is countersteering. And while countersteering may seem like a complex concept, it is really a basic skill; so basic, in fact, that it is usually done subconsciously.

In simple terms, countersteering is the method of initiating a turn by a small, momentary turn of the front wheelusually via the handlebarsin the opposite direction. In all cases, it is used to change the lean angle of the bike, either from side to side or from straight up to full lean in one direction.

Most riders are introduced to the concept in the basic MSF course, which teaches students to push left, go left. By pushing the left handlebar, you will cause the bike to momentarily arc slightly to the rightthe movement may even be tiny enough to be virtually unnoticeablebut nonetheless the initial turn of the bike is to the right. Centrifugal force from this turn, however, will force the bike to tip over and lean to the leftinitiating a left-hand turn.

The reason MSF courses include countersteering into their basic course curriculum is because it is the most direct connection between your input and turning. In many instances, the skill can not only make you a better rider, but a safer one as wellthe MSF’s intention exactly.

Countersteering can also be used as you exit the corner since it helps get the bike back to an upright position quicker.

Truth is, you can ride thousands of miles without thinking about how you are turning your motorcycle. Instead, you subconsciously make inputs on the handlebars that help you change direction. Those inputs can be so small and intuitive at lower speeds that you may not even realize you are countersteering to keep the bike balanced. However, consciously applying countersteering to everyday riding can be an advantage as it comes in handy on the street, on the racetrack and in emergencies where, for instance, an obstacle is in your way and you need to abruptly maneuver around it. As with everything, practice is the best way to become more comfortable with the technique.

To get a feel for the physics of it, try this experiment at home: Hold a bicycle wheel by the axle, and have a friend give it a good spin so that the top of the wheel is going away from you. Keeping a firm grip, turn the wheel sharply to the left, as if it were the front wheel of a motorcycle. What happens? The wheel twists in your arms, with the top of the wheel going to the right, the bottom to the left. If the wheel were attached to a motorcycle, it would force the bike to lean to the right. Experiment with different forces and wheel speeds and you will find the following: The faster the wheel is spinning, the harder it is to turn to the side and the reacting twist of the wheel depends more on how fast you turn it rather than how far.

In some instances, racers have been known to move, bend or break clip-ons from pushing with so much force as they attempt to change direction.

The best way to practice countersteering is to find a quiet, open stretch of road and begin to test the concept. You need to be going at least 20 mph for countersteering to work effectively, but you do not need to be traveling at a high rate of speed to feel the effects. Start off at a medium, comfortable pace and leave yourself plenty of room to either side of the road. As you continue down the road at a steady speed, lightly push one handlebar forward, and as you do, pay attention to what direction the bike goes. As you get more comfortable with the sensation, try pushing with the other handlebar and with different amounts of force. Becoming more and more conscious of how the bike reacts to your inputs will allow you to use countersteering more successfully.

If pushing the bar gives you an unnerving sensation, you can also try pulling one handlebar. Doing so will have the same effect as pushing the opposite bar and will have you leaning in the desired direction. Experiment with various speeds and levels of force until you are comfortable with how your bike reacts when you push or pull on the handlebar.

On the street, consciously using countersteering will allow you to turn and make lane changes quicker without having to use every muscle in your body, as body steering might. Also, using countersteering on the street will allow you to avoid road hazards at a moment’s notice. In these instances, you will need to first push on one bar, then on the other to effectively swerve around the obstacle. This technique is also one that should be practiced so that it can be applied safely. Just as they teach in the MSF courses, you can practice by setting up a row of cones in an open parking lot and pushing on the handlebars accordingly to effectively swerve around the cones.

Countersteering techniques can help speed up corner entry on both street and track applications. In some instances, you can actually see the front tire turned in the opposite direction of the turn.

On the racetrack, consciously using countersteering allows you to change direction (for instance in S-turns) faster and will allow for quicker corner entry. It is important to remember that at higher speeds, more force is needed to effectively countersteer a motorcycle and so at racetrack speeds, you may need to apply more force to the handlebars to initiate a turn. At a professional level, racers have been known to use so much force when countersteering that there have often been cases of riders moving, bending or even breaking clip-ons.

Countersteering does not have to be used primarily for corner entry though; it can be subtly and lightly applied in the middle and exit of a corner as well. In the middle of a corner, for instance, slightly pushing on the inside bar will allow you to make small corrections that will enable you to better hold your line. And by pushing on the outside bar as you exit a corner, you will be able to stand the bike up quicker, a move that will allow you to roll on the throttle sooner.

Used consciously, countersteering can be very advantageous on both the street and track. With practice, you will continue to find uses that will help you ride quicker on the track, and safer on the street. SR

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