Staying ahead of the curve
Counter-steering. Many motorcyclists already understand this vital skill; this is for those yet to fully discover its benefits.
A few years ago a young woman lived next door to me. She was a recently qualified rider with a little Yamaha 125 that she’d park out front. One day I noticed the bike had some crash damage down the right hand side. I asked what had happened. She told me she’d run wide on a right-hand bend, caught the kerb and the bike had gone down; she then revealed this was actually the second time she’d had this type of accident. Even though she’d not been going exceptionally fast she’d been unable to make the bike turn enough to negotiate the corner. Questioning her further it became apparent that she had no real conception of how a motorcycle actually steered, nor the fundamental techniques involved in making it turn.
Now I’m certainly not criticising her for this. She’d fulfilled the legally required motorcycle training programme here in the UK and passed her test. But it seems that at no point during all this government-sanctioned training had anyone ever instructed her in the principles of motorcycle counter-steering. And to me, that is an extraordinary shortcoming in preparing new riders to venture out safely.
So, apologies if you've heard this all before, but I'm posting this for riders like my neighbour.
Ambition exceeding talent
Failure to negotiate a corner is a routine cause of motorcycle accidents and one of the most common where no other vehicle is involved.
In a typical year around 9% of motorcycle accidents are attributed to ‘going ahead on a bend’. Within these figures 'inexperience' and 'riding beyond ability' are identified as common factors (ROSPA data).
Yes, diesel spills, potholes or loose gravel may be factors, but more often such crashes are due to a panic reaction when entering a curve too fast or encountering a corner that tightens up unexpectedly. In those situations it’s vital to understand how to consciously make the bike turn and for that you need to have honed your skills with counter-steering. Many such crashes could be avoided by greater rider control.
How a motorcycle doesn't turn
Far too often I encounter the opinion that steering a motorcycle involves a combination of body position and weight transfer. We need to be absolutely clear about this: that simply is not true. Those factors come into play in other ways, but if you approach riding a motorcycle with the belief that body position or weight transfer are key factors in turning a bike then you are most likely heading for trouble at some point.
Perhaps this derives from observing motorcyclists whilst riding, and particularly those on a racetrack, where it can appear that it’s all about body movement and position on the bike. Yet the most influential input, the single most important action that is actually determining the bike’s lean angle and rate of turn, is initiated with the application of a gentle push of the handlebar, imperceptible to the outside observer.
Once that turning action has been initiated then shifting body weight to the inside of the curve (hanging off) can help to keep the centre of gravity low, and the bike more upright, thus using more of the tyres’ contact patch to maintain grip. But none of that is instrumental in actually making the bike lean and turn.
So what is counter-steering?
Motorcycle counter-steering technique can be stated very simply: to make the bike turn (lean) you initially point the front wheel in the opposite direction to the curve. So, to turn to the left you should initially turn the front wheel slightly to the right with gentle pressure on the handlebars; to turn right you push the bars to the left. That’s it, in a nutshell. You initiate and control rate of turn by pointing the front wheel in the opposite direction to the way you want to go. Sounds counter-intuitive? It is, but trust me, that’s how it works.
This shouldn’t be an excessive shove of the bars – the actual amount of front wheel deflection required is comparatively small – but rather a smooth, modulated, progressive action as you enter the curve, remaining sensitive the whole time to the effect that it’s having upon the rate of lean and turn.
As the bike tips into the curve you gradually ease off the handlebar pressure, allowing the wheels to come back into line as you approach the corner’s apex, finally pulling the bike back upright as you feed in the throttle and exit the curve.
Trouble is, explaining it only gets you so far. The only way to truly understand it is to gain experience with how it actually feels when you’re riding and, most importantly, to have that knowledge instantly available to you as an instinctive response.
How to improve your skills
I’ve found that easily the best place to learn, develop and practice counter-steering technique is on a racetrack. But short of booking a trackday I’d suggest that a quiet roundabout, the larger the better, provides a useful training opportunity. By simply doing circuits of a roundabout you can begin to play around with how inputs to the bars influence the way the bike steers and leans at differing speeds. Once you’ve really got on top of this technique you discover how accurately you can control your line through the corner, as well as road positioning, simply by gently modulating the input.
As you become more aware of this effect apply it more consciously through every bend you encounter. Gradually build upon this ‘body learning’ so that it moves beyond a conscious technique and becomes a natural reflex action. Then you’ll be able to react instinctively should a corner ever begin to catch you out. If you think you’re about to go wide, start pushing the inside bar to feed in more lean. Most bikes can lean a lot further than riders tend to think they can. (Though low-slung cruisers will start decking everything out at even moderate lean angles, so there are limits …).
If you can ride a motorcycle then to some extent you already know how to do this, even if it’s unconscious, because this is the only mechanism that will make a bike turn. The key thing is to develop your ability to do it consciously and instinctively. And, speaking from my own experience, I can assure you that the rewards you’ll reap from fully mastering this technique are immense and will dramatically improve your control, confidence and safety, and quite likely make you a faster, smoother rider too.
One more thing
Of course the other golden principle to remember is ‘Look where you want to go’. That’s also vital to avoid the kind of stress-induced target fixation that can get you into trouble if you enter a corner too hot; it’s all too easy to start focusing on what’s straight ahead of you, and if you do then that's where you'll go. Shift your vision and look into the bend, and that too will help to get you through it.
So what are the physics of counter-steering?
I was afraid you might ask that. Well, it appears that it’s very complicated. In fact, it’s so complicated that I’m not even going to get into it here because a) I don’t fully understand it myself and b) I don’t think that information actually helps in any way when it comes to developing or deploying the skill. If you really want to understand the physics then Google it, but be prepared for a deep dive into some complex science.
[On-bike images are my own]