How Do Motorcycles Turn?

Teaching motorcycle safety classes, I’ve come across many people who think they understand how a motorcycle turns and are completely wrong.

Some people think that it’s about throwing or shifting one’s body weight into the corner to lean the motorcycle over. In fact, pressing forward on the handgrip in the direction you are turning — in other words, pressing in a way that causes your tire to begin to turn away from direction you want to go — triggers a complex mess o’ physics that’s way over my head because I copied Joe Smith’s answers in my high school Physics class.

The act of turning the tire away from the turn is known as countersteering. I suspect those people who argue that they lean with their body end up putting pressure on the inside handgrip and countersteering without realizing that it happens.

That was certainly the case with me. I’ve ridden from a very young age and was a reasonably competent rider. I didn’t have any problem leaning into a turn and holding my line. But I had a number of close calls where, at very low speeds, I needed to avoid clipping a vehicle or some other object and found myself squirming and moving my butt to the side. I’d squeak past, but just barely. And I couldn’t understand why I didn’t have better directional control in those situations.

It was only after I’d become an instructor — my first exposure to formal riding education — that I understood that in those panicked moments I was trying to turn my front tire away from the obstacle and that countersteering was sending me closer to it. What came naturally in a long, sweeping curve went out the window when I was thinking desperately about it.

This YouTube video does a fantastic job of showing how countersteering works and explains it in a way that even Mr. Cantwell’s worst “C” student can understand.

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