Clearing up confusion over how a motorcycle turns
A WHILE BACK I had a private trackday student. We’ll call him Earl.
Earl said that he was having a hard time getting close to the apexes and sometimes found himself running wide at the exits. He wondered whether his body position was to blame. It took a total of one lap to see that his real problem was with sluggish countersteering inputs. Back in the garage, Earl admitted that he’d heard of countersteering but wasn’t sure exactly how it worked.
You’ve surely heard about countersteering too, but the basics are worth revisiting: Getting a bike leaned requires overcoming the powerful forces keeping the bike upright at speed—including inertia and the gyroscopic forces of spinning wheels. And that’s where countersteering comes in.
Countersteering is used to initiate the lean you need to begin turning. To turn right, lean right by pressing forward (and a bit downward) on the right handlebar. Press on the left handlebar to lean left. What you’re doing is “steering ” the front tire out from under the motorcycle. This “out tracking” of the front contact patch un-balances the bike so that it falls into a lean. Imagine kicking the feet out from under someone; their feet go right, but their body falls to the left. There are other forces at play on a motorcycle, including gyroscopic precession and centripetal force, but this basic explanation is sufficient.
So what about body lean? Like many riders, Earl had the impression that moving his body inside the turn gets the bike leaned, which is why he assumed his body position was to blame. It’s important to realize that body position can assist in the leaning process, but that positioning alone is not nearly strong enough to get the bike to lean quickly— especially when riding fast.
Back on track, Earl consciously added more handlebar force, and by the end of the session he was turning with much more authority and accuracy. He is now able to get the bike heeled over rapidly on command, clip the apex, and is better positioned at the exits to allow earlier acceleration.
No matter if you’re an aspiring roadracer or a regular street rider, countersteering is the primary method for initiating a change of direction. Riders can gain confidence when they fully grasp the concept and countersteer with more awareness. Practice pressing the handlebars with the right amount of force and duration to cause the bike to arc into turns—without the need for further midcorner corrections. As Earl so thoughtfully demonstrated, without this ability riders are at a greater risk of running wide in corners and when needing to turn in quickly.
Thankfully, you don’t have to get hung up on the physics; you’ve been countersteering since the day you learned to ride a bicycle. For those who want to dive into the details though, I’d suggest Tony Foale’s book Motorcycle Handling and Chassis Design to explore the deepest, darkest secrets of countersteering.