Steering, and the Great Counter-Steering Debate

Suzuki Burgman So, what’s all this we keep hearing about counter-steering?

It’s a buzz phrase we tend to hear often among the scooter and motorcycle community. Some riders spend their entire life riding – and have never heard of it. Some espouse the merits of active attention to it, and some claim it’s a myth!

Well, it turns out that the whole theory of what it takes us to turn on two wheels can get very complicated.

Fortunately, you really don’t have to know much of it. Just some very simple theory will help to get to grips with the subject.

First, let me get this out of the way: Counter-steering is not a myth. If you’re turning at anything over, say, 10 MPH, you already are counter-steering whether you know it or not.

This then begs the question: “Well, if I’m doing it anyway, do I really need to pay any attention to the subject?”

My answer would be: “Yes, some”.

Let’s get into some very basic theory:

Have you ever wondered why the profile of your scooter tyres are round, and not square like a car’s?

Well, it’s how we turn.

The Cone Effect

a cone lying on its side Take at look at this cone. What would happen if we were to push that cone?

Clearly, it would spin to the left, and describe a circle.

This is called the Cone Effect.

Now, look at this diagram showing how our tyres act like a cone when the machine is leaning over:

a tyre at a 45 degree angle The actual physics behind this is quite complex, but, for our purposes, it is sufficient to know that the cone effect is what causes our scooters to turn when leant over.

A scooter leaning in a turn While we are in the turn, we don’t fall over because the force of gravity – which is pulling us downwards, is counteracted by the centrifugal force generated by the turn itself – which is pushing us outwards.

You are actually simulating an inverted pendulum, with the fulcrum being the tyre. The two forces (gravity and centrifugal force) are balanced and maintained throughout the curve.

It will be seen that if you were to increase speed, the centrifugal force would increase, and have the effect of standing the scooter up.

If you were to decrease speed, then the centrifugal force would decrease and allow the gravity to pull you towards the ground.

Because of this effect, when in a curve, one can largely “steer” by the throttle. If I find that the curve is tightening, I can ease off the throttle a little, and the scooter will lean more. If the curve is straightening out, then gently increasing the throttle will widen the curve you are taking.

So, having established that we need to lean our scooter in one direction or another to turn – and the mechanics involved with it, how is that lean effected?

Well, that is where counter-steering comes in.

If you ever want some brief notoriety, try this statement on your friends:

“When you want to turn left on a scooter or motorcycle, you turn the handlebars right.” That statement is usually met with sufficiently bemused looks.

It is, of course, a dramatic over-simplification, yet, in essence, it is correct.

A scooter leaning left, and showing the centre of gravity Take a look at this diagram.

Where are the wheels in relation to our centre of gravity? They are to the right of it.

Of course, this makes sense because, as we have just covered, a scooter turns left by leaning left.

How do we lean left (think of it in terms of getting the wheels to the right of the centre of gravity)? We momentarily steer right.

It makes sense when we think of it that way, no?

Now, all this dry theory is fine and dandy, but does it have a use (aside from the brief notoriety mentioned above)?

Well, yes, it does. It does because, knowing this, it gives us a sure-fire way to make a quick turn should we need to in an emergency situation.

“Push Left – Turn Left. Push Right – Turn Right”

Try this: the next time you are out riding, ride in a straight line, and gently apply some forward pressure on the left-hand side of your handlebars. You will find that the scooter will lean to the left – and therefore start to turn left.

Forward pressure on the right-hand side of the bars will cause the scooter to lean right – and begin to turn right.

You are, of course, automatically doing this anyway, but begin to pay attention to it. Knowing this – and becoming aware of it – enables you to quickly change direction when needed.

And what are you doing when you straighten up from a curve? You’re also counter-steering.

When in a Left turn, applying gentle forward pressure to the right side of the handle bar will cause the bike to sit up again.

The other advantage to this is that it is free “power steering”. No longer do you have to feel that you are at the mercy of a heavy machine, because it’s not you hauling the thing over in a bend, and hauling it straight again. Your gentle application of counter-steering is what’s doing it. The machine’s weight is really not an issue.

So, that covers steering, and more exactly, the whole, contentious subject of counter-steering. Enjoy your command of the machine!

Until next time, Scoot Safely!

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