What Is Countersteering?
In a nutshell, countersteering is the physics of how you turn your motorcycle. It took me longer to understand countersteering than most. For some reason, the physics seemed so wrong in my engineering mind.
If you’ve taken a hands-on training course or read a motorcycle skills book, you’ve heard the phrase “push right to go right” and “push left to go left.” This is countersteering. See Figure 1 (below).
Figure 1 Countersteering
(Push on Left Handlebar to Lean Left)
You’ve probably noticed that countersteering is counterintuitive and backward. Pushing on the left handlebar is the same as turning (steering) the handlebar to the right. That’s right, to initiate a turn, you actually turn the handlebar in the opposite direction you want to go.
Let me say this again because I know it’s hard to believe.
When you want to lean your motorcycle to the left (and turn left), you actually turn the handlebar to the right (which is the same input as pushing on the left handlebar).
This is true whether you realize it or not.
Isn’t that amazing?
The motorcycle instructor gods of the past got it right when they crafted the slogan “push left to go left.” They could have just as easily said, “turn right to go left,” which is painfully confusing but equally correct.
During my first MSF class, the instructor spent a great deal of time trying to get us to understand countersteering (with our head) and feel countersteering (with our body).
To do this, he placed cones in a curve.
Then he had us ride around the curve faster and faster to force us to use countersteering to make the motorcycle turn in a tighter circle. The only way we could make the turn riding that fast was to push on the inside handlebar with purpose.
Over and over, the instructor called out, “Go faster. Make the bike lean more by pushing on the inside handlebar.”
Countersteering didn’t feel natural to me that day. My head didn’t understand countersteering, and my body never made the connection. It wasn’t until months later that countersteering made sense.
Why do you need to understand countersteering with your head if you are using it already? You need to understand countersteering with your head so you can make your motorcycle go where you want it to go. In his book Riding in the Zone, Ken Condon said: “Countersteering will save your life.”
Countersteering is how you do normal turns. Countersteering is how you dodge an object in the road. Countersteering is what you use to make delicate adjustments in a sweeping curve. It’s also how you tighten a turn when you’re running wide in a curve on a mountain pass, where death is a few feet away.
Countersteering is powerful, but it doesn’t require much input. An 80-pound woman can make an 800-pound Goldwing lean instantly.
Push on your right handlebar gently to make your motorcycle lean (turn) to the right. Push on your left handlebar gently to make it lean (turn) to the left. If you need to tighten your turn radius, simply push a little more on the inside handlebar, and your bike will lean more.
Feeling Countersteering for Yourself
Once you grasp countersteering with your head, it’s time to feel it.
In a vacant parking lot, come up to about 20 mph and take your left hand off the handlebar. Next, use only your throttle hand to make the motorcycle turn. Notice how it leans to the right when you push on the handlebar with your right hand, and leans to the left when you pull back on the right handlebar?
Feel it? You’re turning the handlebar in the opposite direction.
Hence, the term COUNTERsteering.
Feedback About Countersteering
Some of the most heartfelt positive feedback I’ve received from readers of Motorcycle Smarts centers around the topic of countersteering.
What readers have said is true. Once you understand it, practice using it, and test it for yourself, countersteering magically “clicks” and makes sense.
From that point forward, you can use it in a pinch.
It wasn’t until I made the connection of how countersteering works that I felt confident riding and confident that I could make my motorcycle go where I wanted it to go. I’ll unpack how to use it when you’re going wide in a turn in one of the articles below.
Don’t stop until you make the mental connection. Don’t stop until it becomes a part of your muscle memory. Only then will you be able to use it to make your motorcycle go where you want it to go during the stress of an emergency.
* This article is an excerpt from my book Motorcycle Hacks.