COUNTERSTEERING: CORNERING SECRETS REVEALED

"All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self evident." —Arthur Schopenhauer

Before beginning the segment on countersteering and cornering, there's something else I want to make sure you're clear on. That is the concept of target fixation upon the motorcyclist. The concept will be mentioned as we discuss proper cornering technique, however it plays important rolls in accident prevention also. Remember that pothole you were headed toward last week and hit? The one that jarred your spine and made your butt hurt? I bet you were probably looking directly at it as you hit it. Why do you do this?

A motorcycle has a tendency to follow your head and eyes. It's an equilibrium thing. Now it isn't just your eyes, it's your head; it's the way you look, it's everything. If you focus on a target (fixate) you will head right to the target. So look where you want to go and you will go there every time. Conversely, you have to force youself to look away from those things you don't want to hit. ie road kill, potholles, debris in the road, etc.

In slow, tight turns, turn your head as far as you can, and look at your target. This will drive the motorcycle right to it, as long as you relax, and let the motorcycle move. At higher speeds, look as far through the turn as you can. This should seem a little uncomfortable, but with persistence, you will be much more efficient through corners, find a better line, and be more comfortable with the principle. Take some time to concentrate on applying this technique, and it will become second nature. Potholes or objects in the road? Look away as you try to avoid them by pressing on the bar in the direction you want to go. It's a miracle, and it keeps your pain level at a minimum.

The mysterious secret of how to gain control of a leaning motorcycle is called countersteering." As the name implies, initiate a turn, he must first steer in the opposite direction as might be presumed. This is needed in order to get the bike to perform the trick of leaning into the curve of the road. This is how a bike is "balanced." Although motorcycle racers are paid millions of dollars a year for their knowledge of countersteering, this same technique is also required for every street rider.

Steering left to turn left will only make the bike lean (tip over) to the right. It is impossible to steer a bike like a car. While riding around a curve, try turning into the turn and see what happens. If you enjoy excitement, you're going to love this experiment, assuming you survive, of course. Although it is possible to slowly follow most curves of the road without consciously countersteering, the ability to turn quickly will give a rider more options to work with and provide a greater margin of safety—he is in total control of his machine. Ignorance of countersteering is the root of all fear of motorcycles, and quite possibly the cause of most single-motorcycle accidents in which the motorcycle fails to negotiate a curve.

Unfortunately for millions of citizens, reverse psychology is at work here: the motorcycle rider must steer towards danger—towards the outside of a curve, or towards a vehicle blocking the road—rather than away from it. Actually, he initially steers towards the obstacle to force the bike to lean, then rapidly steers (leans) away from the hazard. Many times a rider can find himself in the middle of a decreasing radius turn and panics when he sees he is going to go off the roadway. He must conciously be aware of sountersteering so he will know to steer toward the shoulder of the road to force the bike to lean further into the turn and tighten his turning radius to match the tightening curve in the road. Obviously, an uneducated rider is not going to suddenly figure this out during his one second of panic.

The initial countersteering effort, pushing on the right handlebar grip (turning the handlebars left) will utilize centrifugal force to tip the balance of the bike over to the right. As the bike falls over to the right in its controled fall initiated by tyhe countersteering, the rider finds himself leaning to the right and executing his right hand turn. The opposite of this occurs in a left hand turn.

Keith Code, who has trained thousands of motorcycle riders and racers all over the world through his California Superbike School, and author of A Twist of the Wrist and Twist of the Wrist II—the Basics of High-Performance Motorcycle Riding, pioneered the formal teaching of the most effective riding techniques available today. His methods help his motorsports students cut an average of seven seconds off their lap times—that's the difference between last and first place. That cannot be done without proper instruction in vehicle control. Most of his techniques apply equally well to normal highway driving, and especially during emergency maneuvers. Rather than paraphrase, I'll let you "hear" an excellent explanation of countersteering from a coach of world champions. Regarding one of Code's techniques that applies to safe riding on the highway, in 1983 he wrote:

"Steering. . . happens backwards. Many riders have learned to steer a motorcycle without understanding the process. . . .

"Steering is simple enough—you push the bars in the opposite direction of the direction you wish to travel. That begins the turn, and the bike leans as it turns. Deliberately turning the bars in the opposite direction of travel is known as counter steering. . . . To go right you must turn the bars to the left (push on the right handlebar grip)—to go left, turn the bars to the right (push on the left handlebar grip). Counter steering is the only way you can direct a motorcycle to steer accurately. . . . In essence, motorcycle steering is backwards from most other forms of transportation. An automobile goes in the direction you turn the wheel, as do most other forms of transportation.

". . . . One problem we have in learning to ride stems from a cruel trick played on us by our parents. They gave us a tricycle to pedal around. A tricycle turns in the direction you steer it. When we rode a bicycle for the first time, we fell down, and everyone said it was because we didn't have good balance. Actually, it was because bicycles also counter steer.

"Balance had nothing to do with it! The confusion is caused because the child expects the bike to go right when he turns to the right. Eventually, out of sheer survival instincts, he goes through the steering motions without understanding them and winds up on a motorcycle 15 years later not knowing what he has been doing to go around turns.

". . . . Most riders, in an emergency, try to turn the bike in the direction they want to go. . . . I have known people who who have ridden for 30 years without having to face an emergency situation. Then, one day a car pulls out in front of them. They try to avoid it but the bike won't do what they want it to. So they get scared and quit riding. They realize that the control they thought was there—wasn't."

In Twist of the Wrist II, (1993) Code writes: "Practically everyone learns how to ride without any understanding of counter-steering, but the moment it is fully comprehended and applied, it opens the door to vast amounts of improvement in every possible situation that involves steering the bike."


On wet asphalt, only brake and accellerate in a straight line, and stay off the oil strip.

Knowledge of countersteering has been around for a very long time. Mr. Code was able to parlay his "secret" into an exciting and successful career. Once the engineers publically confirmed his observations, he became the first to start teaching it to the general public. The word "countersteering" is not yet defined in Webster's dictionary, or in Microsoft's spell check.

The best way for beginning riders to remember this concept is "Push right, look right, turn right. Push left, look left, turn left." Next time you're out, practice this. Practice weaving back and forth until it all comes to you instinctively. Push right , go right. Push left, go left. When you've got a feel for that, then practice the emergency avoidance manuver where you would quickly swerve around an imaginary animal or car that unexpectedly moved into your path. Practice this emergency maneuver until it becomes natural for you to push (turn) toward the danger while looking, leaning and turning away from it. It could save your life.

Note that when a rider keeps his arms stiff under braking he finds it impossible to countersteer into a corner, leading to a sudden self-made emergency. He feels as if he has entered the turn "too fast," since the bike has suddenly "forgotten" how to turn. Entering a curve while applying the brakes is (almost) never a good idea anyway, since inertia makes the bike want to "highside," while the machine needs to lean. Car drivers commonly make this mistake, since what works on a "flat" car does not work on a leaning bike. "Stiff-arming" the handlebars literally prevents the bike from steering. A rider must keep his arms relaxed at all times, even when reaching for the "panic button." The handlebars are not for support, they are for making steering inputs and for operating the levers and switches. A rider's legs are stronger than his arms, and do not adversely affect the steering when used for support. The stationary gas tank is much more stable for holding onto than the movable handlebars.

In decreasing-radius turns, bad habits are especially tricky. In decreasing-radius turns, the rider must slow down continuously while in the turn. This decelleration means that centrifugal force wants to make the bike go vertical. To compensate, the rider must countersteer to keep the bike leaned over, and perhaps to increase his lean angle. However, the bike is already leaned over the majority of its lean angle, so the handlebars and front wheel never completely point in the opposite direction. This can confuse the unwary and uneducated rider. What this sensation feels like is a "counterforce" on the handlebars, resisting the natural tendency of the bike to want to stand up under decelleration. When a rider unexpectedly comes upon a decreasing-radius curve, ignorance of countersteering can lead to a fright at the very least. A similar sensation is experienced in an off-camber turn, since the bike is also decellerating.

Decreasing Radius Turns can pose special dangers.

1. Decreasing-radius corners can get tricky for the simple reason that if you approach the corner as if it were a constant radius, you won't have anything in reserve when the corner tightens up. The trickiness is compounded when the decreasing-radius corner is also blind, as they often are.

A good rule to go by to ensure your safety margin is this: Never go into a corner at a speed without a "reserve" that allows you to correct for something unexpected mid-corner, whether it be debris in the road, negative camber or a decreasing turn radius.

The rider in the first photo is approaching this decreasing-radius corner on the outside edge of his lane, since doing so provides a better look through the oncoming corner and a better angle of attack should it tighten up. Regardless of the corner, make sure you don't get in too hot.

2. We always say to look through the turn and down the road, and this case is no exception. If you're on an unfamiliar road, then looking well through the corner will alert you to the decreasing radius before it's too late to react. Avoid using an early apex since you'll then be drifting to the outside of the pavement just as the radius starts to decrease. Not an ideal situation. Release the brakes before you turn the motorcycle, then crack the throttle to unload the front end as soon as possible. You'd be amazed at what a difference early throttle application makes in the willingness of the bike to arc through the corner. In this photo, the rider is off the brakes and starting his throttle input, even though he is only a third of the way through the corner.

3. The rear brake can be used to slow the bike slightly and tighten the cornering radius of the motorcycle, but first get used to the sensitivity of the rear brake so as not to lock it up. Don't slam the throttle shut in the middle of a corner as overloading the front end could cause it to wash out. As the corner tightens, simply dial in more lean angle, which shouldn't be a problem since you left some in reserve, right?

4. A large number of crashes occur when riders panic and stand the bike up, when in fact a corner can usually be taken much quicker than most people think. At the late apex of a decreasing-radius corner, you'll be nearing the inside edge of your lane, so let the bike drift out naturally to the middle of your lane and drive it out of the corner, making sure to stay well clear of the center line of the road.

On a road you don't know, it's important to ride with reserve. If you enter a corner at full lean angle and then suddenly realize it's beginning to tighten up, it'll be too late to correct. Get into each corner knowing that no matter how tight it gets, you'll be able to compensate accordingly. And make it to the next corner to do it all again. SR

Avoiding Ostacles in a Turn and Braking in a Turn

1. We always stress that the street is not a racetrack and you should hold a little in reserve while riding. Nowhere is this more important than when entering a blind turn. Good street riding practice recommends that you scan three to five seconds ahead while riding. Cornering, however, reduces your scanning distance. Rounding blind corners such as those with bushes or rock faces obscuring your view, reduces it dramatically. Although these situations are best handled by lowering your entry speed, entering a corner with a plan can help you overcome surprises that may lurk ahead. Most experienced riders have stories of strange things they have encountered in the middle of the road. It's probably only a matter of time until the same happens to you.

2. When you encounter an obstacle midcorner, you have little time to react. Immediately determine on which side of the object you plan to pass. Then, to prevent target fixation, focus your attention on your desired path of travel. If the obstruction is dirt or gravel, selecting a car's outside tire track will usually provide the cleanest line through the corner. Often your avoidance maneuver will require only a slight change of line either inside or outside of the obstacle. However, if your speed is high enough that adjusting your line in this manner will send you into the oncoming lane or off the road, you will need to brake, too. Since traction for braking is limited while cornering, you need to stand the bike up prior to applying the brakes.

3. To achieve maximum application of the brakes while swerving, steering inputs must be separated from braking or you risk losing traction. The swerving and braking maneuver happens so quickly that, while the bike may be upright when you apply the brakes, your body will still be off the center of the bike. Don't worry. Let the bike move underneath you. Don't grab the brakes; apply the brakes firmly while recognizing your bike is probably not completely upright and traction will still be limited. If your front brake locks and starts to skid, immediately release then reapply the brake. Keep your eyes focused on your intended path of travel. Looking at an obstacle or off the road will only help you become intimately acquainted with them.

4. As soon as you have slowed your bike enough to complete the turn, release the brakes and direct the bike back toward your original path of travel. Since this maneuver takes less than a second from beginning to end, practice is essential. Find a lightly traveled road with a right hand turn (to give yourself some runoff if you make a mistake) with good visibility throughout the entire turn. Using chalk or tape, mark the section of the road you want to swerve around. Starting at low speeds, swerve around an imaginary object while cornering. Once you are comfortable, gradually increase your speed until you reach the point where you need to insert braking into the swerve. You'll be glad you took the time should you ever encounter a child's stuffed animal in the middle of your line.

Leaning and Ground clearance

As your bike leans, either left or right, it is very important to know what parts of your bike will first come into contact with the roadway. Pegs and floorboards that spring upward may be forgiving when they come into contact with the roadway on a tight corner while highway bars and tailpipes can lift the rubber off the road and cause a crash. If you're lucky, you'll have given yourself enough tolerance in the curve (as you always should) to bring the bike more upright as soon as you sense it is dragging. If you are moving fast in a tight turn, or if there is oncoming traffic, you may not have that option. All you can do is hope you don't slide into that oncoming traffic while negotiating a right turn, or go off the road if you scrape in a left hand turn.

Roadways will not always be level, and they are seldom only two-demensional, so knowing exactly when critical parts of your bike will come into contact with the ground while leaning in a turn is not as simple as it sounds.

Return to Home Page

Chapter 1. Let's Look at Some Data

Chapter 2. Risk Management

Chapter 3. Two Wheeled Physics

Chapter 4. Countersteering: Cornering Techniques

Chapter 5. Gravity Is a Good Thing

Chapter 6. Gyroscopic Precession: Nature's Power Steering

Chapter 7. Braking: Weight Transfer and Maximum Performance

Chapter 8. Controlling Slides and Tank Slappers: Mind Over Matter

Chapter 9. Group Riding

Chapter 10. Riding Etiquette

Chapter 11. MSF Courses- Editorial