Myths Debunked: You CANNOT Lean without Countersteering

Myths Debunked: You CANNOT Lean without Countersteering

Glancing at the photo above, you might think that I am turning right (seen from the rider’s view). Actually, I am beginning a left turn. What you see is countersteering – literally the only way we can lean a bike into a corner.

This post is part of our ‘Myths in Cycling’ series to celebrate Bicycle Quarterly’s 15th anniversary. In these posts, we examine things we used to believe, but which we’ve since found not to be true.

Countersteering is how a bike leans: You move the wheels to the outside of the corner, so the bike becomes unbalanced and leans into the turn. The video above illustrates this as I take BQ’s most recent test bike, the Surly Midnight Special, through an S-bend.

At first, you see the bike leaning to the right (seen from the rider’s perspective) as I finish the right turn. Then I quickly have to lean the bike to the left. To do this, I first steer further to the right. This pulls the bike upright again. I continue to steer to the right, and now the bike begins to lean to the left. Only when the bike is leaning at the desired angle do I turn the handlebars to the left to steer the bike around the turn.

The section in the middle, where the bars are turned right while the bike already starting to lean left impressively illustrates how countersteering shifts the bike’s balance. On most bikes, this happens intuitively – I never thought about steering to the outside of the curve while riding the Surly around those bends. Countersteering is intuitive, because we do it when we walk and run, too. Only when a bike’s geometry is too stable, then we have to actively countersteer to get the bike to turn.

Can’t we simply shift our body weight to one side and make the bike lean and turn? It’s not that simple, because inertia keeps the bike balanced (2): If you move your body right, the bike will move left: Your center of gravity remains centered above the wheels.

That is why you can rock the bike when you climb out of the saddle, yet continue to ride in a straight line.

However, if you continue to lean the bike to the left, the bike’s front-end geometry turns the handlebars to the left. The wheels move to that side, and you get the same countersteering that makes the bike lean right. That is how riding no-hands works: You lean right, the front wheel automatically countersteers, and then the bike leans right and you turn.

Similarly, ‘steering from your hips’ can turn the handlebars to initiate that countersteering move. However, I suspect that even riders who ‘steer from the hips’ actually turn the bars to countersteer – otherwise, the bike would react very slowly, as it does when riding no-hands.

In BQ 34, we examined these factors in detail. Back then, Jim Papadopoulos and others had just revolutionized our understanding of bicycle geometry: They showed that even a bike without trail and without gyroscopic forces can be stable. We worked with Jim to translate these findings into a clear understanding of how a bike balances and corners. The article provides fascinating insights that have made me appreciate bicycles all the more.

Conclusion: Whether we realize it or not, we are always countersteering when we lean our bikes into a turn.

Update 11/17/2020: We’ve just published our new book ‘The All-Road Bike Revolution’ with all the research that has changed cycling in recent years. Find out why wide tires can be fast, how to find a frame that optimizes your power output, and how to get a bike that handles like an extension of your body. More information is here.

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Comments (29)

  • George T Rosselle

    When my son was six years old he had been riding a bike for several years. We were visiting his grandparents, who owned a three wheel bicycle, two in the back and one in the front. He and I went for a ride through the neighborhood, he was having fun on the three wheeler. I was following him as he approached a hard left turn, and watched as he shot off the road to the right into the neighbors bush. Obviously he countersteered as he did on his two wheel bike, but that does not work on a three wheeler!

    August 13, 2018 at 6:47 am
    • scott g.

      Upright racing trikes aka Barrows, are an excellent way to find out how
      you personally have been counter steering without knowing it.
      A trike is backwards from a two wheeler, lean away from the turn,
      steer into it. First time on a trike you will go straight into a wall.
      Jan, years ago rode a Longstaff trike at the Cirque de Cyclisme, he had it up on two
      wheels in no time.

      August 13, 2018 at 11:46 am
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        Yes, the trike was easier to ride on two wheels than on three!

        August 13, 2018 at 12:23 pm
      • Steve Palincsar

        “Firstt time on a trike you will go straight into a wall” — funny you should say that, that’s exactly what happened to me the one (and only) time I ever was on an English racing trike. It was at GEAR, and the trike was for sale. We were in the exhibit hall in a college gym, and I tried riding it down a corridor. Came towards a T at the end of the corridor and I simply could not make the trike turn. I ended up bumping right into the far wall.

        August 13, 2018 at 1:19 pm
  • John Collier

    Thank you! You have no idea how many people don’t believe in counter steering. It’s a real light bulb moment in my classes.

    August 13, 2018 at 7:17 am
  • Jay Guerin

    I learned about counter steering many years ago on my motorcycle. Counter steering was more important on that then on bikes….I think because of the weight.

    August 13, 2018 at 7:25 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Yes, ‘active’ countersteering is rarely needed on a bicycle. For me, the exception have been some mid-trail bikes with wide tires, where really fast curves with decreasing radii required consciously pushing the bars toward the outside of the curve to overcome the ‘riding as if on rails’ feel and get the bike to lean further into the corner.

      August 13, 2018 at 7:29 am
  • Phil Brown

    This is a constant discussion in motorcycling. I once saw an SAE paper that demonstrated countersteering by using conical sections. The geometry bicycles and the very small forces involved make it hard to demonstrate in real life. On a motorcycle it’s easier because of the forces involved. You have to turn the bars with some force. You can, however, demonstrate it on a bicycle. Find a large empty parking lot. Ride in a straight line and very gently turn the bars, and I mean barely move them. The bike will describe an arc in the direction opposite to the direction you moved the bars.

    August 13, 2018 at 8:26 am
    • Bob

      You really don’t need much force. It can be done with one finger in a very demonstrable and stable manner. At speed, you might need to push a tad more, but ‘some force’ will only destabilise your line on a Motorcycle.

      August 13, 2018 at 9:39 am
    • Joe

      “Find a large empty parking lot. Ride in a straight line and very gently turn the bars, and I mean barely move them. The bike will describe an arc in the direction opposite to the direction you moved the bars.”
      That initiates the turn, right? At some point you need to turn the bars in the direction you are turning or you’ll fall over.

      August 13, 2018 at 11:19 am
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        In the video, you see how I first countersteer and then steer into the turn. In the BQ article, Jim Papadopoulos explained how you only apply pressure on the bars to do the countersteering, and as soon as you release the pressure, the bike automatically steers into the turn and then is self-stable – it continues on the line it’s on.

        August 13, 2018 at 12:25 pm
    • Bryan

      Having been riding bicycles for many years, the act and effort of countersteering is completely subconscious, unless I’m consciously exaggerating the motion for a tight singletrack switchback “at-speed” (which isn’t all that fast in tight singletrack). By comparison, I ride motorcycles so seldom that the additional force/effort required to execute the countersteer sends me into a small panic (about whether I’ll end up turning the right way–or at all) at a very inopportune moment!

      August 14, 2018 at 7:07 am
  • M. Talley

    This is a Déjà vu experience. When I heard this bike was to be reviewed in the BQ I went online to look for info. Since it was just an initial “first ride” – not in-depth write-up I just thought let me see Jan on the bike. I discovered this short video clip on Instagram, downloaded it and was replaying it in slow motion looking for the way you selected a size and fit. I could make out a fist of seatpost was visible and later found the image of the bike on the ferry on the page describing the issue – BQ64. After seeing how the test bike fit it kind of validated the fit of the Surly Midnight Special I bought recently. The thing is, while watching that Instagram video slowed down I was seeing all those subtle movements of the right to left turn. The tilt of the bike – the turning of the bars and the shifting of body weight (this happens a split second before the wheel turns). I was seeing exactly what you wrote up here without the ability to synthesize the whole of it into what you have written. Bravo for what you do so well descriptive incisiveness of the magic that is riding.

    August 13, 2018 at 9:44 am
  • Jeff Loomis

    Any cyclist who has ridden too close to a sharp pavement drop off or a curb learns about counter steering. It’s impossible to move away from the drop without first steering at least a tiny bit towards it!

    August 13, 2018 at 9:51 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      You are right. If it’s a short stretch, you can use ‘Body English’ to move the bike away from the curb, as described in the ‘Skill’ column of the current Bicycle Quarterly. But this only buys you time. Your front wheel eventually has to go to the other side to balance the bike again.

      August 13, 2018 at 9:56 am
  • Gerry Molnar

    Thanks. Is there an easy way to station front panniers so the front wheel’s inclination to fall into a turn remains normal?

    August 13, 2018 at 10:48 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Front pannier placement is an interesting question. As you move away from the steerer axis, you have two factors that almost cancel each other: Increasing inertia (which stabilizes the steering) and a longer lever of the load on the inclined steerer (which tends to turn the fork off-center).
      Mark once built a custom rack that centered the panniers on the steerer, thinking that this would minimize the impact of the panniers on the bike’s handling. It didn’t work well, as you need a bit more inertia to prevent the bags from oscillating with your pedal strokes. In the end, the ‘classical’ position, centered somewhere around the front hub rather than the steerer, seems to work best.

      August 13, 2018 at 11:01 am
  • Archetype

    Good post Jan. Reiterating what I have been saying and advocating for the 15 years I have cycling…

    August 13, 2018 at 10:54 am
  • Conrad

    The proof for me was this: if you have panniers in front and an unbalanced load, say the left side is loaded and the right side is not. I would have thought the bike would steer left. It doesn’t. The bike countersteers left and then turns right. Try it!

    August 13, 2018 at 11:06 am
  • SteveP

    Good explanation. I never really thought about countersteering until I took up motorcycling 30 years ago. With a bicycle the effects are the same, but understanding is not really required for success. As you mention in a reply, you very much notice on a motorcycle “pushing” the bar left to steer right as you power into a turn (or vice versa).
    I had a disconcerting experience visiting some friends with quad bikes (4wheelers). I had never ridden one before, but was given control of one and we set off across a field. Since it had handlebars, when I wanted to turn right I naturally pushed the right side of the bar bar (steered left) – but then I went left! It took a few tries to “break” the muscle memory and treat it as a different machine – the things we do unconsciously.

    August 13, 2018 at 12:04 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Those quads… I rode the three-wheelers when I worked in Namibia many years ago. The first time I tried to turn, I just went straight. Fortunately, in the desert, there wasn’t much to hit!

      August 13, 2018 at 12:22 pm
      • SteveP

        Wasn’t aware of your Namibia experience. I first went when it was South West Africa (dating myself) and have been from one end (Luderitz) to the other (Kunene, Caprivi). Fantastic country. I did see two guys bike touring a few years ago. It was about 40C and 4PM and they were many kms from anywhere. They seemed to be doing fine, though

        August 13, 2018 at 12:30 pm
  • Alan James

    My experience of this came as I regularly rode a steep downhill with many 180 degree hairpin bends. Approaching a bend at speed the bike was reluctant to lean into the bend, especially when braking, until considerable speed had been scrubbed off.
    Approaching the bend without braking and then “twitching” the bars in the opposite direction to the direction of the bend initiated an immediate turn into the bend which I was then able to easily control with the bars. Result, stable high speed turns with control. And a “whoo hoo!” feeling.

    August 13, 2018 at 12:20 pm
  • Ari Goldberger

    I learned about this a few years ago, when I was planning to learn to ride motorcycles, and have found it to be invaluable knowledge for riding a bicycle. Being able to countersteer consciously is a good way to make quicker turns on a 28′ wheel English roadster, too!

    August 13, 2018 at 2:57 pm
  • James Cloud

    The steering dynamics explained in this article, are the same for a motorcycle. To initiate a turn the motorcycle is “steered” in the opposite direction.
    I think this is one thing that makes a motorcycle much more unsafe in an all to uncommon situation where the motorcyclist is approaching an intersection, and a car suddenly makes a left turn right front of the motorcyclist. Instinctively, what is the unlucky motorcyclist prone to do? He (or she) may try to avoid the immanent collision by steering away from the oncoming car!
    What is that going to do? It will, just as this article explains, turn the motorcycle in the opposite direction, right into the path of the car…
    I believe very few motorcyclists have ever practiced instinctive obstacle avoidance at speed to avoid this kind of accident, with potentially lethal consequences.

    August 13, 2018 at 6:21 pm
  • kai

    i always thought that the term countersteering was not primarily about the inititation or termination of the turn, but the fact that in the mid of a high speed turn you need a certain leaning angle to keep your balance; and if this angle is great and tends too steer the bike further into the turn you have to continuously countersteer not to get the turning circle too small..

    August 14, 2018 at 11:21 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Bikes are self-stable, so you don’t have to do anything to keep it on a constant radius. You countersteer at the beginning of the turn: You apply pressure on the handlebars until the bike leans at the desired angle. Releasing that pressure has the bike automatically steer into the turn and continue to corner on the same radius. To stop turning, you apply pressure on the opposite end of the bars until the bike is upright. Even though the physics are complex, what the rider does is very simple – that’s why it’s so easy to ride a bike.

      August 14, 2018 at 11:34 am
      • kai

        they are self-stable, but also have self-steering, i e leaning induces a tendency to steer further. which sometimes has to be compensated for, hence the term countersteering. this effect gets more pronounced with the now popular low fork angles. if you ride such a bike on uneven ground it spontaneously will steer back and forth with greater force the lower angle you have. induces the need for ridiculously wide bars,

        August 16, 2018 at 11:26 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          You are right, front-end geometry makes a significant difference. For road riding – even on gravel roads and in ‘cross – we prefer bikes that only require a light touch on the bars. My cyclocross bike has 40 cm-wide handlebars for better aerodynamics and – more importantly – the ability to go through small gaps when lapping other fields. (In Seattle, multiple fields are on the course at the same time.)

          August 17, 2018 at 6:41 am

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