Countersteering: Motorcycle Riders Who Zig

Sure, you have been successfully steering your motorcycle ever since you started riding. But can you steer hard, quickly and accurately when it really counts? A surprising number of motorcyclists fail the final in Steering 101--when a car, deer or unexpect

Most motorcyclists have heard of countersteering. If you have been riding for any length of time, you have probably hashed it over in benchracing sessions. The subject is usually covered in rider-training courses, too. Not always, though. I attended a California Highway Patrol training session for motorcycle officers back in the early 1980s and noticed that the subject was not mentioned. When I asked about it, the instructor told me, "It just confuses them."

I can understand that. The concept of turning the front wheel one way to go the opposite way certainly is counterintuitive. Those of us who started riding before there was rider training probably had to grasp the concept by ourselves, and perhaps we did it subconsciously. And some people never quite realize that you steer left to go right and vice versa. In fact, I have heard some longtime riders insist that that's not the case, that motorcycles steer the way the front wheel is initially turned. I have also heard bicyclists deny that a bicycle steers this way. The issue is also confused by the fact that you can steer a motorcycle by leaning, as anyone who has ridden any distance with their hands off the bars (a practice that can lead to disaster if you hit something in the road or have a flat tire, I need to point out) can testify. Some motorcyclists will tell you that shifting your body weight is the primary way to steer a motorcycle.

However, the depth of some motorcycle riders' confusion about motorcycle steering really shows up in accident investigations, which reveal the tendency of some riders to fail to turn or to actually turn the wrong way when confronted by a hazard that suddenly appears. This doesn't happen in the majority of crashes, but it does happen often enough for the Hurt Report to note it. Typically, the hazard is a vehicle that has pulled into the motorcycle's path.

So why does a rider fail to swerve or actually turn into the intruding vehicle? It is hard to know exactly. After all, this rider has been successfully turning his motorcycle in the direction he wanted to go since he started riding. When it really counted, why did he do the wrong thing?

One factor is probably target fixation. We tend to go where we look, and it's hard not to look at the SUV that's wandering into your path. But I believe you can teach yourself to focus on your escape path, and those who have taken even basic rider training have likely heard an instructor tell them to "get your eyes up" or "turn your head and look where you are going." Practicing that will not only make your normal turns smoother, it will also help you learn to look at your exit from a dicey situation.

In a recent poll on this site, almost two out of five respondents (38 percent) said they had never taken any sort of rider training, and two-thirds of that group said they started riding before rider training was available. The fact that you have gotten away with it doesn't mean there aren't rider-training lessons that can save your bacon (and your Hog's) when you ride into a traffic crisis. I have been riding pretty intensely for more than 40 years and still benefit from my back-to-school days, in part because it at least makes me reconsider some of my riding habits through the eyes of a detached professional. One thing I readjusted when I went through a Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) program many years ago was what I did with my eyes. I started training myself to look at the paths around obstacles rather than the obstacles themselves. This conditioning has been priceless when someone lurches in front of me unexpectedly, leaving me with little distance to react.

But just because you know where you want to go doesn't mean you have the skills to do so. Do you regularly practice hard swerves at the speeds you typically ride? If you aren't comfortable making a sudden hard swerve, you probably won't attempt one in a moment of panic, even though it could be the only action that might avoid a collision. Again, signing up for rider training, preferably an [Experienced RiderCourses]( Info&content=46838086-A0CC-53D5-64FEBDC6C7B0B42F&referer=MSF RiderCourses) (which only one in nine poll respondents had taken), will get you started.

However, regular practice--as often as every ride--is what actually keeps the sudden, controlled hard swerve in your bag of accident-avoidance tricks, and makes it familiar enough that you instinctively use it in an adrenaline-addled moment.

Practicing swerves is probably the best remedy for any tendency you might have to steer the wrong direction in a moment of panic. Although shifting your body weight to help direct and steady the swerve is certainly useful, to get that instant, substantial change of direction, you must countersteer--hard, precisely and instinctively. When you practice that zig, you should also follow up with a zag, since in the real world swerving around something is likely to send you out of your lane.

Since we at the magazine constantly have to get on and quickly adapt to test motorcycles we have never ridden before, I have developed a routine of making a quick, hard zig-zag at the first opportunity, usually within a few minutes of pulling away. On cruisers, this normally means dragging both floorboards in rapid succession without leaving my lane. This exercise tells me how precisely a motorcycle steers, what sort of pressure is required to make it steer quickly, how well controlled the suspension is, what sort of ground clearance it offers, how predictably the motorcycle steers, and other clues about how it will behave. It is also good practice for me. I normally like to be going at least 30 mph, and most cruisers are comfortably doing a quick left-right-left floorboard-scraping routine at 70 mph while staying within one lane. You don't make this sort of quick direction change by leaning off the bike; you must lever forcefully on the handlebar.

The other reason riders probably fail to swerve (other than freezing in a panic, which regular practice might also prevent) is hard braking. A motorcycle, even one with antilock brakes, can't turn and brake hard at the same time. If you have taken an MSF class, you may have heard the traction-pie analogy. If you are using 90 percent of your available traction to brake, you don't have another 30 percent left to turn hard. In addition, a motorcycle that's braking hard, particularly a cruiser, probably resists turning. This means a rider must decide in a split second whether to brake or swerve, and if he swerves, in which direction. If you aren't comfortable with a hard swerve, you may instinctively hit the brakes, even though swerving might allow you to avoid the obstacle while braking just means you hit it at a lower speed. In addition to making you comfortable swerving, practicing teaches you what kind of room you need to execute a swerve and lets your mind rehearse making that split-second decision about whether to brake or change direction.

Many cruiser riders tend to feel they are safe riders because they don't ride particularly fast, but this belief lulls them into a complacency that can bite them when they must react immediately to a pop-up hazard. You need to keep those life-on-the-edge skills sharp, even if you rarely use them. The two major avoidance maneuvers are swerving and braking, but unlike braking practice, practicing hard swerves involves little risk of crashing. And swerving might be called on more often. I recently saw a statistic that 55 percent of fatal highway accidents involve unintended lane changes, and I know I have certainly dodged a lot of Dodges. But those lane changers are usually the easy ones to avoid. The car that appears in front of you without warning and stops is the challenge that will really test your abilities. If you practice swerving ahead of time, you will know how to swerve, be able to do it instinctively and be able to judge whether swerving is a viable option under the circumstances.

And that swerving practice is even kind of fun.

For more information on safe-riding equipment, strategies, techniques and skills, see the Street Survival section of

Illustration by John Breakey