This post was prompted by Wayne’s mention of moped mortality statistics and reminded me that many riders out there have never had any formal motorcycle instruction.
Let me tell you a story first. In 1974, I think, I bought a 1972 Honda 450 twin with about 1200 miles that looked like brand new. This was the biggest, baddest bike I had ever owned. The more I looked at it, the more I was convinced that I could visit my brother on it. The fact that I was in Ann Arbor, MI and he lived in Vancouver, BC about 2500 miles away did not phase me a bit. Nor did all the "knowledgeable motorcyclists" who told me the 450 vibrated too much and was under powered for the trip.
To shorten the story a little, in June, I found myself rolling west across the great plains at about 75-80 mph, leaning back on my pack with my feet on the highway pegs and watching the rocky mountains get no closer for what seemed like days.
I was riding with just my right hand on the handlebars and had nothing better to do so I pushed on the handlebars with my right hand. To my amazement, the bike moved to the right. Then I pulled on the right handlebar and the bike moved left.
Keep in mind that I had been riding 2 wheeled vehicles for about 24 years and motorized 2 wheelers for about 15 years and had never noticed this phenomenon. To say I was surprised and amazed would be the understatement of the decade. Like most of us who learned how to ride a bicycle, the motorcycles, in my case with a moped in between, I turned by "leaning", or so I thought.
As I played with the handlebars, I realized how much better I could steer the bike when I understood the relationship between turning the handlebars and changes of direction. I then began to wonder why I was still alive. For 15 years I had been riding a motorcycle without understanding how I steered it.
As my mind assimilated this, a couple of past scenarios came to mind that some of you may find familiar. When I was about 15 years old, I was going fishing with my Dad on a pit of land consisting of sand hills with a concrete breakwater on the tip. Access was by a tarmac road about 8 or 10 feet wide with a small drop onto soft sand from the dunes on either side. This day, my Dad decided to teach me how to ride his 125cc Lambretta motor scooter.
I still remember, as if it was yesterday, the scooter moving closer and closer to the left side of the road (this was in England) and not being able to stop it. I had visions of riding that scooter, with its little wheels, off the side of the road into the soft sand and wiping us both out. My Dad, who somehow understood my problem, but not the solution, tapped me on the shoulder and said, "don't worry, it'll turn" and it did. Other than having to change my underwear, I did not give that incident any more thought until this day.
I have had other instances, the short version being, pulling out to pass, seeing oncoming traffic and not being able to pull back in immediately. Effectively being frozen in my position on the road. Realizing, part way through a corner, that I was going too fast for the line I took, and not being able to correct it.
There have been others, maybe some of you will remember some of your own.
For the rest of that trip, I played with my new "skill" and found that negotiating curvy roads was much more fun, now that I understood how I was doing it.
Later that Summer, back in Michigan, I stopped at a convenience store/gas station to hide from a thunderstorm. Thumbing through the Bike mags on the rack, I came across an article on counter-steering. This was the first time I had ever seen anything like this in print, but at least I now had a name for what I was doing.
My theory on the "I can't turn the bike" problem, based on my experiences, goes like this.
Normally, when you want to turn a bike, you just lean, such as when you pull out to pass. This is done without any conscious thought. When you get out there in the opposite lane and see oncoming traffic, suddenly you are thinking, "I need to go right". Without understanding, you begin to turn the handlebars to the right, this immediately causes the bike to begin to move left and your reflexes kick in to keep you from turning the handlebars anymore. Now you are going in a straight line, on the wrong side of the road, headed for oncoming traffic. For some reason I don't understand (unless you really do understand counter-steering), you turn the bars left, move back to the right lane, and survive to change your underwear another day.
I leave you to imagine what happens if the oncoming traffic is too close, or someone just pulled out in front of you, or you are taking a corner too fast when this happens.
It is no coincidence that many single vehicle motorcycle accidents take place on a corner, or that in a large number of accidents involving collision with another vehicle, the motorcycle does not try to change direction.
I have lost at least one friend who went straight, at a corner on a country road, for no apparent reason.
This happens a lot less today, mostly because most states either require, or encourage Motorcycle Safety Foundation courses prior to getting a motorcycle endorsement. The MSF teaches counter-steering in their classes although they do not use the term. The idea of turning the handlebars the wrong way to turn a corner is so alien to most people that they teach you to "push" the handlebar on the side you want to turn toward. Obviously, you need a counter-force to push against, which is normally to pull on the other bar.
When I first learned counter-steering, I became quite evangelical about it because I realized how important it was to staying alive on two wheels.
My usual question to fellow motorcyclists was, "If you are riding down the road and you come to a corner to the right, which way do you turn the handlebars to get around the corner?". If they did not immediately give the correct answer, I would launch into my diatribe on counter-steering. Most of them would laugh and tell me that they just leaned, but some would try it and be just as amazed as I was that they did not know.
The attached .doc file is a one page story I scanned from the AMA magazine in 1990 and still sometimes give to people who are unbelievers. I will attach a .TXT version to another post for those who do not have word.
There is still a lot of resistance to from some people, who believe that "body steering" is as important or more important than counter steering. Keith Code, an ex-racer and now racing school owner who has written several book and produced videos on motorcycle racing, was interested enough in the "body steering" theory, put forward by many motorcycle racers, that he built a motorcycle with two sets of handlebars. The first were the normal handlebars and the second were welded directly to the frame but had duplicate controls.
He then invited motorcycle racers to take the bike on the track, use the fixed handlebars and try the "body steering" method. They all came back believing in counter-steering.
For any of you who do not believe, take your two wheeled machine of choice out on the road, with just your right hand on the handlebars, push the bar, then pull it and see what happens.
After you get used to it, try some maneuvers like dodging an imaginary pothole or taking a fast corner and see how much difference a little understanding makes.