Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Turning Right? Push Left.

Counter-Steering, And The Hidden Truth

Want to have your mind blown a little? When you're riding a bicycle or a motorcycle and you want to turn right, you turn or push the handlebar to the right, right? Wrong. You actually turn or push the handlebar to the
left. No way! you say? Way. It's called counter-steering and you've been doing it since you were a little kid.

You think you're turning (or pushing) the handlebar to the right but you are not. If you did turn the handlebar to the right, you'd go left. A simple experiment will show you that this is true. Do this on a bicycle, not on a motorcycle. First find a very safe place to ride as this can be dangerous and your natural responses might be messed up for a little while. SERIOUSLY. DO NOT TRY THIS IN TRAFFIC. Ride your bike straight down a bike path or open parking lot, and then once you are moving steadily forward, firm your right arm and push against the right handle, slowly straightening your right arm and gently pushing the handlebar to the left. Your bike will begin turning to the right, not the left.

In fact, have you ever noticed that when you look over your left shoulder to check traffic behind you that your bike tends to drift left a bit (or a lot)? This is because you're pushing the left handlebar while you're doing this, either unconsciously or because you think that you have to "turn" the handlebar to the right to keep from going left. Next time you look over your left shoulder, just gently firm and push against the handlebars with your right arm and you will compensate for your left drift and stay centered in your lane.

There are some complicated physics explanations out there and even some controversy about what causes or affects turning, but the feeling I have is that the reason for this counter-steering phenomenon is that the front wheel is connected to this very loose mobile joint that allows your wheel to turn practically 360 degrees. When you press your right handlebar you are anchoring or restricting the ability of the wheel to turn left, so the whole bike actually swings to the left, around this point of stability that you have created. As it does this you have the illusion that your handlebars are turning to the right. Actually the bike is swinging around and "turning" right, not the handlebars. At least that's what I've come up with myself. I'm probably wrong about this, but that's what it feels like to me.

This is only true, by the way, for two wheeled vehicles. When you drive a car, what you think you are doing is what you are actually doing. You turn the wheel right to turn the car right. And just so you know, the term "counter-steering" is a phenomenon but it's also a specific technique used by motorcycle enthusiasts. I'm speaking of the phenomenon here, not the technique, which I know absolutely nothing about.

I know this just seems crazy and it sure did to me when a friend told me about it. But I went out immediately and tested it and was totally amazed to find that it was true. Once I "got it", I just went back to biking as I've always done, intuitively doing the right thing, but feeling like I'm doing something else. Every now and then I test this counter-steering thing and over and over I'm impressed that it's true.

Now I wonder....how many other self evident "truths" right under my nose are just as wrong...

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