Counter Steering vs Leaning: The Truth

While it might seem like a simple comparison, it actually isn’t. There is quite a lot of “bro science” and false info floating around. Some riders even claim to never have needed to counter steer. It’s time to cut through the crap and nonsense and get the bottom of it. So let’s compare; counter steering vs leaning.

Counter steering is when you are traveling above 15pmh, in order to turn a motorcycle you have to turn the handlebars the opposite direction you want to go. Leaning is when you attempt to turn the motorcycle by simply leaning the bike over and shifting your weight. Leaning does not work, counter steering does.

That is an overly simplified explanation, there is so much more to it. To learn more, read on.

What is the difference between counter steering and leaning?

In order to be able to compare the two, we first need to explain what counter steering is. Simply put, counter steering is the process of steering a motorcycle by pressing on the bars.

At slow speeds, when you are upright on your motorcycle you turn the handlebars, this sets up the bike to turn in that direction. Simple, you turn the way you go. The bike is completely stable and makes the turn.

When you do this while traveling faster, things are much more different. As you turn the handlebars or apply pressure to one side. It causes the motorcycle to become “unstable“.

This instability creates a situation where your front tire is pointed in one direction, but the motorcycle wants to go the opposite direction. Creating a centrifugal force where the tire meets the road as you continue to move forward.

This centrifugal force pushes and forces the motorcycle to lean or tip over and away from the direction your handlebars are pointing, as you continue to move forward.

At this point, your motorcycle is now leaning away from the direction the handlebars are turned. The motorcycle is now set up correctly and leaning for the turn.

The gyroscopic force created by the wheels prevents the motorcycle from tipping over completely.

As pressure is released or you stop applying pressure to the handlebars, the motorcycle will assume a stable turn in the direction you actually wanted to go, opposite from the direction you turned the handle bars.

The amount of turn depends on the amount on the lean angle and the speed at which you are travelling.

This process is known as precession. And this is what happens when you apply a force perpendicular to a gyroscope’s axis of rotation. The gyroscopes being the wheels of the motorcycle.

The resulting motion is now perpendicular to the gyroscope’s axis of rotation. This increases the angular torque and causes the bike to lean. Seems confusing? It kind of is.

So if you want a more in depth explanation, you can read all about it here.

The most important thing you need to know is that this is what causes counter steering to happen when you travel over 15mph or so.

At speeds lower than this, there isn’t enough gyroscopic force created by the wheels to make this an issue. So you can just turn handlebars and your motorcycle will go that direction.

Many riders actually counter steer without even noticing it. For anyone that spent any time as a kid riding a bicycle, it should be second nature.

TLDR; counter steering is a nice way to explain some complicated science stuff that makes you have to turn the handlebars the opposite way to the direction you want to turn.

Leaning on the other hand is completely different, but somewhat related to counter steering.

Many riders will swear on a stack of bibles that they have never counter steered and only use leaning to turn the motorcycle. While they may believe what they are saying, they are wrong.

What they are referring to is the idea that you can turn a motorcycle by shifting your weight over or pushing on the footpeg to make the bike lean or turn in that direction.

For example, let’s say a rider wants to turn right, so to initiate the turn they put weight or pressure on the right footpeg. This causes the motorcycle to lean and initiates a turn in that direction.

The big problem with that is; it doesn’t work. Sure you can make a motorcycle start to drift over if you put all your weight on one foot peg (due to a small amount of angular force being applied against the gyroscopic force of the wheels), but there is simply not enough force being applied to actually lean the bike over and get you through a turn.

These riders when they are shifting their weight over, (without realizing it) are putting some pressure on the handlebars, causing counter steering to lean the motorcycle over and initiating the turn.

There is no way you can get a motorcycle through a turn over 15mph without counter steering.

That’s not to say that shifting your weight does not help in a turn. Then why would every professional rider do it? It’s not just to look cool. There are valid reasons to do it.

The main reason is to lower the amount of lean angle needed to take a turn, increasing the speed at which you can take a turn. On a track, this makes a huge difference.

It does this by lowering your center of gravity, making the motorcycle more stable and less effected by the centrifugal forces being applied against the motorcycle during the turn.

When a motorcycle is making a turn, there is a huge amount of centrifugal force being applied against the motorcycle.

The only thing keeping you from being knocked out of the turn is the traction (grip) created by the tires. We all know there is only so much grip in a tire until it gives.

When you lower your center of gravity, you decrease the amount of force fighting with the traction or grip you have left in your tires. This means you can increase your speed in the turn for the same amount of lean angle.

So to sum it up, shifting your weight over one side is not going to get you through a turn. It might help you get around the corner a bit faster or make you look like Rossi, but counter steering is the main star of the show, without it there is no way you are going to make it through turns.

Final thoughts:

When I started to research this article, I thought it was going to be pretty straight forward and easy, was I wrong. There is so much “bro-science” and or misconceptions out there on the topic.

I spent hours reading and looking for the real science. Kind of went down the rabbit hole TBH. Eventually, it led me to read countless pages on physics, which finally got me the answers I needed.

I will say however, the amount of forum threads filled with riders swearing up and down they’ve never countered steered in their life was truly amazing.

While they might be claiming this, what they are really saying is; “I have no clue what counter steering is, counter steering could come and bite me in the ass and I still would know what it was”.

The reality is this, you cannot steer a motorcycle without using counter steering, so learn it!

The good news is that it is a pretty simple and straightforward skill to learn. Chances are if you rode bicycles when you were a kid, you are doing it without knowing.

I hope you enjoyed this article, until next time happy riding!

Jordan Baker

Hi, I’m Jordan. I’ve been riding motorcycles for a few years now(9+ years). Along the way I’ve learned a bunch, made mistakes and picked up a thing or two. I’ve also spent countless hours practicing and working on improving my skills, something I try to do a few times a week. That’s why I made this website. So I can share my love for riding and everything I’ve learned over the years. Hopefully you’ll stick around and check out a few articles.

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