Countersteering is a skill every cyclist does regardless of ability, but few are aware they are doing it.
Why then, you are probably asking yourself, do I need an explanation about something I already do?
Even though you may countersteer without knowing it, by understanding and consciously trying to use it, you will be able to control your bike better and increase your skill as a rider.
I am not a physicist and cannot give you a mathematical equation mapping out why it works so I will try to explain countersteering as simply as I know how. If it seems a bit confusing at first, keep reading. I can’t emphasize enough how important and useful it can be.
Left Is Right and Right Is Left. Huh?
Simply put, countersteering bicycle is the act of turning your handlebar in the direction opposite the one you wish to travel. If you are making a right-hand turn, you have to turn your bar to the left at the start of the turn to get your bike to lean to the right. To make a left turn, you turn your bar to the right.
You can’t turn your bike just by leaning it alone. You have to use countersteering to get your bike headed in the direction you wish to travel. Before I go further, let me explain that countersteering is only really effective at high speeds.
Although you can use it at low speeds, I’d be a fool to sit here and tell you that when you make a low-speed turn, like hanging a U on your local bike path, you have to countersteer. I could disprove that in my own driveway.
Countersteering really comes into play when you’re riding at a high speed and are leaned over when making your turn. Even at low speeds, though, you still countersteer at the start of your turn to get the bike to turn in the direction you want to go.
Take some time on a ride to experiment with this. A bike path with no traffic or a safe stretch of road is recommended because you will be doing a bit of swerving.
Start out by riding slow, between 10 to 15 mph, when first trying it. Ride along and gently turn your handlebar to the left. Almost instantly you will begin leaning to the right, and if you don’t turn your handlebar to the right to compensate for the lean, you will fall over on your right.
The action you just did, turning your handlebar to the left in order to turn to your right, is countersteering.
Think you can start a right turn just by turning your handlebar to the right? Try it and I guarantee you will veer left every time you do.
Of course, you will only veer left and have your bar turned to the right for a split second before you make the necessary corrections to stabilize yourself. I know it sounds odd, but if you pay close attention while trying this you can feel your bar turning the opposite way in your hands a split second before you make your turn.
Doing it at low speeds in a controlled environment is one thing, but doing it at high speeds is different, right?
The principle of countersteering works at low or high speeds. I think it is more important to understand how it works for high-speed turns because you have more risk and a greater chance to hurt yourself if something goes wrong when you are going really fast.
When to Use CounterSteering on a Bicycle
When you set up for a turn, that is, a countersteer, lean the bike over and start through the turn (you usually don’t make any steering adjustments while you are going through the turn).
Once a bike is leaned over and making a well-balanced turn, there isn’t much effort required to keep it going in the same direction. This is the main reason people aren’t really aware they are countersteering. If you don’t realize how you got the bike leaned over and you make no adjustments in the turn, you won’t think about it at all.
In a perfect world, all the roads would be freshly paved, have no potholes, rocks or gravel and they would be designed with the cyclist in mind. Until that happens, knowing how to countersteer effectively can help you get out of emergency situations.
I think every cyclist knows the feeling of going too fast in a turn. Either you went in too fast, or maybe the turn became sharper (decreasing in radius) when you were going through it.
Maybe there was a pothole or some gravel directly in your path and the only safe thing to do was to try to go to the inside of it. Whatever the reason, there is nothing like seeing the centerline or road shoulder coming at you fast and not knowing if you can make it.
The tendency of most cyclists in an emergency situation is to try to turn the bar in the direction they want to travel. This will have the opposite effect of what you want to accomplish. If you do this, you will end up drifting farther and farther toward the outside of the turn and will most likely have to slow down to make it.
If you don’t realize you are countersteering yourself to the outside of the corner, you won’t understand what is happening. I am writing this article and I still catch myself doing it once in a while!
If you are going through a turn and find yourself having to turn sharper, you are going to have to countersteer again. This means, just like before, turning the bar in the opposite direction you wish to go. This was and is the hardest part about countersteering for me to get used to.
Cycling has such a smooth, flowing feeling, especially when going through turns. Trying to turn your bar in a direction that seems to contradict what you think about steering, especially while leaned over in a turn where there is little room for error, can create an uneasy feeling. This is precisely why understanding how countersteering works is so important.
Don’t wait until you need it to learn how to use it, though — practice first. I suggest practicing this on turns you are familiar with, maybe a local descent you know like the back of your hand. When you are set up and going through a turn, try exerting a small amount of pressure on the inside of your handlebar, pushing it away from you.
If you are going through a right-hand turn, this means exerting a small amount of pressure on your right drop, pushing it forward and actually turning your bars slightly to the left. The easiest way to do this is going through a turn with your arms slightly bent and straightening out your right arm a little bit.
It may seem awkward at first, but you should notice your bike turning more sharply to your right. Of course, it works in both directions; I just chose a right turn for this example. Once you feel comfortable doing this, you will have much greater control over your bike and will be better able to handle unexpected situations.
A Lesson Learned
A while back I was teaching my little brother, Bryan, how to ride his first bike. He had mastered training wheels, and it was time to take them off. With training wheels, his bike handled more like a car than a bicycle. If he wanted to go right, he turned his handlebar to the right, and when he leaned to the left after doing so, his outside training wheel kept him from falling.
Once we took off his training wheels, he turned his handlebar to the right but got a surprise when he and the bike fell to the left. Knowing that his preschool mind wouldn’t quite understand the concept of countersteering, my father and I told him to lean toward the direction he wanted to turn and it would help him balance.
Although he had no idea he was doing it, I could actually see his bar make a quick turn to the left when he started to lean right before he ended up turning it to the right. Without having the slightest idea what he was doing, my little brother had learned to countersteer.
Being a sprinter, especially on the criterium-dominated U.S. racing circuit, guarantees I have to be able to go extremely fast through the last turn of a race. Couple that with my tendency to have to make up time on descents for lack of climbing ability, and it is imperative that I be able to handle my bike well through turns.
Don’t think, however, you have to be a racer to benefit from countersteering. Just like knowing proper cadence, good positioning and what type of food to eat, countersteering is a tool used when riding your bike. By understanding what is happening when you steer, you will be able to make your riding experience safer and ultimately more enjoyable.
Countersteering Rules & Etiquette in a Bicycle Race
Imagine you’re approaching an intersection in your car, and you have the green light. As you enter the intersection, one of the stopped cars accelerates through the red light directly in front of you causing a major collision. It’s amazing how quickly order turns to chaos when people don’t follow the rules of the road.
Now imagine there are no actual written rules of the road, no driver’s handbook, no officers to punish the reckless and you don’t need a license to drive. The only thing you have to rely on is the hope that your fellow drivers have an unwritten code they will follow, thus stopping the roadway from becoming carnage.
While this may seem a bit ridiculous, it is actually what goes on for the average cyclist riding in a pack, and the unwritten code we follow is pack etiquette.
Although the word etiquette can conjure up images of tea and crumpets, white linen tablecloths or which fork one uses to eat salad, pack etiquette is essentially the rules of the road for cyclists riding in a group. Consider that when in a pack, cyclists ride only inches apart at speeds well over 30 miles per hour with nothing more than a thin layer of Lycra between pavement and precious skin–it becomes all too apparent why we need rules.
If you have any friends who ride and/or race who are willing to give up information freely, you should learn as much from them as you can. Otherwise, you will be getting your information from someone in the pack telling you you’ve done something wrong.
There are many rules of pack etiquette, and to say I can remember every single one would be an embellishment. But there are a few very important rules that will help you understand what’s going on when you’re riding in a pack.
Point at and call out obstacles. This has to be one of the most important parts of riding in a group. You obscure the view for riders behind you. This is especially true of objects on the ground in your immediate path such as rocks, metal grates, gravel, potholes or any road debris. Any of these items can cause a rider to lose control of his bike and crash when hit unexpectedly. You can either point out an obstacle, call out what it is or do a combination of both. For example, if you are pulling at the front of a group and you see a rock in your path, you are either going to have to swerve left or right. If you are going to move to the left of it, point with your right hand to the rock on the road as you approach it and call out, “rock.” Don’t wait until you are upon the obstacle to point it out–point it out as soon as you see it. If there is a car parked, stopped or slowing in front of you, call out, “car ahead” or “car up” to let people know. Likewise, if you are at the back of a group and hear a car closing in, you can call out, “car behind” or “car back” to let the front of the group know there is a vehicle about to pass. Most of the burden for pointing things out lies with the lead cyclist, but don’t rely only on him. A rider at the front of a group can be tired and not alert or have a bad habit of riding with his head down and miss an obstacle. If you are two or three riders back, you will still have a better view than someone five riders behind you, and you can still alert them to potential dangers. This ties directly to my next point.
Don’t fixate on the wheel in front of you. When you first start riding in a group, you may tend to concentrate on the wheel in front of you so you don’t ride too close or far from it–this is a bad habit. Without looking far enough ahead to see any potential hazards, you greatly increase the chance of crashing yourself and others. It would be like driving in rush-hour traffic and staring only at the bumper of the car in front of you. Without looking ahead to see the general flow of traffic, you can’t anticipate when things are speeding up or coming to a sudden halt. If you alternate between looking ahead of you and looking down at the wheel in front of you, soon you will get a feel for how close you are and you won’t have to look down as often. And remember, bicycles don’t have brake lights.
Don’t jam on your brakes. Although there will be sudden situations where you will need to apply your brakes hard and in a hurry, this generally can be avoided. If you see the group slowing, start applying your brakes gently and a little early. Otherwise, because of delayed reaction time, someone at the back of the group will probably run out of braking room and have a close call. If you have to brake suddenly or sense the group slowing down quickly, call out, “slowing” to let the cyclists behind you know what’s happening. Think of this as a verbal brake light.
Don’t overlap wheels. Most beginner crashes occur when a cyclist lets his front wheel overlap the rear wheel of the rider in front of him, and the front rider either swerves or slows down. When your front wheel overlaps and runs up against someone’s rear wheel, it is extremely difficult to steer and you are likely to crash. There are situations when everyone overlaps to the same side because of the wind (see “Pro Riding Secrets,” April ’95, on perfecting your paceline), but that is a more advanced technique. For starters, practice riding directly behind the wheel in front of you.
Look and/or gesture before making any sudden moves. If you want to move off the wheel in front of you, be sure to look behind you first to make sure no one is about to pass you. If the rider in front is slowing and you want to go around him, making the pass without looking is like changing lanes without checking your rearview mirror or using your blinker. A quick look over the shoulder and a hand pointing in the direction you intend to go signal your intentions to those behind you.
If you’re leading the group, don’t sprint through a changing light. Almost all group riding involves some form of traffic. A lot of times, in the heat of battle it is hard to slow down for that yellow light. You may make it through the yellow but the pack probably won’t, and some people in the pack will choose to follow you and others will stop, adding to the confusion. Nobody likes a person who attacks through a red light. You’ll wind up waiting for stragglers anyway, and you won’t make a good impression on motorists, either.
Your first few encounters with group riding can be intimidating and frustrating if you don’t know what is happening around you. Don’t let lack of knowledge stand in your way. Whizzing down your favorite road in a group that’s working like a well-oiled machine is one of the great pleasures of road riding. While the information mentioned here is not every single rule and circumstance you will encounter on the road, following these basic rules of pack etiquette should make group riding a more pleasurable and safer experience for you and let you gain entry to the local group ride. The more you ride, the more you will learn, and soon you will be explaining to the new rider which fork belongs with the salad.