You’ve Been Doing It Wrong All This Time, or How to Avoid a Bike Crash with Countersteering

Here’s a simple question: how do you negotiate a turn on a bicycle? Specifically, how do you initiate one?

  1. Lean in the direction you want to go.
  2. Turn the handlebars in the direction you want to go.
  3. A and B
  4. None of the above

Ask 100 cyclists, and you’ll find that ‘A’ is a very popular answer.

This may come as a complete shock to you, but the correct answer is D. None of the above.

If that shock was big, this next one will be bigger:  In order to turn a bicycle to the right, you must first turn the handlebars to the left. And vice versa. This is the simple act that initiates the turn. Without it, you will continue in a straight line.

So why is ‘A’ such a popular answer? Because leaning in one direction will indeed move the bike in that direction. But what’s happening when you lean is that you’re actually putting forward pressure on the handlebar on one side. In essence, you’re turning it away from the lean.

For example, when you lean to the right, you unwittingly put pressure on the right handlebar which will cause your bike to ever-so-briefly hint at a motion to the left before laying over into a right hand lean.

So why is this a big deal? Who cares how a turn happens as long as it happens? And how can this make you a better rider and help you avoid crashes?

That’s easy.

Of the two methods I’ve given you for turning your bike, one (turning the bars the opposite way) is direct while the other (leaning) is indirect. Providing direct input into the handlebars gives you much greater control over the bike. You aren’t reliant upon your weight distribution. You aren’t affected by the lag time to get your weight into position. You therefore experience no hesitation when changing course. Your control is much more precise.

And it’s very easy to reprogram yourself: Push on the right to go right. Push on the left to go left.

I’ll wait here while you go out and try it. Take your time.

With greater control of the bike, you will increase your reaction time to events that happen in front of you. Your evasive action will be more immediate. Your evasive action will also be less dramatic which will prevent a chain reaction of crashes.

(If you see a crash occur in a Category 1-2 race, you will likely see one or two riders collide and fall to the ground. In a category 4 race, the same scenario will see a much larger number of riders on the ground, sidewalk, front yard, and storefronts. This is because the Category 1-2 riders see the crash before it happens, make a slight adjustment, and continue on their way while Category 4 riders fail to see it materialize, make abrupt and dramatic adjustments, and fall like dominoes. Cat 1-2 have tremendous control over their bikes while Cat 4 riders are still learning how to handle things like steering, braking, and holding a straight line. That’s not to say that Pro-1-2 riders aren’t capable of big crashes, but they happen with much less frequency.)

Changing direction by leaning the bike is a case of the tale wagging the dog. It relies on the weight of the rider’s body being in the proper position. Shifting your weight on a moving bicycle chews up valuable time when you’re hurtling down the road at 36 feet per second. As such, indirect and imprecise input is not what you want to use when riding elbow to elbow with other cyclists.  

Here’s an example of how a crash occurs: two riders in front of you tangle handlebars and begin to swerve uncontrollably. You have about .5 seconds to make a decision and alter your course. You try to lean to the left to avoid the imminent crash, but your weight is too far to the right. You stare at the crashing riders unable to change course. Moments later, you’re cartwheeling over the two riders. Your imprecise steering took too long. Down you go. (The second problem here is target fixation. Never look at the crash. Look for your escape route. We’ll cover this topic some other time.)

This counter-steering technique that I’ve described should eliminate the mystery of cornering for you altogether. With experimentation and practice, you will be able to handle any corner that race promoters throw at you. You will also find it possible, even in mid-turn, to change the arc of your turn by simply making a micro-adjustment to the pressure on your handlebars. Applying more pressure on the inside bar makes your turn tighter. A little more pressure on the outside bar makes your turn wider. Steady pressure on the inside bar allows you to carve a nice, smooth, predictable and continuous arc through the turns.

When is that next criterium race scheduled? I think you have time to go out and find an empty parking lot and practice this new technique until it becomes second nature.

Whether you’re a road racer or just a recreational cyclist, this technique will make you a better and safer rider.  Go practice right now.

Reading the Race Chris Horner Jamie SmithWhether you’re a new racer, an aspiring pro, a team manager, or even a roadside fan, Reading the Race will elevate your cycling IQ for better racing.

Find the book in your local bookstore, bike shop, or online:
Barnes & Noble
your local bookstore


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