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  1. #1
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    How to improve steering control for a newbie

    To prepare for commuting by bike, I bought a bike and start practicing around the neighbor to get better with controlling it. It seems that I have very poor control on the direction of the bike at medium low speed. When I get the bike up to speed, I wobble wildly back and forth for a few rounds of pedals before I can get it straight. Same thing for slowing down on a turn (especially if it is a sudden slow down). This is obviously not going to fly in a urban commute. Any suggestion on how I can improve my riding technique?

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    L T X B O M P F A N S R apricissimus's Avatar
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    Practice? Not sure if there's anything else to do besides that. You'll get it though.

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    Hmmmm.....

    Well. Like the guy before posted, you may just need practice. However, assuming your biking skills are intact, perhaps the headset or handlebars are loose.

    You may want to go back to your local bike shop where you bought the bike, and have the guy there take a look, just to make sure evrything is up to snuff. Show the mechanic what is happening, and have him watch you ride it with the problem ocurring. Maybe he can even give you a few pointers.
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    Quote Originally Posted by apricissimus View Post
    Practice? Not sure if there's anything else to do besides that. You'll get it though.
    Well, that's a given . I was hoping for some pointers on how to practice. Would it be productive to try to ride as slowly as I can? A related problem I have is controlling the bike with one hand while doing hand signals (perhaps I was trying to hard to compensate by steering). I'll go back out there once the rain lets up...

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    Senior Member BCRider's Avatar
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    Do a search on google for "counter steering". The vast majority of the hits will be motorcycle sites but motorcycles are bicycles with engines. They both steer the same.

    You gotta bend your mind around the idea that two wheel single track vehicles (bicycles and motorcycles) steer totally differently from 4 wheeled dual track vehicles (cars and trucks). With counter steering there's three parts to any turn.

    1) The tip in where you induce your bike to "fall" in the direction of the turn by steering away from the turn for a split second or with a very slight pressure on the bars. You'll see this on the motorcycle sites as "push right to go right". When you push on the right grip you angle the front wheel to the left which makes the bike start to fall to the right.

    2) Catch and balance. This is where you catch and correct the initial fall into the turn by turning the bars into the turn and re-establish your balance but at the lean angle needed for the turn. In practice this is done smoothly and seamlessly following the initial turn away of the bars that starts the tip in.

    3) Recover to upright or switch direction. The final part of the turn is usually a return to upright. This is where you turn the bars into the turn harder to bring the bike back in and under yourself. If you hold the angle a little longer you'll pass through the upright position and drop to the other side and enter a new turn in the other direction.

    If you're more used to driving a car you may well be conciously trying to steer it "normally" rather than steering it using this counter steering method. Cars and bicycles have absolutely nothing at all in common when it comes to steering. If you are confusing the two methods your brain and muscle signals will be fighting each other and wobbles is the outcome. You sort of make it around the turn or obstacle but when it's all over you're not really sure how, right?

    You should go out and work on learning and using counter steering conciously. Ride along an open road in a straight line and lightly push on one hand grip. Note how the bike falls into a turn to that side. Push on the opposite grip to make the bike stop dropping into the turn or even a little more and make it come back up or go the other way. Use small but conciously applied pressures when you're doing this. Light pressure makes it tip into the slowly. More pressure makes the turn in snappy.

    When you do it this way you'll find that the bike responds instantly and very accurately to your slightest bar pressure inputs. Keep working on using this conciously until it's second nature.

    A big open and empty shopping center parking lot is a great place to work on this. When you get the hang of steering this way and doing it in a fully concious manner and under your complete control you can actually toss out some pennies ahead of you in a random pattern and then steer accurately enough to ride your front wheel over them even though you end up turning back and forth. And you can do it under complete and comfortable control. Guaranteed no more wobbles unless you're riding back from the pub....
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  6. #6
    L T X B O M P F A N S R apricissimus's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by BCRider View Post
    Do a search on google for "counter steering". The vast majority of the hits will be motorcycle sites but motorcycles are bicycles with engines. They both steer the same.

    You gotta bend your mind around the idea that two wheel single track vehicles (bicycles and motorcycles) steer totally differently from 4 wheeled dual track vehicles (cars and trucks). With counter steering there's three parts to any turn.

    1) The tip in where you induce your bike to "fall" in the direction of the turn by steering away from the turn for a split second or with a very slight pressure on the bars. You'll see this on the motorcycle sites as "push right to go right". When you push on the right grip you angle the front wheel to the left which makes the bike start to fall to the right.

    2) Catch and balance. This is where you catch and correct the initial fall into the turn by turning the bars into the turn and re-establish your balance but at the lean angle needed for the turn. In practice this is done smoothly and seamlessly following the initial turn away of the bars that starts the tip in.

    3) Recover to upright or switch direction. The final part of the turn is usually a return to upright. This is where you turn the bars into the turn harder to bring the bike back in and under yourself. If you hold the angle a little longer you'll pass through the upright position and drop to the other side and enter a new turn in the other direction.

    If you're more used to driving a car you may well be conciously trying to steer it "normally" rather than steering it using this counter steering method. Cars and bicycles have absolutely nothing at all in common when it comes to steering. If you are confusing the two methods your brain and muscle signals will be fighting each other and wobbles is the outcome. You sort of make it around the turn or obstacle but when it's all over you're not really sure how, right?

    You should go out and work on learning and using counter steering conciously. Ride along an open road in a straight line and lightly push on one hand grip. Note how the bike falls into a turn to that side. Push on the opposite grip to make the bike stop dropping into the turn or even a little more and make it come back up or go the other way. Use small but conciously applied pressures when you're doing this. Light pressure makes it tip into the slowly. More pressure makes the turn in snappy.

    When you do it this way you'll find that the bike responds instantly and very accurately to your slightest bar pressure inputs. Keep working on using this conciously until it's second nature.

    A big open and empty shopping center parking lot is a great place to work on this. When you get the hang of steering this way and doing it in a fully concious manner and under your complete control you can actually toss out some pennies ahead of you in a random pattern and then steer accurately enough to ride your front wheel over them even though you end up turning back and forth. And you can do it under complete and comfortable control. Guaranteed no more wobbles unless you're riding back from the pub....
    Great post.

    I would add:

    Make sure you're not using your handle bars to steer too much. Turning (except at the lowest speeds) is done by leaning in the direction of the turn, with only a slight turn of the handle bars. Don't think of your handle bars as a steering wheel, or a tiller.

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    You ever go bowling? The experts will tell you you need to curve the ball in order to bowl correctly. That's kind of the advice you're getting here. They're describing how to take a turn at top speeds efficiently. You should learn that too, and practice it. But right now it seems to me that you're having trouble with simple turning. I'd pratice that on a blacktop at a local elementary school or a parking lot without any traffic. Once you get the basics of riding down, you can have a coach teach you to do it like the pros do.

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    Quote Originally Posted by firstian View Post
    I was hoping for some pointers on how to practice. Would it be productive to try to ride as slowly as I can?
    Yes. I've found cycling with my sister (who walks) made me focus more on maintaining equilibrium at slower speeds. Balance at slow speed leads to balance at high speed.

    JesseDuncan:I just love how "cars will be forced to cross the double yellow lines on dangerous limited visibility roads".

    I don't want to have a head on but oh god, I HAVE to fling myself into oncoming traffic to pass, theres no alternative!!!

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    I would suggest the following:

    Find a large empty area to practice, such as an empty parking lot.
    Accelerate until you feel stable, and try hard to ride a straight line. If you're in a parking lot, try riding down the "spine" of one of the rows of parking spaces. Really focus on the line, and making sure your front tire follows it.

    Once you can reliably ride in a straight line at a moderate speed, then slow down. Keep riding in a straight line at a slower and slower speed. Practice until you can ride very slowly without falling off. Eventually you'll be able to start up or slow down without wobbling hardly at all.

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    go out and try and ride as slow as possible while still maintaining control, then practice turning at very slow speeds, balance is a big factor when handling at low speeds because the bike no longer has the gyroscopic forces from the wheels spinning to keep it upright.
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    I agree with all of the above - practice in a safe environment. Rides slowly, practice stopping and starting, etc.

    One other thing I'd add is to look toward where you want to go, not where you don't. Some people focus on a rock and end up hitting it because their attention is on that spot. Look at yourself when you slow down or accelerate from a stop to see where your eyes are settling. Maybe you're getting nervous and looking down?

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    Quote Originally Posted by BCRider View Post
    If you're more used to driving a car you may well be conciously trying to steer it "normally" rather than steering it using this counter steering method. Cars and bicycles have absolutely nothing at all in common when it comes to steering. If you are confusing the two methods your brain and muscle signals will be fighting each other and wobbles is the outcome. You sort of make it around the turn or obstacle but when it's all over you're not really sure how, right?
    That's exactly the feeling I'm getting *all the time* when I'm not traveling straight at a good clip. When I try to avoid something, or have to slow down to yield on a right turn, or when I'm not paying attention , the bike just goes wobbly for 3-4 swings before I either pick up speed, or drop off the bike in some pretty embarrassing posture (yes, test driving bikes was very embarrassing the whole time). And because of this, I become paranoid when I had to shift or make hand signals. In general, it is just not intuitive to me how to recover from a slight loss of balance effectively.

    My bike skills in general is very poor indeed (I never learn to bike probably; I "learned" at 15 by being left behind by a bunch of friends in a camping trip with a rental, on a 45mph single lane full of semis ). I'll go read up and practice. Thanks for the explanation.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Rosie8 View Post
    I agree with all of the above - practice in a safe environment. Rides slowly, practice stopping and starting, etc.

    One other thing I'd add is to look toward where you want to go, not where you don't. Some people focus on a rock and end up hitting it because their attention is on that spot. Look at yourself when you slow down or accelerate from a stop to see where your eyes are settling. Maybe you're getting nervous and looking down?
    Funny you brought that up. This was the problem I had when I learned to drive. My driving instructor kept yelling at me to look farther down the road and not the pot hole right under my nose . Now that I think about it, wobbling pretty much always happen when I'm slow *and* looking down near the front wheel (e.g., avoid that pothole since my rear is sore enough as it is). I can't believe this old bad habit is coming back...

  14. #14
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    Quote Originally Posted by firstian View Post
    Any suggestion on how I can improve my riding technique?
    Ride more

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    Senior Member BCRider's Avatar
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    Looking through the turn or looking where you want to go is always good advice for any vehicle. When you do that it really makes it easier to ride or drive more smoothly.

    Another little example of using counter steering. I ride a lot with clipless pedals. If you search around here you'll find legions of stories about falling when learning to use clipless. A little "trick" I use when coming to a stop is to unclip one side and just before I come to a stop with the last shred of forward motion I push the grip on the side of the loose foot quite strongly. This starts a strong lean into the loose foot which I then place on the ground as I come to a halt. It makes sure I don't have a story to add to the legions of examples...

    It's also a strong proof that this counter steering "trick" works at all riding speeds. Again I urge you to go out and work with it in an open lot and really work on using bar pressure to control the steering and balance at all speeds. Yes it's possible to steer a bike with leaning. In fact steering with no hands on the bars is a way of working with both the stabilizing caster in the front end where you sort of alter your balance to make the bike do the counter steering for you. But it's not anywhere near as immediate or accurate as actually pushing the bars yourself.

    While it may alienate me with the folks that say they just lean into the turn you can't steer a bike really well by just leaning. Ride a heavier motorcycle and it'll teach you that fact REAL quick. What happens with people that have taught themselves to steer by "leaning" is that they subconciously push forward with their shoulder or elbow on the bar in the direction they lean or somehow twist the bars to achieve the same "push to turn" I described above. That induces the whole counter steering process for them. But since it's not a concious use of bar pressure the brain never quite learns just what action is actually doing the steering. It becomes more a "faith" thing. Now that's fine for those folks and there's many, many good riders that'll tell you that it works and for them it works just fine. It's how we learned to ride as kids. But when you're doing this from scratch you may as well learn to control the bars correctly from the get go. When you learn to steer with bar pressure you'll find that it's easy to lean the bike any way you want but you can still turn the way you want even if it's contrary to how the bike happens to be leaning at the time. For example there's this post in a tight spot that I go around every day. I have to lean the bike slighty to the right while I'm actually turning the bike in a left hand arc with my body hanging way off to the side to keep the bars from hooking the post and dumping me into the dirt on the trailside. I can do this because how I balance the bike to shift it to the side (hanging off) and how I turn it (bar pressure) are separated in my mind rather than being locked together. It's a handy skill at times....
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  16. #16
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    Quote Originally Posted by firstian View Post
    Now that I think about it, wobbling pretty much always happen when I'm slow *and* looking down near the front wheel (e.g., avoid that pothole since my rear is sore enough as it is). I can't believe this old bad habit is coming back...
    Yeah, the bike will tend to go where you're looking. This is even more true than in a car.

    So when you're in any kind of situation where you need to avoid something in the road, look where you want to be, not where you're afraid of ending up.
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    Quote Originally Posted by firstian View Post
    That's In general, it is just not intuitive to me how to recover from a slight loss of balance effectively.

    My bike skills in general is very poor indeed (I never learn to bike probably; I "learned" at 15 by being left behind by a bunch of friends in a camping trip with a rental, on a 45mph single lane full of semis ). I'll go read up and practice. Thanks for the explanation.
    You are talking yourself intelligently through your present riding paranoia and you CAN do this.

    Last summer I was leading a group of American college students on a field trip in Arnheim, NL. When I asked everyone if they knew how to ride a bike, of course everyone assured me that they could. But when we rented a bike for everyone, it was amazing (and frightening) how few of them really knew how to do anything but pedal in a straight line. Without practice, without much experience, learning how to ride & steer & avoid things in the road & stop & go at intersections is pretty frightening. And all of those things happen every few minutes or blocks on a bike. Our ill-fated field trip with 19 riders managed to cover 3 miles in an hour - yes, 3 miles and then we ate lunch and started back to the train station. I learned a good lesson about commuting, that my own experience on a bike is NOT everyone's experience and that it takes time in the saddle to get comfortable with urban commuting.

    Yep, you'll figure this out because the alternative is getting back into a car or riding the bus and those are much less interesting than life as a cycle commuter. You've gotten lots of good advice and you're headed in the right direction (so to speak).
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  18. #18
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    Empty parking lot practice is very good. I've done exercises with cones with my stepson. He has some orange cones for sports, and I've set them up in a totally empty parking lot (weekday business with zero cars on the weekend) to guide him in exercises involving a straight line, braking quickly, and weaving around. Just don't overdo it, though. Stepson was doing really well, but was getting tired and wanted to show off his skills to dad at the end. He ended up wiping out and being scared of hard surfaces.

    Even after 20+ years of bicycle commuting in various ways, I still will sometimes go to an empty parking lot to practice. I practice leaning, weaving, counterbalancing, slipping between curbs, and stopping at an angle/turn (the key is to straighten up fast and then hit the brakes). I also like to see how slow I can go while maintaining balance. There was a point several years ago when I could remain upright with feet on the pedals at a dead stop. (Not that good anymore, though.) If you're feeling really confident, you might try going without hands (while moving and while in the empty lot). It helps you to feel the bike beneath you and respond more with your whole body, instead of trying to steer it like a car. (Just put those hands right back on the bars and go straight when you feel unsteady, though.)

    The only other idea that I have is to get a heavier bike. For me, balance has always been easier on heavier bikes. I think it may be due to the fact that you can be a little off and still balance when there is more weight involved. It also worked for stepson, who couldn't balance a bicycle at all until he got a big, heavy one.

    I respect what you are doing, because I know that two bicycle wheels are simply much more difficult for some. The fact that you are willing to work on perfecting the skill rather than giving up is highly admirable. You can get there!
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    Quote Originally Posted by firstian View Post
    To prepare for commuting by bike, I bought a bike and start practicing around the neighbor to get better with controlling it. It seems that I have very poor control on the direction of the bike at medium low speed. When I get the bike up to speed, I wobble wildly back and forth for a few rounds of pedals before I can get it straight. Same thing for slowing down on a turn (especially if it is a sudden slow down). This is obviously not going to fly in a urban commute. Any suggestion on how I can improve my riding technique?
    Doesn't seem to worry a great many riders in Copenhagen, go for it! What many do when coming to a turn is put a foot down and sort of hop around the corner. One could actually consider it safer than riding round, as often there is a pedestrian crossing just around the corner, and it is often obscured.

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    Quote Originally Posted by på beløb View Post
    Doesn't seem to worry a great many riders in Copenhagen, go for it! What many do when coming to a turn is put a foot down and sort of hop around the corner. One could actually consider it safer than riding round, as often there is a pedestrian crossing just around the corner, and it is often obscured.
    Good advice! I've been known to do that on a tight corner, especially lately on the new recumbent. I'm still getting used to handling the longer bicycle. My balance and steering fears evaporated one day, when I remembered that I could simply put my feet down if things got out of hand.
    When I ride, the troubles just roll off my back.

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    What you should do is what kids do. Ride like a nutcase, accelerate and slow down lots, fall off sometimes slalom round things, dive through narrow gaps, but do this in safe, low traffic places. This is how all kids learn bike handling, and it'll work for you too.

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    Quote Originally Posted by noteon View Post
    Yeah, the bike will tend to go where you're looking. This is even more true than in a car.

    So when you're in any kind of situation where you need to avoid something in the road, look where you want to be, not where you're afraid of ending up.


    All good advice on these posts but this one caught my eye "the bike will tend to go where you're looking". This is so true and understanding that makes a big difference with control.

    I would maybe lower your seat a little as this may help initially; feeling "wobbly" may be the result of your hips rocking if the seat is placed too high. When I did mountain biking I tended to have the seat lower as it felt easier when going around obstacles.

    The main thing is practice if you've gone out on your bike since posting this and had a practice you may already be feeling a lot safer.

    Also check out youtube there are a few mountain bike vids that show guys practicing bike skills that can be carried over to all biking.

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    Quote Originally Posted by firstian View Post
    Funny you brought that up. This was the problem I had when I learned to drive. My driving instructor kept yelling at me to look farther down the road and not the pot hole right under my nose . Now that I think about it, wobbling pretty much always happen when I'm slow *and* looking down near the front wheel (e.g., avoid that pothole since my rear is sore enough as it is). I can't believe this old bad habit is coming back...
    Bingo! All my kids made the same mistake when they were learning to ride. I was hoping to read that someone else had suggested this as your problem, and I'm glad it was mentioned. This is the first thing I would look at--make sure you look down the road, not in front of your front tire. :-) Oh, and I made the same mistake while learning how to drive. I remember being shocked how well looking down the road stopped me from weaving and bobbing. :-)

    Have fun!

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    Quote Originally Posted by firstian View Post
    To prepare for commuting by bike, I bought a bike and start practicing around the neighbor to get better with controlling it. It seems that I have very poor control on the direction of the bike at medium low speed. When I get the bike up to speed, I wobble wildly back and forth for a few rounds of pedals before I can get it straight. Same thing for slowing down on a turn (especially if it is a sudden slow down). This is obviously not going to fly in a urban commute. Any suggestion on how I can improve my riding technique?
    Get your hands closer to the stem.

    Use the least amount of pressure on your hands to control the bike.

    Later on you will learn to get on the drops and sprint of the saddle (probably the most difficult thing to do)
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  25. #25
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    Just to bust a bit of an urban tale....

    While looking through the corner will help with making the turn smoother the idea that the bike magically goes where you look is a cop out for not really understanding and using the right counter steering practices.

    So many of us learned to ride when young that we learned to control the bike by leaning our shoulders into the turn and/or the "trick" of looking into the turn and the bike just somehow follows and steers correctly because we've trained out shoulders and arms to do what needs to be done with these aids rather than to conciously learn to use bar pressure to balance and steer the bike. Now that's all fine and dandy for those that know now to ride and have taught themselves and ridden this way all along. There's legions of folks that do so.

    But it leaves us with difficulty in trying to train someone else since the link between the shoulder and head twisting doesn't address the need for proper use of bar pressure in a direct manner. This is the important aspect that goes unsaid because so many ride on instincts leaned so long ago that they don't even realize that they are pushing on the bars to make the bike turn so they don't communicate that to the struggling new or low time rider.

    Anyhow, I'm sorry for all the counter steering rants in this thread. And I apoligise to anyone that thinks I've attacked their ability to ride. It's just that I've seen far too many motorcyclists hurt or killed because they didn't understand how this works. I even had a couple of close calls myself early on before a big light bulb suddenly switched on. And nothing in the world is more frustrating than steering like you think you should but the bike is doing the opposite of what you want... especially with a huge drain ditch under one of your footpegs that is reaching for you.... I guess this is why I'm so passionate about this aspect of riding both here and in the motorcycle world.

    To the OP and anyone else that wants to learn or sharpen this knowledge. The bike will show you how. Just coast along and without doing anything else lightly push on one side and see where it goes. It's not snake oil and it doesn't require any big leap of faith. The bike will respond quickly and surely to bar pressures and in a way that is easy to directly appreciate, control and to use.

    And I promise that this is my last post on the topic for now.... I'm feeling far too evangelical from all my posts on it
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