Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Irony of Training Wheels

Like Riding a Bike

The other day, I was coming home from work and saw a bunch of kids out riding their bikes. These kids were probably between 6 and 8 years old.

I took a second to observe how they maneuvered on their bicycles. The intriguing thing I noticed is how they instinctively, although a bit awkwardly, stabilized the lean of their bikes. As the bike started to lean too far in one direction, these kids instinctively knew to swing their handlebars in the direction of the fall to stop it. To them, they were simply weaving their way down the street.

It strikes me as odd that kids learn countersteering instinctively, despite all our attempts to teach them incorrectly.

Countersteering in a Nutshell

Even motorcycle riders who are clueless about countersteering will tell you that bikes turn by leaning...if you want a bike to turn, you have to lean it over. Yet most of them still think that they lean the bike with their body and steer with the handlebars.

Motorcycles and bicycles both "countersteer". This means that to get them to turn, you have to lean them over by turning the bars in the opposite direction that you want to turn in. This action destabilizes the bike, essentially "steering the wheels out from under you". Once the bike is leaned in, depending on the front-end geometry, the bike either turns on its own or allows the rider to steer it into the turn.

Training Bad Habits

We don't teach children this, though. When a child gets his first "big-kids bike", the parents inevitably attach "training wheels" to it. These training wheels sit on either side of the bike and prevent the bike from falling over.

Now training wheels have a purpose, but it's less to train riding techniques than it is to allow the child to build confidence in riding the bike. A child left to ride without the benefit of training wheels does not yet trust the bicycle to stabilize itself as it gets moving, nor are they comfortable moving at any speed. So training wheels keep the bike upright enough for a child to learn that, in a straight line at least, a bicycle at speed is stabilized by motion.

The downside to this is that with training wheels, a child learns to steer a bike the same way they would steel a car...by turning the bars TOWARD the direction they would want to go. Without training wheels, a quick turn to the right would make the bike suddenly fall to the left. But in this case, the left training wheel arrests the fall and the child confidently steers to the right, not realizing that this habit will require a lot of time un-training.

From Four to Two

Inevitably, the child becomes confident enough that mom and dad finally remove the training wheels. On the child's first trip out, one can often observe a "wobbling" behavior. As the child steers, the bike leans in the opposite direction, forcing the child to steer back in the other direction. But he commonly oversteers and has to correct back again, creating a gradual weave that all averages out to a straight line.

Turning is another matter. Most kids slow down severely to turn a bicycle when they first start riding. They do this because as they ride without training wheels, they notice how the bike falls to the outside of any turn initiated at speed. This makes it next to impossible to turn the bike while it's moving fast.

Fast Learners

Children, however, are very fast learners. They cleverly discover that if they "wind up" before the turn, i.e. steer the bike quickly out to the left before attempting to bang a fast right turn, they can take that right-hand turn with more speed than they ever could without the "wind-up" motion.

The "wind-up" motion is really a subconscious discovery of the art of countersteering. Although consciously the child is still thinking that they turn the bars in the direction they want to turn the bike, subconsciously, their "wind-up" motion for fast turns is what is REALLY doing the steering. By steering away, the bike leans into the turn and allows them to steer at high-speed without toppling over, since gravity and centripetal force are in balance.

Conscious vs. Subconscious Countersteering

Kids learn countersteering subconsciously. That means they're not really thinking about it and don't really know how it works. They're using it, and they likely understand that "something weird" is going on with their bikes. They know that turning into a fall stabilizes the bike and that swinging out before a turn lets them take the turn faster.

The problem is that kids' bicycles are still riding fairly slow. Once you throw a leg over a motorcycle, you're moving at highway-speeds. In a tight turn, you often don't have room in your lane to lean your bike by "swinging out".

Many riders simply slow down to a crawl to compensate for this. Others come up with other subconscious steering methods, thinking that they're leaning the bike by pressing their knee into the tank or weighting a footpeg. The truth is that they're still countersteering, they just don't know it.

The problem is that when an unexpected situation comes up, if you consciously believe that steering the bike in the direction of the turn will make it go in that direction, you're likely going to try to escape that situation by steering in the direction you want to turn, which will cause an uncomfortable bobble at best and a veer-off into the other direction at worst.

To be a safe and effective street-rider, let alone a FAST street-rider, learning to consciously countersteer a motorcycle is an absolute must.

That means learning to consciously push the inside bar forward and turn the bars in the opposite direction to lean the bike and thus steer it through a turn.

I'm sure I'll write more on Countersteering. It's one of my favorite topics.

3 comments:

  1. This is a great post. As a competitive bike racer (the kind you pedal) I find this stuff extremely interesting. As it relates to children using training wheels, you are spot-on. I'd like to link to this from my blog where we sell children's balance bikes. This kind of thinking needs to be no-brainer stuff for parents who happen to be cyclists or motor cyclists. Thanks.
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