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A Case Against Counterbalancing
... And A Few Other MSF Teachings

By: James R. Davis

I can't begin to remember the number of times I have had someone tell me that the reason they do certain things on their bikes is because "the MSF says that's what you are supposed to do". While what the MSF teaches is more often right than wrong, they utterly fail at conveying an understanding of WHY their students are well advised to do certain things, and even worse, on many occasions their 'rules' make sense ONLY while riding on an MSF range during training, but that is not explained either.

For example, there is an exercise in the BRC that promotes the use of counterbalancing while doing slow speed tight turns. In that exercise the student is to shift his body weight toward the OUTSIDE of the turn that is to be made. (Just the opposite of shifting body weight INTO a turn and reaching for the pavement with the inside knee favored by the racing and sport bike crowd.)

So which of these body shifts is right? Which leads to most control of the bike? Why does the MSF teach a technique that is eschewed by the vast majority of 'performance' riders? Since the MSF teaches this counterbalancing to rank amateurs, does that mean it is the safest and most appropriate way to handle slow speed tight radius turns?

In order to understand this discussion you first need to have a fundamental understanding of the fact that almost everything about controlling a motorcycle when it is moving at speeds greater than about 10 mph is the reverse of what you do at slower speeds. Honest! Trust me!

You know, I'm sure, that at speeds slower than about 10 mph you push on the right grip in order to cause your bike to change direction to the LEFT, while at greater speeds you push of the right grip in order to change the bike's direction to the RIGHT (counter-steering). But have you consciously thought about the fact that while in a turn moving at slow speeds, if you slow down your bike will fall DOWN, but if you are moving at speeds greater than about 10 mph and you slow down, your bike will 'fall' UP? By that I mean, of course, that slowing down while in a turn at, say, 50 mph, will cause the bike to stand taller, not lean farther.

Thus, it should not be difficult for you to conclude that at speeds slower than about 10 mph the effect of counterbalancing (leaning to the outside of a turn) has some value that DOES NOT EXIST at greater speeds and that leaning your body INTO a turn (with knee reaching for the ground) has some value at greater speeds that DOES NOT EXIST when riding at slower speeds. The MSF teaches skills designed to safely navigate a training range at speeds of 20 mph or less. They teach counterbalancing for SLOW SPEED turns but DO NOT teach shifting the body INTO the turn.

You have, so far, decided that counterbalancing, therefore, must have something to do with SAFELY handling your bike at slow speeds. You would be wrong.

Instead, counterbalancing is taught as a useful skill, a tool in the tool bag if you will, to help newer riders control THEMSELVES in a slow speed sharp turn. That is, some (perhaps many) new riders are afraid of leaning their bikes at slow speed so they 'choke' and abort slow speed tight turns. The MSF provides their students with a practice TO OVERCOME THEIR FEAR OF LEANING where counterbalancing is used in order to keep the student's *BODY* (not the bike) more vertical and still make those turns. In fact, as you probably understand intellectually, what that causes is the *BIKE* to lean even farther than is necessary in order to make that turn.

Since you then can see that the bike can handle an even greater lean than you thought it could and make that turn while you are more comfortable being almost vertical, it follows that the bike could make that sharp slow-speed turn with ease if you didn't counterweight.

And now you are beginning to see a new picture. Rather than for purposes of showing a student how to more SAFELY handle a slow speed turn, they teach counterbalancing as a means for students to overcome their FEAR of leaning in order to accomplish a slow speed tight turn - though the MSF would rather claim that they teach it to make it EASIER for the student rather than less FEARFULL. Indeed, the use of counterbalancing is LESS SAFE, generally, than keeping your body in-line with the bike when you make a turn AT ANY SPEED.

Let me back that last sentence up a bit. Turning at slow speeds has as its greatest risk, falling down. That risk maximizes as the lean angle OF THE BIKE increases to where a peg drags. Counterbalancing results in the greatest BIKE LEAN ANGLE POSSIBLE - it encourages/invites that maximum risk level. Since the only body shifting technique taught by the MSF to beginning riders is counterbalancing, then it should not be a surprise to you that newly trained riders tend to do just that while in higher speed turns as well as during those parking lot practice sessions. They lean AWAY from turns where the bike lean angle is already getting large and THAT is when a peg drags.

Of course racers and 'performance' junkies on public roads do exactly the opposite and shift their bodies INTO their turns instead of counterbalancing - that makes the bike's lean angle less severe.

So, what about that practice is less safe than staying in-line with your body regardless of speed? Well, the answer to that is simply speed itself. There is not a road in this country where riding at the posted speed limit (or advisory speed) results in your bike leaning more than 30 degrees - well below the angle where peg dragging occurs. In other words, THE ONLY REASON 'performance' junkies lean INTO a turn is so that they can exceed the legal speed limit!!!

About fear ... it is life saving! It tends to keep you from standing with the toes from both feet over the edge of the cliff instead of just one while you are learning your limits. If you make a mistake and only have one set of toes over the edge when that edge gives way, you survive the mistake. Once you have mastered the fundamentals you no longer have any toes over the line and fear level disappears (or, better, has been converted to respect.)

After almost 50 years of riding there are times when I find myself to be afraid. Something new or unexpected presents itself as a threat. You can be sure that that fear causes just enough adrenalin to focus my attention and stimulate my response to that threat. One thing that INVARIABLY, for me, causes such an adrenalin reaction is dragging a peg. I do not EVER deliberately drag a peg so if it happens you can be sure that I have gotten my speed or estimate of the curve's radius wrong and that DEMANDS my reactive attention. And why I mention that is because as I said earlier, counterbalancing INVITES the dragging of a peg. So, I have never found its use appropriate, at least in my case. Better, by far, is to control the bike without adding the complexity of weight shifts and greater than necessary bike leans.

The MSF teaches counterbalancing. That is not a good enough excuse for you to use the technique, now that you know better.

There are other things that the MSF teaches during its Beginner Rider Course (BRC) that you should look closely at and understand before blindly following their advice. They, for example, tell you NOT to cover your front brake lever - indeed, will not allow you to do so during the class. Covering your front brake lever shaves about 1/10th of a second of reaction time in an emergency. That time occurs while you are travelling at your greatest speed. In other words, it will reduce your stopping distance by almost NINE FEET if you are traveling at 60 mph and need to do an emergency stop. Not covering that lever makes marginal sense while you are doing slow speed maneuvers during an MSF BRC class, but it is absolutely goofy advice to follow, generally. Better, by far, than simply prohibiting new riders from covering their brake lever while in the BRC in order to protect the student from their own UNINFORMED MISTAKES in the use of that lever, they should TEACH STUDENTS HOW TO USE THAT FRONT BRAKE LEVER WHENEVER IT IS NEEDED, REGARDLESS OF SPEED!!!

Similarly, they insist that you place one foot (the left one) on the ground when you come to a stop. That, they insist, leaves your right foot on the brake pedal (as if your front brake by itself is insufficient to keep you from moving). That advice also lacks sufficient justification to be followed in the real world as you can EXPECT, from time to time, to find yourself on a sloped roadway or with a roadway depression right where your left foot lands when you stop your bike. Virtually all motorcycles are larger and heavier than those used to train students by the MSF. Very few people have legs strong enough to prevent a modern/heavy street legal bike from falling over if it starts to fall over at a stop, which is exactly what will happen when you 'short leg' the beast. You are well advised to plant BOTH FEET on the ground when you bring your bike to a stop - every time.

So, please, don't explain to me that the REASON you do this or that with your bike is because the MSF told you to do so unless you UNDERSTAND WHY!!! You learn that, unfortunately, someplace other than during an MSF training class.

Copyright 1992 - 2024 by The Master Strategy Group, all rights reserved.

(James R. Davis is a recognized expert witness in the fields of Motorcycle Safety/Dynamics.)

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