On unlearning
April 29, 2015 2:32 PM   Subscribe

The backwards Brain Bicycle "I almost broke my brain with a backwards bicycle for the sake of Science."
posted by dhruva (95 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
I loved this video. I'm not sure it plays so well into Destin's conclusion about bias, but it does make you respect the "simple" things our brains can learn to do - like walking and riding a bike.

I spend a lot of time in my engineering job trying to design smarter controllers - things to keep a process or a machine stable by monitoring the outputs and adjusting the inputs. The human brain is an AMAZING controller. Back in the day we used to give operators a knob for every input on a new machine and tell them to make it work. Early gas engines had knobs for adjusting fuel ratios, spark advance, idle speed and more (come to think of it, it's kind of crazy that we still control engine power and not vehicle speed). Early helicopters were crazy unstable, but the pilots compensated. Go humans!
posted by Popular Ethics at 2:51 PM on April 29, 2015 [12 favorites]


I can do this (make a video that challenges your preconceptions). What if we set up a situation where a grizzly bear tears out your throat once you've traveled three feet?
posted by rankfreudlite at 2:58 PM on April 29, 2015


…See, I dunno, my preconception is that I would not be able to ride that bicycle farther than three feet. Am I wrong?
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:05 PM on April 29, 2015


This was very entertaining but I didn't like the strongly asserted conclusions at all.

His sample size was very small and the correlation with age might as well have been random. Does he know that there are many people who ride these bikes all the time, taking money from marks by betting them they can't do the same? Can these people ride ordinary bikes too? How long did it take them to learn?

Most importantly, does he even know how to ride a bike of any sort? He can do it, but does he know how it works? Does he know that bikes reverse steer? does he know that his apparent belief that precession of the wheels is relevant is not in fact correct? If he knew these (and other) things, would he be able to transfer his skills between the two different types of bike more easily? Did he do any research at all, beyond skinning his shins several hundred times?

Oddly enough, many of these questions have occurred to me before. I've had most of the parts for making a bike like this lying around in my garage for rather too long, waiting for me to get it together to dust off the welder and find some answers. Perhaps this will be the thing that gets me to do it at last...
posted by merlynkline at 3:07 PM on April 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


When I watched this I came away with a different thought - that is was a decent illustration of the power of tight feedback loops. I really don't think bias has much to say on the matter as, opposed to, neural plasticity which isn't really cognitive at all.

When I work with people (who aren't young children) who are attempting to acquire new physical skills I am constantly reminded that regardless of their preferred learning mode the most efficient choice is always the available option with the shortest feedback loop.

"Teaching" i.e.: lecturing requires compilation and linking but a multi sensory activity with realtime feedback (like falling off a bike or tuning against a tone) is a neurological REPL.
posted by mce at 3:10 PM on April 29, 2015 [15 favorites]


Sounds a lot like inverted vision experiments. It's a fun thing to try on TV shows and the like.
posted by bonehead at 3:14 PM on April 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


Tight feedback loops indeed, but the brain is still interpreting the relationship between the fed-back information and the actions its a consequence of.

When my kids learned to ride bikes they had very different experiences. For number one, I failed her badly by failing to connect the fact that bikes reverse steer whereas trikes don't, with the fact that putting training wheels on a bike essentially turns it into a trike. So she learned to steer a trike and then, when I took the training wheels off, she had essentially the same experience we see in this video because suddenly the steering was all backwards.

For number two, instead of putting training wheels in I took the pedals off, making a balance-bike. So he learned to steer it with the reverse steering and all. That didn't take long and as soon as I put the pedals back on, he was riding perfectly.
posted by merlynkline at 3:20 PM on April 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


When I saw "backwards" and "bicycle" in the title, I thought this would be about Richard Klein's front-whele drive, rear-wheel steered bicycle, for which there was a prize of $5,000 for the first person to ride it under stipulated conditions.

There are details of some more crazy bikes in a talk by Karl Astrom (which seems to correspond to an article in the IEEE control magazine).
posted by James Scott-Brown at 3:22 PM on April 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


I've seen these types of bikes at carnivals (USA, southern states, etc). I didn't try it but it was one of the few carnival games that paid out in cash. I think it was 10 to 1 odds, as in you pay 1 dollar to win 10 dollars if you can ride the bike 10 feet. without falling or touching feet. They even gave you 3 shots (probably to suck the crowd in).

No one could do it in the 20 mins that I stood by watching. Dude was making a killing. He could ride it, of course, but I wonder how long it took him working with it to master it.

I'm surprised, kinda sorta, that he lost his ability to ride a real bike.

Good post, thanks.
posted by RolandOfEld at 3:25 PM on April 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


You can do something like this yourself. Flip your monitor 180 degrees (Control panel, display) and try to close this window. Muscle memory is a funny thing and incredibly resilient to executive override.

A bajillion years ago when I was a kid, my grandfather said something was as easy as falling off of a log. I tried doing that thing, and it was hard as hell. So, I asked him why he thought it would be easy. He says to me, "boy, have you ever tried falling off of a log?". So I did. For hours I tried to fall - not jump, but fall - from a log, on purpose. You just can't do it.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 3:35 PM on April 29, 2015 [6 favorites]


Nope, gimme the bike.

All my life, I've made a practice of learning weird and strange balancey, feedback thing-a-ma-jigs. Gimme a bike, and I can ride it forwards, backwards, with two wheels or three or only one. I can juggle pins on the unicycle, I can juggle while on a slack line. I've ridden bikes that have an extra hinge in the head tube. It takes a little while, but certainly not a month. Gimme a bike and an afternoon, and you will see a wheelie machine.

There's nothing amazing about me, I just have the understanding on how to learn the new thing, without having the old thing be too much of an influence. I love when the brain clicks into the new way of doing things. You feel the same thing with learning a new language.

Perhaps the dude in the video isn't interpreting that he's a victim of his brain's attempt to come to a shortcut of his, "riding a bike" brain program. He's just not understanding (to stretch the metaphor more), that function needs a new paramater passed he's never seen before: the "handlebar relationship". Seriously, the same problem happens with people on sailboats when they move from a tiller, to a wheel. It's not insurmountable.

Gimme the bike. Gimme the bike.
posted by alex_skazat at 3:42 PM on April 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


Far too many years ago, when I had the joy of working front-line tech support, I once had a gentleman call in to complain the that the buttons on his mouse had the opposite functions to those described in the manual for our software. I eventually worked out that he was using the mouse reversed, with the wire coming towards him, and had always done this. He didn't think it odd that the pointer movements on the screen were opposite to his mouse movements.

Needless to say, I had to try this. As Pogo_Fuzzybutt says, it turns out that muscle memory is incredibly resilient to executive override. But then I had a bright idea - all I had to do was imagine there was a stiff bar connecting the mouse to the pointer, with a pivot in the middle. Suddenly, it was easy and I could use the mouse reversed almost as easily as normal. Unlike our trick cyclist, I could switch between this and normal mode without difficulty.

I suspect a similar epiphany is all that's required to ride the trick bike. I really must dig out that arc welder...
posted by merlynkline at 3:47 PM on April 29, 2015 [11 favorites]


I have a few times got myself it a weird loop where I assume X when it is actually Not X. So I tell myself "It's the other way from what you would guess" which works out for a while but then I start thinking Not X first and then tell myself no, it's actually X. It loops around for a while until I finally figure out a better what of determining if it's X or Not X.
posted by ckape at 3:53 PM on April 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


Sorry, no. It's not merely disorientation, it's also low-velocity speed wobble.

Getting onto a bicycle creates vibration, which is countered by balancing by the rider - in other words, controlled wobbling. By riding the bike, the properly adjusted components damper the gentler vibrations/wobbles enough so the motion of the bike can better aid in keeping the rider balanced. This is why truing - balancing the front wheel - is important in assembling and maintaining modern bicycles.

The modified steering mechanism extrudes the handlebars' control of the steering forks at least an inch away from the frame column, generating greater oscillation to the point where the rider's wobbles are amplified. Certain builds of motorcycles, including outlaw choppers and home made scramblers/cafe racers had this problem, which was reduced with proper dampening of the steering forks, in addition to controlled movement and crouch while riding.
posted by Smart Dalek at 4:01 PM on April 29, 2015 [9 favorites]


Indeed 'its the opposite of what you think' works right up until you start thinking correctly.
posted by pwnguin at 4:01 PM on April 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


The narration weirdly confuses cognition with motor programming. They're totally distinct neurological processes.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:01 PM on April 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Flip your monitor 180 degrees (Control panel, display) and try to close this window.

After having dealt with many clients who have accidentally done this to themselves, I'm pretty good at dealing with rotated views and reversed mouse buttons. Took a while the first couple times, though.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 4:05 PM on April 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


I knew a guy who rode a fixie, back before it was popular, and he said it was a great theft deterrent - you could pick up your bicycle at the first corner the thief came to, as they'd fall off.

Come to think of it, that guy had a full wielding kit, I should probably send him this video. The unstealable bike market could be massive.
posted by The River Ivel at 4:09 PM on April 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Most importantly, does he even know how to ride a bike of any sort? He can do it, but does he know how it works?

This was precisely his point, re: "knowing" ≠ "understanding", no?
posted by Navelgazer at 4:28 PM on April 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


merlynkline: "For number one, I failed her badly by failing to connect the fact that bikes reverse steer whereas trikes don't, with the fact that putting training wheels on a bike essentially turns it into a trike."

What? Are the trikes kids these days have completely different from the one I had when I was a kid? On that, you turned the handlebars clockwise to turn the front wheel form clockwise, which makes it turn to the right, just like on a normal bicycle. And I don't see how training wheels change anything...
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 4:42 PM on April 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


This is muscle memory a thousand percent. It's the same reason that practically any video game sold for the PC today includes a control option to invert the Y axis -- for people who first learned to map mouse/joystick movement onto flight simulators, mouse down = look up and vice versa. Nothing to do with language learning, and I kind of doubt it's neuroplasticity so much as his 6 year old has many fewer years of ingrained muscle memory than he does, so can more readily modify it.
posted by axiom at 4:45 PM on April 29, 2015


Switching your hands to the wrong side of the handlebar does the same thing. I tried it once and instantly veered off course. I wonder if anyone had tried that on his reversed bike.

The bike should still ride no-handed just the same as a normal bike, since the trail on the front wheel doesn't change. The hard part would be getting up to speed without using the handlebar.
posted by jjj606 at 4:59 PM on April 29, 2015


In the video, he does show someone trying to ride it with their arms crossed, putting the hands on the opposite handlebars. They still fall over.
posted by JiBB at 5:04 PM on April 29, 2015


I wonder if you could ride it by putting one hand on the stem, it might change perceptions enough to let you ride it.

Then again we'll never know unless someone here digs out their arc welder and an old bike.
posted by Keith Talent at 5:14 PM on April 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


bikes reverse steer

I'm with Joakim Ziegler. What does this mean?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 5:14 PM on April 29, 2015


...for people who first learned to map mouse/joystick movement onto flight simulators who actually fly planes.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 5:31 PM on April 29, 2015


axiom: "I kind of doubt it's neuroplasticity so much as his 6 year old has many fewer years of ingrained muscle memory than he does, so can more readily modify it."

Isn't that kind of what neuroplasticity is?
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 5:35 PM on April 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


I thought it had more to do with recovery from brain damage, so unless he clonked himself in the head before getting onto the backward bike, I think there's a distinction. But, IANAD, so I could be completely wrong.
posted by axiom at 5:40 PM on April 29, 2015


Dread the streets of Somerville when the Scul learns of this.
posted by sammyo at 5:46 PM on April 29, 2015


Joakim Ziegler & Steely-eyed Missile Man:

I'm not sure what merlinklyne actually means, but here's a shot in the dark.

In motorcycling, there's a concept of "countersteering". Simply, to begin a right turn, you press forward on the right handlebar, turning the front wheel slightly to the left. What happens after this is a matter of massive internet debate, but a not-completely-wrong interpretation is that the wheels move to the left but the center-of-mass stays where it is, and the bike begins to lean right. During the turn, the front wheel then will automatically switch directions to the right, but it's subtle and hard to tell (partially due to the lean angle), especially since you're talking about changes of a few degrees at most.

Countersteering kicks in at around 7-10MPH, so it definitely happens on a bicycle. Maybe this is what they meant by "reverse steer"?
posted by Gilead at 5:49 PM on April 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


Does he know that bikes reverse steer?

Are you talking about "countersteering"? When I first learned to ride a motorcycle, I found all the discussion of "countersteering" to be incredibly confusing, since it's all about "push down on this bar to go the other direction" or whatever, when in fact all you're doing is "lean toward the direction you want to go" and whatever you happen to be doing with the handlebars is secondary to the goal of making the bike lean over. I don't think it actually helps to describe it as "countersteering", since at no point in the process do you actually *think* about turning the bike in the wrong direction.
posted by Mars Saxman at 5:49 PM on April 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


Switching your hands to the wrong side of the handlebar does the same thing. I tried it once and instantly veered off course. I wonder if anyone had tried that on his reversed bike.

I almost crashed a motorcycle that way. I was holding something in my left hand and reached over with my right hand to use the clutch lever wrong-handed, and instantly veered toward the edge of the road. I corrected and didn't crash, but when I experimented later with the same thing (in a parking lot this time) it was a really weird feeling. I know I could get good at it, but there would be a few crashes along the way.

Someone just beat me to the countersteering explanation. On both bicycles and motorcycles if you are looking for it, you can feel exactly where the transition is between slow-speed steering (which works just like on a tricycle) and countersteering, but I think most people are unaware of it and just ride instinctively. That can lead to crashing when the instinctive response is not the correct course of action, of course.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:52 PM on April 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


There's abundant evidence that children have more neuroplasticity than adults, starting with their ability to learn multiple languages without an accent before puberty if immersed, their massive burst of brain growth (a kindergartner's brain is 90% of adult size, the body doesn't get there till, well adulthood), their ability to learn to walk and talk at all— just pick up any neuroscience textbook. This is established science.

btw, you do know that muscle memory resides in the brain, right ;-)

and it is an algorithm and there isn't a clear distinction between "motor" and "cognitive"— in both instances, the brain is lazy and automates certain things. For example, when you say a greeting that is typical in one setting but not quite right in another— that's both motor and cognition combined and it's a little program that you run and sometimes you run it at the wrong time. Like when the waiter says "Enjoy your meal" and you say "You too."
posted by Maias at 5:53 PM on April 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


He conflates reflex and instinct with "understanding," which he implies is a higher sort of knowing. That is, gut feelings are somehow truer than and superior to mere knowledge. This is exactly the sort of modern American proto-crypto-fascist "thinking" that Stephen Colbert's whole schtick ("truthiness") was lamponing.

The reason you don't forget how to ride a bike (or walk, or eat, or mate, or throw a Frisbee, or do a million other commonplace things) is because it doesn't involve any understanding. No thinking. You can ride without understanding the physics at all.

We've talked about this guy before, when the response to a different video tempted him to offer a pointless public defense of his insistence that his kids call him "sir." His little science videos should be right up my alley, but he personally creeps me out.

I have suspected that he's a semi-secret right wing loon, who could talk your ear off with long logical-sounding rationalizations for nutty views if you gave him the chance. I've met engineers like that before: they imagine they are perfectly rational in their engineering work, and they imagine that's because they are rational beings in all ways, including their politics. One specific type of Engineer's Disease.
posted by Western Infidels at 5:58 PM on April 29, 2015 [6 favorites]


"I knew a guy who rode a fixie, back before it was popular"

All hail the hipster king!
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 6:01 PM on April 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


This reminds me of Apple's decision to reverse the scroll pad on MacBooks so that you had to push up to scroll down. I spent about 10 minutes with that before reverting. Hopefully Apple doesn't get into the bike business or we'll all be riding beautiful versions of this thing.
posted by Rumple at 6:36 PM on April 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


I knew it had to be slightly-creepy-dad-balloon-guy-.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 6:45 PM on April 29, 2015


This reminds me of Apple's decision to reverse the scroll pad on MacBooks so that you had to push up to scroll down.

It threw me at first, but when I realized that with the change, I'm now doing the same "flick up to scroll down" as on my phone and tablet, it makes for a much more unified computing experience across devices.
posted by xedrik at 6:55 PM on April 29, 2015


Mrs. Max's Subaru has what I consider reversed switches for the windows, and it throws me every time.
posted by maxwelton at 7:22 PM on April 29, 2015


Re: countersteering: That's weird. I've never ridden motorcycle, but I have ridden a bicycle many times, and I have never been conscious of this effect. When I want to turn right, I turn the handlebars right, and when I want to turn left, I turn the handlebars left.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:32 PM on April 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yes, but apparently, according to some people in this thread, to turn a tricycle right you turn the handlebars left. I shall have to look closely on the playground and if I see any three year olds doing this wrong I'll give them a stern talking to.
posted by Rumple at 9:23 PM on April 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


"I have suspected that he's a semi-secret right wing loon..."

...and from that other thread...

"I guess deep down I'm sure he's about to tell me that Jesus wants me to join the military."

You know, there's a word for people who negatively stereotype folks based on the way they look and talk. How about we talk about the actual contents of the video and not the imaginary version of this guy that you've invented.
posted by buriednexttoyou at 9:29 PM on April 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


Hold on. Generations of kids have learned to ride bikes (myself included) with training wheels, but your preferred solution was to... remove the pedals?
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 9:34 PM on April 29, 2015


This is exactly the sort of modern American proto-crypto-fascist "thinking" that Stephen Colbert's whole schtick ("truthiness") was lamponing.

Is this a parody? Like right-wingers and Colbert, I honestly can't tell.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:37 PM on April 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Generations of kids have learned to ride bikes (myself included) with training wheels, but your preferred solution was to... remove the pedals?

Yup. This, and balance bikes, are a Thing. Turns out, sometimes the old ways are not the best.
posted by tigrrrlily at 10:17 PM on April 29, 2015 [5 favorites]


Rumple: "This reminds me of Apple's decision to reverse the scroll pad on MacBooks so that you had to push up to scroll down. I spent about 10 minutes with that before reverting."

I spent about half an hour with it, and then I was used to it, since it worked like my phone. No problems since.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 10:19 PM on April 29, 2015


buriednexttoyou: "You know, there's a word for people who negatively stereotype folks based on the way they look and talk. How about we talk about the actual contents of the video and not the imaginary version of this guy that you've invented."

I prefer to stereotype people based on their description of their parenting being the title of a book on "biblical parenting" that advocates physical punishment. And yeah, I've been vaguely creeped out by this guy in his videos since a while back, the whole parenting discussion helped me put my finger on it.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 10:30 PM on April 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


A friend of mine built one of these back in the 90's for Cyclecyde I tried it and it was just impossible but one of the folks in the group could do it just fine.
The other one that looked impossible to ride was just a little difficult, it had a additional pivot point in the body under the seat so the front and rear wheel could be as much as as 2 ft out of line with each other, I had no problem with this one but the thing would go all over the place.
posted by boilermonster at 11:04 PM on April 29, 2015


Apple's change made the trackpad finally make sense. Up and down finally worked like left and right.

Now, calculators vs phone pads...
posted by five fresh fish at 11:09 PM on April 29, 2015


Anyone who has driven a boat with a small outboard engine should catch on to the rear-steered bike, no?
posted by five fresh fish at 11:11 PM on April 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


As others have said - what I called reverse steering is what is often referred to as countersteering. Most non-motorcyclists I mention this to, even very experienced cyclists, are disbelieving until they go and try it. Get on a bike, get moving comfortably and then relax your grip on the bars and (very!) gently push the right hand bar forwards. The bike will turn to the right.

Trikes do not do this and bikes with training wheels are trikes to that extent. And so yes, I removed the pedals from my son's bike until he was confident pushing himself along with his feet (not long), at which point he had learned reverse steering and was able to pedal without having to re-learn.

There is indeed much evidence that younger brains are more plastic but it's not in this video.

(Sorry - was night time here)
posted by merlynkline at 11:44 PM on April 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


Smart Dalek: The modified steering mechanism extrudes the handlebars' control of the steering forks at least an inch away from the frame column

Having built bikes with significantly worse steering geometry than this one in every respect except the reversing thing I can tell you that while that offset will certainly make the steering behaviour less than optimal it won't make a bike so difficult to ride that you can make a living betting people 10-1 that they won't be able to ride it 10 feet.
posted by merlynkline at 12:00 AM on April 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


I doubt a slow speed bike (or cycle) is counter steering at walking speed.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:01 AM on April 30, 2015


Bicycles are unstable enough at walking speed that it's hard (for me, anyway) to tell if they countersteer. But I too doubt they do.

This whole thing is difficult to explain. You'd might expect you'd be able to do better riding one of these things if you didn't touch the handlebars or if you pulled a wheelie (assuming you can do those things on a normal bike) but that turns out not to be the case. In fact, a bit of reading around will tell you that the whole subject of bicycle steering is not as well understood as you might imagine. As you might have gathered, this has been a matter of some interest to me in the past, which is why I have the parts to make one of these lying around in my garage. Surely I can make the time?...
posted by merlynkline at 12:07 AM on April 30, 2015


I kind of doubt it's neuroplasticity so much as his 6 year old has many fewer years of ingrained muscle memory than he does

"Muscle" memory is actually cerebellar memory, if I recall correctly.
posted by flabdablet at 12:08 AM on April 30, 2015


I've tried a reverse-steer bike that someone at my Land Rover owner's association had welded up, and not only was it impossible to ride, it was INCREDIBLY frustrating, because it seems so straight-forward. I climbed on it thinking "now I'm just going to reverse the normal steering pattern in my brain, must be easy", but I couldn't ride it more than a meter or so.

But just like the fixie guy mentioned up-thread, I imagined it would be an excellent theft deterrent. After watching the video, though, I'm glad I never learned and slightly broke my brain...
posted by Harald74 at 12:44 AM on April 30, 2015


Generations of kids have learned to ride bikes (myself included) with training wheels,

Me too, but training wheels taught me nothing about riding a bike except where my hands and feet were supposed to go. I still had those wobbly as hell initial attempts and crashes after the training wheels were removed. Why? Because I had zero experience balancing a 2 wheeled bike. I knew how to propel a stable 4-wheeled bike-with-training-wheels but that has nothing to do with balancing a 2-wheel bike.

The idea nowadays is if you start kids off on balance bikes (either balance bikes or just regular bikes with pedals removed), with the seats low enough that they can easily touch the ground, the kids get used to scooting along and balancing a 2-wheeled bike, and as they get more confident they will go faster, and use their feet on the ground less. Then eventually they can get the pedals put back on/move to a pedal bike, and the only change is there's now pedals, and they already know how to balance a 2-wheeled bike, instead of having to learn the balancing from scratch like if they'd started with training wheels.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 2:29 AM on April 30, 2015 [4 favorites]


Here is a pair of very simple flash games that invert your mouse control. They are not about a complex motor skill like riding a bike, of course, but if you're curious to try something slightly similar from the comfort of your home or office, this could be a bit of harmless fun. Beware the loud and annoying level completion sounds though.

http://www.andkon.com/arcade/obstacles/reverse/
http://www.andkon.com/arcade/obstacles/reverse2/
posted by tykky at 5:42 AM on April 30, 2015


In videogames, you can often switch the Y-Axis, from push forward to go down, to push forward to go up. Why don't we have the same issues vertically as horizontally?
posted by exparrot at 6:16 AM on April 30, 2015


Most non-motorcyclists I mention this to, even very experienced cyclists, are disbelieving until they go and try it. Get on a bike, get moving comfortably and then relax your grip on the bars and (very!) gently push the right hand bar forwards. The bike will turn to the right.

I don't actually disbelieve that this effect exists, nor that it is useful for something like a motorcycle where you are often making subtle directional changes at higher speeds. What I rather disbelieve is that this effect could be strong enough to be capable of derailing someone who is learning to ride a bike (at what speeds?) but so subtle that neither I nor apparently lots of people who ride bikes have ever noticed it.

Incidentally, this all reminds me of the adverse yaw effect, the reason that aircraft have rudders.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 7:17 AM on April 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


Switching your hands to the wrong side of the handlebar does the same thing. I tried it once and instantly veered off course. I wonder if anyone had tried that on his reversed bike.
In the video, one guy tries that, and fails like everyone else.
posted by MtDewd at 8:01 AM on April 30, 2015


exparrot: "In videogames, you can often switch the Y-Axis, from push forward to go down, to push forward to go up. Why don't we have the same issues vertically as horizontally?"

Maybe because forward = up is arbitrary, while right = right makes a little too much sense?
posted by RobotHero at 8:06 AM on April 30, 2015


Does he know that bikes reverse steer?

What do you mean by this? I thought that the rigged bike reverse steers. I obviously am misunderstanding this term.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:24 AM on April 30, 2015


We covered that, yo. merlynkline was referring to countersteering, an effect whose importance to recreational bike riding I am a bit skeptical of, but I will certainly be more aware of what my handlebars and body are doing the next time I am riding, thanks to this thread.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:29 AM on April 30, 2015


When I want to turn right, I turn the handlebars right, and when I want to turn left, I turn the handlebars left.

No, you don't--unless you're cycling at very slow speeds. You either keep the wheels completely straight or, more commonly, initiate the turn to the right by an initial small move of the handlebars in the opposite direction.

It's fascinating how there are so many of these things we do absolutely automatically without really knowing how we do them or what we're doing. I came across a great example of this recently: you ask someone to imagine they're driving a car on the freeway and then to mime what they do with the steering wheel when they change from one lane to the next. Tell them to think about it really hard, to visualize themselves driving the car, and then to go through the motions. This may be an activity that they safely and accurately complete hundreds of times per week. And yet if you ask them to do this, they will almost invariably do this: have their hands still either side of an imaginary steering wheel for a bit, turn the wheel to the right or left for a bit, and then return to their initial position...and scene. But of course, if they did that on the road they'd have just killed themselves, their passengers, and a few fellow-travelers on the freeway. Because of course, once you've turned the wheel to initiate the move to the adjacent lane you have to turn back past "straight" to correct the turn so that you're once again traveling parallel to your original course.

We do it automatically, of course, in real life--but we're entirely unaware of it.
posted by yoink at 9:32 AM on April 30, 2015 [3 favorites]


Hold on. Generations of kids have learned to ride bikes (myself included) with training wheels, but your preferred solution was to... remove the pedals?

I don't think kids learn to ride bikes because they have training wheels. My own experience and my observations of my two daughters and my granddaughter are that training wheels allow the kid to feel like they're riding a bike and the parent to feel they are safe but actually prevent them from getting that feel for balance necessary to ride without training wheels. They and I didn't actually learn to ride until the wheels came off. Small N, I know, so I am open to alternatives.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:37 AM on April 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


The importance of countersteering to recreational, or really any, biking is essentially nil because everybody does it automatically without knowing about it and I'm not aware of any further advantage to be gained by applying it consciously if you are already able to ride a bike. So it's just interesting in this sort of context.

OTOH see what ckape said upthread about X and Not X - now that you do know about it, beware >:)

And on preview, no - generations of kids (including one of mine :/) have learned to ride bikes despite having training wheels.
posted by merlynkline at 9:40 AM on April 30, 2015


When I want to turn right, I turn the handlebars right, and when I want to turn left, I turn the handlebars left.

Well, my impression is that the first activity to turning a bicycle is to lean the direction of the turn. This makes the bike naturally turn in that direction, even if the handlebars remain fixed relative to the frame. You can see this if you take a gentle turn while riding without hands. I've never detected any reverse movement of the handlebars when I do that, so I don't believe there is any need or tendency for this "countersteering," although it might be something you can do during steering and it may or may not have advantages.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:40 AM on April 30, 2015


Yep - that's how it works. You turn the handlebars to the right and for an instant the bike steers right so it leans left and then you're steering left. The steering actually follows at that point. Of course there's no observable switchover; I'm sure you could describe it all with calculus or something.

If you try this it's amazing how much resistance there is in the steering once the turn starts. But you can easily imagine (without trying it!) what would happen if you pushed hard enough to overcome that resistance. That's essentially what happens when you ride the reverse-steering bike in the video.
posted by merlynkline at 9:44 AM on April 30, 2015


Mental Wimp: "Well, my impression is that the first activity to turning a bicycle is to lean the direction of the turn."

I've become conscious that I do the slight left turn before a right turn thing, and my possibly unscientific way of explaining it to myself is that it actually is the quickest way to lean to the right.

Think about it, your body is just up in the air, the only parts touching the ground are the wheels. So it's faster to move your wheels to the left than to move your body to the right.

But at this point it's just an ingrained habit for me.
posted by RobotHero at 9:52 AM on April 30, 2015


It's only just occurred to me but I now suspect that if you were to only lean your body to the right then there'd just be an equal-and-opposite reaction causing the bike to lean, and thus steer, to the left. So then you'd be leaning right with the bike steering left. That might be a bad thing.

I wonder if it's possible to test that idea...
posted by merlynkline at 9:59 AM on April 30, 2015


I'm sure it'll be like falling off a log. You just have to fight against every ingrained habit you have about how to ride a bike.
posted by RobotHero at 10:00 AM on April 30, 2015


It's only just occurred to me but I now suspect that if you were to only lean your body to the right then there'd just be an equal-and-opposite reaction causing the bike to lean, and thus steer, to the left.

I think what actually happens is that you proceed straight ahead with the bike leaning over to the left and your body cranked over to the right.
posted by yoink at 10:03 AM on April 30, 2015


But you can steer a bike through leaning without touching the handle bars.
posted by RobotHero at 10:10 AM on April 30, 2015


This is so crazy! Thanks to this thread, I am going to be paying very close attention to my steering and the bike's response the next time I am cycling. Thanks, merlynkline!

I hope I don't crash!
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:42 AM on April 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


Indeed but when you lean a bike without touching the handlebars, the handlebars still turn into the steer. If you make a bike that can't turn the handlebars at all then that will be impossible to ride, rather than just hard to ride like the reverse steering bike here. You can try that by getting a bike with a steering lock (more common in some places than others).
posted by merlynkline at 10:42 AM on April 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


Of course, everything you think you know about steering bicycles and similar may actually be wrong: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KX8HRWv4U94
posted by merlynkline at 10:43 AM on April 30, 2015


Generations of kids have learned to ride bikes (myself included) with training wheels, but your preferred solution was to... remove the pedals?

This is ABSOLUTELY how to teach somebody, child or adult, how to ride a bike. Most bike shops know this, and all organizations that teach people who to ride bikes as part of their work know this. But, most ordinary people don't know this.

The problem with training wheels is that they don't teach you how to ride a bike. Watch a child riding a bike with training wheels. They're leaning over to one side, pedaling along, fully supported by this one training wheel. At that point, it's not a bicycle, and they haven't learned anything except how to pedal.

But, the difficult part of riding the bike is getting how leaning and steering work together. Pedaling is easy. When you take the pedals off, you prevent the student from thinking that the thing they have to learn is how to push the pedals. They scoot along with their feet, and they get how the balance/steering/leaning thing works. That's the hard part. They conquer that first.

Then put pedals on and they'll be riding.
posted by entropone at 1:10 PM on April 30, 2015 [4 favorites]


The bike counter-steering thing is like "what color is this dress", right? I ride a bike and to turn left I steer left and to turn right I steer right. My kids went from training wheels to normal in the last couple of years, and I'm 99% sure they didn't change which direction they turn the handlebars. I don't get it!

The "take the pedals off" thing is the bomb though. I tried teaching my youngest by just removing training wheels and he made no progress after like 6 sessions (a week apart though). But then I took the pedals off for like an hour, put 'em back on and bingo, he can ride a bike. Like magic! For example, here's a YouTube video of the method..
posted by freecellwizard at 1:50 PM on April 30, 2015


So, I just checked out a bunch of videos on the miracle of counter-steering. They all look to me like an affectation, a little like when the car in front of you prepares for a left-hand turn by first moving over to the right a little bit.

The tell is that when the bike or motorcycle is doing the counter-steering in preparation for, e.g., a left-hand turn by turning the handlebars slightly to the right, the vehicle first goes which way? Right. So, if this counter-steering is necessary to take a turn, how does this slight right-hand turn happen without first a slight turn to the left, which according to the counter-steering hypothesis would be necessary?

There may be some advantage to doing this, but it looks deliberate and I'm pretty sure I don't do it instinctively or otherwise when I lean into a turn (unless I need to widen my turn first).
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:15 PM on April 30, 2015


So, if this counter-steering is necessary to take a turn, how does this slight right-hand turn happen without first a slight turn to the left, which according to the counter-steering hypothesis would be necessary?

Hmm. The version of the claim that I've encountered isn't that you always must countersteer in order to turn at all, but that countersteering lets you get into a deeper/sharper turn faster than you otherwise could. So a deep/sharp turn to the right will go more smoothly if you precede it with a shallow counter-turn to the left. (And that shallow counter-turn doesn't need to be preceded by anything, because it's only a shallow turn.)

But that may not be the version of the claim that others are arguing for in here — I'm not sure.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:40 PM on April 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm not arguing for particular versions of the claim because I'm not sure and, if you read enough about this, you will discover that's err... not uncommon. I know for sure that countersteering works, from personal experience. I feel that it is a necessary part of the steering process on a normal bicycle but that in normal use, even by yourself, it is subtle enough that you need to be observing carefully to detect it. You can watch endless videos of this on youtube and you may or may not be able to persuade yourself that they are real. I recommend (a) reading the Wikipedia article on it (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Countersteering), (b) getting on your bike and trying to observe what's really going on, and (c) vanishing down the rabbit hole of further research if you have not by that point lost interest completely.
posted by merlynkline at 2:45 PM on April 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


Geek out if you really must:
http://www.phys.lsu.edu/faculty/gonzalez/Teaching/Phys7221/vol59no9p51_56.pdf

(etc ad nauseum)
posted by merlynkline at 2:51 PM on April 30, 2015 [3 favorites]


This made the rounds a few year ago in regards to countersteering. It's basically a motorcycle with a second set of handlebars which aren't attached to the wheel that was built to debunk "lean to turn" or bodyweight turning idea.
posted by piedmont at 4:00 PM on April 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


One reason to consciously know about countersteering: give a bike that's about to turn a bit more room on the opposite side of the turn.
posted by idiopath at 9:48 PM on April 30, 2015


The physics of how a single track vehicle balances and behaves dynamically is very well understood. Motorcyle Dynamics, Motorcycle Handling and Chassis Design.
The first step is to understand how a bike balances It doesn't have anything to do with gyroscopic forces, it is all about the front wheel trail. Trail is the distance between where the head tube axis intersects the ground and where the tire touches the ground(like a shopping cart caster, the pivot is in front of the wheel). This makes your tire always want to be behind the axis when you are riding straight. It also makes the tire turn when the bike leans. Take a bike stationary on the ground. Hold on to the seat(not the handlebars) and lean the bike to the side, the front wheel will turn in that direction, if you lean it the other way the wheel will turn in that direction. How does this make the bike stay upright? When the bike leans to the left, it steers to the left, moving the tires to the left, and back under your center of gravity, negating the lean angle. The larger the lean, the larger the steer angle and the larger the self-righting force. This behavior of the tire always trying to stay underneath the CG is how a bike balances.
Next is "how do I make my bike turn when it always wants to go straight?' To do this I have to keep the bike leaned to make the front wheel turn (due to the trail) and counteract the centrifugal force pushing to the side on my body. I have to stop the bikes tendency to move the tire back under the CG. This is done by applying counter force on the handlebars. I apply a force to the handlebar to keep it from turning and moving the tires back underneath me. Because of the lean angle, because I'm no longer trying to stand myself up, the front tire steers in the direction of the turn. I reduce this angle slightly by applying the counter force to the handlebar. The bike is leaning and steering to the left but I am applying force to steer the bike to the right. To end the turn the counter force is reduced and the wheel is allowed to steer more to the left, moving the tires back underneath the CG.
Bikes and motorcycles actually travel down the road in a very slight S curve. Most bike riders don't actually explicitly counter-steer, they cancel out the self centering behavior by applying counter-force on the handlebars. To turn more aggressively I want more offset faster so that I lean faster. To lean faster a counter-steer (noticeable movement of the handlebars opposite the desired of turn direction) is applied move that tire to the side now.
The counter steer is not something that is taught. Instead, it is picked up in the algorithm that your brain creates from the input:output behavior that doesn't care about that whole 'why' portion of the problem. If you lean to the left with both hands on a table the force on your left hand is larger than the force on your right hand. This is where the counter steer force on the handlebars comes from and why people say they just lean, not counter steer. They are counter steering, it is just masked by what is a normal consequence of leaning.

TL:DR
Counter steering is actually force, not angle. You keep the bike from standing up all the way by keeping it from steering to the side enough. Most people don't realize that when they lean, the forces on their hands change and they are putting in the counter steer force that way.
posted by TheJoven at 6:08 AM on May 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


Hunh, I've been doing this "counter steer" all my life without knowing that it was special, as does almost every cyclist I know.

I found this 5-minute explanation helpful. In brief however, "counter steer" is that momentary wobble you do before committing to a turn. Most folks on a bicycle do it, though I imagine it's pretty much reflexive. By turning out, then in, you destabilize the bike the right way to lean into the turn. On a bicycle, it's so quick as to be almost instantaneous and likely largely done with body english, which is probably why people don't remark on it. Motorbikes are a bit to heavy for that, so I suspect it's more noticeable to powered bike riders.
posted by bonehead at 6:47 AM on May 1, 2015


Thanks TheJoven. That seems crystal clear, to me anyway. And Tony Foale da man, for sure.
posted by merlynkline at 7:29 AM on May 1, 2015


I ride a bike and to turn left I steer left and to turn right I steer right.

I think you're imagining a much more dramatic "turning" of the handlebars than people are talking about. We're not saying that in order to turn right you begin by cranking the front wheel from 12 o'clock to 9 o'clock while you're going 20 mph.

In fact, when you're cycling at any appreciable speed, you're not usually conscious of moving the handlebars at all to turn. It feels like you just lean one way or the other. If you're ever cycled with areo-bars (with your forearms down on little cups and your hands out in front) it really feels like the handlebars are more or less "locked." Of course, they're not (if they were, you'd fall off). But the movements you make are all very minimal.
posted by yoink at 8:41 AM on May 1, 2015


It's an essential skill to learn for even low-speed mountain biking though. In that case, where control is so important, that pre-turn flick is a conscious thing.
posted by bonehead at 8:54 AM on May 1, 2015


I had a bike with training wheels as a boy.. I had been given all of this Serious Bicycle Advice from people about making sure the seat was high enough and I should mount it like a horse because I am a boy. They wanted to turn me into some kind of exemplar of Tour de France poise and form, when I couldn't even make the thing go forward yet. It's as if they had a textbook in their heads that went: Chapter One: TRACK STANDS.

But it was being able to casually scoot around on a neighbour's small "girl's bike" that gave me the opportunity to learn to ride. My feet touched the ground nearly always, so I wasn't thinking about falling over instead of going forward. I could practise at slower speeds than pedalling would allow. I could move all the relevant parts and test my instincts and reactions before actually trying the full combination.

So yes, I taught my little one to ride on a pedalless bike at age 3, and then moved up to a 16" at around age four. The last thing learned was how to start from a dead stop. No falling over ever happened, because the first instinct was always to put a foot to the ground. Stabilisers (training wheels) are horrible and should never be used ever.

As for me as an adult? I ride one of these now. The number of tiny details taken care of to ensure a comfortable and practical ride are just astounding. Instead of thinking "I'm a boy, so I'm doing it wrong by stepping over the centre to mount", I just have a bike that works great.

I sit upright so I can see everything and they can see me, the bike needs almost no maintenance (gear shifts and brakes and dynamos are all in-hub, the chain is inside a vinyl bag, etc), and it's designed for ordinary people to put their groceries on for a ride back from the shops. Also, because I'm a boy, I don't want to lean forward and squash my delicate externalised genitalia. So that wide comfy seat is great.

Unfortunately that frame is still marketed as "ladies" or "girls", and the protective skirting over the rear wheel is called a "skirt guard" in English, making people think it's only relevant for people who wear skirts while riding (a common folkloric reason for the frame design as well). So this design gets unduly gendered, which is one of many uphill battles bicycles face in entering everyday culture in most countries.

Almost everything America and Britain know about bicycles is wrong. There are so many biases to overcome still, and they're not about which way the handlebars turn.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 3:14 AM on May 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


space hobo: Gazelle makes lovely bikes! And the Dutch make lovely intersections. Maybe someday the rest of the world will see sense. (-:

it is all about the front wheel trail

Yep. Well, maybe.

Except on bikes like the Python recumbents, where the negative trail should, by conventional theory, instantly flip the bike into a hard turn as soon as it moves forward. The dynamics of these are rather different, and people frequently claim that they're impossible to ride.

I've ridden several Pythons, after a few months of practice. It was like re-learning how to ride a bike, and the experience was similar to what he describes in the "backwards bike" video - lots of failures and bemused neighbors. But I learned it, and then rode 600 miles on one with a load of camping gear, and then commuted on it for a few years.

I can still ride conventional bikes with positive trail, and I can switch back and forth when I feel like it. I assume his problem was that he didn't simultaneously ride a bike with conventional steering, as I did. It reminds me of juggling, which I've been doing for several months now - if I learn a new pattern and practice it exclusively, I briefly lose the knack for other, similar patterns. If I alternate my practice, I learn the new pattern without forgetting others.

(Also, I've seen several of these "backwards bikes". I've seen the crossed-arms trick work. I don't recall seeing anyone who bothered to practice enough to ride one "normally" until now!)
posted by sibilatorix at 4:13 PM on May 2, 2015


Except on bikes like the Python recumbents,

Whoa, thanks for the link! Building a recumbent is most certainly in my 5 year plan and that looks like a dazzlingly simple way to start. Saved.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:17 PM on May 3, 2015


Like rum-soaked space hobo our middle child got a pedalless bike / balance bike handed to him at an early age. The result was that he was able to ride a regular bicycle the very first time he tried one. It surprised the hell out of me, because I was holding on to his bike while running along, and when I tentatively let go, he just disappeared down the road. I was expecting to have to catch him after two or three seconds of letting go, not that he would simply accelerate away from me.

Since I hadn't explained the brakes to him, I found him in a ditch down the road, but all in one piece and happy as a clam.
posted by Harald74 at 3:29 AM on May 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


Harald74: My little one practised on a basketball court, and tended to stop by ramming the front tyre into something sturdy (the brakes were understood, but the grips were too far for tiny hands). For some approaches this would be a planter or concrete shelf, but the really astonishing thing was that the pole holding the basket up was no problem for a ramming-stop target. I still think about that ☺
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 2:30 PM on May 4, 2015


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