All About A Motorcycle Steering Damper
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Shimmy, speed wobble, tank-slapper or head-shake – all names used to describe the characteristic of front end instability on a motorcycle or even a bicycle. Many riders never get to experience it, and it’s the kind of thing you’re better off not exploring, as it can be difficult to recover from. Even so, one day when all the factors are in line, unexpectedly, you’ll shimmy. A motorcycle steering damper is the item which will stabilize the motorcycle and offer you great riding – ‘peace of mind’.
Acceleration shimmy or “speed wobble” happens through a combination of elements upsetting the bike’s equilibrium, such as mere unevenness in the road surface. Usually when it happens rider reaction provides the solution – through panic, rolls off the throttle, reduces their speed and stops the shimmy.
Speed wobbles are more common on sport bikes and race bikes than on cruisers but happen nonetheless on any style of motorcycle or just about any two-wheeler for that fact. Sport bike advancements over the years have given us lighter, more powerful bikes accompanied by sharp steering geometry — high rake and trail angles. These produce great stability at high speeds and easy turning in corners, yet tend to become unstable at lower speeds, around 60-70 km/h. Therefore, one good way to keep control is by adding a steering damper, which indeed has become essential hardware on a sport bike and pretty much commonplace today.
Motorcycle Steering Damper is an Energy-absorbing Mechanism
Many new model sport bikes or touring models come with one attached, and if not, it’s a great item to negotiate in your initial motorcycle purchase package. Motorcycle steering dampers work well in achieving the right balance of maneuverable stability, plus they offer another huge benefit — peace of mind! A motorcycle steering damper is an energy-absorbing mechanism that dissipates the kinetic/motion energy around the steering axis.
In earlier days dampers were “friction creators” used on some bikes as early as the 1930’s. They worked like petite clutch plates in the steering column and could be tightened by a handle in the head-stock (steering head tube). Actually, fork specialists such as Öhlins also make steering dampers. And similar to forks being adjustable, so is your damper, where you can increase or decrease your handlebar play. There are usually a range of 12 – 16 different positions you can try out from pretty much zero damping to full on.
There are a few different types but no matter your preference you need to make sure you buy a damper approved by your motorcycle model manufacturer. Mounting is best done with the help of an expert, your qualified damper brand dealer or qualified service person.
Additionally, something to be aware of is that riders unknowingly can pull back on the handlebars while holding on as a consequence of acceleration forces. This creates extra force – a pull so to speak – on the handlebar area as well, adding to instability. It’s important to beware of the forces one applies on the handlebars – when I’m coaching or training I remind riders that motorcycle control input namely happens from the waist down just like in downhill skiing. Steering is but a minute timed input, ever so slight. Lean factors can be created by push steering, timed pressure on foot-pegs, hanging off, etc. Gripping the handlebars should be firm but even so, some riders unknowingly often apply a death grip to the bars.
Today’s bikes are less likely to exhibit speed wobble behaviour during daily use. This is thanks to better dampers, stiffer more solid front end designs and other general improvements in design and tire technology. However, if you’re going to go on the track or ride a bike with a lot of torque, you’ll definitely benefit from a damper!
By Vicki Gray
Editor, Founder MOTORESS; basic, advanced and race motorcycle instructor; certified for over 30 years. Motorcycle on-road and race licensing examiner. Trained, coached, examined riders for European, Caribbean and North American training institutes.