Cycling and Why Can I Feel the Front Wheel “Gyroscoping” When I Turn? This Is NEVER Something to Ignore!
Okay, so there are a few things that’ll cause the front wheel to feel like it’s “gyroscoping” and they’re all important – actually “important” doesn’t do this justice. They’re “pants on fire” urgent.
So, you’re riding down the road and you notice that when you turn the bike, it feels like the front wheel is fighting against the lean of the bike – you can feel the wheel try to right itself. First, this is normal in a wheel. If a wheel is rotating, spinning, it naturally wants to find dead upright. Take your front wheel off and hold it by the skewers, giving it a spin by pulling on a spoke. Now try to tilt the wheel toward parallel to the ground. That’s “gyroscoping”. It wants to roll upright and it fights the tilt to right itself. That’s physics and the non-racist part of geometry at woke. Oh, sorry, “at work”.
For those who didn’t go apoplectic, let’s continue.
That gyroscopic feel shouldn’t translate through the fork in such a way you can notice it. As you get into the deep dish carbon fiber wheels (60 mm+) you’ll feel it more, however. Again, physics and geometry – as the rotational mass of the wheel increases, the urge for the wheel to right itself will increase. On the other hand, if you’re rolling alloy wheels or carbon fiber up to 40’s, you shouldn’t feel much at all. I can feel my 50’s fight me ever so slightly but it’s not much. If, however, you notice you have to fight through a turn, you’ve got a serious problem that needs to be addressed immediately
The simplest to fix is that your quick release skewer could be a little loose. Check them to make sure they’re tight. Easy. Give your bike a test. If that got it, roll on.
The second, you’ve got a bearing going in the wheel or the axle assembly is loose. First things first, take the wheels off and give the axles a wiggle. If everything’s tight, spin the axle to make sure you don’t feel any grinding in the bearings. Your local shop can either repair or replace the bearings in the axle. If they can’t, it’ll be time for a new hub and spokes. In some hubs, Novatec comes to mind, swapping the sealed bearings is very easy and takes minutes. All you’ll need is to have the bearings and watch a quick YouTube video.
The third, and worst, is you’ve either over-tightened your headset or you’ve got a bearing going. If you don’t clean your headset bearings regularly, you can kill one in a matter of months riding in crappy, rainy, gritty conditions (mainly the lower, though the upper can get hammered if you’re a heavy sweater and use your bike on a trainer). Incidentally, if your headset is loose, that’ll have its own set of problems. Specifically, you’ll feel a clunk when you hit the front brake for rim brakes or a clunk and pulsation with disks. See, the headset that gets bound up so it can’t move freely, either due to overtightening or a rusted/bad bearing, will transfer that gyroscopic feel directly to your hands and butt. You’ll literally feel the bike trying to ride straight through a turn rather than follow your chosen path.
For obvious reasons, the cause must be found and addressed immediately.
The inspiration for this post is, of course, my own personal experience. Late last season, I developed a creak in the Trek. Naturally, I thought it was the headset because the headset on that bike is notoriously finicky. I tightened it up a little bit and forgot about it. The snow hit shortly thereafter and I either rode inside on the trainer or outdoors on the gravel bike.
Then, January 14th rolled around and we had a reasonable weeknight for a ride outdoors with my weekday riding buddy, Chuck. The roads had been clear for some time so I took the Trek and Chuck, his Tarmac. I knew I was in trouble on the first fast sweeping left turn. Being fairly bundled up didn’t help, but I could feel the bike fight me through the turn, almost like understeer. That was the only turn I felt it on, though, so I checked the steering when I got home, and it was fine (or so I thought), so I shelved worrying about it.
Then, two days later Chuck and I did the deer loop – my first decent ride of the new year. Coming around a sweeping right and trying not to drift into the oncoming lane, I was fighting my bike again. This time, I hit a patch of salt in the road while trying to fight the bike around the corner. I don’t know how I fought it back upright, but I miraculously stayed rubber down. I took the wheels off and checked the axles and hubs the next morning. Nothing. It wasn’t the quick releases, either (obviously, I’d taken the wheels off to check the axles).
Now, rather than simply loosen the headset and hope for the best, I took the bike in for a lesson on how to disassemble and reassemble a Chris King GripNut headset (there’s a trick to it). Everything was lubed and put back together perfectly, meticulously. And, with a fantastic couple of rides this last week, the problem is corrected. It was an over-tightened headset. The bearings, after all I’ve put them through on my rain/trainer bike, were amazingly clean and operating perfectly. I expected the problem to be rotted bearings and was quite happy to be wrong. King makes an awesome headset.
If your steering feels a little off, there’s a reason for it. Best to get it fixed before you can’t fight through a turn and end up in a ditch – or worse, in a crash with your friends or… erm… even worse.