How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 576

Why is it harder to balance on a stationary motorbike compared to a moving one? Is it a gyroscopic effect on the wheels? — DF, Morley Perth, Australia
As you suspect, gyroscopic effects do play a role. Because it has only two wheels, a motorbike is inherently unstable. When it's stationary, it is only in equilibrium—that is it experiences no net force or torque—when it's perfectly upright. The slightest tip causes it to fall over. You must be very careful and agile to keep it balanced. A physicist would say that the motorbike is statically unstable or that it has an unstable static equilibrium.

For the motorbike to remain upright, you must keep the overall center of gravity (yours and the motorbike's) directly above the wheels (actually the line formed by their contact points on the ground). That's very hard to do when the motorbike is stationary. But when the motorbike is heading forward, it naturally steers itself under the center of gravity. If the motorbike begins to tip to one side, its front wheel automatically steers in the direction of the tip and the forward moving motorbike soon drives its wheels back under the center of gravity. This automatic steering is due to both gyroscopic precession in its spinning front wheel and to the shape and angle of the front wheel fork. If you hold the motorbike (or a bicycle) off the ground, spin its front wheel the right direction, and then tip the motorbike, you'll see its wheel turn toward the direction of the tip because of gyroscopic precession. If you return the motorbike to the ground and then tip it to one side, you'll see that its wheel will automatically turn toward that side because of the fork shape.

With both effects helping the motorbike steer under the center of gravity, the moving motorbike is very stable. A physicist would say that it is dynamically stable. Everything I've said also applies to bicycles and was pointed out by British physicist David Jones in 1970. Bicycles are so dynamically stable that almost anyone can ride them without hands and not tip over!


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