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How to Prevent Speed Wobbles on a Motorcycle: Tricks, Tips, & More

When you experience a speed wobble or tank slapper while riding your 3 wheel motorcycle or 2 wheeler, it can be downright terrifying. As the handlebars oscillate rapidly from side to side, you might feel like you could lose control any minute.

Whether you’ve dealt with a speed wobble before or not, it’s vital to understand why it happens and how to prevent speed wobbles on a motorcycle to stay safe when you hit rubber to the road.

What Is a Speed Wobble?

A speed wobble, also called a tank slapper or motorcycle headshake refers to when your handlebars oscillate rapidly from side to side. A speed wobble typically starts when the front wheel elevates from the ground when you accelerate, do a wheelie, or run into a pothole.

If the front wheels of your bike settle back on the road at an angle, the wheel is supposed to get back into a straight line. However, sometimes the effort of aligning the forks is so great that your bike will overextend the straight line and land on the opposite side. Then, the handlebars will oscillate like a pendulum at considerable frequencies.

It’s not very likely that your motorcycle would get a speed wobble at low speeds. In fact, this typically only happens when your bike is traveling at very high rates of speed. If you are riding at high speed and your motorcycle gets a speed wobble, this could be extremely dangerous.

What Causes Speed Wobbles?

Motorcycles have two primary sections, the front of the bike and the rear. The wobble can start at either end. Oscillation is what happens with the front element of your motorcycle while fishtailing can occur in the back. Whenever you add weight to either section of your bike, this affects its wiggle rate.

Rapid acceleration, hitting potholes, or doing a wheelie all have the potential to displace the weight of your bike. After the wobble starts, the external forces increase and can worsen to the point where the ride loses control. Of course, when this happens, the potential to crash is highly likely. Other common causes of motorcycle wobbles include:

● Speed — With specific makes and models, the bike may not be able to operate once it hits a certain rate. However, any motorcycle, especially when you corner, puts increased strain on the parts and could lead to wobbling.

● Wheel bearings — If the bearings get worn out, this could cause lateral axle movement which leads to wobbling. New wheel bearings could run you anywhere from $10 to upwards of $60.

● Swingarm — When the swingarm moves too much, particularly in the case of sportbike suspensions, the excess play could cause the bike to wobble.

● Lateral axle movement — When the front or back wheel has excessive side to side or lateral axle movement, the bike will wobble. The issue could stem from worn wheel bearings or another problem.

It’s usually easier to correct a rear wheel speed wobble than a front-wheel speed wobble, as the latter can cause a crash very quickly when it gets out of control.

With a rear-wheel wobble, if you are riding at a lower rate of speed with a full load on your bike, you may not notice the wobble so much in the beginning. Touring motorcycles can be particularly vulnerable to rear-wheel wobbles if the weight they carry isn’t properly distributed across the bike.

It is crucial to understand how your bike operates both when it is empty and when it carries a heavy load. Once you are familiar with how your bike should feel both empty and loaded, you can take care of any wobbles right away before the situation spirals.

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What to Do When You Get Into a Wobble

If you experience a complete lock-to-lock speed wobble, this is very hazardous and typically will cause a crash. You will be unable to steer, and your motorcycle will continue heading in the direction it was when the wobble first began.

First, if you have time and sufficient room to do so, lightly hit your bike’s rear brake. Understand that applying the brake could enhance the wobble, but it will also slow down your bike. As you slow, the wobble will stop at a lower rate than it started at.

Now, if your bike is heading towards a wall or another dangerous obstacle and it becomes apparent that a crash is imminent, it your best choice is to bail off. Typically, a motorcycle that is speed wobbling will slow down at a rate of one-eighth g. A sliding biker will slow at a rate of approximately 1 g. The point is, even if the worst case scenario happens and you have to bail, you’ll come to a stop more quickly and in a shorter distance than your bike.

Finally, understand that speed wobbling is greatly dependent on the rate of speed you operate your bike at. Usually, wobbles start over 75 mph, but if you have an issue like a loose steering bearing, the wobble could start at just 45 mph.

What Can You Do to Avoid Speed Wobbles?

The best way for how to prevent speed wobbles on motorcycle before you ever leave home is to do regular bike maintenance. Frequently check components of your bike such as its suspension, aerodynamics, steering damping, and wheels, especially if you purchase used motorcycles.

In addition to being a valuable tool to assess motorcycle values, you can also conduct a vehicle search of your motorcycle. You can find out if the bike has a history of accidents that could reveal particular mechanical vulnerabilities. Have your bike regularly checked by a professional, to confirm that the main components are in optimal working order and reduce the likelihood that you’ll experience dangerous wobbles.