Monday, October 13, 2014
What is the Harley Death Wobble?
Like any culture, the culture surrounding the world of motorcycling has its own myths and legends –– ideas and beliefs strongly held simply because they’ve been so often repeated. Gremlin bells are a good example; I wrote a post about them back in July. I’ve also written in the past about skull symbolism, and the belief that green motorcycles are bad luck.
Today, I want to talk about one of motorcycling’s chupacabras: the infamous Harley Death Wobble.
That sounds like the name of an alternative rock band from the 90s, doesn’t it? I can imagine Harley Death Wobble headlining Lollapalooza alongside Hoobastank.
But instead, it is a phenomenon in which a bike’s rear kicks back and forth –– a phenomenon that some very wrongly attribute to being specific to Harley-Davidson motorcycles. That’s the myths and legends part. In truth, wobble can be experienced on any bike.
Some call it “shimmy,” sportbike riders call it “tank slapper,” and if you check YouTube you’ll see that in 1970s England they called it “weave.” Having experienced high-speed wobble for myself (on a Triumph Tiger Explorer XC), my personal name for it is “pants filler.” Whatever your term of choice, it is terrifying for even the most experienced riders, and if not dealt with correctly could prove fatal.
High-speed wobble occurs when the physical forces being placed on your bike by speed are too great for the bike to handle. Sometimes, but not always, this is initiated when cornering because it is then that greater stress is being placed on the chassis. The bike yaws rapidly –– a bit like when a car fishtails, but repeatedly –– and can leave a rider feeling out of control.
If you’ve ever pushed a shopping cart with a wobbly wheel, effectively that’s what’s happening to your motorcycle during high-speed wobble. There are any number of reasons why it’s happening: chassis, suspension, tires, weight of the rider, weight distribution, and so on. If your bike suffers this phenomenon you should consult immediately with a knowledgeable mechanic.
But, of course, you have to get through the experience first. So, here are a few tips, should it happen to you:
1) Obviously, don’t panic. Remember that the physics of a moving motorcycle naturally want to keep it upright. Even when it doesn’t necessarily feel that way!
2) Keep a light grip on the handlebars. Your bike weighs more than you do. You can’t beat it in a fight. So, resist the urge to try to muscle your way through this. That could just make things worse.
3) Slowly reduce your speed. Don’t simply let go of the throttle and definitely don’t slam on the brakes.
4) Get low. For sportbike and standard riders the advice is to put your chest on the tank. Obviously this is a little more difficult for cruiser riders, but the idea is that you are trying to lower the bike’s center of gravity.
5) Get through it. If you are taking steps to correct it, high-speed wobble only lasts a few seconds. Resist the urge to allow a crash to happen. Don’t “lay ‘er down” or look for an opportunity to bail. You are better off on a wobbling bike than sliding across the highway.
6) Get over it. Once high-speed wobble has subsided you should look for the first opportunity to pull over and let the adrenaline run its course. Afterward, keep your riding safe and, as I said, find a mechanic to help you fix the issue as soon as possible.