Bicycle trying to steer itself - possibly a bike ghost? Are those real?
March 15, 2013 9:25 AM   Subscribe

I feel like my bicycle is having steering issues, but not always, and it's subtle, so I'm not entirely sure what's going on.

The bicycle itself is a 1976 Raleigh Tourist frame but the wheels have since been replaced with the more common 27" and a coaster brake. It's not quite to Frankenbike status but getting there.

The steering problem is subtle, but I've decided it's not all in my mind. Occasionally while riding on straight stretches I feel like the front wheel is pulling to one side or the other. It does not seem to have a preference as to which direction. The result feels to me similar to the sensation of trying to hold a gyroscope - it resists (slightly) my pulling against it until I reach the tipping point and then it wants to throw itself the opposite direction. Like I said, though, it's subtle. I certainly have no problem staying within a bike lane, it's not taking me all over the road or anything.

It also seems intermittent - I have a short one mile bike commute to work that I do most days of the week, and I don't always notice this happening. I haven't put together any correlation with weather, temperature, particular stretch of road, etc. Some days I never even think of it, and some days I'm wondering if I should stop and look for loose nuts and bolts.

I've read up on adjusting headsets and none of the listed symptoms (shakiness, stiffness, "indexed steering") seem to align with mine. I'm no bike mechanic but a quick cursory examination leaves me thinking that everything that should be tight is tight, and everything that should spin or turn freely does so.

To make matters worse I live in New Orleans where there is a distinct lack of smooth straight roads upon which to do any testing. Some days I'm left wondering if these rotten roads are making me imagine this problem. Is this a common problem? If I take it to the shop will they think I'm crazy? Or have I just not found the right search terms to bring up these kinds of results to prove that I'm not alone?
posted by komara to Travel & Transportation (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Have you gotten your wheels trued?
posted by Betty's Table at 9:27 AM on March 15, 2013


Nope! I have no idea what that is, but I'm going to go look it up right now.
posted by komara at 9:32 AM on March 15, 2013


Are the tires fully inflated? This sounds like what happens when you have a flat.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:33 AM on March 15, 2013


Having your steering list like that could mean you need a headset problem. This doesn't mean that it can't turn freely. It could be as simple as needing your bearings replaced. Just take it to a shop.
posted by loriginedumonde at 9:35 AM on March 15, 2013


Do you have a brake cable that might be binding on something and pulling the bars a bit to one side?
posted by jquinby at 9:35 AM on March 15, 2013


An easy way to check if your wheels are true (ie straigt) is to lift up the front wheel and give it a spin. Look at the space between the side of each tire and the fork that holds the wheel. The distance should be equal and stay equal.

Another thing to try while you're lifting up the front wheel is to see if the headset has a tendency to drop to one side or the other. Align the wheel so that it is pointing straight ahead. When you let it go, does it always favor a specific side when it turns? When you rotate the wheel/fork with your hands, does it feel smooth? Do you notice any places where it catches?
posted by Think_Long at 9:39 AM on March 15, 2013


My gut tells me headset, regardless of the research you did. But, is the axle good? How about the nuts holding the wheel on? Are the bearings worn out?

Sounds like an issue you should just take the to the bike shop, because even if you figure out what the issue is, having the specialized tools and knowledge to fix it is a whole 'nother week's worth of AskMe conversation.
posted by TinWhistle at 9:39 AM on March 15, 2013


If you ride with your lock placed as you have it in the photo, that can also cause ghost steering issues.
posted by advicepig at 9:41 AM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


I was overthinking, I guess, because after reading "avicepig" and checking the photo again, just the lock weight alone will throw you way off balance.
posted by TinWhistle at 9:46 AM on March 15, 2013


I know nothing about bikes, but if it's still there when you remove the lock, might you be having intermittent arm-weakness?
posted by Iteki at 9:48 AM on March 15, 2013


The coils can also bind on things just subtly enough that you go slowly mad.
posted by advicepig at 9:52 AM on March 15, 2013


Perhaps replace the headset.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:58 AM on March 15, 2013


Other things to check that haven't yet been mentioned:

Easy:
Handlebars aligned to wheels properly?
Is the seat straight, or is the nose slightly off to the side? Body-weight shifts can induce steering problems too.

Moderate:
Check wheel true and tire wear. Is there a wobble? Are the treads on the tires showing uneven wear?

As well as the headset bearings, when was the last time the wheel bearings were done? When you take them apart, check the cones for wear and the hub races too.
posted by bonehead at 10:16 AM on March 15, 2013


Duh, should have looked at the picture. No brake cables to speak of. Sorry 'bout that.
posted by jquinby at 10:17 AM on March 15, 2013


Possible problems, not in order:
1) As loriginedumonde says, a headset does need more than mere adjusting, it needs occasional servicing. Possibly the bearings are shot, or dirty or both.
2) The same applies to the bearings of the wheel itself. If those are too loose, the ensuing wobble might show itself in funny steering behavior.
3) As Betty's Table says, perhaps the wheels need to be trued. However the effect of non-true wheels usually is more rhythmic, not intermittent.

My best guess is in fact that you're looking at a combination of mild cases of all three of these problems - statistically, this is also the most likely. If you have a good bike maintenance manual, you'll find ways to assess all three; it's a rather easy thing to do. And no, a good bike shop won't think you're crazy. They would diagnose and fix.
posted by Namlit at 10:18 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


When you do bearings, my policy is to always replace the balls, by the way. Cones and cups only change if wear is visible or can be felt with a fingertip. Look for dark spots: those are contact welds with the bearings and are the start of problems.
posted by bonehead at 10:19 AM on March 15, 2013


Pulling sensation due to flat tire is not going to apply to a vehicle with two wheels in-line.

Is it possible that you have a balance/equilibrium issue? Or possibly your riding position. The photo looks like you might end up with your head and shoulder pretty far down.
posted by humboldt32 at 10:23 AM on March 15, 2013


Make sure the wheels are securely clamped down. Hold on to the fork and wiggle the wheel side to side. Do you feel any play? Repeat while holding on to the handlebars. Any movement other than turning around the bearing axis would lead to the phenomenon you're describing.
posted by disconnect at 10:25 AM on March 15, 2013


"Are the tires fully inflated?"

Yes, I check and inflate them regularly.

"lift up the front wheel and give it a spin. Look at the space between the side of each tire and the fork that holds the wheel. The distance should be equal and stay equal."

It is and does.

"see if the headset has a tendency to drop to one side or the other. Align the wheel so that it is pointing straight ahead. When you let it go, does it always favor a specific side when it turns?"

It honestly wants to stay nice and still in the middle. If I shake the bike a bit to make it fall it tends to fall to the left, but that could be incorrect shake methodology on my part.

"When you rotate the wheel/fork with your hands, does it feel smooth? Do you notice any places where it catches?"

The other day I did this and I did not notice any catches. Today I did it more gently and deliberately and there is a small catch when I turn it to the left, and an even smaller catch when I turn it to the right.

"If you ride with your lock placed as you have it in the photo, that can also cause ghost steering issues."
"The coils can also bind on things just subtly enough that you go slowly mad."

I have a different lock cable now with a much tighter coil. The cables and lock do stay on the handlebar while I ride but do not touch any other part of the bike. I've been riding with them on there since I got the bike and while I do understand what you're saying about their ability to throw off the balance, this problem I'm experiencing is new as of the past month or so, and nothing has changed in my lock / cable placement.

Everyone else: "Take it to the shop."

This is probably what I'll need to do, as actually taking it apart would require tools that I do not own, and any further diagnosis is best left to professionals, I think. Money's tight, so that's probably not going to happen for a while. I will likely just deal with these phantom pulls until they worsen.
posted by komara at 10:27 AM on March 15, 2013


I had a bike once that had some weirdness in the front-end. Turns out, the fork had cracked where the forks meet the headset.

So, in addition the above, I'd recommend taking a good look at the welds and such and see if there are failures anywhere. You might need a magnifying glass - in my case, the cracks were barely visible when the bike was unloaded.

Point is - that's an old bike, and minute stress fractures accumulate.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:34 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


For certain, take it to a shop and have everything checked out if anything, for safety's sake.
If everything is fine, and you are still experiencing the issue, I once had a set of tires that wanted to track/follow every little groove in the pavement or path. Even the rear wheel would squirm out in order to follow nearly parallel almost insignificant cracks and grooves.

Replacing the tires removed the behavior completely.
posted by csmason at 11:13 AM on March 15, 2013


If it stays straight when you pick up the bike, I'd say your headset is probably too tight. You want it just loose enough that it easily falls one way or the other.
posted by advicepig at 12:27 PM on March 15, 2013


1) regarding headset bearings, with this old of a bike you may need races also. A hard impact can dent the race as well as flat spot the bearing balls.
2) Are the new tires different in diameter? This can alter your "trail" and change the handling.
posted by 445supermag at 1:21 PM on March 15, 2013


I had almost exactly this problem and it was the headset subtly binding on when I turned the handlebars.
posted by crocomancer at 1:45 PM on March 15, 2013


Make sure you check the REAR wheel as well. Subtle steering problems are sometimes related to the rear.
posted by sixpack at 1:52 PM on March 15, 2013


First, take it to the shop and ask them. Most likely, they'll rebuilt/refurbish/overhaul the headset. However, there's also the possibility that your frame or fork is bent as that can lead to some weird steering issues. Any decent mechanic should be able to check that out as well.
posted by chairface at 9:49 AM on March 16, 2013


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