How does a Motorcycle Steering Damper work?

A steering damper or stabilizer basically adds resistance to the side-to-side steering input of the handlebars when you are riding. This increased resistance in the form of damping can potentially reduce any uncontrolled movements, head shake, or the dreaded “Tank Slapper”. It will not prevent any of the above, but it will hopefully give you a fighting chance of trying to control the situation.

This is a video of what a “Tank Slapper” looks like in action and in some cases how a steering damper potentially saved the rider’s life. Scary!

What does a steering damper look like?

Various types of steering dampers are on the market, these range from fully electronic based on the bikes speed, to the more common piston or linear type (top) that mount onto the bottom of the triple clamp and the rotary type (bottom) that mounts on the top of the triple clamp.

Linear Steering Damper
Linear Steering Damper
Rotary Steering Damper
Rotary Steering Damper

Whatever type of steering damper you use, they all perform the same job, add resistance or damping to the steering input.

How Does a Motorcycle Steering Damper Work?

The steering damper works very much like the front forks on a motorcycle. The front forks are intended to reduce vertical impact when riding, while the steering damper will reduce lateral movement. To dampen the forces of impact, hydraulic fluid is passed between controlled chambers.

Depending on the damper type, the amount of resistance can be adjusted. This is usually performed using a manually controlled valve as can be seen in the photo below.

Steering Damper Internals
Steering Damper Internals

Dampers with no manual valve control or non-adjustable dampers are also very common. Although they are called “non-adjustable” you can often adjust the resistance by changing the oil weight. Before you go down this route, best to double-check that you can change the oil on your damper without damaging it.

Electronic dampers are normally linked to the motorcycle ECU (Electronic Control Unit) and are based on speed and acceleration. Basically, the damper resistance is increased the faster you go.

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Do I Need a Steering Damper?

While not everyone needs a steering damper, there are many situations where the ride can be improved if one is added to a motorcycle.

Off-road or bad roads

A steering damper will help if you plan on riding on rough terrain, whether off-road or on rough asphalt. A steering damper will help absorb the constant twisting motion or abrupt movements that are transferred via the front forks to the handlebars and ultimately your arms. If you have ever ridden off-road or on bad roads, you know this can be tiring, so in this case, the steering damper can help reduce rider fatigue.

Racing or sports bikes

A sports bike or any style of high-performance motorcycle can encounter some pretty scary forces on the front end when accelerating hard or traveling at speed. The steering damper helps reduce those forces in some instances, like the dreaded “Speed Wobble” or “Tank Slapper” which we cover below.

Some bikes at race meetings will not pass scrutineering or tech inspection if they are not fitted with an approved steering damper.

Is it going to save me from a Tank Slapper?

Bottom line, NO! But it might give you a fighting chance to get the bike back under control. The additional resistance in the steering can help to dampen the oscillations or wobbling movements of the handlebars.

The most common cause of a tank slapper is speed, accelerating too quickly and the front wheel lifts off of the ground, hitting a pothole, or when you are in “Rossi” mode and bringing down a wheelie.

The wobble is caused when the two tires go out of alignment, as the front wheel comes back down on the road surface, it can sometimes land at an angle, and will try and correct this by bringing itself in line with the rear. Sometimes it overcorrects, overcorrects again and this is when the wobble kicks in and your underwear becomes disposable!