Try Not To Fall Off The Backwards Brain Bike

[Destin] of SmarterEveryDay fame has a challenge for your brain : a bicycle where the handlebars turn the front wheel in the opposite direction of a typical bike (YouTube link). For example, turning the handlebars left turns the wheel right and vice versa. He warns you it’s harder than it looks.

The hack that pulls this off is a simple one compared to bike hacks we’ve previously covered. Gears on the head tube make this possible. It was built by his welder friends who challenged him to ride it. He couldn’t at first; determined to overwrite his brain’s memory of bike riding, he practiced until he finally succeeded. It took him eight months. When it was time to ride an old-fashioned bike, it only took him about twenty minutes to “un-learn” the Backwards Brain Bike. [Destin’s] biking illustrates neuroplasticity, memory, and learning in a fun way (fun for us; no doubt frustrating for him).

As a testament to the sponge-like brains of youth, [Destin’s] son learned to ride the Backwards Brain Bike in only two weeks.

103 thoughts on “Try Not To Fall Off The Backwards Brain Bike

          1. The difference between a motorbike and a bicycle is that the motorcycle often weighs three to four times the weight of the person riding the motorbike.

            In order to turn the corner the bike must first be leaned towards the apex of the curve. However shifting ones weight on a heavy bike is ineffective at leaning the bike over. So the only way to lean the bike over is to turn the wheel in the opposite direction to the corner before actually entering the corner.

            That said, once the bike is leaning, the wheel must be turned in the direction of the corner, and then turned even further in the exit of the corner to bring the bike upright again.

          2. I did not say turn the bars right to go right, I said push on the right bar and you will go right! The rake of the forks will try to right the bike very quickly, if you don’t resist that force you will quickly exit the turn. To maintain a turn (at speed) you will need to apply counter pressure. The wheel will turn in the direction of the turn, but the pressure will be in reverse!

            I use to ride every day to stay in shape, but since I was whacked by a ford explorer I have had to cut back. Stupid drivers = bad day!

          3. Next time you’re on a bicycle, get going at a decent speed, and ride with no hands. Then take one finger and press on the left handlebar forward. The bike WILL go left.

          4. Even at slow speeds, you initiate a lean with counter-steering, then quickly “steer” the wheel in the direction of the turn. It’s not obvious on a bicycle because they’re so light: they require an almost imperceptible force to initiate a lean. On a big, heavy motorcycle it’s more obvious because you have to press (countersteer) with more force to move all that mass from upright to leaning.

            Don’t believe me? Ride a bicycle slowly, and when you’re stable, quickly release one handgrip. At the same instant, spread the fingers of the other hand (so you aren’t gripping the handle and can’t inadvertently pull) and quickly push away. You’ll lean (or fall) to the side you pushed away.

          1. Incorrect. Next time you’re on a bicycle, get going at a decent speed, and ride with no hands. Then take one finger and press on the left handlebar forward. The bike WILL go left.

      1. Your forgetting that there is a lean involved with turning. That lean is associated with the direction you push your handlebars. It doesn’t surprise me at all that it took so long to learn this. I appreciate his commitment to understanding the “Why” of it all.

      2. This is actually really easy to try on a regular bike. Just cross your arms and drive. Right hand on left handlebar and vice versa. I will warn you though, don’t try it at high speed. It is exactly as hard to learn as this.

      3. It’s not that simple at all. From the first time I saw him try to ride it in the video I knew what was going on. When you start off on a bicycle, you’re not just going straight forward and completely vertical. Launching a bicycle requires a lot of leaning and micro-correcting via the handlebars that isn’t immediately obvious, and flipping the axis completely destroys those subconscious connections your brain has built up. Think about when a kid learns to ride a bike for the first time; they fall off, have false starts, lean too much or too little and crash, and so on. That’s because their brain is learning something new; eventually they get the hang of it and those subconscious movements become natural.

        Another example of this kind of thing from my own life: I’m left-handed, but I learned to play guitar like right-handed guitarists and on a right-handed guitar, because that’s all I had access to growing up. I’ve been playing that way for 25 years, to the point where it feels natural. Now, despite my being left-handed, if I pick up a left-handed guitar I can’t even make a decent two-finger chord. My brain is wired to play right-handed, and that’s what it wants to do. With a few years of practice doing it exclusively left-handed I’m sure I could exceed my abilities playing right-handed, especially since I already know music theory and composition (the hard part of playing an instrument). But getting over that initial hump of rewiring my brain to play in the correct-for-me orientation would take dedication and time I don’t have.

    1. I once read about a test pilot who actually got killed because the plane had the controls reversed like this, and he could not adapt quick enough to manage to survive. Sad stupid thing.

      1. I once had a chance to “fly” an actual airline flight simulator – a Boeing 737. There were a group of us and we took turns landing the airplane. Amazingly enough I landed OK, but then went off the runway because the rudder pedals worked the exact opposite of what I expected.

      2. I had a friend (test pilot) who was killed because of exactly this scenario. Aileron linkage was reversed after maintenance, and the aircraft rolled immediately after takeoff. In such a scenario its compounded because you don’t know what is causing the roll at first.

  1. Riding a bike is intuitive. Many parts of what he calls a learnt algorithm is actually intuitive aspects of our bodies interaction with our environment that we learn long before we ever see a bike.

    The forks holding the front wheel of a bike are bent forward to make the experience more like what we expect. Should you reverse the angle of the forks so that they are bent backwards then you would have the same result as reversing the effective direction of the handle bars.

    1. Yup.. It is still interesting, but bold non-sequitor statements such as ‘experience != knowledge’ are a bit off putting when i then am distracted trying to find some deeper meaning in what amounts to bull shit.

    2. Also.. I am 35… I would bet $1000 (or whatever) that i could learn to ride this in 2 weeks, much like the youngster, thereby making me question how real a test of neuroplasticity this is.. Hell – its low brow click bait, to be totally honest – as its a grift, as noted below, we can all count ourselves marked.

      1. Yeah this guy has found a cash cow and has to sensationalise and oversell it to continue milking it.

        Carnivals have had these for decades and you can learn to ride it in just a few days if you practice a lot. Swapping between a regular bike and one of these modified ones is only a little harder than adjusting to driving a left hand vs right hand drive car.

        1. Noirwhal’s reacton was mine exactly. And it wouldn’t take 8 hours a day. I would guess an hour.

          Was the kid limiting himself to 5 minutes a day? I think this is a testament to the guy in the video’s terribly learning strategy if anything.

    3. Nope. Changing the angle of the front forks will have almost no effect on how rideable a bike is. Even a bike with a large negative trail is rideable at slow speeds. For concrete examples see the research behind JBike6 => http://ruina.tam.cornell.edu/research/topics/bicycle_mechanics/JBike6_web_folder/

      Flipping the sign of the one component of the balance feedback loop on the other hand… You could clearly see the positive feedback and exponential error growth in the video whenever someone first rode the geared handlebars bike. I suspect the would’ve had more luck trying to ride it “no-hands” :D

      1. I was thinking the same thing, the problem is that you need at least some speed before the bike self-stabilises so it’s pretty difficult to start off without ‘locking’ the front wheel. I know the feeling of something ‘falling in place’ inside your head though, you get a similar sensation when riding a poorly balanced bike (that needs a constant steering correction)

  2. HA, that is so cool! Makes me wonder a few things, if you’ve learned to pilot a boat with an outboard where you push left to turn right you would have any easier time learning to ride Satan’s velocipede and if a kid were given a regular and backwards bike if they could learn to ride either/both in the same amount of time as with just a normal bike. This sure gives you a lot to think about about the way we learn. And of course welders are smarter than engineers, that’s why they only let welders play with fire!

    1. Got data on that?

      You appear to be going on the implications of the video, which is obviously shooting for sensationalism, and so far as I can tell, makes no sound claims about any real test of ridability, by age, or any other bracket.

    2. I was racing yachts when I was pre-teen. I rode bicycles from the age of four and raced moto-cross as a teen.

      I only time I had any problem with the ‘push left to go right’ was when I was driving a speed boat for the first time as a teen. It had a steering wheel. I hadn’t driven a car so my mind associated a water vehicle with the ‘push left to go right’ of a yacht. I was easily able to correct this though.

      There is more to a bike than a yacht or a car. On a bike you are managing the balance as well as direction. The balance aspect causes you to draw on your innate capacity to balance yourself and extend those innate responses to control the bike.

      For example, if you start to loose your balance and feel that you are falling right then you will move your left hand and arm much further forward in an attempt to meet the ground with both hands. This very same response is what you have to do to correct balance on a bike.

      I call this innate for this reason: When I was bathing my daughter on the first day of her life, I balanced her in the baby bath with one forearm as I reached for a towel to dry her. As I did, I moved slightly and she moved or rolled slightly to one side. When she rolled she extended her opposite arm and raised one knee to rebalance herself. I was bewildered, thinking … how can you possibly know this already??? Amazing.

      I still think it’s a fairly subjective thing though. I remember in sport, some people would break a fall into a roll, others would simply go SPLAT! lol.

      I used to swap my hands on the handle bars of my bike. The trick was to use your balance to control the bike by leaning and not use the handlebars.

      1. in the video, he mentioned that a couple people have tried that with no difference.

        i’m a little curious to try it some time.. i know i won’t do any better, but it would be interesting to try..

  3. I’ve seen these ridden by grifters in Leicester Square
    in London… “Oy, tourist, look how easy it is to ride this bike 25 feet.” And some kind of bet that they can’t do it. Of course the owner of the bike has all the practice so make it look easy

  4. I’ve seen these ridden by grifters in Leicester Square
    in London… “Oy, tourist, look how easy it is to ride this bike 25 feet.” And some kind of bet that they can’t do it. Of course the owner of the bike has all the practice so make it look easy.

  5. Carnies commissioned the fab shop where I worked to make one…..carnival goers pay to ride and win if they make a certain distance. My coworker practiced in our work yard until they came to pick it up. Then he went to the carnival after work…

      1. When is talking about knowledge is talking about reasonning. Learning to ride is not about reasoning. It is a learning but it is not conscious the body and the brain learn somethhing without reasonning about it. This is what he means when is says “knowning how is not understanding”.

        And is right, the brain of youngs children is a lot more active than that of an adult. And this is understandable as children have much to learn than an adult.

        Very interesting video.

        1. Yes, I get the larger concept, but disagree it is shown here to a strong degree, or is a primary message here. Is it so black and white, cut and dry? Learning something like bike riding involves both intuition building, and mechanical, solid, conscious procedures. Neuroplasticity is implied, but it really is just buzzword usage, blathering, in other words. To know if there is really a neuroplasticity effect would require a actual study.. Seriously, just off the cuff comments are useless in this case.

  6. The main problem with this experiment is that this bike cannot be ridden as well as a normal bike ever. Just because something is modified to be hard to learn does not make it an opposite exercise. The kid likely learned to ride his bike easier because the wheels are smaller and he has a lower center of gravity. A bicycle turns also by leaning not just by turning the handlebars. A better experiment would be soemthing that works equally well in two opposite ways, yet what would that be?

    1. It probably could be ridden just as well (or “fairly well”, at least) if the design were better executed. Even miniscule gear lash makes subtle inputs while upright impossible and disrupts the force-feedback needed to judge those inputs.

  7. Looks like the gearing (in the steering) is significantly higher then a normal bike. Not only is it backwards, but a tiny movement of the handlebar creates a much larger movement in the front wheel.

    So I wonder if the gearing was closer to a normal bike if it would be that hard, and I wonder if people that fly/drive radio control devices (planes/cars) would learn faster since they already need to mentally reverse left and right when the R/C plane/car is coming towards them.

    Neat experiment, but like all the entertainment science shows, it’s more entertainment then science.

    1. I work at a college campus with one of the highest bicycle theft rates in the United States. Bicycles are stolen by the dozens while people are watching. I’d love to build one of these bicycles and film the people who think they can jump on it and ride away. Probably would become pure YouTube gold…

  8. first thing that comes to mind is video games. switching UP and DOWN. makes the same problem in the brain. i have tried to teach my mother how to play cod but the up and down controls are backwards to her and that makes it very difficult to do. i my self can play ether way after many hours of trying. mainly i learned this skill because of air craft control sachem being opposite of what i know. i i learn it to fly better. It is fascinating how the brain “works” or dosent dependent on circumstances.

  9. The bicycle beloved of waist-level finder-using photographers.

    Stupid anecdote: I’ve been shooting with a WLF on an RZ67, for which the view is reversed, for about 7 or 8 years. I recently got a modern DSLR with a fold-out screen that shoots video; with the screen flipped up, I cannot track people in video because my brain is now wired for backwards tracking when looking down. I’m fine when looking through the eyepiece on the rear though, so this muscle-memory/reflex business is at least somewhat context-dependent.

  10. I earned a bit of money when I was young showing people how to trick these bikes (they were quite common in the 1970s in amusement parks and some street festivals). Just cross your arms – that’s it. Don’t look at your arms/hands, just drive “normally”. Easy peasy.

  11. Than this bike should be easier to ride hands free. Only problem is to get up to a speed where you can actually control the bike with only shifting your bodymass. When I was young, I could manage that within a meter, but looking at this the first meter seems to be the difficult part.

  12. I cabled up a friends boat backwards. Doing the work on my back looking up didn’t help. The pulleys at each side were pulling the hull in to center so we rigged a board to fit from side to side to hold it taught. Fiberglass!
    We took it out on the lake. Whoa, it’s backwards. Bad enough knowing port from starboard. A quick turn back to the dock and rewound the cable around the drum the other way. Fun on the water.
    I have only seen one pot wired so clockwise wasn’t up. It had been replaced on an old console TV in a Florida rental. Dad blasted the volume every time he went to slightly change the sound. I had tools, out came the gun. Fixed.

  13. I’m tempted to try the crossed-arm experiment. Destin’s videos are a boon in the classroom to begin explanations of some things (Prince Rupert’s drops, for instance).

    I’m sure that simply reversing the steering won’t create pure evil. For pure evil you need a random-forward/reverse gear on the steering (or just an intermittent electromechanical clutch). Driven by an Arduino of course.

    1. Oh, I remember those from fun/village fairs in Austria back when I was a kiddywink, some 35 years ago. But then your “generally backwards” commend holds true for Austria as well.

  14. I noticed that he DID quickly adapt to being in the netherlands, and stopped using the silly helmet many people including the americans tend to use when cycling. So he’s more adaptive than you might think..

    1. I wonder if seeing the handlebars go the wrong way would mess that up, although you don’t have to look at them of course, but if you did. Maybe the visual cue would override the balance system, like how people get seasick from the conflicting information.

  15. Reminds me, my 3 wheeled motorcycle (Piaggio mp3). 2 front wheels which can tilt, 1 back wheel. If you’re faster than 10km/h, the tilting system is unlock and it’s acting like a normal motorcycle, under 10km/h you can lock the tilting system so you don’t fall sideways when you’re going to stop.
    Normally on a motorcycle you turn the handle bar in the opposite direction you want to turn, BUT with 2 wheels locked (under 10km/h) it’s like a car, you turn in the direction where you want to turn.
    I finally avoided to turn while locked, it’s a too strange feeling.

    BTW: has anybody tried this bike siting backward ?

  16. I’m not going to say that it’s easy or hard. I only could share observations on the mechanics: do observe how the front wheel has such a huge free play that you see it turn left and right without the steering fork moving at all! That delay is probably creating more difficulty than anything. I get the sense that even if the bike was constructed in an ordinary fashion the steering gear and the free play would present comparable challenge.

    1. I wonder the same. Backlash in the steering plays havoc with slow speed maneuvering. One of my recumbents uses a chain drive between the handle bars and the fork. There’s some backlash in it which at slow speeds really makes me look like I can’t ride a bike. Maybe I should figure-8 the steering chain to try this reversed steering.

  17. I read about an experiment which someone wear a pair of LCD glasses which displays an reversed image such that the image projected to his retina is the up-right orientation. It took him weeks but he finally get used to it.

    1. Not even something fancy like LCD glasses. Somewhere in the 50’s or sixties there was this test, I’m sure there was some film item made of it, where simple goggles used lenses to flip everything upside down. The results were as you describe.

  18. I built a 3-wheeled go-cart when I was a teenager and the cable steering worked out backwards. I figured I could learn to use it anyway, but after a few trips into the ditch I decided it was easier to reconfigure the steering.

    The engine was all of 5/8 HP, which was probably just as well given that I went careening off the road.

    Peter

  19. I know it’s not completely comparable, but I’ve just started yesterday learing to type on an us-int keyboard layout and it feels a bit same. I’ve been typing on a German layout my whole life and I’ve only had a little experience to type with the us one, I’m lucky that only that little amount of keys are swapped, I just think how difficult it would be to type with the neo-layout.

  20. I can see how this would be difficult to learn, however I wonder if the handle-bars were replaced with a steering wheel and you grabbed the bottom of the wheel – telling yourself that you push left to go left and push right to right – if it would indeed be quicker to learn? Ultralight pilots that convert to flying trikes go through something similar where the controls seem to be reversed. You have to reinvent your intuition. For the short distance he has people ride, I’m sure I could brute force my brain enough to ride this bike for the $200. I bet this guy could make a killing selling the conversion adapters to make bicycles steer opposite. He’d need a big disclaimer on it like, “For off road-use only and NOT to be ridden while installed.” LOL!

  21. I was once riding my bike while holding something in my right hand. I decided I wanted to use the rear brake, so I carefully reached over with my left hand to grab the right handlebar. As soon as I touched it, I went down. I’m comfortable on a bike whatever the terrain, so it doesn’t surprise me at all that this is difficult. After my experience, I cringe at the thought of trying to ride this bike.

  22. I had the possibility to ride such a bike some years ago. What helps a lot is to look at the movement of the front tire and not at the handle bar. I was able to ride it almost instantly. However, I’ve been riding BMX freestyle for more than ten years and have lots of experience in riding backwards, cross handed and all that stuff.

  23. That is funny, as i was a child (9 years old) my dad had an Intel 386 Computer with some really old computer mouse (well it was modern at that time…).
    The Thing was, he used the mouse in reverse, i mean he litteraly used it reverse e.g. with the mouse cable showing down.
    So left was right and right was left, up was down and down was up! As a Child, i never thought this was wrong, so i just learned that moving the mouse to the opposite direction would get me were i want (on the Monitor)!
    Fun Fact: i can still do it but like destin in the Video, it takes some time to Switch back.

    =D

  24. Hey, I built the same bike with two gears about 12 years ago and still have it in my basement. It is very difficult to learn because riding a bike is much more complicated than you might think. Even when you tell people what the bike does they cannot do it “period.” I also had an experience when I rented a bike at the shore and was unable to ride it and had to practice for 10 minutes to get my brain to revert. Loved seeing your story because it reminded me so much of mine.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.