Thursday, September 23, 2010

Bike Rake and Trail Basics - free tutorial from

Although the front end of a bicycle is quite simple compared to many other types of vehicles, there are certain subtle angles that can affect the way a bike or trike steers. A few extra degrees of head tube angle can make a ride feel "twitchy", or too much rake can create something called "wheel flop".

When building a bike from scratch, you may have to mess around with these angles in order to get your ride tuned exactly the way you like it, and you will quickly find out that there is no magic rule to getting it right without a little experimentation.

A typical mountain bike
Figure 1 - A typical mountain bike

Figure 1 shows your typical hardware store mountain bike, which has what I consider "typical" front end geometry that often works well for many home built projects. Although a more relaxed head tube angle is better for a longer cycle, you can't go wrong using typical upright bicycle front end geometry as a starting point when creating your own frame from scratch. Your first test ride will give you more useful data than any technical frame building guide or chart ever will.

Rake and trail defined
Figure 2 - Rake and trail defined

There are three angles of concern when working with bicycle steering, and they are shown in Figure 2. Head tube angle is shown (A), and is usually measured from a line taken parallel to the ground. A 90 degree head tube angle would be straight up and down, and a 45 degree head tube angle would be very relaxed, pointing your forks way out front like a chopper. Typical head tube angle on most upright bicycles is between 60 and 70 degrees.

Trail is shown (B). It is the distance between two lines drawn to the ground - one line extends through the head tube (the longest line), and the other is taken from the front wheel axle to the ground at 90 degrees. This measurement is called trail because the point from the front wheel axle to the ground is usually behind the point extending through the head tube to the ground. Excessive trail can cause a condition called "wheel flop" where the wheel seems to fall to one side while steering, causing your frame to lift off of the ground. Too little trail could create a "twitchy" feeling in your steering, as if every small movement created a large amount of steer in one direction or the other. A typical amount of trail on upright bicycles would be somewhere between 2 and 3 inches.

Rake is shown (C). It is the distance between the front wheel axle and the line extending through the head tube. In other words, rake is the distance your front axle is ahead of the forks. Less rake results in more trail as the point extending 90 degrees to the ground is pushed further behind the point extending through the head tube. Rake helps your steering system "self center", which is why some cycles can be easily ridden with no hands, while others with less rake need to be moving at higher speeds before going hands off.

Rake can be introduced anywhere on the front forks, and in Figure 2, it is done by placing the dropout on the front side of the fork legs. On many speed bikes, the forks are simply bent forwards at the ends to create rake.

SWB recumbent front end geometry

Figure 3 - SWB recumbent front end geometry 

Short wheelbase recumbents, like our HighRoller pictured in Figure 3 have a wheelbase often close to that of a typical upright bicycle, so head tube angle, rake and trail are often close to the same typical measurements. When I built the HighRoller, I used the exact same head tube angle, rake, and trail measurements that I took from the donor cycle, and the ride is very smooth, even with no hands! The shorter the wheelbase, the more that head tube angle and rake seem to affect the ride, so be careful when making adjustments as sometimes only a few degrees in either direction will achieve the result you are looking for.

SWB recumbent front end geometry
Figure 4 - SWB recumbent front end geometry
Read more about bike rake and trail - free tutorial: