If you’ve read the post on this site about the different types of motorcycle wheels, you’ll know that there are four main types:

  1. Spoked wheels
  2. Cast wheels
  3. Aluminum wheels
  4. Composite wheels

Each one has its strong and weak points, but they all rely on the same thing (apart from the tire, of course) – and that thing is called “wheel alignment.”

In this blog post, you’ll discover:

 

  • A simple explanation of what wheel alignment is – and why it matters so much for handling and safety
  • 3 common issues that can happen if your wheel alignment is out of whack
  • 5 things that may cause your wheel alignment to go out of alignment

What is Wheel Alignment?

Let’s start with the basics – what exactly is wheel alignment?

In simple terms, wheel alignment refers to the alignment between the front and rear wheels.

Ideally, you want both wheels to point straight ahead when the motorcycle is going straight.

When the wheels are correctly aligned, it allows the motorcycle to ride smoothly down the road without pulling to one side.

But why does this matter so much?

Think of the front wheel as acting as the “steering” of the motorcycle.

If it is not pointing straight ahead, even when you’re going straight, the handling of your bike suffers.

And since improper wheel alignment reduces your ability to steer accurately (especially in an emergency, it’s a safety concern, too.

In extreme cases, it can even cause the handlebars to shake left and right violently, seemingly on its own.

This phenomenon is the dreaded “death wobble”, which you can read more about in this article.

Wheel Alignment Out of Whack? 3 Things That Can Happen

1. Pulling or wandering to the left or right

Do you feel like your bike wants to turn to the left or right – even while you’re going straight and the handlebars aren’t turned?

Then the issue isn’t with you or your handlebars – it’s with your wheels and how they’re not aligned.

With the wheels incorrectly aligned, the bike will naturally want to pull to one side rather than track straight down the road.

It’s not hard to see why – one wheel might be pointing straight, but the other one is pointing to the right.

As you can imagine, this can make the ride feel unstable – not to mention uncontrollable.

2. Uneven or accelerated tire wear

It’s bad enough that bad wheel alignment affects how your bike handles. But that’s not all.

Bad wheel alignment also takes its toll on your tires – wearing them out much faster than if the alignment was set up correctly. 

So, even a pair of brand-spanking-new tires that are correctly inflated might not last as long as they should.

 

3. Vibration and difficulty steering

Remember the “death wobble” we covered earlier? Think about having your handlebars shake to the left and right on their own.

Pretty scary, right? Well, it’s about to get worse.

But what could be scarier than having your handlebars shake uncontrollably?

Picture this – you need to turn to the left, so you turn your handlebars left.

But the problem is that the handlebars don’t turn as smoothly or as much as you want them to. 

That’s what could happen in an extreme case of bad wheel alignment.

So, in essence, if your wheel alignment is out of whack, it can affect your:

  1. Stability
  2. Predictable and controllable handling of the bike
  3. Maximum possible traction (given the condition of your tires)
  4. Tires’ lifespan
  5. Ability to handle the bike safely 

5 Things That Can Cause Wheel Alignment to Go Out of Whack

1. Potholes and uneven roads

 

image of pothole

Think these are unpleasant to ride over? You’re not alone – your suspension and steering feel the same way.

Hitting road imperfections at the wrong angle can subtly tweak the suspension, your steering geometry, and, you guessed it – your wheel alignment.

It might take a few potholes before the steering is seriously affected, but it’s worth knowing about this so you can catch improper wheel alignment as early as possible.

 

2. Crashes or drops

image of crashed motorcycle

Original Image by Franz P. Sauerteig from Pixabay

Or, to be more specific, “crashes and drops which affect your front forks.”

These might seem unrelated and may not be the first thing you consider when your wheel alignment has gone off a bit.

Perhaps the first thing that crosses your mind after a crash or a drop is whether you’re fine.

But it’s crucial to know that any impact that jars the front forks can potentially bend or kink components enough to affect alignment. 

 

3. Worn steering head bearings

The steering head bearings are located in the headset, which is the collective name for the assembly where the upper fork tubes and fork legs pivot.

As you turn your handlebars to the left and right, these steering head bearings support intense loads.

And like anything that “supports intense loads”, these steering head bearings will break down with use, with leads to play in the steering.

But what does this have to do with wheel alignment?

Well, with this play in the steering, the front wheel’s alignment has now shifted from its original position.

This means that even though the issue is technically not in the wheel itself, it is in a component the wheel relies on – the steering head bearings, in this case.

4. Too many wheelies or stoppies

image of sportbike doing a wheelie

Original Photo by Kürşat Demirdelen

They might look cool and be fun to do, but no matter which end is pointing upwards, it must eventually come down.

And when it does, it’s usually with a large “thud” – which puts a lot of strain on your suspension and your wheel bearings.

It might not happen the first couple of times you do a wheelie or a stoppie, but the more you do it, the more strain you put on your suspension and, consequently, your wheels.

5. Certain maintenance and repair jobs

image of man changing a motorcycle tire

Perhaps it seems strange that you could create a problem by doing regular maintenance on your bike (which you should, by the way).

But think about when you need to change a tire, for example.

That maintenance job requires you to take the entire wheel off and then put it back on again.

And unless you get lucky, the odds are that the wheel alignment may be a bit off once the tire is on again. 

So, when you’re done doing any kind of tire or wheel work, remember to check the wheel alignment after you’re done.