Motorcycle rake, trail and offset explained

Often mentioned in the main stats when looking at a new motorbike, but what do motorcycle rake and trail actually mean and why would you need to know this? Firstly, these terms refer to steering geometry and so rake, trail and offset effect handling and are directly linked to each other, altering one will effect the other. So if you want to alter the handling, cornering ability or straight line stability, rake, trail and offset are some of the first things that you should look at.

Motorcycle rake

Rake can be described as an angle at which the headstock of the motorcycle is inclined when compared against a vertical line drawn perpendicular to the ground. The rake angle effects steering ability, the smaller the rake angle then the easier the bike is to corner but will be less stable in a straight line.

Motorcycle trail

The distance on the ground between a straight line drawn through the center of the front wheel spindle and a line drawn through the center of the headstock axis. The greater the trail distance, then the greated the straight line stability but the harder it is to make the bike corner.

Motorcycle offset

The distance between a line drawn through the centre of the steering stem/ headstock axis and the centre line of the front fork tubes. Typically the offset inversely affects trail, if offset increases then the trail will decrease.

The diagram below illustrates each of the measurements and how they are calculated:

Motorcycle rake, trail and offset

The relationship between rake, trail and offset

  • If you increase the rake, the trail increases
  • If you increase the trail, the rake increases
  • If you increase the offset for both yokes then the trail decreases
  • If you increase the offset for only the top yoke/ triple tree then the trail will increase
  • If you increase the offset for the bottom yoke/ triple tree independantly then the trail will decrease

How to alter a motorcycles rake, trail or offset

So why would you want to alter these values? Well if you plan to cruise mainly straight roads then you don’t want your arms getting tired by constantly correcting and holding the bike in a straight line, so you would want to increase the trail and decrease the rake. Which is why the American choppers have such long front forks to give great straight line stability. If you wanted handling around corners you would do the opposite to allow you to throw the bike around the corners and of course there is a fine balance to get the best of both. Also such inventions like steering dampers allow you to have a very low rake but keep the bike stable by stiffening the steering movement which you can buy as an after market part. So, love the look of the bike and the performance of the engine but hate the handling? Alter these values.

You don’t need to be a mechanic or an expert to be able to alter the steering geometry and it can be done in a variety of very easy ways, just remember that you’re the one who has to ride it, so you take your life in your own hands. So for instance with my Yamaha XS750 the front forks were originally quite long, which is pretty useless for a cafe racer, so new shorter forks were put in to lower the rake and to improve the handling around corners.

Motorbike rake and trail are also not only affected by the frame construction but by a myriad of other factors (which you can alter) such as:

  • Rear suspension – lowering it will increase rake and trail
  • Front forks – shorter forks will decrease rake and trail, also you can alter their position in the yokes to help shorten their distance
  • Aftermarket yokes/ triple trees – alter the offset to then alter the trail without affecting rake
  • Wheel diameter – smaller front wheel will decrease rake and trail, smaller rear wheel will increase rake and trail
  • Tyre thickness – same as the wheel diameter

More importantly when riding the bike, braking and suspension travel will also dynamically alter the rake and trail, for instance, as you brake hard on the front, suspension will compress under dive thus decreasing trail and rake potentially inducing wobble in the bike. Bare that in mind if you make any alterations as you could end up with negative figures under extreme braking conditions. Additionally heavy luggage or pillion on the rear may also effect your rake and trail measurements slightly – which is why you should always alter your rear suspension preload.

Also remember that while any alterations may seem small and un-noticeable at slow speed at higher speeds their effect will be magnified, such as reduced straight line stability!

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