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Cycling Back to Front!

A Diary of Building and Riding a Reverse Steer Bike for NRC

by Chris Matthews

A few weeks ago, I was approached by John Murrell asking if I could build a reverse steer bike for the Thatcham Fun Day held last Sunday. He had seen some examples on YouTube and thought it would make a great attraction at the event. He then added it would be great if I could learn to ride it. So of course I said ‘yes’ – how hard could it be?

To work out what I had let myself in for, I watched all of the videos on YouTube of how to make and ride one of these bikes. Effectively they are engineered so that if you steer one way, the front wheel goes the opposite way. It was then that I realised we had a few significant hurdles to overcome:

  1. Finding some steel framed bikes- as there would be welding required, so other frame materials were discounted

  2. Working out how to build the reverse steer mechanism

  3. Finding all the parts to do this, with a minimal budget

  4. Building up a bike

  5. Learning to ride it – all the advice was that it could take a number of months to master

This is a brief story of what happened next.

Finding some steel framed bikes:

You may have seen John Murrell’s note asking if anyone had an old steel bike they could donate to the cause. We had an immediate response and within 24 hours John had delivered 4 bikes to my house. Many thanks to Chris and Jane Chamberlain and Steve Miller for your donations and to John for the old bike he found dumped nearby in a hedge.

Working out how to build the reverse steer mechanism:

My research showed that the most straightforward way of building a reverse steer bike was to graft on an additional head tube at the front of the bike.

Then with the forks remaining in the original headtube, the handlebars move forward to the new head tube. This separates the steering (handlebars) from the wheels.

To reconnect them, you need to use 2 cogs of a similar size, mounted in the headtubes, so that movement one way in the steering produces a 1:1 but opposite movement in the wheel.

So all pretty straight-forward then!

Finding parts to do this, with a minimal budget:

So we needed to select the best bike and then chop the headtube off one of the other donations. I selected the best candidate where the frame tubes aligned best with the new headtube – because I clearly wanted it to look as professional as possible!

The additional headtube came off pretty easily using an angle grinder, leaving a bit of the top tube and down tube for attaching to the other frame

I then realised that within each headset you have the forks and their securing mechanism. The handlebar stem locks into this, so the existing headtube needed the original forks and a chopped off handlebar stem to mount the cogs on. The new, front headtube needed the original handlebar stem, but also the fork mounting mechanism, but without the forks.

More chopping with the angle grinder produced a handlebar stem without the handlebar mount and a fork mounting section with the forks removed. We were making progress.

Thinking then turned to the cogs. Research showed that these could be expensive to buy, so I dropped in to Newbury Transmissions in Boundary Road (who are really good for all things gearbox and clutch related). After describing what I was looking for, they rummaged in their boxes of bits and came up with 2 cogs from a VW Polo gearbox that looked perfect. And even better, they gave them to the club for nothing!

These cogs needed to mount on the handlebar stems, and this was the next challenge – the holes in the middle were way too small. To machine the cogs to the correct dimensions is an expensive exercise and my fear at this point was it could halt the project. However, John Murrell has a friend who works for local engineering company who agreed to help and within days the cogs came back machined to size. What a result!

Building up a reverse-steer bike:

With all of the parts in place, the challenge now was to bring it all together into a workable bike.

The first action was to work out how far apart the two headtubes should be. This was determined by the cogs. With the cogs mounted on the handlebar tubes the right amount of separation could be determined.

The next step was to cut the bits of the top tube and down tube on the new headtube to size. This is difficult, as where these join on to the existing frame headtube, the tubes need to follow the profile of the headtube.

A mini grinder helped shape the tubes to the correct profile, giving the correct clearance between the 2 headtubes and keeping them parallel. Next step was to strip the pain off the joining areas and then they were MIG welded into place. A quick spray with matching aerosol paint made it look almost stock.

All that was required then was to put the cogs on the handlebar stems, put the forks back in place with the cut off handlebar stem in the original header tube, and the handlebars and cut off forks in the new headtube. The cogs were then welded to the stems.

So now when the handlebars were turned, the forks turned the opposite way.

The research into reverse steer bikes advised removing the brakes and gears. However, it soon became apparent that these bikes could be dangerous, so having a brake would be very useful. The front brake was hard to mount as the headtubes got in the way, so we stuck with a rear brake only. And I soon discovered that adjustable gearing was helpful so the full set of gears and shifters were retained.

A quick service of the bike resulted in new headset bearings, a new brake cable and sleeve, replacement pedals and saddle a puncture repaired and a quick release put on the saddle to allow easy adjustment. And at that point I realised that the tyres had perished, but a quick trip to the Community Furniture Project provided 2 much better tyres as a donation for our project. The total cost of the bike came to £15.00.

Learning to ride the bike:

With the bike built up, my focus turned to riding it. I assumed that it would be one of those things I could just do – how wrong I was!

My first effort managed 2 inches before I came off, and after half an hour I had only managed to move a foot. The problem isn’t just the steering, it’s also balance. On a normal bike, you can steer (or balance) the bike by leaning. On this, leaning had the opposite effect and throws you off. So everything you have ever learnt about riding a bike is wrong.

Not willing to be defeated, I started to practice in the garden. After a week I had managed about 6 feet. Then I pulled a muscle in my back – not related to the bike, and had to call in reinforcements. Allan Bartlett took on the responsibility of learning to ride the bike, and he found it as hard as I had. It was so funny watching someone else have no control whatsoever! He took the bike home with him for more practice.

After a few days my back was significantly better, so I thought about building a second bike for the Fun Day. Having built one already, the process was easier. I went back to the Community Furniture Project and acquired 2 more bikes – one just for the headset, and to Newbury Transmissions for more cogs which went back to John's friend for machining. Then over the course of 2 evenings it all came together and we had a second bike. This was slightly improved on the original as I made sure the distance between the headtubes was optimised to remove any slack in the steering. With a couple more trips to the Community Furniture Project for odds and sods the second bike was completed for the total cost of £0!

In the run up to the fun day I practiced some more in the garden and managed to wobble up to 12 feet, exceeding our target of 10 feet. So I was reasonably confident I could demonstrate that it was possible to ride the bikes at the event.

On the day of the fun day I had no car available, but realised that I could swap over the handlebar stems and ride the bike like a normal bike. At Henwick Fields I swapped the stems back again, converting it back to a reverse steer bike. I arrived early and while John marked out the challenge course, I practiced to try to cover more distance. Having an audience must have concentrated the mind, as within half an hour I had increased the distance to about 30 feet. Lorraine managed to capture some of these attempts on video.

Allan then arrived on the original reverse steer bike. He had been practicing but was still struggling to achieve the 12 feet challenge distance. After a number of attempts he managed it, so we then had 2 people who could demonstrate the bikes at the event.

The bikes were a real hit at the Fun Day. Loads of people wanted to give them a try, and many were convinced they would be able to do it. Me and Allan tried to make it look easy, which egged people on even more. The prize for riding the bike 12 feet was a bottle of champagne, and around lunchtime Ashley Robertson managed it, after a number of failed attempts. It turns out a friend of his had an uncle who built a reverse steer BMX bike in the 1970s. Ashley and his mate tried riding this – and it obviously made the difference, as he was the only person to successfully complete the challenge on the day.

The best part of the whole thing was watching people attempting the challenge. The harder they tried, the harder it became. We all laughed so much – it was a great day.

Thank you to John for the original idea, and to all the individuals and companies that supported the build of these bikes. It was a great team effort!


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