Safety and Awareness – Cornering

Ever scare yourself in a turn on your motorcycle?  Might as well as admit it, because it has happened to all of us.  It probably felt like you were wrestling an alligator, with your body all tense, the bike not really responding to your desire to turn and a feeling like you are somehow just along for the ride instead of in control.  All that is caused by our physiological response to fear.  Fear is the enemy of proficient motorcycle operation and it is a menacing creature, which is why we discuss it in-depth in advanced cornering classes.  With training, proper techniques and practice fear can be kept at bay, which in turn makes you a better and safer rider.  We can discuss fear later, but in this snippet let’s begin our work on the mechanics of cornering

Cornering on a single track (2-wheeled) motorcycle is an extremely complex process that requires our higher levels of intellect to accomplish skillfully.  Ever seen a circus bear riding a motorcycle?  Sure, but have you ever seen a bear make a smooth turn at road speed on a motorcycle?  No way.  Just the physics of turning are mind boggling.  I tried to read a book on the subject once.  Sweet Jesus, they might as well have written it in Latin for all I understood.  Still, my cornering skills are improving through a deeper understanding of the basics and lots of practice.  The good news is that the practice is fun!

The self-professed experts at motorcycle training in the US (the Motorcycle Safety Foundation) teach in their Basic Rider Course, matter of fact in all their courses, a simple cornering mantra; slow, look, press and roll.  I taught that mantra to hundreds of students in the past, but always knew that it left more questions unanswered than resolved.  A short list would be:

  • Slow – why, how, when, how much?
  • Look – where, when, at what, how do I look, why is it important?
  • Press – what is countersteering, why should I, how hard do I press, how long do I press?
  • Roll – why accelerate in a turn, where in the turn, how much throttle do I add?

And that’s the short list!  No wonder it can be overwhelming.  Let’s break down the process and in this snippet just discuss corner entry, the slowing part.

The first question is, do I need to slow for this corner?  Answer: It depends.  If you are at a speed at which you can go through the corner and not scare the bejeezus out of yourself, then maintain that speed to avoid being a hindrance to traffic behind you.  If you are going a speed that would not allow you to roll on a little throttle through the turn, then slow down pre-corner and practice slower in, faster out.  The reason why you should be on the throttle through the turn will be discussed in another snippet, but if you have ever coasted through a turn you know the motorcycle never felt settled and was more difficult to turn.

If you have to slow down, the most effective way to reduce speed before you enter a turn is to use your brakes.  Many riders just roll off the throttle to accomplish this speed reduction, but rider beware!  Throttle roll off decelerates your machine through a process called engine braking.  The thing about engine braking is that it requires you to judge speed and distance compared to an inconsistent amount of engine braking force.  Engine braking is inconsistent because it is greatly affected by slope of the roadway and other factors.  Keep in mind that most cornering crashes are caused by riders that have misjudged their speed and entered a corner beyond their skill level, which uncorks the bottle of fear residing within.  Your best approach is to slow using the front brake or both brakes prior to corner entry.

I have heard of many riders that use the rear brake only to slow for corners (and through the corner too) and some refer to this practice as trail braking.  Two things you should know:

  1. That is not trail braking per se
  2. The rear brake on your bike is the least effective way to slow down. 

Actual trail braking is an advanced skill involving the use of throttle and brakes simultaneously in retrograde and prograde.  Also, dragging a rear brake through a turn is not very effective since it results in the use of about 30% of your total braking force on long wheelbase cruisers or touring bikes, and 10% or less on shorter wheelbase machines such as sport bikes.  It’s much more effective to use the front brake and slow quickly then return to the throttle as early as possible in the turn

Good corners start at the beginning and the foundation of all is proper entry speed for your skill level.  Practice good cornering skills with an emphasis on being smooth, not fast.  Speed will come with skill development.  Self-help books are available, Total Control by Lee Parks and Twist of the Wrist I & II by Keith Code are full of good information.  If you are interested in advanced courses on cornering those are available in Texas and ask around to see which courses would work best for you.

See ya on the road,