Cornering Problems 1 - Lean or Brake?

Somebody asked on one of the forums I contribute to, "when I'm running into a bend at speed and see I'm running out of road in my lane, is the proper response to lean and counter steer even more? Of course, I could straighten the bike and hit the brakes, but should I "hang in there" in the bend?".

Let's just very quickly explain counter steering at highway speeds. To deflect the bike from the vertical you need to countersteer. Once leant over at a constant angle the bike will take some kind of a "set" which may or may not demand rider input and depends on steering geometry, tyres, road surface etc etc... Don't worry about that, but if you want to lean over further (or pick the bike up again for that matter), you have to make an extra countersteering input.

As regards what to do in the bend, there is very rarely a clear cut answer. Rather than a "one solution fits all" answer, I'm going to suggest three options, and explain the dangers and advantages of each. Which you choose depends on some other factors including:

    speed and road layout, surface
    other vehicles
    type of bike and load
    experience and confidence

The thing to remember is that on the road in the dry on a half decent surface, virtually no one loses the bike through lack of grip mid-corner and most crashes result from braking errors or running out of road. Even on the race track, most corner crashes happen on the way in (brakes) or the way out (power highside). On some bikes with restricted ground clearance or at racetrack angles of lean (not really sensible on the road but I have to admit to having been there, done that & eaten the tarmac) it is possible to lever the rear wheel off the ground, but you really have to be trying hard on modern sportsbikes.

Option A:- keep it simple and steer

Your correct solution in the vast majority of cases where you have lean angle in hand, is:
i) look through the corner at your exit, not at the problem in front of you
ii) countersteer and use your extra lean angle to make the turn
iii) roll open and use the throttle to gently power the bike as you steer - the aim is to avoid coasting, avoid loading the front tyre with decelerating forces and keeping the steering geometry neutral

The throttle is a more important tool in the "look, lean and roll" technique than many people realise. A lot of riders will coast round a corner before opening it on the far side where the road appears to be clear. Unfortunately it has many of the disadvantages of braking in a corner, shifting weight and deceleration forces to the front wheel, without slowing the bike appreciable (unless you ride a high compression twin or single of course).

If you don't have a great deal of experience, this is definitely the one to go for, even though it takes self-awareness and determination to steer when all the instincts are to hit the brakes.
 

Option B:- Sit up, brake and lean again

Occasionally you may have the opportunity to sit the bike upright and brake hard in a straight line, before laying the bike over again - you'll find this one offered up in several advanced riding manuals.

I stress that I rarely use this on the road because you almost never have the space, and where I have used it, it was sometimes the wrong solution. The danger with this technique is that on most bends you don't have the room and thus on a right hander it takes you into the hedge, and on a left hander it takes you into oncoming traffic. However where you have runoff, or there are no vehicles to worry about, it can be a simple way out of trouble at no risk.
 

Option C:- Braking in the turn

Your third option is applying the brakes. I would emphasis this is not a technique for novices, and really only applicable to sportsbikes which will carry a surprising amount of brakes through a bend if they are applied carefully and progressively, but bear in mind:
i) that the front tyre has only a certain amount of grip to cope with braking and steering. In a corner you want to ensure the maximum possible grip is available for steering. Any braking reduces the amount of grip for steering, and makes it more likely that you will overload the front tyre. Apply the front brake suddenly and you can easily slide the front wheel and lose the front end. This is the most common form of crash in a corner
ii) applying the front brake causes the bike to sit up and go straight on anyway - you still need to put additional steering effort into the corner
iii) releasing the front causes the bike to fall into the corner! Release as carefully as you applied them!

Done properly, as you are slowing down, the bike will turn a progressively tighter line at the same lean angle - indeed it can be the only way to negotiate an unexpected downhill decreasing radius turn.

However, the harder you brake, the less responsive the steering becomes as the forks compress and the steering angle changes. There is also a potential problem with ground clearance on some bikes.

Most riding manuals suggest using the rear only, but from my experience this gives little real deceleration with many of the disadvantages of using the front (loading the front tyre, steering geometry changes, trailing throttle) without the advantage of fine control of the brake itself - if you are trying to shed serious speed with the rear, you're going to be using a fairly hefty boot.

It is worth emphasising that losing control in a bend is a primary cause of bike-only accidents in the UK. Most riders have committed themselves to braking in the corners when the better option would have been steer and lean. Even in the wet, more lean (though scary) is nearly always the better choice.

Having said that, I would also emphasis that riders make the wrong choice because
a) they do not understand the options available
b) they react to instinct

Hitting the brakes mid corner is an extremely powerful instinct and one you have to work hard to overcome. With all my riding experience, I still got it wrong a couple of months ago when I came across a suddenly tightening corner, and even whilst I was saying to myself "look, lean and roll" I hit the front brake, and nearly ended up in a river! DOH!

Practice is the only answer...

And as a parting shot... Of course, the correct answer to "what do I do when I get into a bend too hot" is not to get in too hot in the first place by reading the corner and making some allowance for the unexpected.!

But that's another riding tip!