The Vanishing Point - is it enough?

I was thinking of adding a tip about the Vanishing Point (or Convergence Point, or Limit Point - call it what you like) some months ago but decided it was well enough covered by virtually every advanced riding guide in paper or on the net.

Then I got thinking a bit more and began to wonder whether it was quite as useful as made out, so I was out riding and testing my theories, and jotting some notes down when someone asked me to define it on and coincidentally almost the same day another advanced instructor with impressive credentials posted this on an e-mail group:

"The main thing you have to learn about safe riding is the visual point or vanishing point. I teach this to clients all the time. Some tell me in detail how or what they look at at and when I take them out on the road it seems no one understands it too well. All police riding is based on this because if you know how to use it it gives you everything you want. Position on the road, speed on the approach to any bend, how fast you can enter the bend, how much power to apply to the throttle, where to move the bike from the corner for the next position. In my experience it is not the technique that is hard but the believing what you see and having confidence to use it anywhere in the world. It is very exciting once you know how it works."

I read this with some interest. For starters I happen to think that safe positioning and awareness of the dangers of encountering other vehicles/road layouts, and braking technique are at the top of my list for safe cornering, with the very basic rule that you never ride faster than the speed that allows you to stop in the distance you can see to be clear being paramount.

Anyway I began thinking about the Vanishing Point and how much I use it on the road, and chasing it with the throttle. The answer was probably surprisingly for any one reading advanced riding articles, not really all that much.

So what am I doing differently, and am I doing it wrong? Well I don't really think so.

The Vanishing Point is explained in some detail in "Roadcraft", the Police manual. The idea is that you look at the point at which the edges of the road come together. You need to look for three things :-

    the direction at which it is turned - this gives the direction the road goes and thus your position left or right to enter the bend.
    the angle at which it appears to turn towards you as you approach - the closer it is gets to 9 or 3 o'clock, the bend is turning towards you, the closer to 12 noon, the more the bend is opening up and away from you.
    the new detail you see at the convergence point - if you see nothing new (ie the same set of trees/bit of hedge) the bend is sharp and slow, if you are constantly seeing new trees, lampposts, houses, etc, the bend is fairly open and quick.

You then "chase the bend with the throttle" - as it opens out you are supposed to accelerate, as it closes down, decelerate.

The problem is that it's a useful tool - but not foolproof!

There are a number of problems with unthinking application of the technique, some are to do with defensive riding, another is to do with picking a good line and the last is a machine control problem.

Defensive Riding Problems

Clearly reading the road ahead is vital as it allows you to enter bends faster and with more confidence. But relying on the Vanishing Point has its pitfalls:-

    it can lead you into ignoring the dangers of other vehicles or road layout - you should always be able to stop in the distance you can see to be clear, regardless of the speed suggested by the Vanishing Point.
    it tells you nothing about circumstances beyond what you can see.
    if you read the hedges rather then the kerbs of the road and if the verge changes width or doesn't follow the line of the road, that can lead to you thinking the bend is more open than it really is.
    bends where the road changes elevation are difficult to read - if the road appears sharper than it is, then good, but if it appears more open that's bad because you will run in too fast.
    if the road is undulating, it may be impossible to see the vanishing point at all!

In my opinion, the biggest danger is that the Vanishing Point tells you ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about the road one metre beyond the point you can see - you can concentrate so much on reading the Vanishing Point that you forget to look for supporting evidence of where the road goes next or you fail to notice the slow moving vehicle round the corner.

In other words, over-reliance on the Vanishing Point can lead you into fixating on a single point on the approach to a bend when you should be taking the widest view possible. If only you pick up your eyes from the Vanishing Point and look further ahead there is usually more to see.

Finding a line

If you think about it, beyond telling you if the road goes left or right, the Vanishing Point is virtually no help at all in planning a line through a corner because it cannot give you an overview of the whole bend before you get there. Imagine how impossible it would be to try to decide where the road goes next from a single photograph - the Vanishing Point gives you no more than a rapid-fire series of snapshots which you then have to attempt to make sense of as you ride into the corner. Essentially you are having to work out where to go on a metre by metre basis.

Imagine how much easier life would be if you had a system for reading bends and making a mental map of the corner in advance, so you knew precisely where to go before you got there. Keith Code has an excellent explanation of such a system for dealing with corners - in brief, the exit of the corner is where you have the bike more or less upright and can accelerate, whilst the entry is the point where you must turn in along the line that takes you to the exit. You can ONLY identify the turn in point and the line through the corner by identifying the exit FIRST.

In a complex of bends the point at which the bike is upright (the exit) may only be momentary and will also be the point at which you initiate the turn which takes you to the exit to the next bend, but the Code system still works.

If, as in many bends, you cannot see the exit on the approach, you should wait before committing yourself to a line, keeping a slow, wide (options open) line until you can - then you turn and ride to it. Relying on the Vanishing Point on a multi-radius bend is iffy - one snapshot can suggest the turn opens when in fact the next tells you it immediately tightens again. If you misread the exit in this way, and turn in and accelerate too soon, you may be forced to brake again mid-turn. Using the Vanishing Point going into a decreasing radius turn is particularly dangerous, as the speed suggested by the snapshot as you enter the bend can lead to you having to brake all the way round.

When you read the entry and the exit point to each bend, the Code system helps you break down corners into a simple sequence of actions allowing you to deal with each bend not only on its own as a single unit but also as a flowing sequence, no matter how complicated the complex, and the key to that is good observation well BEYOND the Vanishing Point.

Machine Control

The other problem and my particular dislike is the suggestion that you chase the bend with the throttle. It's fine if you only need to open the throttle. But if you need to close it again, it's another matter - this is not good machine control. Rolling the throttle on and off whilst leant over pitches the bike backwards and forwards, unsettles the bike mid-turn and is definitely not my preferred method of riding.

In my opinion your aim throughout a corner should be to keep the bike balanced front and rear on its suspension, as recommended by Keith Code in his "Twist of the Wrist" books. His rule for an ideal line through a corner is that "once throttle is applied, it should be rolled on evenly, smoothly and constantly through remainder of corner", and that is a rule that I completely agree with and practice when I ride.

Clearly chasing the corner with positive and negative throttle violates that rule. In practice it's much easier to deal with gentle changes of direction by changing the lean angle at a (near) constant speed.

So what's my solution?

Back to the point I made at the beginning about hardly ever using the Vanishing Point to read a bend. How do I do read bends if I don't use it?

In many cases, a simple look OVER the verge, through gateways and breaks in the hedge allows me to read the road around the corner, telling me quite accurately where the road goes without ever resorting to the Vanishing Point!

Where I cannot see over the hedge, I look for road signs, hazard lines in the road, lines of poles, tops of other vehicles, trees, brake lights on vehicles ahead, the speed of on-coming vehicles, skid marks etc..

The topography of the landscape can help you make a good guess about where the road goes next - in a steep sided valley, it's unlikely to turn sharply and go straight up the side of a mountain but will probably follow the shore of a lake. Coming down a steep hill with the drop to your right, the next right hand bend is either going to be very gentle or very sharp and possibly a hairpin - it's not likely to be anything between the two! Around dykes in the flats of Lincolnshire, the next bend will almost certainly be a slow right angle to cross the ditch, similarly when running alongside a railway line the road will probably cross the line at right angles by an over- or under-bridge.

I try to read the exit on the approach, entering the bend at, and maintaining, a speed that deals with the tightest part of the bend, and only rolling on when I am certain I can see the exit and the road straightening out ahead. If I can't see the exit on the approach, I enter at a speed that allows me to deal with the worst case scenario that I can reasonably expect - if I need to change line, I do it mostly by steering rather than speeding up/slowing down - until I see the exit, then I drive to it.

In reality I'm doing nothing that any experienced rider wouldn't do automatically. I'm sure that some other advanced instructors will read this and say "yes, of course, you should be doing all that looking and planning ahead anyway", "you're taking the Vanishing Point out of context" or "you are taking an extreme position about upsetting the bike stability, you wouldn't use violent acceleration or deceleration", but I've read the books and articles on the Vanishing Point and none of them seem to deal with these potential problems. When the Vanishing Point technique is discussed it is almost always discussed in isolation and as foolproof, as in the quote from the other instructor at the beginning of this article.

Someone will probably say "the Vanishing Point will give you early warning that bend is opening out, so your entry/line/exit technique is only redefining the Vanishing Point". To some extent that is true when you have to enter the corner without a clear idea of where the road goes next, but there is no reason you shouldn't plan AHEAD of the Vanishing Point when you have the opportunity, and when you can't I emphasise again that I wait till I have a clear view of exit before steering towards it and opening the throttle.

This may give the impression that I consider the Vanishing Point useless - this is far from the truth. The Vanishing Point works well on wide, open, relatively fast, relatively constant radius bends such as faster A roads and bypasses where I am looking a long way ahead. I use it to tell me when the road is tightening up and I may need to slow down and plan ahead for a bend- for instance it gives timely warning of a sharp bend at the end of a fast straight before I can read the entry/line/exit.

It is not very useful on tight, nadgery minor roads with constantly changing radii. I mentioned just above that if I can't see the exit to a bend, I enter at a speed that allows me to deal with the worst case scenario - which the Vanishing Point CAN give some advanced warning of whilst I am actually in the corner. What I avoid doing is relying on it to set a speed at the beginning of a corner in case there is a sharper radius out of immediate sight (so I look over the hedge etc.) nor do I rely on it to tell me when to accelerate - I wait till I can see the exit for myself!

So what's my conclusion? That used sensibly it works well with other observation links but that it should be considered just one tool in your box of tricks to read corners, not the "be all and end all" of your cornering technique.

Anyway, I posted something to this effect on the forum and two wags read it and replied...

"So isn't the "Vanishing point" simply the farthest you can see down the road? Or is that too simple?"
"Way, Way too simple. This is technical stuff we're talking about here. The vanishing point is the point where the left and right verges appear to converge, or in other words, the farthest you can see down the road. Does that make it clear?"

I had to laugh... sometimes a simple, useful technique that should be obvious and straightforward can be elevated to semi-mystical status!