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 www.visordown.com 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
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
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
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.
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
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