Apex or Exit - what's important when cornering?
I picked up a magazine (summer 06) promising 20 pages on "cornering faster" the other day. Despite a good look I could only find a couple of pages on cornering technique and a load of bumph on fitting accessories and tweaking the bike. A cynic might say it was designed to sell more advertising for the magazine rather than improve the rider reading it.

Anyway, cynicism aside, the best bolt-on accessory on your bike is the you, the rider, and the best tweaks you can do are to your own skills.

A good rider can still corner well on a wallowing hippo of a machine whilst all the bling in the world won't turn an incompetent owner into Valentino Rossi. It's lines, not lean angles, that make a corner safe.

And it's only when you know you are safe you should even attempt to add speed.

The article spent a lot of time talking about finding the apex. So what is the apex anyway? It's a word bandied around with a lot of freedom, and you'll hear about taking "early" or "late" apexes in any discussion about riding a track.

Think of a triangle - stand it upright - the pointy bit at the top is the apex. Now, rather than straight sides leading up to the apex, make it a smooth symmetrical radius bend - the apex is found at inside of the track, at the mid-point of the bend. The idea is that if we start on the outside of the track on the way into the corner, and exit to the outside of the track on the way out of the corner, by hitting the apex half way through the turn, we take the widest possible line (and thus fastest!) through the bend.

An early apex (one that comes before we are half-way though the corner) generally indicates an increasing radius turn - or the track might widen. A late apex generally indicated a decreasing radius turn - or the track might get narrower.

The theory goes that by connecting the dots from where we start to lean into the bend, through the apex to the point where we are upright again, you'll have the correct (and fastest) line through the corner. This is usually known as the Racing Line. But, as one website on track technique states:

    "The racing line is the fastest way around the track when no race traffic is present"

So, not even on the track is the perfect racing line useful all the time. On the road, of course, we have to think about oncoming traffic 24/7. In fact we often want to keep away from the white line on a right hand bend on principle because of the danger of meeting oncoming traffic.

Back to the apex - the problem is that even on a track the apex isn't the important bit on the corner for planning purposes. The points that matter are where we turn tighter into the bend and where we get out of the bend and how we connect them. The line we take between them is determined by things like the shape of the bend, any issues with the surface, other traffic (race or road) and vehicle control issues like how the bike or car responds under braking and power - get that all sorted, and the apex just happens to fall in along the way.

On the track, you learn this by going round and round till you get your line right, working out where to turn in, and where the exit it. Even on a blind corner, you learn to use marker points (which is why they put cones out on track training sessions) to guide you round.

On the road however, we don't get the chance to learn the bend by going round it over and over, and we don't get markers. We have to ride it as you see it first time out - which isn't easy when most of the corners on the roads are blind - we can rarely see the exit from the turn in point.

So, far from being an aid to cornering on the road, worrying about the apex is a complete red herring and in my opinion a potentially dangerous distraction by making us fixate on something mid-turn when we should be keeping our eyes up and looking for the way out of the bend.

It's not by coincidence that the much-derided line taught on basic training keeps the rider more or less midway between kerb and white centre line all the way through the turn. So long as we can steer the bike and are going at a sensible speed when we go in, by using this line we can deal with the biker's nightmare, a decreasing radius turn, because following the middle of the lane line will ALWAYS get us round the most awkward of bends, simply because by the time you get to the exit, we'll STILL be in the middle of the lane.

With a bit of practice at steering bends, we can move our line closer to the kerb on a right hander, or closer to the white line on a left hander. It gives us a better view and a slightly wider line. But still, no turning tighter and no apex, anywhere in the turn. But it still gets us safely round the corner.

So what's the big problem with turning tighter? The danger with using the width of the road rather than stay in a constant position all the way through it, is that if we turn in too early, we'll struggle to get round even a simple constant radius turn. Having turned early, we'll hit an early apex and run wide in the bend before we reach the way out. If, as is usually the case, the rider has compounded the error by using the wide line to carry more speed, then he's going to have to turn hard and lean a long way to get out of trouble.

And if we turn too early into a decreasing radius turn, we're toast. Many riders and drivers simply don't make it - it's just about the most common single vehicle accident - and frequently has serious consequences for riders.

So how would a racer treat an unfamiliar track? There is an easy way to determine the location of the apex for a corner, which works on the road too. We need to find the exit of the bend. Keith Code's definition of the exit is a good one to work with - it's where you can put the power on as hard as you like.

The racer would then work backwards through the corner, finding the line back through the apex to their turn-in point.

On the road, if the view is obscured, we can simply stay on the wide line until you can see the exit, then and only then turn tighter, aiming exit the corner in as straight a line as possible. Get the exit right, and the apex (if we choose to use one) will look after itself.

The key is staying wide in the turn till you can actually see the exit - "slow in and fast out"!

The other problem is that bends rarely occur on their own. When dealing with more than one corner, particularly where the second corner in the series leads
onto a straight, it's the second corner that's important. Our line through the first bend should lead us into the perfect position to exit the second. It's where we exit the corner from the first bend that will control our line into the second. That means usually compromising the "perfect" line and speed in the first bend.

So, we simply modify what we've just done - our exit line becomes the the line that leads directly to best position to turn into the next bend. So if our right hand bend was followed by a left hander, rather than sweep all the way across the lane to the far left, and then have to pull the bike back to the centre line for the best approach to the left hander, we'd simply make out exit alongside the white line - ready to turn in to the second part of the complex. We turn a swooping S bend into a squared-off Z shape.

OK, to get the bike turned tighter, we probably need to carry a little less speed, and we turn the bike a bit faster by using more positive steering input, but the advantage is that the bike is upright far longer - factor that in to a possible emergency situation - it's much easier to brake and steer if the bike is upright.

Where there is an even more complex sequence, then we simple repeat as long as necessary - each exit leads into the turn-in position for the next bend, and we don't turn tighter till we see where we need to go to get there.

So how can you recognise the problem in your own riding, and cure it? The symptoms of apexing too early are excessive steering input just to stay on the road on the way out of the bend and rolling off the throttle mid-turn. If you find yourself doing either or both of these, you're turning in too early.

So you want a quick and simple solution to cornering that doesn't take 20 pages to read about (or for me to write, for that matter)? Here goes.

    Set yourself up as normal, near the white line for a left hander, near the kerb for a right hander. If there is no dangers, hold that wide line and simply follow it around the bend until you see where the road goes next.
    And I do mean SEE! Don't operate on guesswork by turning tighter where the clues suggest the road might go or where you think the road ought to go, but stay where you are on the wide line until you genuinely see the exit to the turn. Don't turn in, don't tighten the line, just stay wide and look for the exit.
    The exit is the point where you can either see the next hazard and have to steer to deal with that, or where you can see the next straight and where you will be able to get the power on and accelerate.
    When and and ONLY WHEN you see the exit, dip your shoulder into the turn, add some extra countersteering and tighten your line across the lane to get there.

Try it. Drop your speed down a bit to give yourself time to see and think, and try staying wide in a corner, and simply looking for the point at which the view out of the bend opens up.

Did I mention the apex? Nope, thought not.