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Cornering Problems 1 - Lean or Brake?

Losing control in a bend is a primary cause of bike-only accidents in the UK when riders have committed themselves to braking when the better option would have been steer and lean. So an oh-so-common question is: "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? Or should I be braking?" I've answered it on forums, I've answered it by email via the Survival Skills 'free advice line', I've answered it giving presentations, and I've answered it on my advanced motorcycle rider training courses. Do we 'hang on in there' and try steer round the bend, or do we try to lose some speed? The answer, as it so often is when we're talking about motorcycles, is: "it depends". There is rarely a 'one size fits all' solution. I'm going to suggest three options, explain the advantages and the risks of each, and then you will hopefully have a better understanding of how to make a sound choice in your own emergency.

Before we go any further, let's just remind ourselves of Keith Code's 'Survival Reactions'. Before we go any further, let's just remind ourselves of Keith Code's 'Survival Reactions'. 

Survival Reactions are the unplanned and unwanted reactions to a fear of personal harm. Typically they put us deeper in trouble rather than helping. Examples are freezing, over-braking and target fixation. Survival Reactions are triggered by a failure to predict the problem. And we fail to predict things beginning to go wrong because we tend to expect things to go right rather than wrong. So when we suddenly find ourselves mid-emergency, even if we have excellent riding skills, we're unlikely to react any more effectively TO THE EMERGENCY than an essentially untrained rider. 

So what triggers these unwanted responses? It's that pesky problem SURPRISE! If we expecting things to go right (and after all, that's what most training tells us will happen - if we do all the right things, nothing goes wrong) then when things DO go wrong, we're caught cold, unprepared to deal with the emergency. The two killer problems in bends are panic braking and target fixation.

So the most recent research suggests that 'insight training' is the way round this. It's effectively what Survival Skills has been teaching since 1997. Firstly we need to understand error. Second, we need strategies to get out of trouble. Thirdly, we have to look at the road ahead of us and understand the Worst Case Scenario. So, approaching a corner, if we look at it with an understanding of just how our planned approach to the bend can go wrong, with that eventuality already in our heads we are able to respond appropriately when it DOES go wrong. This is the 'No Surprise? No Accident' approach to riding.

So here are the first two things to remember:

  1. the bike is almost always better than the rider - with the exception of some cruisers with limited ground clearance and perhaps some classics on skinny tyres, the bike will almost always LEAN beyond the point where the rider is getting uncomfortable - so long as we 'Keep some Bank in the Bank', to use one of our 'No Surprise' Rhyming Reminders.
  2. the front tyre almost always has more STEERING grip than we'll ever use. Even on wet roads, virtually no one loses the front end simply by steering. Most crashes result from mixing lean angle with braking or simply running out of road.

Here's a quick reminder of counter-steering, because that's one of two skills we may need. Push left, go LEFT. Push RIGHT, go right. Push harder, change direction FASTER. Remember - trust that front tyre to steer.

So what are the three options I talked about?

Option A:- keep it simple and steer

As I've just mentioned, most of us arrive in a bend with lean angle in hand. So that being the case, we can use it:
keep the thottle gently open to keep the steering neutral and avoid loading the front tyre with decelerating forces
look through the corner towards the way out (the 'exit' of the bend) and NOT at the problem in front of you
push HARDER to add an extra counter-steering input to generate extra lean angle to make the turn

Option B:- Sit up, brake and lean again

If there's space - perhaps we can see there's nothing coming the other way - we may be able to:

  • steer the bike upright
  • use both brakes hard in a straight line
  • counter-steer to lean the bike over again at the reduced speed

I've seen this solution recommended in some books on advanced riding, and I've also been told that it's the 'correct' response to an 'in too fast' issue. However, what I would say from experience is that there is rarely room to apply this approach on the road. On a left-hander, it almost guarantees we're going to run into the oncoming lane, and on a right-hander there's little room before we run off into the hedge or over a cliff. In fact, to get the MAXIMUM straight line first, we MUST turn the bike into the corner FIRST...

...and if we can do that, couldn't we just keep steering?


Option C:- Slow down in the turn

The third option is the one most often frowned upon because of stability concerns - we slow down! I'll talk about the stability issues in a moment but here's the clever bit - once the bike is slowing down, it will turn on a progressively tighter line without us having to add any lean angle. That is a straightforward function of the physics of speed.

We can achieve that in one of three ways:

  • roll off the throttle
  • apply the rear brake only smoothly and progressively
  • apply both front and rear brakes smoothly and progressively

Rolling off the throttle is straightforward and provided we don't slam it shut and destabilise the machine, a close throttle will usually provide engine braking and thus some deceleration without any major compromise to machine stability. But it does depend on the bike. Ducati and BMW twins will slow quite dramatically, whilst small capacity two-strokes will barely decelerate at all. It will also depend on the gear. If we're in a high gear, rolling the throttle closed will provide less engine braking than a lower gear. 

If engine braking isn't providing sufficient deceleration, rather than try to force more deceleration via a downchange, we can apply the rear brake lightly, and this has always been the advice on UK basic training - if braking is needed mid-corner, we should use only the rear brake. However, it's important to remember that with the throttle already shut, we're already generating a braking force via the rear tyre, and adding rear brake can take us close to - and potentially over - the limit of grip. It's easy to add too much rear brake force and either lock the rear wheel or cause the rear ABS to kick in, particularly if we downshift to try to slow down even more. It's no coincidence many bikes now have slipper clutches to prevent lock-ups on clumsy downshifts on a closed throttle. My belief is that the 'rear brake only' advice dates back to the 50s and 60s when front tyres were Teflon, and engines were relatively small capacity (a 500cc was a BIG BIKE), low revving and with a low compression ratio, and a heavy flywheel which meant the engine didn't slow down that quickly when the throttle was closed. So they didn't generate a great deal of engine braking.

However, if engines have changed, modern tyres also deliver far more edge grip. And that means unless we're already sliding the front tyre into the corner, then there IS grip left at the front, and we can use a little of that spare grip to use the front brake as well as the rear. There may not be much grip to spare if we're already at a big lean angle. But there will be some. And provided we don't bang the brakes on suddenly, we can exploit that grip to begin to lose speed with both brakes.

It's often claimed that this is not a technique for novices, but in reality it's not nearly as difficult to master or as risky as is usually claimed. It works by exploiting what's sometimes called the 'Traction Pie'. The idea is that a tyre can split its grip between braking and steering. If we're braking upright, we're using some tyre grip for braking but none for steering. If we're rounding a corner at constant speed, we're using some tyre grip for steering but none for braking. And between the two we can 'mix and match'.

What is vital is to avoid sudden and harsh applications of the front brake. Although we could lock the front (triggering ABS if we have it), what actually more likely to happen is that the bike sits up and tries to go straight on as the front suspension compresses, usually towards what we were trying to avoid. When caught by SURPRISE!, hitting the brakes mid-corner is an extremely powerful instinct and one we have to work hard to overcome. Even with a lot of riding experience, I nearly put the bike in the River Exe some years back when I thought the road went gently left, discovered it went sharp right into a decreasing radius corner. I hit the brakes even as I was saying to myself "lean, don't brake", which stood the bike up and almost ran me off the road. DOH!

But my story should also tell you that the fact that the bike DID sit up should tell us the tyre gripped!

So here's how we use both brakes mid-corner:

  1. look through the corner to where we want to go and apply both brakes smoothly, progressively and above all in a PLANNED manoeuvre
  2. as the speed comes down, we can either:
  • maintain the current brake pressure and lean angle and turn progressively tighter until we are at the right speed then we ease off the brakes just as smoothly as we applied them. If we release the front brake suddenly mid-corner, the bike will topple into the bend
  • maintain the same radius of turn, let the lean angle ease up towards the vertical and apply progressively more front brake and if we need to come to a complete halt, we can get the bike upright before stopping maintain balance

I'll emphasise again, this braking technique uses BOTH brakes.

To sum up, practicing quick steering and mid-corner braking is a big help when we need to make mid-corner corrections, but the real benefits come when we begin to plan ahead to deal with a bend that doesn't go where we expect, and to hold ready in our heads the understanding that we may need to tighten our line on ANY bend. Pre-planning for the Worst Case Scenario helps prevent the panic reactions that cause crashes.

Of course, some people will read this and say that the proper answer is "don't go into a bend too hot in the first place". Whilst that's useful in hindsight, it's not much use until after we've RECOVERED the error, is it?

We all make mistakes, sooner or later so it's as well to know HOW to get out of trouble just as much as it is to try to stay out of it.

Kevin Williams
Survival Skills Rider Training

...because it's a jungle out there


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What is Survival Skills all about?

How are Survival Skills Courses put together and taught?
The Making of a Good Instructor - musings on my Driver Education course

Would a National Standard for advanced training be appropriate?
Writing a riding tip - what detail is necessary?
What to do if you've had an accident
Accident Statistics - dispelling some myths

Improver or advanced, pragmatism or perfection?
Piling on the miles
Compartmentalisation & Practice -  the key to learning new skills
Countersteering - Question and Answer

Braking Rules and Tips
Over-confidence and Riding at the Limit
Practice makes Perfect
The Danger of Misunderstanding
Learning from your Mistakes
A Moment of Inattention
Staying Warm
Staying Awake
Don't just ride for yourself, ride for others
Filtering - what's legal and how to do it
Cornering Problems 1 - Lean or Brake?
Springing into Summer - polishing off the winter rust
Group Riding - Rules and Tips
Awareness of Risk and Risk Management
Cornering Problems 4 - Stability and the "Point and Squirt" technique
Cornering Problems 3 - Staying out of trouble! Pro-active Braking or Acceleration Sense?
Cornering Problems 2 - Staying out of trouble
What is Risk?
Avoiding Diesel
The Vanishing Point - is it enough?
Posture - the key to smoother riding
When the Two Second Rule is not enough
Riding in the Dark
Roundabouts - straight lines, stability and safety
Slow Speed Control
Aquaplaning - what it is and how to deal with it
Rear Observation - when to & when not to!
Staying upright on icy roads
KISS - 'Keep it simple, Stupid' or Low Effort Biking
Overtaking Safety - avoiding vehicles turning right
Proactive versus Reactive Riding
Living with  Lifesavers
Which Foot? The Hendon Shuffle - Question and Answer
Carrying a passenger - Question and Answer
Riding in the rain
Riding in strong winds
Sorry Mate, I didn't see you - an analysis of SMIDSY accidents
Ever gone into a corner too hot and had it tighten up on you?
The Point & Squirt approach to corners
A time to live...
Target Fixation - Question and Answer
The Lurker, the Drifter and the Trimmer
The five most important things I learned as a courier
Overtaking - Questions and Answers
Precision riding - or keeping it simple?
Wide lines, tight lines, right lines - the law of Diminishing Returns
Surface Attraction
Euphoria - when your riding is just too good to be true
Straight line -vs- trail braking
Sit back, close your eyes, relax... and hope for the best
Before you overtake, do you...?
Do you need to blip the throttle on a downshift?
Holiday Riding Tips 1 - Dealing with hairpins (a new occasional series)
Holiday Riding Tips 2 - The (drive on the) Right Stuff
Why SMIDSYs happen
Avoiding dehydration - riding in hot weather
Riding errors - and avoiding them
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness - riding in fog
Where does Point and Squirt come from?
Overtaking - lifesavers and following distances
Offsiding - what is it, and why you should think before you do it!
Anger Management - dealing with "red mist" and "road rage"
That indefinable gloss
Overtaking on left-handers - experts only or best avoided?
Apex or Exit - what's important when cornering?

Developing 'Spidy Sense'

Armchair Riding - how to improve summer skills in winter

Working towards a BTEC in post-test instruction part 1

Working towards a BTEC in post-test instruction part 2

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