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Cornering Problems 3 - Five tips to understanding cornering dynamics

Why do riders get themselves in a muddle on corners? In my experience as a rider coach offering Survival Skills post-test rider training, much of the problem lies in the lack of training in cornering at basic level. One of the key issues is a lack of understanding of just important it is to get a motorcycle 'set up' well in advance of a corner, particularly when a new rider has a car driving background. Powered two wheelers simply don't work the same way. Whilst the dynamics of cornering are the unique and fun part of riding a bike, they are also the source of many scary moments and crashes.

Why do riders get themselves in a muddle on corners? In my experience as a rider coach offering Survival Skills post-test rider training, much of the problem lies in the lack of training in cornering at basic level. One of the key issues is a lack of understanding of just important it is to get a motorcycle 'set up' well in advance of a corner, particularly when a new rider has a car driving background. Powered two wheelers simply don't work the same way. Whilst the dynamics of cornering are the unique and fun part of riding a bike, they are also the source of many scary moments and crashes.

The key to getting cornering dynamics right is to arrive at the point where we need to steer with the bike settled on the suspension. This means that we need to be travelling at the right speed in the right gear with the brakes released, and with the the suspension balanced thanks to a slight rearward weight transfer that's effected by a gentle application of throttle.

Forget any articles you may have read about how 'bikes turn faster on the brakes'. It's mostly a misunderstanding about what's happening.

Here's the first point to understand - as any powered two wheeler slows, it will automatically turn along a progressively tighter line just so long as the lean angle stays the same. So if we brake into a corner, the bike will spriral into the corner more quickly.

But here's the second. If we go into a corner on the brakes, it affects the steering geometry. Whilst they may look outwardly the same, race bikes and road bikes are set up rather differently. Race bikes - or even a road bike set up for the track - are usually set up to turn on the brakes. The steering head angle is likely to be different, and compared with a road bike where the suspension is designed to absorb bumps, the suspension on a race bike will be very stiff. Track tyres are also a different profile and construction. stiffer. If we brake into a bend on a road bike, with its relatively soft front forks and tyres, the compression of the front end will make the machine sit up in the corner and try to go straight on. If you don't believe me, try applying the front brake mid-corner and see what happens. Better yet, don't try it and just trust me when I say it'll sit up. That's the force we must resist if we turn in to a corner on the brakes. Rather than working with us, the bike is working against us.

We CAN compensate by adding extra steering input, but that pushes us closer to the limit of grip - see the previous article. And in fact, a bike with a standard road set up on road tyres will handle most sweetly with the forks unloaded by a little throttle.

Of course, we need to slow down approaching a bend so the steering dynamics impose a simple rule - we need to get OFF the brakes and back ON the throttle before we begin to change direction.

Sounds easy? Yet we all get it wrong on occasion, so here are five cornering issues we need to think about.

  1. Suspension dynamics - to soak up bumps, the front suspension on a road bike is fairly soft but when decelerating (either with a closed throttle or with the brakes) the forks compress. This compromises their ability to soak up the bumps. If we hit bumps in a straight line, this is uncomfortable but relatively relatively unimportant in terms of machine stability unless we are really hard on the front brake, but the bumps will cause the tyre to compress and rebound, which compromises front end grip - it's why the ABS sometimes kicks in when braking hard on a bumpy road. But as soon as we are leaned over, there is a real downside to hitting bumps. Not only does the front tyre lose traction if the suspension's not moving freely, but the more we're leaning, the greater the tendency for the bumps to try to 'kick' the front end sideways. Even with ABS, we'll know all about it if we hit a series of 'stutter bumps' with the forks compressed midway through a bend. The track is relatively smooth. The road isn't.
  2. Steering dynamics - if we've finished decelerating (either with a closed throttle or with the brakes) and we're gently back on the power, then the front forks extend again, Now the vast majority of road bikes set up for the road will steer with minimal input from the rider. If we carry brakes INTO the corner, we have to compensate by adding extra steering input which pushes us closer to the limits of stability.
  3. KISS and 'keep things simple, stupid' - even when road riders try to avoid braking into the first part of the corner, a common fault is leaving everything a little too late. So we're arriving at the bend and trying to get OFF the brakes, ON the throttle AND steer all at the same moment. Not surprisingly, the timing often goes awry, and the rider enters the corner still playing catch-up. Starting just a few metres earlier, then performing each task in succession - off the brakes THEN on the throttle THEN steer - we only have to perform one task at a time. We're far more likely to complete each stage and turn in to the corner back on the power.
  4. A change of mental focus - where do we look on the approach to a bend? Most people will say "at the road ahead" but in fact we'll be looking DOWN at the surface and OUT from the corner towards the point we might run out of road - it's a natural tendency to look where we DON'T want to go. If you don't believe me, analyse your own riding. You might be surprised but it's really not at all instinctive to look around the bend and away from danger. So we should make it a lot easier by ensuring we're comfortable with our approach speed good and early. A planned approach to a corner that sorts our deceleration - and thus our speed - in plenty of time is what frees up our ability to lift our view and look up and around the corner. Why does this work? If we are happy to get back on the throttle, we MUST be sure we will make it round the bend. We're often told we SHOULD look further ahead. This is HOW. It's almost impossible to open the throttle when we're worried we're going to run out of road.
  5. Margins for error - last but not least, we simply must have some space to deal with misjudgements. We are performing a complex mental calculation every time we approach a corner - we have to judge the radius of the bend, work out the speed and lean angle that will match that corner, assess where we need to steer to follow the bend... and we can only achieve that if we correctly estimate how much we need to slow down. It's easy to misjudge both our initial braking force and the corner entry speed. By AIMING to get our deceleration finished early, we leave ourselves some extra space in case we find we need to lose a little MORE speed.

All this and more is part of the Survival Skills advanced rider training 'Performance' courses, focusing on better cornering skills. If you're serious about understanding how your brain functions as well as how your machine performs underneath you, why not check them out?

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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IMPORTANT: The information on the Survival Skills website is for your general information and personal use and should be taken as a guide only. Survival Skills Rider Training provides no warranty or guarantee as to the accuracy, timeliness, performance, completeness, clarity, fitness or suitability of the information and materials found or offered on this website for any particular purpose and we expressly exclude liability for any such inaccuracies or errors to the fullest extent permitted by law. It shall be your own responsibility to ensure that any products, services or information available through this website meet your specific requirements and you acknowledge use of any information and materials is entirely at your own risk, and that neither Kevin Williams nor Survival Skills can accept responsibility for your interpretation or use of this information or materials. The content of these pages is subject to change without notice. 

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