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Cornering Problems 4 - Set up the brakes to stay out of corner trouble
Even in the years that I've been an advanced rider coach is the rider, I've seen a lot of change to motorcycle design and the technology that comes with them, and the UK's training and testing regime has changed a lot too. Now, when accident studies look at crashes result from the 'in too fast' error, it's nearly always the case that the BIKE could have made the corner. But in my time in training cornering crashes are much the same as they ever were. It's not even a blink of the eye in terms of human evolution, and so it's not surprising the rider always was and remains the weak link. But we can do better if we learn the appropriate skills. So given our propensity to find our way into trouble in bends, why aren't we taught how to avoid one of the most common cornering crashes; running into a corner too hot? If getting the bike sorted for a bend really is as simple as getting back on the throttle before we try to steer, why do riders get themselves into such a muddle on corners by making the 'in too fast' error? Here are two answers.
The first involves the lack of time spent working on corners on basic training. As the test itself is conducted mostly on urban roads with a sprinkling of dual carriageway work, it's unlikely that manys rider on the bike test will have to ride more than a mile or so along a reasonably twisty road. Not surprisingly, basic trainers tend to focus on the kind of roads the test will be conducted on, and whilst many will do some training on the twisties, it's rarely ever in much depth. Even the technique of counter-steering is not guaranteed to be covered.
In my experience as a rider coach, many 'cornering' issues turn out to be a lack of confidence with the brakes. Why? Well, braking ahead of a bend is rarely taught on basic training for the reasons mentioned above, and how to break it's largely left to the trainee to work out for themselves. Not having been taught how to brake before a corner, few riders ever practice braking upright before a bend. It's a double-whammy.
But here's a weird thing. We ALL know modern bikes can brake very hard in a straight line, most of us because our basic trainer spent hours teaching emergency stop technique. But for some reason, we never seem to appreciate that it's the same basic 'front first, rear second, progressively harder squeeze of the front' approach that works wherever we need it - avoiding collisions, braking for red traffic lights or on the approach a roundabout...
...and approaching corners.
So for most riders - there are exceptions - it's not a SKILLS gap, it's actually a KNOWLEDGE gap perhaps because it was never made explicitly clear - no-one told them they can brake hard ahead of a corner.
But I also believe we also have problems at post-test level because riders are still being discouraged from braking for corners. Have you ever heard it said that "a good rider shouldn't need to touch the brakes"? I have, and much too often for my liking.
I first read it back in my courier days, in articles written about the IAM test. It didn't make a great deal of sense to me then, but when I put myself into the IAM's hands towards the back end of my sixteen year stint as a courier, I was exposed to the thinking first-hand. Out with my observer on one of my favourite cross-country routes in Kent, it wasn't long before I was pulled up. I was told "you are braking on the approach to corners". Yes, I knew that so a "what's wrong with that" debate followed. To keep it short, I was told that if I was "judging corners correctly", I wouldn't need to use the brakes - I could do all my deceleration with a closed throttle and judicious use of the gears. As I already knew, this was explained as 'acceleration sense'.
The use of gears as a substitute for brakes is a topic for another day, but I turned the question-and-answer game around and got him to explain why he'd thought I wasn't judging the corners simply because he'd seen me braking. I asked if I had gone into any of the corners with the brakes still being applied, off-line or at an inappropriate speed. He had to admit the answer to all these questions was "no, you didn't".
So I asked how it was, that if I wasn't making these errors, that I was reading the road incorrectly? The answer was:
"Because you had to brake on the approach to a bend."
You should be able to see that's a circular argument, and totally unsupported by any logical thinking. It's simply a repetition of a mantra: 'acceleration sense good, brakes bad'.
The proper debate should have been about the proper timing and the relative effectiveness of the two techniques - acceleration sense or positive braking - at getting the speed sorted out in such as way as to prevent the 'in too fast' error.
So let's do that by looking at the 'in too fast' problem. In the ideal world of advanced riding, we'd assess every stretch of road correctly. We'd read each bend perfectly. And we'd never make the 'in too fast' mistake.
Back in the real world, I am happy to admit that I do cock up. I am not a perfect rider, and every once in a while I do discover myself arriving too fast for the next corner. And here's a truth none of us should ever forget. If we DO make a mistake and end up arriving too fast for the bend, we'll be lucky if we get away with a horrible line round the corner. If we're not so lucky, then the likelihood is we'll run wide. On a right-hander, that's likely to be off the road. Been there, done that. And if we happen to run wide on a left-hander, that takes us into the oncoming lane. Been there, done that too. And I don't want to repeat it because it's pure chance if we get away with it. The Grim Reaper could easily be driving a Scania coming the other way. Running wide on a left-hander is one of the killer crashes on UK rural roads.
So I prepare to deal with the 'in too fast' mistake rather than make an assumption that I got it right. And the easiest way to do this on the the approach to a bend is to roll off the throttle AND apply the brakes lightly rather than rely on engine braking alone.
Why? Quite simple. As soon as the throttle is shut, that's the limit to our deceleration. There's nothing left unless we start forcing the bike down through the gears.
By contrast, braking lightly at the same time as decelerating 'sets up' the brakes ready to use them. We can apply anything from a feather touch which barely slows the bike any more than engine braking alone, right up to a full-on emergency stop.
At this point, the critics usually pop up.
"Ah, but if you'd read the road ahead correctly you wouldn't need to brake." Well, most corners in the UK are blind as we enter them, and whilst I'm pretty good at asking "what if..." and preparing just in case, I'm not prescient and what I expect to happen and what actually appears isn't always the same. I'd rather be prepared for getting it wrong than patting myself on the back for getting it right.
"But you can also brake even if you're using acceleration sense." Absolutely we can. But if we're shutting the throttle with our fingers on the twist grip, we have to disengage them and reach over to the brake lever, then we have to start squeezing progressively. If we are ALREADY braking lightly, we have eliminated the delay and we can go straight into positive braking. By removing this delay, we can either stop in a shorter distance or we can brake less hard than a rider who's had to switch from decelerating using the engine to using the brakes.
"But you're more likely to grab the front brake if you're dangling your fingers over it." This one actually makes some sense but it's a misunderstanding of just why we're using the 'setting up' technique. As you'll know from my work on 'No Surprise? No Accident!' the trigger for the panic reactions that cause many motorcycle crashes is the SURPRISE! that results when we're caught out by a situation developing in a way we didn't expect. Keeping fingers off the front brake is no guarantee we won't give it a huge handful as soon as we panic. By contrast, the action of switching from engine braking alone to the 'set up' approach which pre-loads the brakes with light pressure indicates we've already switched to a mindset where we are anticipating we might have to brake harder. And that means we're far less likely to suffer SURPRISE! when the bend doesn't do what we hope.
"OK, but you'll slow down too much." Remember, we're only applying a feather-touch to the brakes on the approach to the corner. That's not going to slow us dramatically - in fact, we probably won't be any slower into the corner because we know we can lose speed rapidly if we need to. And if nothing reveals itself? Then we simply release the brakes and roll back on the throttle to get the bike balanced before we turn in to the corner itself. And in any case, it's much easier to regain speed in a corner if we rolled in a bit too slow than it is to shed speed mid-corner if we ran in too hot.
And once again, I'm not the only one advocating this technique. The 'setting up' technique is routinely taught on the approach to unpredictable hazards in Australia.
Hopefully I've now persuaded you the 'setting up' approach to a corner has some genuine benefits and no real drawbacks. This isn't about 'riding perfection' but all about being pragmatic. If it can go wrong, it WILL go wrong sooner or later - that's the assumption at the foundation of Survival Skills advanced motorcycle riding courses. So if in ANY doubt, SET UP the brakes.
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