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Dealing with hairpins
In an example of how demand creates supply, after a number of emails asking for help with dealing with hairpin bends, I wrote first of all the article, then went and searched out hairpin bends for training purposes. And though you might think it impossible in the south of England, I've found 'secret' hairpins for my advanced rider training courses in Buckinghamshire, Oxford, Kent and Surrey. The only location I've not yet found a hairpin is on my Essex courses. And of course, I also know a few for my courses in mid-Wales. So if you want a practical follow up to reading the article, I will cover hairpins on my Performance: SPORT two-day course, but can also offer a short two-hour Basics: HAIRPINS course.
So, "how should I deal with a hairpin bend?".
The answer is "the same way as any other corner". And once again, the Survival Skills approach is not so much to teach the perfect hairpin line, but to understand how, where and why we might make a mess of them. Once we understand that, it's not difficult to apply the 'reference point' approach and my standard 'Point and Squirt' cornering technique to any hairpin. I have some 'secret' hairpins on several of my training routes, and so on my Performance: SPORT two-day course, we nearly always go to visit a hairpin and try out Point and Squirt for real.
So where to start?
The first thing to understand is that a hairpin is a bend, just like any other bend it has a way in - the 'entry' to the corner where we have to steer or run off the road, and it has a way out, the 'exit' where we're upright again and headed for the next bend.
The second point is that just like any other corner, if we turn in too early then we run wide later. A hairpin is just a corner that goes on a lot longer than normal. And that should give us a clue to one of the major problems riders have with hairpins. Just as they do on 'ordinary' bends, riders try to 'turn-in' too soon, then run wide on the other side of the hairpin. The problem is that if we run wide on a hairpin bend, that's liable to either run us into a wall of rock, or drop us over a cliff. It's usually the latter that scares most of us.
The other significant factor about a hairpin is that they are - by definition - on a hill. That means the road is either going uphill or downhill. It all sounds very obvious but going uphill, riders tend to decelerate too late, then try to catch up with the throttle mid-hairpin, which only succeeds in destabilising the bike right in the most awkward part of the corner.
Meanwhile, going downhill for some reason causes a lot of riders to be very tentative with the brakes. The problem is that there's no run-off on the average hairpin - we'll be braking towards a cliff-edge and if we over-shoot, we'll be needing a parachute. It IS possible to enter hairpin too quick going uphill, but it's absolutely vital we are confident with the brakes when going downhill because hairpins are all about 'slow in'. Like any bend we must ensure we have our speed reduced upright and before we start to turn, and if we have confidence with the brakes we can give them a squeeze if we find we are going a bit too fast. Downhill is really is NOT the time to rely on engine braking, whatever you might have read about keeping the bike in a low gear.
So if you're heading to the mountains, it's a very good idea to practice firstly driving the bike right round U-turns, and secondly practice using the brakes positively. Do this before you leave, particularly if you are going to be two-up and with gear - the bike WILL respond differently loaded and the best time to discover this is in Tesco's car park, not as you hit the first downhill hairpin.
Now, here's a bit of good news. We'll nearly always have to go up before we come down again, and so the uphill hairpins give us a bit of chance to practice before we come to the downhill ones.
And the second bit of good news is that we should be able to see the hairpin coming from some distance. Make sure you know what the sign for a hairpin is too, just in case it's not so easy to spot.
The first thing to do is get the speed down early. That means decelerating upright in a straight line if we can, using the brakes if required, and getting the bike down into a low gear in plenty of time whilst still upright - more on gears in a moment.
Slowing early really is a key point. If we've sorted our speed early, we won't be worrying about running out of road, and that means we have the freedom to look to see where the hairpin takes us. Really turn your head to look round and up the hill. With a bit of luck, the terrain will be open, and that'll give us an excellent view of how sharp the turn is, and whether any vehicles are on the way down to the hairpin - more on that in a moment too.
We also need to get into position for the turn itself. Just like any other bend, we use a wide approach but don't try to ride right on the edge of the road - our mental focus will be on staying ON the road. Giving ourselves a metre or so takes a lot of that pressure off.
Once on that wide approach, whilst still upright (just like any ordinary corner) get back on the throttle - we're going to need the power to drive us round the bend against the slope. Second gear is usually right on the wider hairpins, but remember, the steepest part of the turn is on the inside, halfway round, and it may be necessary to select first on really tight, steep corners. If the engine feels like it's about to bog down, don't try to change gear mid-turn because the bike will stop dead. Instead, slip the clutch - and you CAN slip the clutch in second gear. Remember all those U-turns you did on basic training? It's EXACTLY THE SAME MANOEUVRE, just uphill!
The mistake many riders make is trying to 'round out' the corner with a sweeping line to ease out the radius. But if we get this 'turn-in' point too early early, it WILL run us wide on the exit. If we are apexing a hairpin mid-turn, we are cutting into the corner way too early. So under power, HOLD THAT WIDE LINE (just like any other corner)under power, until there's a clear view up the next stretch of road. Now and only now have we reached our 'turn-in' point, where (if clear) we cut across and straighten out the final part of the corner. Guess what, it's just what we'd do for any other bend. As a rough guide, the 'turn-in' point is usually somewhere around the middle of the hairpin. And if we do encounter another vehicle coming down as we go round, keeping wide is much safer. The deep-in, late-turn Point and Squirt line absolutely works best on a hairpin.
To get the bike to turn tighter, don't try to ride ever-slower. There's a point at which the bike ceases to balance, and then we'll struggle to hold any kind of a controlled line. Instead, to turn on a tighter hairpin, use counterweighting. We lean the machine in to the bend, but keep our body upright. It has the effect of making the bike turn in less space but at the same speed. Once again, some practice before leaving is a good idea.
As we ride through the hairpin it's important to drive the bike right round the turn, but NOT to try to accelerate too early. Just as on any other corner, accelerating whilst still leaned over means the bike picks up speed and starts to run wide. That's not great on an ordinary bend but on a hairpin it's often a real problem - riders shut the throttle the moment they realise what's happening, then the steep uphill slope takes over and the bike stops almost dead whilst still leaned over. It's a recipe for a mid-hairpin drop.
What about downhill? It's the same approach but making sure we give ourselves time to pick our line, set our speed and get ready to turn the bike tight. And that means braking, not engine braking. Even if you're riding a BMW R1200GS with a shed-load of engine braking, once that throttle's shut there's no more engine braking left. If we're applying the brakes and we're slowing in plenty of time, it's an easy enough job to brake harder if we realise we're a bit too quick, even downhill. And once we've got the speed right on the approach, use the rear brake - NOT engine braking - to control the speed around the corner. On a steep downhill hairpin, we can mostly use gravity to pull us round the bend, and the plus of using the rear brake is that we can simply ease the brake on and off to adjust speed - that's a lot easier on a tight turn than trying to do it with the throttle. Don't release the rear brake until the bike is all the way round and upright again - let it off too soon and the bike will pick up speed and start to run wide. Once again, slip the clutch if needed on a really tight turn but don't coast round. The technique we're using it what we should have learned for a U-turn.
A few other tips. Between hairpins, try to minimise gear changes - it's one thing less to do. Just let the engine rev and you'll get good drive going up and good engine braking going down. If we have a good view and other traffic allows, it may be possible to cross to the 'wrong' side of the centre line to open out the hairpin where it's really tight. If there are big vehicles such as coaches or lorries coming the other way, they're likely to need a lot of road to get round the hairpin. If we can't keep clear mid-corner, it may be best to stop short and let it complete the turn first.
...if you are nervous about hairpins, getting the first few wrong will make you nervous about the next few. So take your time to get the first ones right.
...don't follow the rider in front, but leave plenty of space in case they make a mess of it. It's also easier to look around and see where the road goes if you're not worried about the rider ahead
...don't copy the rider ahead but ride your own ride. If you rely on them the guy ahead to get it right and they don't, so will you. Hold back and let them finish the hairpin before you get there
...don't try to outride the locals. Let them past if necessary
...remember you're dealing with bends. That means polished surfaces, rippled tarmac and fuel spills. After rain (or snow) expect water to run across the hairpin, and watch out for gravel or stone chips torn out of the surface.
Hairpins are great fun to ride but can also become a real problem area if we don't plan how to deal with them.
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