Most riders say cornering is the one aspect of motorcycling that is different than driving a car. This is at the core of what differentiates motorcyclists from four-wheeled motorists. Going around a curve on a motorcycle is unique. As a single-track vehicle, it turns by leaning. A skilled rider on a late model sportbike might tell you that riding through curves on a twisty road is more like banking an airplane than driving a car. It can be great fun and is one of the attractions of motorcycling.
What makes a motorcycle turn?
Newton’s first law of motion states that a body in motion continues to move at a constant speed along a straight line unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. The laws of physics apply to motorcycling and affect cornering. Gyroscopic precession from the spinning wheels keeps the axles of the motorcycle wheels pointing in the same direction.
A motorcycle can be thought of as two gyroscopes rotating in the same direction, providing the stability that keeps it upright and moving straight. To turn a motorcycle you need an offsetting force on the handlebars to counter the stabilizing gyroscopic effect.
Beginning motorcyclists first learn to do this by pressing on the handlebar in the direction they want to go, or “countersteering.” Initially, this may seem contradictory, but it’s easily learned. New riders are taught to ride straight ahead and then press forward, or down, on the handgrip in the direction of the turn (press left to go left).
One of the biggest fears of the new motorcyclist is that the motorcycle will fall over if leaned too far. This fear is natural but is overcome by learning to press to lean the motorcycle and then pressing back in the opposite direction to straighten. Centrifugal force and gyroscopic effect keep the motorcycle from falling down.
As centrifugal force pushes the motorcycle outward, riders must compensate by leaning their bike into the turn. The amount of lean angle determines the tightness of the turn for a given speed. The capabilities of the rider and the motorcycle combine to determine the limit of cornering performance.
Cornering judgment and technique
One of the most difficult skills to acquire is that of cornering judgment. A proficient rider will learn to look ahead and anticipate the road, read the radius of the curve, if and how much it is banked and how far ahead they can see. They should develop a strategy to maximize sight lines to be able to see as far ahead as possible.
The four basic steps to cornering are:
When approaching a curve, the rider should slow to a proper entry speed. What is the proper entry speed? It is not a number and may be different for each rider depending on their skill level, motorcycle capability and road conditions.
On the street, a proper entry speed should be the speed at which they can maintain or increase speed through the corner. This is the step that many riders get wrong – they go too hot into a corner and then panic. It is better to go in too slow than too fast. Beginning the corner slowly and maintaining or increasing throttle through the turn will stabilize the motorcycle and build confidence for the new rider.
Look where you want to go
Try to look as far ahead possible. The physical act of turning one’s head cannot be stressed enough. Turn your head and hold it turned, trying to focus on the exit point. Seasoned riders will even look further ahead to the next corner to set up for its entrance.
You are more likely to go where you’re looking (but you must still turn the motorcycle). Press on the handgrip to lean the motorcycle. Depending on the motorcycle, it might be necessary to hold that press through the turn or just hold light pressure. Apply more pressure to lean the motorcycle further if the turn tightens. Roll on the throttle slightly to stabilize the motorcycle chassis and maintain or increase speed through the turn.
The standard method of approaching corners is to start on the outside and then move to the inside of the turn at its middle or apex. From that point to the corner’s exit, the rider can drift outward again, effectively straightening the corner. This is the so-called race line and is the shortest way through a curve. When visibility is good and you can see all the way to the exit point, this is the best way around a curve. When obstructions exist, this method may not be optimal.
One technique that experienced riders use to maximize their sightlines is called delayed apex. This means the rider remains on the outside part of the curve through the corner until they can see the exit point. By staying outside, they can get a better view of the road ahead and this provides additional time and space to react to potential hazards.
Maximum lean angle
A motorcycle does have limits and can fall down even at speed if these limits are exceeded. Cornering clearance and tire traction are two such limiting factors. Proper cornering techniques are important and should be practiced regularly.
Riders should learn and master the basics first. Learning proper countersteering to press to initiate lean is the foundation upon which all higher speed cornering is built. Once proficient at basic turning, riders should determine the maximum lean angle that is allowed by their specific motorcycle. If you are constantly touching down your footpegs or floorboards, then your motorcycle has cornering clearance limitations. If you’ve never touched a footpeg to the ground, you might be surprised to learn that there is much more lean angle available for you to use in both routine and emergency maneuvers.
Single vehicle crashes happen more often because of a lack of sufficient lean angle. This is normally caused by the wrong rider reaction to a changing situation such as the tightening of a curve. In most street situations, there normally is more room to lean the motorcycle than the rider realizes. The rider instead may brake in the curve or drift off the road, either of which could cause a crash.
Practice, practice, practice
Regular cornering practice will help you develop the skills you need, help prevent panic in cornering situations and allow you to react properly in an emergency. Once you are proficient you’ll look forward to those twisty roads and tight turns. Cornering can be both fun and safe if done correctly.
George Tranos is a New York State and MSF certified instructor, and a freelance writer. You can email him at gtranos@BigAppleMotorcycleSchool.com
Safe Riding Tips: Countersteering
Safe Riding Tips: Mastering the Head and Eyes Technique
13 thoughts on Riding Right: Press, Lean, Repeat
Excellent article. All covered in my BRC years ago. However, the one thing that doesn’t seem to be address is how to lean your body. I thought I should lean with the bike… well, sort of, but not really. I was handling curves, mountain twisties and such OK. One day during a group ride a good friend riding behind me noticed my lean when negotiating a tight turn and I remarked it scared me. He said I was leaning too much with the bike. Yes, you will lean some, but throw your weight opposite the lean. I thought this meant literally lifting your butt off the seat over to the side… NO, just lean the bike by counter steering, shift your weight in the opposite direction… if you’re leaning left, shift your weight to your right butt cheek and vice versa… I think this would be the same as pressing on the opposite foot pet basically accomplishing the same thing. This is not a pronounced thing, but rather subtle, yet effective. I started practicing this and found cornering along with all the other techniques pointed out in this article much easier. I practice this all the time. I’ve been riding nine years, more than 100,000 miles.
Dianne,Thanks for this great tip. This is all correct. Appreciate you sharing it with such a good explanation. Thanks for reading WRN!
Great article! I own a motorcycle rental service in Roanoke, Texas. I am geared toward the new rider, and I find the skill of cornering is the one that requires the most practice. A little trick a professional knee dragger taught me was while counter steering also apply pressure on the foot peg. This helped have my entire body in synch and helped smooth out my corners. I don’t recall them teaching this in the course. Do any of you seasoned riders use this technique? I don’t want to give out any bad info.
I am 43-years-old and just received my M endorsement. I took the BLC in May and had never even cranked a bike before. I have been wanting to do this for years. The turning in curves does tend to worry me, but, after reading this article I know what I will be doing this weekend in a parking lot. I just bought a Honda Shadow Phantom 750 and am finally comfortable with it. Cant wait to get my lean angle down. Great article.
I rode a long time ago on a GPZ 550 and developed bad habits like not leaning with the bike. When I got my Ninja 250 (fun small bike), I took the MSF BRC nd was taught a number of great lessons. It was not until recently did the lean lesson sink in. This article really is good and I'll pass it onto others. Thanks!
What a great article to read and learn from! I, too, am a newbie rider. I took the motorcycle course at the end of June of this year, passed, and my husband bought me a 750 Honda Shadow Aero.
I'm liking it very much and getting out when I can to practice my riding.
I am a 49-year-old woman and decided to challenge myself with this adventure. I am working up the nerve to drive through town with my bike, now that I'm getting more confident with it. I plan to go out and practice in a parking lot and learn to curve better. Thank you so much. I'm glad I found this Web site!
I just completed the MSF BRC course offered by one of the colleges here and it was very good. Highly recommend it for first time riders. The only area I received less than favorable marks on the skills portion of the test was cornering. Although my cornering prior to the test was fine according to my instructors, I realize, after reading your article, “Cornering judgment and technique,” that I didn't allow my self enough time to look through my path (didn't slow down before I began my press into the curve) causing me to touch one of the lines in the curve.
I was a little disappointed with my cornering score since I was able to perform the more difficult portions of the test with relative ease (especially the dual U-turns in the box). I hadn't touched a line at all during practice, uugghh! This is one skill I will be practicing until it becomes second-nature and I can perform it automatically without over analyzing the technique. Thanks for the article.
Enjoyed the articles so much. I am new to riding, but I love it. The info in these articles helps me when I go riding and I have found I make less mistakes when I practice, practice.
Great article! I am a new rider and am developing more confidence each day that I ride and try to ride daily. Keep up the good work and support.
I took the motorcycle course in April 2007 so I am still a “newbie.” Today, I took the bike (Honda Rebel) to work. Due to the fact that on one of the streets leading to my work there are two “S” turns, my fear has been I'd get partway through the turn and see a school bus stopped.
Well, today that happened. Didn't panic, just slowed down gradually because I wasn't going too quickly through the turn, and stopped without incident. Called my husband later to report that my fear is gone. I know I can handle those turns as long as I am going at a comfortable, safe speed, looking up and around the turns as far as I can see.
I also was pleased to report to him that he has been correct — my bike's handlebars do turn as much as he's been coaching me. All I need to do is press a little more and the turns and corners are so much smoother. It really is all about practice and “butt-time” to gain more confidence when determining how much lean there is and how much you need to actually turn the handlebars to take a lefthand or righthand turn correctly and more importantly, safely. Thanks for your informative articles!
Great article. My former riding friend drove my 2003 Harley Sportster into the grass because he tried to steer the bike through a country road curve. $2,800 repair to the bike, and ribs and wrist issue with the rider. The protective helmet and leather saved his skin.
He took the course and got the license but did not practice turning. Look out for the gravel on the curve, sometimes cars will go off the road a little and spit gravel up. Why do motorcycle tires wear out so fast? The rubber is softer than car tires to give better traction for turns and braking. He is still my friend, he just does not ride any more.
I had a 2007 Suzuki GSX-R and low sided it in the twisties. I don't know if I was getting to low or if I hit some bad spots in the road because both were present at the time I went down.
Now I have a 2007 GSX-R and I can't get over the fear of doing the same thing again. Every corner I try to drive like a car because I think about falling when I lean. Any tips on getting over the fear?
Improper cornering is the most common type of single-vehicle motorcycle accident, primarily because riders generally do not know how to handle the curves. Always use the slow, look, press and roll technique to corner properly.
Use both brakes to slow to an appropriate entry speed before entering the curve. Turn your head and look through the curve, scanning ahead for surface conditions (like bad spots, gravel, angle of the curve), other road users (like oncoming traffic, bicycles) and traffic markings (signs suggesting curve speed are there for a reason!).
Press on the handgrip in the direction of the turn to lean the motorcycle into the curve, and begin to roll on the throttle about halfway through the corner. This technique is not like taking a corner in your car.
You can help yourself get over the fear of leaning the motorcycle into the curve by practicing your cornering technique in a large parking lot. Ride an oval using the slow, look, press and roll technique until it starts to become second nature to you.
If you low-sided in a corner, it's likely you hit the brakes when the motorcycle was leaned over. On a motorcycle, you always slow before the corner instead of using your brakes in the corner. If you feel you're going to fast, your natural reaction is going to be to hit the brakes, but you never want to do that! You're actually going to have to lean over even more to make the turn in that situation. So practice your cornering technique is a safe parking area, then slowly take your skills out and test them on the road. Good luck!