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