TOTW: Improve your cornering with lane position

The riding tips on these pages are my personal opinion about matters related to motorcycle riding. They are not the official position of any organization, and are for your consideration only. They are not hard and fast rules, they should not necessarily be applied in all circumstances, and they should not be applied without thinking. Always use your judgement and take all current safety factors into account while riding. You are responsible for your riding, not anyone else (especially me). These tips were originally published by a motorcycle riding course, called “Tip of the Week” (the reason for the TOTW in the titles).

What’s the problem?

Many riders, including experienced ones, have problems with corners. They may enter too fast (often trying to “keep up” with another rider) and have to brake; they may run out of their lane, onto the shoulder or into the oncoming lane; or they may have problems when encountering obstacles or road conditions that were hidden by the curve.

These problems result in not enjoying corners — slowing more than is necessary, straightening up the bike rather than allowing it to lean, or avoiding cornering altogether by picking a route with fewer turns. Worse, riders may ignore their cornering difficulties and take unnecessary risks while cornering, resulting in crashes. (The Hurt Report lists cornering errors as the typical error resulting in two-thirds of the single-vehicle accidents studied.)

You have a problem with your cornering technique if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • You often feel surprised by the “shape” of a curve. It turns out to be sharper, or less sharp, than you expected, causing you to run out of your intended path.
  • You often find yourself going too fast for the curve, and have to apply the brakes while turning. This causes the bike to stand up and your path to straighten out, sometimes taking you out of your lane.
  • You often lose your intended path in curves. In the extreme case, you run out of your lane, either onto the shoulder or into the oncoming lane.
  • You are often surprised by the appearance of an obstacle in a curve. (Something on the road, or an oncoming car drifting into your lane.) Oncoming cars sometimes startle and upset you, even if they are staying in their own lane.
  • You lack confidence in curves. You’re nervous leaning the bike, and you avoid curves when you can. When you can’t avoid curves, you slow ‘way down, shift your weight around, and over-steer to get through them.

You can manage these symptoms and fears by improving your cornering technique. However, you can’t entirely eliminate them. Cornering is inherently challenging, much more so than riding in a straight line. That’s why, done properly, it’s so much fun. Let’s summarize what makes cornering challenging:

Loss of traction: When turning, there are sideways forces acting on your tires. Sufficient speed combined with sufficient lean can overcome the tires’ traction, causing them to slide.

Loss of path: Drifting out of your lane, either onto the shoulder or into the other lane, is a real possibility, usually caused by incorrect braking, incorrect steering, or selection of an inappropriate path through the curve.

Loss of visibility: Many corners obscure what’s on the road ahead. This can allow unseen obstacles to catch you by surprise.

The solution

The good news is you can learn to improve your cornering by practising some straightforward techniques. The many “race schools” or “high-performance riding schools” (most of which are excellent, and are worth taking even for ordinary street riders) are basically cornering schools. Here’s what they teach (omitting some advanced techniques applicable only to the race track).

There are four critical techniques for proper cornering. (Some are the subject of other weekly tips.)

Setting Entry Speed: It’s essential that you establish the correct speed before you enter the corner. This usually means slowing, and it’s important that you use good braking technique and that you do your braking before the corner, while the bike is still upright and moving in a straight line.

Eye Position: Your bike will go where you are looking. As you enter the corner, you should be looking ahead, through the corner and well down the road.

Countersteering: Motorcycles must lean to turn, and countersteering is the most efficient and accurate way to initiate and control it.

Path Selection: the subject of the rest of this tip.

Path selection

Motorcycles, being much narrower than cars, can take many possible paths through a curve. The path you select is important to controlling many aspects of cornering technique.

The correct path varies with the situation, so we can’t prescribe a simple and guaranteed approach. Instead, you need to develop certain habits and make decisions about what is appropriate as you ride. Let’s look at various options for your path through a curve.

Constant lane positions

If you’re like most riders, you probably place your bike in a certain lane position (e.g. the middle, or the left third) and stay in that position as your bike traces around a curve. This may not be the best option. If you’re in that position because it’s the best place to be under the circumstances, fine. But if you’re in that position because that is where you always ride, no matter what, then you are probably putting yourself at risk, on occasion, by not adjusting to circumstances.

There is no single lane position that is always best for ensuring you have good visibility through the curve and for avoiding obstacles. And, in a changing-radius curve, trying to hold a fixed lane position means that you require constant correction of your steering inputs (i.e. you will be constantly increasing or decreasing the pressure on the handlebars). This can be tiring, and leads to errors.

Let’s analyse three possible constant lane positions in more detail.

Left Third of the Lane: If you always ride in the left third of the lane, even in curves, you probably developed the habit from a safety manual advising that as the best position. It is, on straight roads, and assuming the road conditions warrant it. But curves are more complicated.

Staying at the left of your lane makes right turns as easy as possible. Since the radius of the turn is increased, you have to lean less. However, left turns become as hard as possible, since you have made the turn radius as small as possible. In effect, you have made the turn “sharper”.

For similar reasons, being in the left part of the lane maximizes the distance you can see around the corner when you are turning right, which is excellent. However, it minimizes the distance you can see when turning left.

Finally, being in the left part of the lane puts you closest to oncoming traffic. This is not a big problem on straight roads, but think how many times you have seen a car or bike drift into the oncoming lane in a curve. Do you want to be occupying that space?

Right Third of the Lane: Should you react to the problems above by moving to the other side? Sometimes. The right part of the lane makes left turns easy, and increases visibility when turning left. However, right turns become harder, and visibility is reduced when turning right. You are farther from approaching traffic, but closer to bicycles, debris, and animals that may be along the edge of the road.

Middle of Lane: The middle of the lane is a compromise. The problems listed above aren’t as bad, but the advantages aren’t as good either.

Varying lane positions

Isn’t there some way to get the advantages of the above lane positions while avoiding the disadvantages? Yes, there often is: change your lane position at strategic points in the curve.

If you look back at the analysis and diagrams above, you’ll see some common themes. The advantage in turning radius and visibility turns out to be when you are on the “outside” of the curve at entry — on the left for a right turn and on the right for a left turn. This observation and others have lead motorcyclists to develop more advanced paths (“lines”) through curves. The technique was initiated by racers, and modified for street riding.

Racing line

Closed-circuit racetracks offer ideal conditions for riding through curves: no oncoming traffic, guaranteed road conditions, and a wide lane. Under these conditions, racers have developed a curve path that optimizes visibility, traction, and ability to accelerate out of the curve.

  1. They reduce their speed before the curve, braking while the bike is still upright.
  2. They then enter the curve at the extreme outside edge, to maximize visibility and turn radius.
  3. Then they turn slightly more sharply than the curve demands, cutting across the lane to be at the inside edge at the apex (mid point). This allows them to begin accelerating at the apex. The acceleration will help to stand the bike up and push it outward, so they exit the curve at the extreme outside edge.

This is called an “Outside-Inside-Outside” path, or a “racing line.” Watch racing on television and you will see every rider following it. We explain it here to introduce you to the idea, but it is not quite the best option on the street.

Safe line

The racing line above takes advantage of the special conditions of a racetrack: no oncoming traffic and guaranteed clean road conditions. Neither of these conditions is a safe bet on the street. The biggest shortcoming is that it has you near the inside edge of the curve (where there is debris or a shoulder) at the apex, exactly where obstacles often creep into your lane.

The safe line for street riding is improved by “delaying the apex” — imagining the apex of the curve is somewhat farther into the curve than it really is. How much farther is something you’ll feel through experience, but we mean 10-20%, not 50%.

The safe line means you will be somewhat deeper into the curve before you begin your turn. This has several advantages:

  • It extends your visibility through the curve even more.
  • The point where you begin turning (leaning) was visible when you entered the curve, so you will have time to change your plans if the road conditions are poor at that point.
  • The point at which you get closest to the oncoming lane is nearer the entrance (in a right turn) or exit (in a left), moving you away from the midpoint, where oncoming traffic is most likely to drift into your lane.

All of this, of course, assumes you have the bike under control, have slowed to an appropriate speed before entering the curve, and are adjusting to any special conditions (like weather, traffic, cows, and road conditions.)

Putting it all together

Again, assuming ideal conditions, and that you will adjust for whatever is really happening, here is the suggested turning sequence for cornering in the real world:

  1. Slow to a safe cornering speed before you enter the turn, braking while the bike is still upright.
  2. Enter the curve near the outside (but staying within your lane).
  3. Look downstream. Find or imagine a spot slightly beyond the apex. Look there, then beyond.
  4. Countersteer to initiate the lean and turn.
  5. Follow a smooth path to a point near the inside of the lane, somewhat past the apex.
  6. Using a combination of gentle acceleration and gentle steering input, allow the bike to drift back to the outside of the lane as you ride out through the corner’s exit.
  7. Remain constantly alert, adjusting for road conditions, traffic, weather, etc.

Experiment with this technique gently and slowly, somewhere where you know the road conditions to be good and traffic to be light. Your objectives are to see farther through the curve, and to be and feel more in control of your speed and turning at all times.

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