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Bends ahead: advanced cornering on a motorcycle

Added March 22, 2021
Two motorcycles riding through a corner

Your cornering confidence will determine whether a sign indicating ‘bends ahead’ means you let out a whoop of joy, or whether you swallow hard and fight feelings of dread.

Beyond the cornering basics

We addressed countersteering, now we’re going to talk about some advanced aspects of cornering. Knowing how to safely navigate basic turns and bends is one thing; learning to love the twisties is another.

One reason good cornering technique is so important is that traction demands are higher when you turn. Think of it this way: in any given set of conditions, your tires have a fixed amount of traction available.

The more ‘inputs’ you apply, the more traction gets used. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation uses a visual of ‘traction pie’ to help understand this. Total traction is represented by an entire pie – a complete circle – and every time you accelerate, brake or turn it eats up a slice. (A small slice is also taken just by riding at a steady speed in a straight line.) When you turn, some of your traction is needed to hold you in the curve and keep the bike’s tires from sliding out from under you.

The key is understanding that if you take too many traction slices at once, the pie is consumed. If you add acceleration or braking in a bend, you risk running out of traction or loss of tire grip. The better your cornering technique, the more traction you conserve, and the better you can handle the bends.

On the line

The first thing to consider when approaching a twisted stretch of road is the condition of the road:

  • Is the pavement in good shape? 
  • Is it wet? 
  • Is there any debris in the road: loose gravel, fallen leaves, dirt, etc.?
  • If it’s cold, could there be any icy spots? 

Keep in mind that shaded areas dry out more slowly than sunny spots.

Also, how are the sightlines? That is, how far can you see around the bend? And is the road a familiar one or an unknown? All of these factors can affect how aggressively you can comfortably approach a bend.

Consider riding conditions

Let’s assume that conditions are good, your tires are nicely warmed, the sightlines are clear, there’s no traffic in sight, and your confidence is high. What’s the best way to approach those twists ahead?

First, sticking to the basics, is to adjust your speed. You’re still using ‘S.E.E.’, right? Search the road ahead and Evaluate the conditions (we’ve already established that the coast is clear), then Execute by slowing to a steady and appropriate speed – or perhaps maintaining your speed if the curve is gradual. To maximize your available traction, you don’t want to add any unnecessary inputs (braking or accelerating) as you start to turn.

Part of your Evaluation process is to pick out a ‘line’ through the bend, the path you intend to follow. The most efficient path is to start on the outside of the bend (away from the direction of the turn), move smoothly to the inside of the bend as you round the corner, then back to the outside as you leave the bend.

This approach effectively flattens the bend, allowing you to execute the turn at a higher speed. Or, if conditions are less than ideal, it lets you keep the bike more upright to conserve precious traction.

Remember the countersteering principle

Remember, to initiate the turn, think about the countersteering principle: Push forward on the right grip to turn right; push forward on the left to turn left. Hold your speed steady as you turn, then roll on the throttle smoothly as you exit. This helps return your motorcycle naturally to an upright position and regain your speed.

As always, turn your head in the direction of the turn and direct your gaze well ahead of the motorcycle, not down at the front tire or the 30cm of pavement directly in front of it.

If you want to be a little more aggressive still, shift your weight slightly to the inside as you turn. Don’t lean your torso; rather, shift your butt a little in the seat, as it’s important to keep the weight shift low.

That thumping sensation you feel in your chest? That’s the thrill of carving a corner the way the pros do it.

Other corning techniques

S-bends

When one bend is immediately followed by another in the opposite direction, a slightly different approach is required. The same basic principles apply, but you may have to get a bit creative in choosing the best line.

Enter the first turn the same way (from the outside), look for the straightest line possible through all the curves, hug the inside of the final turn, then exit in the same way with a smooth roll of the throttle.

Decreasing-radius turns

Treat these bends, which get tighter as you continue through them (and are often found on exit ramps), much like a standard bend: start on the outside and work your way toward the inside as you go.

Gauge your entry speed accordingly, accounting for the increasing tightness, and guard against accelerating too soon. Wait until the end of the bend is in sight, then accelerate smoothly as you exit.

Delayed apex turns

This technique is useful when you can’t see around the bend as well as you would like – and especially if you suspect there may be oncoming traffic, road debris or some other hazard. Approach the turn a little more slowly than you otherwise might, well to the outside, and ride a little deeper into the turn before you start to turn. This will give you a chance to turn your head and get a good look at what’s ahead. If the path is clear, complete the turn as you otherwise would. If not, you’re now in a good position to ride around the obstacle or slow down further, if needed.

Big bikes, big grins

One of the great things about Harley-Davidson® motorcycles is how nimble they are for such large and powerful bikes. Racers and sportbike riders sometimes use the term ‘flickable’ to describe how easily a motorcycle flicks from side to side through turns. Harley® motorcycles are built with a low center of gravity – the V-twin engine sits low in the frame. That and other innovative design elements make them surprisingly flickable for a big bike.

With a little practice and patience, you can easily learn to become one of those riders who celebrates the curves ahead rather than curse them.

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