Know your common accident scenarios: cornering

This tragic image is something no motorcyclist wants to see. Maybe it’s an image every motorcyclist should see.

On a winding coastal road last Sunday afternoon, the Italian rider of this Buell crossed into the opposite carriageway as he attempted a right hand corner. After hitting a car containing a family of tourists travelling in the opposite direction, the rider was catapulted into the barriers and died instantly.

Although at this stage the police are still investigating the circumstances, this will not change the outcome. One young man lies dead in the morgue, his bike a gruesome mangled epitaph, his family destroyed in grief.

Cornering on the open road is an extremely common accident scenario for young and inexperienced riders – and here I speak from experience. My mistake, 25 years ago, was excessive cornering speed coupled with a lack of good technique. It remains the best (and at the same time the worst) motorcycling safety lesson I ever had.

Good cornering technique is something you can learn through both study and practise and, given the picture that accompanies this post, I recommend you do both. There are loads of tutorials on the web to study, but the basics of safe cornering will always boil down to this:

The Basics of Safe Cornering

  • The set-up: entry positioning. As you see the corner ahead, begin your preparations. From your normal dominant road position, choose a left lane position for a right hander or, if it’s safe, a right of centre position for a left hander. The aim in choosing an appropriate entry position is simply to improve your view through the corner and to prepare to smoothly radius it. Preparation is the key to confident cornering.
  • Adjust your road speed. Do your braking before the corner, not in it! Braking in a corner upsets the dynamic balance of your bike and leaves the tyres fighting for both decelerative and cornering grip – not a good mix. Always aim to brake progressively and smoothly in a straight line before the corner, then if you need to, quickly shift down to match your road speed to engine speed again. If you enter your corner on a slightly open ‘rising’ throttle, you can say you got it right.

Nb: As you get more experienced, you’ll find you rarely use the brakes on the open road as you’ll naturally match your road speed to your engine speed, changing down or up as conditions dictate – a great sign of progress! However, don’t make the mistake of thinking being a smooth rider is all about not using the brakes. Clonking the bike down through its gears to scrub off speed is a ham-footed approach on the road. Never mind what GP riders do, use the brakes when you need them.

  • Begin the turn-in. Once you’re comfortable your road speed is right and your positioning good, you now have all the time to chose your turn-in point (the bit when you tip the bike and begin your turn). As you turn in, keep looking through the corner past the apex and focus on where you want to exit. Once you begin your turn, maintain a balanced throttle as you follow this trajectory like a fighter pilot.
  • Tweak your position. Good advice in all aspects of cornering is to do everything smoothly – you’re basically aiming to become the George Clooney Nespresso advert of motorcycle cornering. Normally you’ll maintain an even-to-rising throttle as you progress through the curve – corners are not for acceleration but are all about maintaining even balance and grip. But if you do find yourself needing to adjust position in the turn, small throttle adjustments can have a big effect on your cornering arc. If you run wide for example, gently and incrementally reduce the throttle opening to tighten your line. Some riders gently press on their your footpegs to adjust positioning too.
  • Aim for the exit. As you maintain focus and glide effortlessly towards the exit feeling like the GP god you now clearly are, a feeling of deserved relief, even joy, will come over you – but it’s not over yet! As you head towards the exit point, you’ll be anxious to open the throttle and accelerate away – again this must be done smooooothly. The effect of opening the throttle will naturally make the bike sit up and run wide, so as you exit, exit gracefully – and on the correct side of the road.
  • Repeat. Congratulations: a finely taken corner, like a well struck football or a perfectly risen Yorkshire pudding is a satisfying and worthy personal achievement and as with many things in life, the more you do it, the better you’ll get but…
  • Don’t get cocky. Consider every corner you take as a new corner. Even if you’ve ridden them a hundred times before, many factors can change the nature of your favourite curves including grip, surface conditions, weather and, of course, other drivers. A good mantra to keep in mind is a corner does not need to be taken fast to be taken well.

Finally even if you consider yourself a hopelessly rank amateur and feel your skills are currently woeful – don’t give up – we were all like that once and some of us still are. Keep practising within your skills envelope and remember this –  even a badly taken corner is preferable to one you don’t see the other side of.

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