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Cornering a motorbike with confidence

Published: 10 August 2019

Updated: 09 August 2019

Cornering is one of the most exciting parts of riding a motorbike but it’s also a tricky part to get right and is where most accidents happen. This can be because riders try to corner faster by increasing their lean angle with the wrong body position, or applying the throttle before the apex.

Motorbike cornering tips

Although your primary concern on the road should always be safety, you can still have plenty of fun on a twisty B-road without riding dangerously.

Some of the principles of cornering on a track cross over to the road, but are used in a less extreme manner. It is good practice to move your body weight to the inside of the bike on both road and track, for example, but there’s no need to be getting your elbow down on the daily commute.

You can practice safe riding technique by finding a quiet country road with a bend in it. A 45mph, 90-degree bend is ideal – it keeps things simple. Find a couple of safe places to U-turn, so you can go around the corner several times.

Body position

BMW S1000XR turning left

For effective cornering, you should be leant forward slightly with relaxed, bent arms. Elbows should be low, in line with the handlebars if possible. Keep a light grip on the handlebars and don’t lean on them to support your weight – you may need to gently grip the tank with your legs.

Don’t let your vision drop. Instead, tilt your head up and point your chin to the furthest bit of clear road you can see. As long as you keep your chin up, you’ll be able to see well ahead.

Never look at anything on the outside of the turn – whether it’s a tree, an oncoming truck or even a field full of naked sunbathers – because you go where you look. So, turn that head and keep looking to the bit of road where you want the bike to end up.

When you get a clear view all the way through the corner, that’s when you turn the bike. That’s the point when you transfer pressure from the outside footpeg to the inside one – but there’s much more you can do to turn the bike.

Dip your inside shoulder into the corner and lean your upper body to that side, into the corner.

Find a way to turn the bike that works best for you. It’s not about trying to get big lean, just about being confident and happy with turning the bike. But – and this is easily the most important thing – don’t stop looking where you’re going. Keep your chin up, looking down the road and turn that head.

Counter steering

Cornering a motorbike at Rockingham

There’s no greater source of biking arguments than what’s variously called counter-steering, positive steering or active steering. The simple fact is that whatever instructors call it, the technique of putting pressure on the inside bar (and pulling on the outside one) makes the bike turn into a corner.

To steer right, you need to gently push forward on the right handlebar (to steer left, push left). This will lean the bike to the right and enable you to negotiate the bend. At higher speeds and on tighter bends, more steering input may be required. On a right-hand bend you can also pull back on the left handlebar to make the bike lean further and quicker.

There’s long been a big black hole in the information captured by dataloggers on motorbikes – how much effort actually goes into steering.

That is until now, because post-grad student, Alex Przibylla, is researching exactly that for his Motorcycle Engineering masters at the University of Wales.

We spent a day at an MSV trackday at Donington with Alex, who’s already spent time working in Moto2, and a modified Ducati 1199 Panigale belonging to the university.

Cornering a motorbike on track

Fitted with extra sensors, a 2D datalogger, an internal measurement unit and a dual-antenna GPS, the Panigale, or ‘Dynamic Vehicle Response Measurement Platform’ (DVRMP), as it’s now known, also has custom-built strain gauges fixed to the clip-ons to measure steering input.

After downloading data from our track sessions, the kit confirmed that the harder and faster you push and pull (counter steer) the quicker the bike leans over (roll rate, in degrees per second).

Going left-to-right through the Foggy Esses was achieved at 109.2 degrees per second after applying a force through the bars that equates to 108.6Nm of steering torque.

Steering from right-to-left through the Craner Curves, the force through the bars equates to 169.8Nm of steering torque, which is the same as pushing up nearly 30kg with one hand and pulling the same with the other. That figure would be even higher on a race bike with slick tyres and a faster rider in the saddle.

Throttle control and gears

Husqvarna Svartpilen turning left

On the road, you want to enter a corner with a neutral throttle having scrubbed off a little more speed in your braking zone. This gives a wider margin for adjustment and is the safer approach.

With a proper look at the corner, it’s time to adjust your entry speed. Get into position early, then adjust your speed. Braking should be progressive – gently on, build pressure, ease off smoothly.

The key is to finish any braking while still travelling in a straight line. You do not want to still be on the brakes when you start to tip the bike into the corner.

If you can smoothly manage the speed on the throttle, that’s ideal – and that’s the point of this stage. Sort the speed and get into the right gear: go down to an appropriate lower gear for riding through and out of the corner.

Once you’ve scrubbed speed off with the brakes, go down a gear. Again, this is best done with the bike in a straight line as it will be smoother, then you’ll be free to concentrate on turning into the corner without trying to change gear at the same time.

Ducati SuperSport turning left

You must never accelerate into a corner – that’s just about the most dangerous thing you can do – but you do want a slightly positive throttle. After changing gear you should be able to open the throttle fractionally, not enough to accelerate but just enough to avoid slowing any further.

This keeps the bike stable, transferring weight from the front tyre to the rear and increasing the feeling of control. Just be extremely cautious not to overdo it – remember, never accelerate into a corner.

From the midpoint of the corner you can start to very gently open the throttle to drive to the exit. Opening the throttle will do two things: push the bike out of the corner on a widening line; and stand it up for you.

If the corner starts to tighten again, rolling off again will drop the bike safely back onto a tightening line. If the corner opens, continuing to accelerate will take the bike out of the turn.

The key is that initial twist of the throttle: it must be smooth, it must be steady at first, and it must be at the appropriate time to put you on a good exit line.

Picking a line

Choosing a cornering line

The easiest way to demonstrate the importance of the line you take is to find a corner on a safe, quiet stretch of road and try the following.

Take a few passes to warm up, and then pay attention to how you are getting around the corner. There will come a point in your approach where you decide to initiate a turn. Notice where that spot is, and next time try turning in before that.

It’s important that you aren’t going very quickly here, because you will rapidly notice that an early turn-in throws you wide as you get further around the corner. If you were going quickly, you would drift into the path of oncoming traffic, but as you’re pottering you can just steer a bit more and sort yourself out that way.

Now try the opposite: delay your turn-in as late as you can. This time you’ll discover that it’s almost impossible to run wide. You may even find that you have taken a safer, more controlled line than your natural approach because you are gathering more information about the corner before you commit.

Almost all the motorcycle riders who crash on a bend turn in too early. They might be tired, or riding beyond their ability, or carried away riding in a group and trying to keep up with faster riders. But their actual mistake is not paying attention to the turn-in point.

Husqvarna Svartpilen turning right

The trouble is, having seen the corner there’s a natural subconscious tendency to drift towards it, away from the wide position that gives a good view and a safe, sweeping line through the corner, especially after you’ve devoted a second or two to braking and changing gear.

Keep asking yourself this question. As soon as you see a bend ahead – and you’ll see every one in plenty of time if you’ve kept your chin up – start to prepare for the corner. That means moving the bike over to the left side of the road for a right-hand bend or in the centre for a left-hander.

How far over do you go? Only as far as you feel comfortable. By spotting the corner and setting it up early, you have time to make preparations.

If there’s a chewed-up road surface on the left, don’t go too far out there. If there’s oncoming traffic in the other lane, don’t get too close to the central white line.

A wide position has several benefits – but the main one is the improved view it gives and the confidence this brings.

Cornering on a track

Emma Franklin at Silverstone

However fast you are down the straights, you’ll never meet your true track riding potential without mastering corners. Visiting a trackday or riding school is the best way to practice cornering closer to the limits of your motorcycle and is safer for both you and your driving licence than trying it on the road.

You need to hang off the bike much more on a circuit than you do on the road. Your inside elbow should be bent and pointing downwards, and your outside arm should be almost straight with your chest near or touching the tank.

You will also need to shift your bum over in the saddle to move your centre of gravity over and down. There’s no need to go mad with this, one cheek should be enough if you’ve got your upper body positioned correctly.

Hanging off the bike through the corner keeps the bike more upright, reducing lean angle and stress on your tyres. Body positioning is key: lots of riders don’t hang off the bike enough leading to far too much bike lean and slides, which can be dangerous.

Break your corner entry down into sectors so that you know where to set your body position, brake, shut the throttle and spot the apex. Don’t be afraid to carry plenty of revs at this stage. Higher revs aid control and reduce the chance of exit highsides.

BMW S1000RR at Jerez

On track you want to roll into the bend with the throttle shut, scrubbing speed, as opposed to accelerating through it. Off-throttle cornering helps the bike turn, so if you can reach the apex with the throttle shut, the bike will turn faster, have more ground clearance and be safer.

Shut the throttle all the way from your braking point to the apex, being on the throttle through the corner can overstress your tyres and lead to slides.

Once past the apex, pick an exit point and accelerate towards it as hard as possible. Because as you are accelerating the bike will start to stand up all on its own. Feel for the available grip at the rear, balancing drive on the throttle.

You can always come off the throttle slightly if you are running out of track and need to tighten your line. You should treat the track as a series of straights followed by bends. Do all your hard accelerating and braking on the straights.

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