Advanced Motorcycle Riding Course: Cornering - the approach & choice of speed

The hardest part of any corner is judging how fast it can be safely taken. Here’s how to break down the corner into sections to help get your approach speed correct

Many riders, the experienced as well as the inexperienced, often have difficulty with the right choice of approach speed, as well as accuracy of position on the road, when it comes to cornering. The majority of the time the problem can be as simple as not allowing themselves enough time to assess the bend properly to put the bike in the right position at the right speed. One of the techniques instructors use is to explain a bit about when and how much acceleration to use between hazards - in this case corners.

The application of speed

How fast should you be travelling? A speed that you can always stop in the distance you can see to be clear on your side of the road is the easy answer, but putting this into practice is the difficult bit. Practicing stopping is very important; different riders on different machines all have variations in their ability to stop. Most riders are familiar with stopping in a straight line, and we have a guide in the Highway Code with some figures on this, but sometimes the awareness of these distances gets falsely applied into corners as well.

The angle of lean has a detrimental effect on the rider’s and machine’s ability to brake due to the tyre’s grip being used for cornering as well as braking. Physics tells us that the tyre can only give you so much grip and as a result of it being asked to do two jobs both are compromised. This is technically known as ‘tyre grip trade off’, and as a consequence riders can sometimes grossly underestimate the distance they need to stop in. So how do we practice stopping? In a safe environment on known roads that are clear of other road users both ahead and behind. When you start, build up gradually to get a feel of what’s happening and the distances taken to stop. This can be a bit of a hang up for riders who have never experienced braking in corners before, but when you come across a stationary tractor just around the bend, or a driver from the opposite direction overtaking a horse mid-corner, you will be glad you’ve practiced.

Split it into thirds

When travelling along a road there are sections that are hazardous and sections which are not. What concerns us, fairly obviously, are the hazardous areas and we need to be correctly positioned, at the right speed and in the right gear to deal with them safely and effectively.

Using the example of a brow leading towards a corner a distance of about 300 yards away, I would probably only use the first third of the total distance, in this case the first 100 yards, to accelerate to the maximum speed I desire for this section. The remaining two sections are focussed on attaining a good position/speed/gear combination for the corner. You may find that for the middle third you might not necessarily do much in terms of speed reduction, particularly where longer distances between hazards are involved,  but the focus is still on what you need to do for the corner, or whatever else it is you’re approaching, rather than adding more speed. The last third will, in most cases, be used for slight speed adjustments.

This straightforward technique will often considerably improve hazard and cornering assessment, simply because it allows the rider time to see all the detail, make a good assessment, plan the approach and achieve a very accurate entry position and speed. The ride also takes on a certain flow using this method, which also helps with safer riding. I would not describe the ‘thirds technique’ as a rule, merely a flexible guideline.

Speed and positional accuracy

We need to choose a speed at which accuracy can be retained comfortably through the corner up until the point where we can then see out of it. This is quite a common fault of a lot of riders, they attempt just a little too much speed at the point of entry for their own comfort and as a result they enter the corner while still reducing speed. This has a tendency to turn the bike into the bend tighter and away from an accurate position. Due to this, and the fact the bike is now at a greater angle of lean, continuous references to an accurate position using peripheral vision are now impossible, causing the rider to feel even more uncomfortable and as a consequence more speed is lost resulting in falling even further out of position.

Signs and Paint

As a general rule the highway authorities do try to assist us by giving us clues as to potential hazards with signs. The more signs and paint, the more of a problem the corner has been in the past for some drivers/riders. Yellow backing to warning signs is a clue that other people have crashed there. Take extra care when entering corners that have repeat signs half way through them, another ‘slow’ sign painted on the road or extra sets of chevrons. This almost certainly means the bend has a tightening radius.

Limit points

Limit, or vanishing points as they are sometimes known, can be a useful guide but they can also be misleading in certain circumstances. When cornering a limit point is the furthest point you can see the road as it disappears around a blind corner. When riding we should match our speed to our ability to stop relative to the distance between us and this limit point. As it gets closer we need to slow down, if it remains at a fixed distance we can remain at the same speed and if it moves away from us we can then increase speed. The problem here, which can lead to disaster, is the reliability of the references that give you the limit point. In general they are most reliable when the references are very close to the road’s edge, such as thick hedgerow on both sides.

In this instance they are very useful to assist in assessing the severity of the corner. The further back from the side of the tarmac these references are the more unreliable the limit points are as they can give the impression the bend is less sharp than it actually is. On some roads where the hedgerows are quite close to the edge they have been cut right back from the road on the corners to allow for a better view. On the face of it this seems a sensible thing to do, however this can give a rider the impression the limit point is extending, prompting the rider to cease reducing speed and maybe even to start accelerating. There is a classic example of this type of feature on a road near Warwick. Since the hedgerow was modified there have been a number of fresh skid marks appearing on the road from one corner into a field; fortunately the farmer leaves the field gate open, presumably because he is fed up of replacing it!