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Advanced Motorcycle Riding Course: Cornering - brakes, gears and deceptive corners

Often find yourself struggling to judge corner entry speed? Unsettling the bike with mid-corner gear shifts? This guide will get your planning and corner entry speed right on the money. Ride faster and ride safer.

After detailing the elements that affect your choice of position and speed at the approach to a corner, I’d like to cover selecting the optimum gear and braking to achieve the correct speed for the corner. As this is part two of cornering, it builds on the advice from last month, specifically the thirds technique which concerns splitting the approach to a corner into three sections, or thirds. Ideally, once you’ve passed the first third of the distance to the next corner your speed should be regulated downwards accordingly, so that you enter the corner safely, accurately and in a manner at which you feel confident and relaxed. By doing this you should remain accurate in the corner and then be able to use the motorcycle’s biggest asset, its acceleration, to drive out of the bend on the most appropriate line. The overall net result is safer and quicker cornering.

Should we use the gears to slow down?

There is quite often a misconception, even in some advanced riding circles, that all approach speed should be lost by engine braking alone and if the use of the brakes is required there has somehow been an error in the rider’s judgment. Time and time again I see riders potentially courting disaster by adopting this practice. Imagine that you are approaching a corner and all the clues are telling you that you need to slow down considerably faster than you are, but instead of braking you select a lower gear and then another in a desperate attempt to slow the bike. The chances are you will not have slowed down sufficiently so at the last minute, to avoid a potential accident, you grab the brakes in a panic trying to shed the excessive speed. The net result of trying to avoid using the brakes is that you will be anything but comfortable and relaxed entering the corner, there is no way your corner entry will be accurate and the ideal position will not be achieved in the bend so your cornering will be slower and not as safe.

This obsession of trying not to brake only encourages the rider along the route of an unnecessary low gear selection to slow down and inevitably, on occasions, it will lead to selecting a much lower gear than is desirable to take the corner. Once in a lower gear the bike’s revs are higher, making the throttle overly sensitive and leading to difficulty in maintaining accuracy as the high revving engine disguises a lot of the feedback and feel from the bike. Also, the copious amounts of power available to the rider on a lot of modern machinery often means that the rider will be reluctant to open the throttle for fear of the rush of power when the revs are high. In addition, a lack of useable revs left means the rider will probably have to change up as the bike leaves the corner, disrupting the motion of the bike through the bend. As a rule, the ideal gear for a corner is one that provides enough power to drive the bike out of it in the manner in which you desire, while providing a certain amount of flexibility in the corner; one that’s responsive to throttle changes but not overly so.

AMRC - comfort braking

‘Comfort braking’

A particular dislike of mine is the regular expression used by some advanced bike instructors of ‘comfort braking,’ which dissuades the rider from using brakes despite the fact that the rider feels the need to do so. In the eyes of the tutor the brakes were unnecessary; this is fine for them of course, they may well be more skilful or know the road like the back of their hand. What advice are they giving though? When do they use the brakes? When the discomfort in the situation turns to fear, or maybe blind terror? My advice is to be willing to use the brakes, fairly obviously they are the most efficient way to slow a bike down, but does this mean that you should use the brakes all the time then? No, not necessarily, although of course it depends on how much and how quickly the speed needs to be reduced. If you spot a potential hazard, then certainly use them as hard as possible!

When braking as you approach a bend, it’s back to the thirds principle. As you pass the first third you should start to begin to roll off the throttle for the corner. If there is not much speed to lose and the engine’s not working hard at high rpm then by all means change down gear to make small adjustments. If, however, you judge that significant speed loss is required, the first option should always be brakes. And start braking early, particularly if the engine is already working moderately hard. As the speed decreases, change down gears when the engine is into the range of next lower gear, to avoid the motor over-revving.

Where should I aim to finish my braking?

This depends on a number of factors, but generally you should not stop until you are absolutely sure you have the precise entry speed. A significant advantage of using the brakes over gears to slow down is that they’re infinitely variable between barely perceptible, to fully applied, so pressure on them can be varied immediately as the information to judge the bend becomes available. For an unfamiliar corner, all the information to read it correctly doesn’t occur until you are almost in it, so you might find you take the brakes right up to this point. If the brakes are still applied, a recovery from an initial misjudgement or the realisation that the bends has a tightening radius can be rectified easier because the bike is already configured for braking. The weight is already distributed forward so there is no delay or unnerving pitching as the brakes are hastily re-applied; pressure on the brakes is just increased to lose the extra speed.

AMRC - downhill corners

How to feel comfortable in downhill corners

Downhill corners are by their very nature quite tricky to deal with and are easily misjudged. To start with, looking at a bend from above always gives the impression that it is less tight than it actually is. Speed control is also difficult and the steeper the hill, the harder it gets. To cope with this, most riders quite rightly err on the side of safety, slow right down and generally choose a low gear to control speed. This works to a point, however the combination of a steep hill, a heavy bike, and minimal available engine braking can make the job much harder.

In order to cope with this situation many riders take an inordinately low gear to control speed. As a result, the machine ends up very sensitive to the throttle and difficult to control in the corner.  More importantly, with the machine headed downhill the weight is already biased forward onto the front tyre, even when travelling at a steady speed. Any speed reduction, whether by deceleration or braking (front or rear), shifts even more weight forward, lifting it from the rear tyre. What we have to ask ourselves now is: “Is it wise to put all the braking effort through the back tyre alone by using the engine with a very low gear, when in fact it’s the front tyre that now has the most grip potential?” This is a particularly important factor as we are now going to ask it to turn into a corner.

In pure tyre grip trade off terms we are probably already using a considerable amount of the rear tyre’s grip for braking so we can quite easily overcome its overall grip as we turn into the corner. So what is the solution? Why not open the throttle slightly to ease pressure? This is not necessarily wise; if the corner has a constant radius then you need to keep a constant speed at least for the first part to keep the constant radius or the bike will run wide. You could, of course, always lean the bike a bit more, but there is only a finite amount of grip available and this is easily exceeded in these circumstances.

A surprisingly small amount of braking can have much more effect in controlling speed than selecting even the lowest of gears. So to regulate speed downhill, for sure, err on the side of safety but use the available tyre grip to its best advantage – there is plenty of grip at the front because that’s where the weight is – so practice using both brakes into the corner to maintain a constant speed. Take the brakes to the point where you want to accelerate, now just ease the pressure on the brakes, the transition is much smoother and the bike never feels like it’s running away with you. As your confidence improves try taking the next gear up, you will find that downhill speed control is much easier using the brakes and as a bonus the throttle response is not so sensitive and makes the exit easier.