Advanced Riding Course: Cornering

Pull up a chair for todays masterclass, learn how to handle cornering with Niall Mackenzie

Strange as it may seem when I first moved from full time racing to winging it as a bike journalist seven years ago, I really struggled to get road bikes to go round corners.

During my 20 years of racing I rarely ventured onto the road and whenever I did it was never a particularly pleasant experience. I suspected not riding on the road regularly was the problem, and although it didn’t happen overnight, I eventually figured what needed to change if I was to get proper enjoyment from everyday riding.

To get round circuits, racers are constantly using their body weight and body position to coax their machines in and out of corners. Like the ECUs that monitor and alter engine management by the millisecond, the Rossi's and Stoners out there are also constantly levering, counter steering (more of this later) while adjusting their centres of gravity from the entry to exit of every turn. And there’s more. As most tight corners come after hard braking, having the front suspension compressed means the skilled racer can initiate turn-in more easily as he temporarily has steeper geometry. Once in the corner, to find the perfect line, the racer will also regulate his position on the track with the throttle and rear brake.

Unfortunately, attempting the above on the road is not practical. Apart from looking daft, you’d be totally knackered after a few miles if you hadn’t already crashed. And just before I go onto how I now go about cornering, there was another thing I was totally unaware of when it came to road riding. No one told me that most roads are cambered from left to right to help with drainage. This makes turning left easier than turning right but it also makes the chances of high-siding much greater out of right-handers than left-handers. The only circuit that had this characteristic was Assen in the Netherlands and it caught out many a top rider. As you were crossing the circuit from corner entry to corner exit the changing contour could easily high-side you without much warning. Just ask Michael Doohan. Assen attempted to end his career on more than one occasion, so he hated the place and all it’s nasty cambers.

For the road nowadays I have a simple, slow in, faster out, cornering system that combined with always expecting the unexpected, up until now has kept me safe. When approaching any bend I try to use as much of the road as is safe enabling me to maximize the corner width and also see as far round the turn as possible. So coming up to a typical A-road right-hander my thinking would be this:

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I position myself over to the left but not to the point where I am clipping drains or running through the crap that gathers in the gutter and can cause punctures. Then as I get closer I will roll back the throttle transferring some weight to the front tyre and at the same time I’ll move the upper part of my body forward, pushing my head towards the right mirror. At the same time I’ll stretch my right knee out slightly and shift some weight on to the right hand foot peg. This change of body position is a lot less radical than the racer’s as I use hardly any energy and my bum stays pretty much in the middle of the seat. All of this shifts weight to the inside and causes slight drag, helping me and the bike into the first part of the turn. As I head further into the corner, to help things along, I might put some extra weight on the right handlebar. At this point I should be mid-way through the corner with the bike settled and looking for my corner exit or ‘vanishing point’. For those of you don’t know (and I was one rider that only heard this term recently) the vanishing point is where you can’t see any further round the corner. So the closer this point is, the tighter the corner.

Looking at my exit point I’ll gently start to open the throttle, and accelerate swiftly on my way, gradually becoming fully upright when the corner ends. When running through left-handers, my technique is similar, except as I like to ride towards the centre of the road, I’d normally be already in position on the approach.

I mentioned pushing (or pulling) on the bars to aid cornering, which is of course counter-steering. This is something I get asked about regularly and I usually have a fairly straight-forward answer. Like weighting the foot pegs, it is good to be aware of counter-steering as it can enhance cornering and sometimes get you out of some potentially dangerous situations. Believe me, we do it every single time we ride our bikes otherwise we would only ever go in a straight line. Which would be very boring. So don’t spend too much time worrying if you should or shouldn’t use counter steering, just enjoy your riding. 

Other techniques I use on the road to ease me safely into and around corners is engine braking and use of the rear brake. If I find I’m approaching a bend with too much speed, I’ll click back an extra gear and feed the clutch in gently. This is safer than risking losing the front with too much front brake or having the back lock up using the rear brake.

Once I’m in a turn however and I find I’m drifting wide then I’ll happily use some rear brake to bring me safely back into line. It goes without saying good tyres, tyre pressures and suspension settings are crucial for good cornering. If you have tyres that spend all their life doing motorway miles and are flat across the crown don’t expect them to want to lean over down country lanes! Also if your suspension is knackered and has lots of bounce without any damping you’d better hang on tight as your bike will be ignoring where you want to go and doing its own thing. I’d recommend standard front settings and a slightly stiffer rear end as a good compromise for sharp handling on our roads.

So that’s my basics for cornering but as always being smooth with your throttle, brakes and body movement is key. As four-times 500cc World Champion Eddie Lawson once said to me when a 747 pilot landed our plane without anyone waking up “that’s the way I’d have done it.”

Niall’s cornering

Before you go

  • Check tyre pressures!
  • Set-up your bike so the the rear is slightly stiffer than stock, leave the front as it is

On the road

  • Be smooth at all times. If you’re all over the place the bike will be unbalanced before you even enter the corner ahead
  • Stay out of the gutter, it’s full of road crap and squirrels
  • Roll off the throttle, move forwards and shift weight towards the inside at the same time to initiate turn
  • If you’ve gone in too hot don’t panic, just add pressure to the inside handlebar to aid counter-steer
  • It’s better to be in too high a gear than too low a gear on the approach to a corner

Things to practice

  • Play with counter-steering until you fully understand it, but don’t get bogged down with it.
  • Use the rear brake to steady the bike mid-corner if it’s really bumpy. You can have the rear brake on and be on the throttle at the same time
  • Feed in the clutch gently to avoid rear-tyre hop