The perfect road riding lines

Middle of the road or gutter to kerb? Here's how to get your lines sorted and keep it swift, smooth and safe out on the public highway

Your line on a circuit can be distilled down to a series of braking, turn-in, apex and exit points linked together. It's the same on the road, but different. There are far more variables to be assessed and positioned for on the road, and it's that positioning that largely determines your line.

In some cases those lines are similar to track lines; in others they're markedly different. And the line for any given corner can vary - what's right one day may not be right the next, depending on what hazards present themselves. Be ready to adapt, be flexible.

"Your line is a compromise between the best view and the biggest radius you can squeeze through a bend," says Rapid Training's Gary Baldwin. "Everybody knows where they're supposed to be - for a left-hander you're supposed to be over to the right and for a right-hander you're supposed to be over to the left - but it's having an understanding of why you're doing it that counts. A rider who's done track stuff generally understands why they're doing it on the road and can understand the compromises you have to make."

There are other differences too. "My road lines are totally separate to my track lines," says Niall Mackenzie. "My track lines work for me because I'm riding harder, braking harder and turning harder. That works the suspension to give me the steering geometry I want. On the road the bike isn't worked as hard so it feels completely neutral, doesn't want to turn as quick, and isn't as accurate. Compared with the track I often find I'm all over the place on the road."

Right handers

To the right

In an ideal world, the approach to a right-hand bend would put you as far to the left as possible, positioning yourself for an optimum view into and through the corner. Keep to the left until you can see your exit then turn in, gas it and go. If the view allows, depending on hedgerows, other vehicles and the general topography, and keeping within the confines of your side of the road, the line needn't necessarily be all that far removed from what you'd use on the track.

But the world isn't ideal, and any combination of a number of factors can force a change of position and line. Putting yourself in the nearside gutter can have you riding through all manner of roadside debris or running over potholes or drain covers, which may be sunken by a good few inches. That's all stuff to be avoided when your suspension and tyres have better things to be getting on with. Be aware of cambers, too; riding in the nearside gutter on a steeply crowned road means the camber is working against your tyres and steering.

Extreme left-hand positioning can also be dodgy if there are junctions or driveways on the left before the bend. On rural roads many side roads are poorly sighted for drivers wanting to pull out, and it may be necessary for them to nudge forward of the 'Give Way' lines to get a view onto the main road. If you're inches from the gutter as you pass the junction, it could put you in direct conflict with a vehicle wanting to pull out. Your extreme positioning could also mean drivers are blind to your presence for longer or, if they see you, they may interpret your position as an intention to turn left into the junction, and so pull across your path. Best avoided.

Your line through the bend is determined by an assessment of all the above plus a few more. How far ahead can you see? Is it wet? Are there manhole covers or patches of extra-slippery Tarmac to be avoided? Are there oncoming vehicles close to or crossing the centre line? Does your restricted view mean there could be but you can't see them yet? It sounds like a lot to think about, but all this stuff needs to be ticking over in your brain pretty much all the time.

If your exit is blind, or oncoming vehicles are overhanging the centre line, then ultimately you won't turn in to the corner as such at all, instead tracking a wide arc away from the centre line, ready to get on the gas as soon as your forward view allows.

Conversely, if all is appears to be in your favour, a wide entry will give an early view to a clear exit, allowing something approaching a traditional 'apex' near the centre line.

"Generally we say be as accurate as you can," says Gary, "and if that means being six inches from the kerb, so be it. Have the confidence to put the bike where it needs to go - but if the gutter is full of potholes don't ride there. It's about getting over to people that in this world they invent for themselves where they're the only person on the roads then this is where they'd ride, but in the real world be ready to compromise."

We won't suggest you force yourself to ride in the gutter on the way into right-handers if you're not happy doing so, but it's something you should be aware of and give thought to in the right situations. But first work out what those situations are. While it often can be advantageous and safe, if you're not happy there brain power will be wasted worrying about it which could be better spent doing other things. "As a rule I stay away from the nearside kerb," says Niall. "Some people disagree with it, but I'm just not comfortable there."

Left handers

And to the left

Once again, in an ideal world the approach to every left-hand bend would be from the white line in the centre of the road (or beyond, see Crossing the line, over the virtual page) to a neatly clipped apex on the inside kerb before drifting out under power to the central white line on the exit. But life isn't always like that.

The trouble with a central position on the approach to left-handers is that it puts you in direct conflict with oncoming traffic, maybe only a matter of inches from very solid vehicles. Not really a problem; as long as there's a gap between you and them it doesn't matter how big or small it is, does it? Well, it does if something goes wrong and either you or they swerve to avoid something unexpected or move off line by a small amount. "Some people  are too regimented about it,'" says Gary. "They say 'for a left-hander you ride in the centre of the road', and come hell or high water they do, even in the face of an on-coming artic. It scares the living daylights out of me"

The necessary compromise is to position yourself as close to the centre of the road as possible to see and execute an optimum line through the bend, but without getting into danger, or scaring or confusing other road users. If a centreline position gives enough forward view for an all-clear through the corner, stay out and make use of it until it's time to commit to the turn. If high hedgerows on the inside of a left-hander keep you blind to its exit, then track a wide arc out towards the centre line and don't gas it until you can see the exit, even if that means the corner is effectively over by the time you do.

So what's the deal with using the full width of available road on the way into a corner? Turn in too soon, carrying too much speed, and the bike will want to run wide unless you have the skill and presence of mind to tighten your line without panicking or target-fixating on some looming danger. In a right-hander this will put you in a hedge; in a left it can put you under a lorry. By not using all the road you're sacrificing width on the way out. You could argue we shouldn't be going fast enough on the road to need the full width of it, but sometimes some of us do. At lower speeds it also gives a safety margin if we misjudge a corner or something unforeseen forces a move offline.

Extreme positioning to get better lines through either left- or right-handers should also be avoided in towns and built-up areas. You're far less likely to be carrying enough speed to make use of all the road.

"On the whole it's pointless in 30mph limits," says Gary. "It just looks like you're turning left or right. People doing it obviously don't understand why they're doing it." Yes, change your position to see and be seen, but don't commit yourself for an optimum line at the expense of all else or you'll get people pulling out in front of you or even trying to overtake. And a far left position into a right-hander can have your handlebar overhanging the pavement and snagging old ladies' handbags. Not good form.

Cross the line

Crossing the line

Crossing the centre line to improve your view or line through a left-hand bend or series of bends is an area rife with uncertainty and disagreement. Some say 'don't do it', others say 'do it, but only if... '. And it's those 'only ifs' that need consideration. For a start, don't do it if it means crossing a solid white line on your side of the centre of the road. It's illegal and potentially lethally dangerous. If you're caught doing it you could justifiably be stuck with a dangerous driving charge, especially if you're seen doing it solely to steal a faster line through a corner.

If the road snakes from side to side, cutting briefly to the 'wrong' side of the white line to straighten your line on a clear road isn't a problem at all, although there are some who disagree. Certainly don't do it if there is oncoming traffic in view, even way off in the distance. And avoid at all costs if there are junctions or driveways on your right - drivers may not check to their left before turning right out of them. Also be aware that faster vehicles coming up behind you may be looking to overtake and could be tempted to try and pass on a snaking stretch of clear road; if you straightline it and cross the white line as they pass, you could be rear-ended.

What's more contentious is using a far right position on the wrong side of the road to get a better line through a left-hand bend. If the view ahead is clear then this can be done safely, but this isn't the case all that often. And be aware that all the same dangers of extreme left-hand positioning for a right-hander also apply, along with the added dangers of being on the wrong side of the road. Remember also that you will be crossing raised white lines and cat's eyes at some point in the turn.

"The company rule is not to encourage riders to go across the middle of the road just to improve their view," says Gary. "If they can see ahead they can go where they like, but just to see further we say stop at the middle of the road. In theory the further you go the more you see, but you have to take into account that people coming the other way will be alarmed if they exit a corner to see you on the wrong side of the road for no apparent reason. You're trusting a stranger to not go to where you're about to go back to. And are you really going fast enough to justify doing it? Do you need to be out there?

"It's a strange technique because it's more unsafe the slower you're going. At 90mph it takes the blink of an eye to get back onto your side of the road, but at 30mph it can take a long time. You need to understand the advantages you're gaining, which are seeing further, putting less cornering force through the bike and travelling faster, depending on what sort of day you're having. In the final analysis very few of us travel that bloody fast that we can't afford to give up a bit of space now and again."

And in conclusion

It's all very well reading about this better riding stuff in magazines and looking at nice diagrams and photographs and the like, but we're more than happy to admit that you can't really learn it without some practical application, preferably under the watchful eye of someone who knows what they're talking about. And even if you're familiar and comfortable with the concepts and their execution, it still can't hurt to have yourself and your abilities checked over every now and then. That's where the likes of Gary and his lot at Rapid Training come in.

"It's normally the 'read it in a book' brigade that we have most trouble with," he says. "Learning practical skills from the written word can be difficult. The trouble is some people will take on board what they're supposed to be doing but never pick up on the exceptions."

Some riders are happy to have their left elbow whacking the vegetation on their approach to right-hand bends, others only comfortable with a metre or two of road surface between them and the nearside kerb. If you don't have the confidence or experience to be using the full width of road available to you when it's safe to do, hopefully we've given you some stuff to think about. If you want to try it for real under Rapid Training's watchful and experienced eye, call them on (01296) 630638 or have a look at www.rapidtraining.co.uk

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