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Ride Like Mackenzie: Road Cornering

Join the one and only Niall Mackenzie as he teaches you the basics for successful road cornering

On your marks:

Cornering's what bikes are all about, and there are few feelings better in this world than blasting out of a corner knowing you couldn't have possibly done it faster this side of being woken up with a blow job.

But fast cornering isn't something you can just go out and do straight away. It's a precise science that takes time to perfect. And to be honest, you never stop learning. Unless you can honestly say you hit every corner perfectly on every ride, wherever in the world you might be, then you can always improve.

Starting at the beginning though, before you even think about honing your personal corner attack methods, go through the usual routine of warming your bike, tyres, suspension, body and head over a few miles and shaking out the cobwebs before really going for it and remember, like all aspects of good riding, smoothness is the key. Raggedy, rough riding, heavy last-minute braking and choppy throttle action might feel as if you're riding as fast as the bike can manage, but truth is you're not only way slower than the bloke breezing through the bend in one flowing swoop, you're an accident looking for a hedge to happen in.

Good cornering starts long before you reach the actual corner and there's a lot you need to do before you reach the bend in question so once you're upon it, the only things to concentrate on are tipping in, hitting the perfect line, and driving out the other side as fast as possible.

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So, before you corner you will need to:

1. Know where the bend's going

Sounds obvious, but on the road and especially on roads you don't know well (or at all) you can't set up for a corner without an idea of how tight it is and how fast you can attack.

Fortunately there are loads of signs telling you what an approaching bend is going to do, and they are:

  • Road signs: the more signs, chevrons and paint on the road (double lines, 'slow' mottos, etc) a corner has, the more severe it's going to be - every time there's an accident at a corner, more warnings go up. Also, if you see those wiggly 'twisties ahead' signs, they'll always wiggle in the direction of the approaching bends so if they go left then right, so will the road. And finally, road signs'll warn you of any mid-corner junctions - see one of these coming up and back right off. The time you ignore it will be the time you end up in a tractor.
  • Hedges, trees and lamp posts: can you see any? If these line the corner they'll indicate where it goes. You can't rely on these 100% as they might actually follow another corner you can't see, but they're a good advance warning system all the same.
  • Approaching vehicles: how are they managing the corner? If a car comes around the bend towards you doing just 20mph but slithering and really leant over, the bend's probably a tight one.
  • The vanishing point: no, this isn't a duff horror movie, as you look at a corner it's the point where the kerbs from either side of the road meet as the corner bends out of your sight. If this point is getting closer as you go around the corner, it's tightening up. If it's moving away from you the corner's opening up and if it stays a fixed distance away, guess what? The corner's staying constant.

2. Get your bike set:

And by this I mean get all your gearchanging and braking down in plenty of time so you arrive at the corner unflustered, off the brakes, at the right speed, and in the right gear so the motor's ready to pull you through the corner fast when you ask it to. And after last month's gearchanging practice, you should find you can use a lot of engine braking to slow you down and just brush the brakes as a belt and braces if you need 'em.

3. Be on the correct line:

This one's all based on vision. See, as well as the basic giveaways to how a corner will behave I've already outlined, you can open up or close down your field of vision massively depending on your road position. This may not sound very exciting, but the more you can see the faster you can go (and the safer you are too). Don't believe me? Well see how fast you can go with your eyes shut then...

The aim is to put your eyes in the best place for maximum vision and look as far and wide ahead as possible. Just by sitting up on the bike and craning your neck one way or the other you can alter your field of vision dramatically. What this means is that for maximum vision around a right hander, you want to be as far to the left side of the road as you can safely go, and for a left you'll want to be as far right as you can without risking a head on should a car appear at the last minute. Not only will positioning yourself like this open up your field of vision, it'll also put you on the right line for fastest cornering too.

And if you can see miles down the road and can see a corner coming up, don't wait until the last minute to position for it, do it as soon as you see the turn coming so it's one less thing to think about.

Get set

Now you're approaching the corner, you're all set, and there's no more to do except hammer around it right?

Almost, but not quite. How's your body position?

You want to be (as ever) loose and relaxed on the bike, you'll want your toes on the pegs for optimum control and ground clearance mid-corner, and as you've already got your gearchanging and braking done there's no need to cover your foot levers anyway.

There's a lot of talk about steering through your feet on a sportsbike, but to be honest I shouldn't worry about it. You'll be doing it naturally anyway and it's only at the track when you're really pushing that you'll need to work on it, and that's not for a couple of lessons yet.

You'll want to shift your bodyweight and hang off a touch too. I'm not talking so much you could get your knee down without leaning over, but I'd say for brisk to fast road riding getting one cheek off the saddle is about right for cornering.

You can help do this smoothly by letting your earlier braking gently slide your weight forwards and gently pushing yourself to the required side rather than just leaping off the side of the bike at the corner and upsetting the suspension at a critical point.

Hanging off also buys you more ground clearance and a bigger safety margin for the same speed - it'll let you keep the bike less leant over for a given speed thus maintaining a bigger contact patch and more grip. Don't overdo the hanging off though - get off too much and your bike'll fall on its side too far so adjusting your line will be hard if you suddenly need to.

Go!

Now it's cornering time and what you're after is an entry, an apex and an exit. Your entry is (unsurprisingly) the point you turn into the corner, the apex is the mid-point of your turn and your exit is the point you aim for from here.

Confused? Don't worry about it. These points are different for any road corner, but there's a simple way to find them and then string them together for one smooth, flowing line. It's like this.

Approach the corner as wide as is sensible (to the left of the carriageway for a right hander, to the right for a left), and stay there until you can see through the turn to the exit. Now turn in and take the shortest route between where you are and the exit. The tightest point you clip will be the apex but unlike on a race track, doing it this way means your view through the corner is always your top priority so you're not going to plough head on into a milk float you haven't seen.

The other thing about cornering like this is it forces you to be more mellow with your entry speed, and this will make you faster. No, really.

People get too hung up on entry speed but that's not where the overall speed comes from. See, if you fly into a corner hard on the anchors at the last minute, you'll probably run a bit wide and you'll then have the front all loaded up and won't be able to get the power on until you're well past the apex. This means less drive out of the corner and as a result will be slower - corner exit speed is where you'll make the most ground, especially if your bike's a 600 or bigger.

You'll need some throttle control too, the aim being to be just off the power or on a steady throttle as you turn in and then driving through the bend on a positive throttle, winding it on progressively as you move from banked over at the apex to virtually upright towards the exit.

Oh, and a lot of people will bang on about countersteering to initiate your turn and then keep it going, but to be honest I wouldn't worry about it. Whether you're aware of it or not, you're already doing it naturally otherwise you wouldn't be able to steer at all. Basically, countersteering is how a bike turns and works like this - turn the bars left (by pushing the right bar away from you), and you'll go right, and vice versa. All it means is a nudge on the inside bar is all it takes to enter a turn, and a further nudge will tighten your line if need be.

Mid-corner mind games

Providing you've read the road right and your tyres are warm, you'll have no bothers getting round any corner but as life doesn't always go to plan here's how to handle the unexpected.

If a corner suddenly tightens on you, don't panic. Easier said than done I know, but you must relax, turn your neck and point your head to force your eyes to look through the corner to where you want to be going, and let the bike take you there. You go where you look, it really is that simple and nine times out of ten the bike will make the corner even if your brain thinks you won't.

Whatever you do don't give up on the corner and get fixated looking at where you think you're about to crash if you leave the road. Look there and you will go there is the rule - so if you look at that ditch thinking 'oh no, I'm going to crash in there', sure as eggs is eggs, you will. Look where you want to go and go there instead, then pull up and take a breather to chill out.

And whenever you're cornering, be aware of what your tyres are up to. Feel every last bit of feedback you can through all your sensors - that's your arse, hands and feet. The more you concentrate on this, the more you'll be able to tell as time goes on. There's no secret to it, it just takes time and you only get to know where the limit is by approaching it gradually.

Niall's homework

Right then, I’ve got two pieces of homework for you lot today.

First of all, go to a twisty stretch you know and ride it a few times to refamilarise yourself with it. Then, when you’re comfortable, try riding it without brakes, slowing yourself on engine braking alone. This will force you to concentrate on arriving at corners at the correct speed, on the right line and in the right gear. Obviously use the brakes if you need them, but keep at it until you can do the whole section smooth, relaxed and with no brakes.

That too easy for you? Right then, try this. Head for some twisties you don’t know and try the same thing. Again, use the brakes whenever you need them, but as your road-reading, positioning and lines improve you’ll be able to ride unknown roads without brakes. When you can do this down any stretch you don’t know, not only will you be way safer and smoother, you’ll also have the option for more speed by bringing the brakes into the equation properly. Just remember, your actual entry speeds shouldn’t be much faster, if at all, than when you weren’t using the anchors.