Motorcycle Cornering Clearance – What To Do When It Runs Out

Strategies for safely handling corners when hard parts touch ground

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Newsflash: Lean a motorcycle over far enough in a corner and something other than those black, round, sticky things we call tires is gonna touch the ground.

While sportbike riders may scoff at motorcycles with lesser ground clearance than that allowed by their proctologist’s crouch inspired riding position, all motorcycles will drag something – even some riders’ elbows – when cranked all the way over.

On the street, cruisers and some standards will run out of ground clearance at a pace attainable by mere mortals. Many experienced riders can tell stories about riding in a group with a wide range of riding experience and ability when, suddenly, a rider who’s riding a bit faster than usual scrapes a peg or floorboard and gets startled. What happens next determines whether you’ll all be laughing it up at the next stop while everyone gets to see the scuff marks on the formerly virgin peg feeler or waiting around for someone to go get a pickup to haul a bent bike and its (hopefully just embarrassed) rider home.

Proper Motorcycle Cornering Technique

This rider is doing everything right. He’s not distracted by the grinding going on under his boot. Note how his foot is placed so that the peg will drag first.

The anatomy of such a crash is fairly simple. The rider, startled by the sound and vibration of metal contacting pavement, instinctively stands the bike up. Often the rider will then just run the bike straight off the road because he’s caught in the horns of a powerful – if inaccurate – dilemma. His brain is telling him he can’t lean the bike over even though it is now almost completely upright.

Motorcycle Downshifting Techniques

Target fixation is the other most common cause of running off the road after being startled by touching down. Come on, every one of us has faced the all-consuming focus on that object in front of us that… we… absolutely… do… not… want… to… hit.

If we are able to recognize – in the moment – that this fear-induced brain lock is going to send us right into the object we want to avoid, then we can force our attention back to our desired path of travel.

Motorcycle Cornering Sparks

The spark show that you put on can actually startle riders behind you. Remember, unless you touch down something solid, like a muffler, you can still maintain the current lean for the remainder of the corner – or even lean the bike a tad further if necessary.

Here is a place where racers and track riders have an advantage over street riders. While the track is, in many ways, safer than the street, the environment does give you close proximity to surprising events like a rider low-siding and sliding out away from you mid-corner. This type of sudden distraction can give you the opportunity to learn to pull your attention back to the task at hand without the additional static of oncoming traffic or large immovable objects at the edge of the pavement.

Cruisers, by virtue of their low and forward-mounted pegs and floorboards, are most susceptible to dragging. The good news is that the manufacturers have designed these bikes to contact the ground with folding parts before something solid, like the pipe or frame hits. The bottom of most pegs have some sort of protrusions termed “feelers” that provide warning that available ground clearance is running short.

All this means, that if you’re dragging flexible parts in a constant-radius corner, you could continue on the same path at the same speed – provided the pavement is smooth – with no problem. The last thing you want to do is chop the throttle or abruptly brake since you’ll immediately lose ground clearance as the weight shifts forward.

Motorcycle Cornering Track

Most of us picture a leather-clad rider on a track when we think about touching down hard parts. The reality is that many bikes can at street-reasonable speeds. A proficient rider should prepare for this possibility.

While current generation shaft-driven cruisers have minimized the shaft effect, older models would lose considerable ground clearance from rear end squat on deceleration. Softly sprung bikes will also touch down sooner over rough pavement or in high speed sweepers as the suspension compresses. (The Zero S we tested this year is a prime example of how cornering clearance can be compromised by a soft suspension.)

Proper Motorcycle Lane Positioning

Suspension compressing after going over a dip in a corner is a pretty common way to drag things, and unfortunately, the abruptness of this suspension movement makes it more likely to touch down a non-flexible part, giving the chassis a momentary jolt.

Pay special attention to forward-mounted footpegs that angle your feet so that their heels are prone to dragging. All it takes is having your boot pulled off the peg one or twice before you find yourself moving your heel to the peg prior to entering a corner.

Cruisers aren’t the only bikes that can cause you to drag your boots. Riders of standard or touring bikes can sometimes drag the sides of their boots before the pegs touch down. (There’s a reason why boot manufacturers put toe sliders on the outside of racing boots.) Riders who hook their heels on the pegs and flex their toes downward can actually cause a crash if they catch their toes hard enough.

Touring Motorcycle Cornering

Even riders of touring rigs should consider foot placement for spirited riding. A rider who is unaware of the possibility that his boot may touch down is more prone to surprise. Some experienced riders use the edge of their boot as a feeler gauge. Look for the beveled edge on the outer sole of fast guys.

When your bike touches down, it’s completely natural to twitch and slightly upset your bike’s chassis and line through the corner. A good way to minimize this reaction is to go out and purposely drag the pegs/floorboards. If you have access to a large, clean parking lot, go ride in circles at a moderate speed. (Do we need to remind you that you should be wearing proper gear in case of a tip over? We thought not.) Once you’re settled, try dipping the bike in for a short duration additional lean.

After you’ve found the point where the bike grounds, try extending the drag a bit further to allow yourself to become more accustomed to the sensations and sounds. Since you’re in a controlled environment, you can push it a little too far to feel how the character of the grinding becomes harsh as solidly mounted parts hit the pavement. Be careful not to go any further, or you risk levering a wheel off the ground, causing a crash.

Motorcycle Riding in the Wind and Rain

The further forward on the bike that the solid hit occurs, the bigger the risk of lifting the front wheel. Think back to your high school physics class. The front wheel and the rest of the chassis are at opposite ends of a lever with the contact point on the ground acting as the fulcrum. The part with the most weight on it (the engine) will use the fulcrum as the pivot point to raise the front wheel. Cue the sounds of shattering plastic.

Motorcycle Cornering Knee Drag

In the context of dragging parts, the reason why track riders hang off their bikes becomes more apparent. By moving their center of gravity lower to the inside of the turn, the bike can remain more upright – and give more ground clearance – for any given speed.

So, what’s a rider to do upon discovering that the corner has a decreasing radius or that the bike is simply traveling too fast for the tightness of a curve and has begun to drag its pegs/floorboards?

You really have two choices: alter your line and/or reduce your speed. If the shape of the corner allows, widen your line for the remainder of the turn. If that is not possible, you’ll want to slow down or, at the very least, not go any faster. For experienced riders whose bikes don’t have linked brakes, the best method for slowing down is to maintain a neutral throttle while carefully applying the rear brake. This scrubs off a bit of speed without dramatically shifting the weight forward. Traction for braking is limited in a turn, so a good bit of finesse is required of this maneuver.

All riders are surprised the first time they touch down out on the road. How much you’ve prepared for the event will dramatically improve the chances of responding appropriately and having a good chuckle about it afterwards.

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  • David Kent

    Another significant danger is an inexperienced passenger who freaks and does something unexpected when you throw sparks. The possibility should be discussed before the ride.

    • Evans Brasfield

      Excellent point! Before a first ride, I _always_ tell passengers that, by getting on my bike, they are willingly giving up all control they have on their fate. I also say that I will repay that trust by never deliberately doing anything to endanger them and that the best thing they can do if the situation gets dicey is to sit absolutely still. Most importantly, I give them an out. I say that, if anything scares them, they should tap me three times on my right thigh, and I will address the issue as soon as it is safe to do so.

      Back when I was still dating my wife, there were a couple times where we were riding on unfamiliar roads, and I was surprised by a decreasing radius corner. The peg slider started to drag, and she tapped my thigh for the remainder of the corner. Since she’s more experienced, now, I just feel her grip around my waist tighten.

  • Marc Ritchie

    One of the reasons riders scrape on high speed corners, is because they lean the bike more than they do themselves. While you don’t have to “hang off,” keep your head and torso on the low-side of the bike and you will scrape less. A good example of what “NOT” to do can be seen here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vz1QkJ9d_KA

    • Rich Hoffmann

      Look closely at his left foot positioned prior to the drop….hanging the toe outward makes the contact with the road….then all hell happens.

  • Mark Vizcarra

    Wheelie for safety!

  • Cyberwarrior

    Two errors. First the rider in the first pic is NOT doing everything right. He’s cheating in the corner by leaning the bike inside his body-line, so he doesn’t lean over as much as the bike does. This means that the bike will touch hard-parts before it would otherwise, if he leaned into the turn with the bike much less lean inside the bike, as you cover later. The simple solution to this is to push the bike to the outside, thus pushing your body to the inside. Even without “leaning-off” or “hanging off” the seat the rider can easily position their torso to the inside of the handlebars, reduce the lean-angle of the bike and minimize the issue with dragging parts. In fact the initial picture shows a rider who has created one problem and is about to create a 2nd, much bigger problem: that of over-cornering the tires altogether and going into a lowside or even a highside. So no he most-certainly is not doing everything right. Second aside from the knee-dragging amateur in the later photo, leaning DOWN in a turn (lowering the torso and hips relative to the tank and seat) reduces cornering-performance by reducing CoG height. Leaning INTO a turn improves cornering by moving the CoG to the inside of the turn, putting the bike up on the fat part of the tires. The best solution is to sit UP like on a standard, lean to the INSIDE with the torso, stay tight on the bike with the knee, countersteer and lean the bike INTO the corner, leaning over with the bike. Really very simple, even a caveman can do it right assuming that they know to do it in the first place. All that extra hanging-off does nothing but eat up ground-clearance and makes it hard to maneuver the bike, making the rider hop back and forth across the seat instead of just pushinig to the inside of each turn. But the one thing that you do not want to do is sit up straight and drop the bike down. That is bad, bad, bad.