Proper Cornering Technique

John L. Stein
by John L. Stein
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Love complex topics steeped in theory and opinion? Let’s talk cornering!

proper cornering technique

Want to see some feathers fly? Sit down with a bunch of biker friends and ask their opinion of proper cornering technique. That fox-in-the-henhouse moment will probably jumpstart a flurry of opinions – some well-considered theory, others emphatically proven by deeds on the racetrack, and others downright dorky. Here are some cornering technique suggestions for learning riders. thanks Yamaha for sponsoring this new rider series.

Brake First

To simplify learning to corner well on your motorcycle, simplify the process by getting your braking done before you enter the turns. (Expanding your skill set to include more advanced techniques, such as trail braking, are covered in “How To: Motorcycle Braking,” a future installment in this series, and can be explored once you’ve mastered the basics.) Brake reasonably and calmly, smoothly release the brakes before you enter the corner, and then turn smoothly in.

proper cornering technique

Always be Smooth

For best cornering, always be smooth with the handlebar inputs, the throttle, and any brake activity. Years ago, Ford famously gave F1 champ Jackie Stewart a production car outfitted with a dish containing a loose ball, all mounted on the hood. His “formula finesse test” on a figure-8 course demonstrated that by driving smoothly, it’s possible to accelerate, brake and corner without the ball rolling out. This lesson in finesse applies to bikes too.

proper cornering technique

The lesson here is simple: Smoothness breeds cornering success. Mastering this helps keep the weight evenly balanced on your tires, keeps the bike’s steering steady, maintains consistent ground clearance under the exhausts and foot pegs, and makes maintaining your cornering line easier. Also, smooth is calm, and calm is good for the pilot.

Keep your Speed Reasonable

proper cornering technique

People love to go fast. Otherwise, why would Ohio’s Top Thrill Dragster rollercoaster exist? If that appeals to you and your bike, invest in good riding gear and training, get yourselves to a proper racetrack, and have at it; going wild on the streets is asking for trouble. So, how fast is reasonable and appropriate on public roads? The serious answer to this serious question is both obvious and bureaucratic: Every road has a speed limit, posted on signs and/or written into the state vehicle code. Above that, follow the basic speed law, which states that regardless of the speed limit, you must ride at a speed safe for conditions.

Look Through the Turn

proper cornering technique

Whether you’re heaving a disc in Ultimate Frisbee, throwing a runner out at second, or sinking a 3-pointer in a game of hoops, you need to send it where you want it to go. Same for motorcycle cornering, except that you’re along for the ride. It’s an old axiom that riders go where they’re looking, so even if there’s a portion of truth here, it pays to look into and through every corner to assess, determine, and then execute your trajectory. The farther you can see, the more information you can infer about the turn.

If the corner looks like a constant radius, you can generally expect to maintain a constant speed. If the corner appears to “open up” (i.e., an “increasing radius” turn), you can generally expect to be able to accelerate through the turn. And conversely, if the corner appears to “close up” (i.e., a “decreasing radius” turn), you may need to slow down to stay in your lane and complete the turn.

A Cornering Trick

proper cornering technique

There is a tactic that veteran riders often use to help assess corners as they approach them, particularly useful on roads with lines defining the edges of the pavement. As you’re approaching a turn, notice the two lines:

  1. If they appear to diverge as they progress around the corner, that indicates an increasing-radius turn.
  2. If the gap between the lines appear to stay constant, that indicates a constant radius turn.
  3. If they appear to converge as they progress around the corner, that indicates a decreasing-radius turn.

Caveat: We expect that by nature, road engineers favor and pursue building logical and predictable corners. But there’s no guarantee that what you see initially will define the entire corner! When in doubt, go slow until you can see which way the road goes.

Choose Your Apex

proper cornering technique

Cornering lines and apexes are as old as bodies in motion, and innate to living things. For proof, watch any dog chase a cat around the yard; they know how speed, radiuses, and apexes relate innately. But wait, back to motorcycling! Riding instructors universally discuss cornering lines and apexes, with track instructors focusing on how to carry the most speed through the turns. This isn’t the goal for new street riders; rather, the goal is safety.

Two scenarios to consider here:

  1. When you approach a corner from the inside of the lane, you will naturally apex early (i.e., reach the inside of the corner immediately). If you are carrying a lot of speed, this means your trajectory may widen as you progress through the corner, sending you toward the edge of the road or the opposite lane. Not preferred!
  2. A better street strategy, from our experience, is to approach the corner from near the outside of the lane, and delay turning in slightly. This carries you and your bike through the corner in the middle of the lane and results in a late apex (i.e., reaching the inside of the corner later). The advantage here is that if you are traveling faster than you should, you have relatively more pavement available, later in the turn. Your line of sight into the opposing lane is also better throughout the turn, allowing more time to see and react to oncoming cars, as needed.

Study the Surface

proper cornering technique

Instead of taking road surfaces for granted, study them while you’re riding. This applies to corners, too, especially blind turns that may hide dirt, rocks, sand, water, potholes, pavement repairs or other surprises. A good riding surface is to your advantage, and having a heads-up attitude about finding it will pay dividends throughout your riding career. Happy cornering!

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John L. Stein
John L. Stein

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 1 comment
  • Virginia M Shear Virginia M Shear on Nov 03, 2023

    As an MSF and Total Control Instructor Im can appreciate this article on cornering. Well said, well written and well intended.