Cornering Safely on your Motorcycle

If you have never dragged anything while taking a corner that doesn't necessarily mean you're a safe rider

If you have never dragged anything while going around a corner on your bike, it doesn't mean that you are a safe rider. It just means you haven't taken the time to learn your bike's limitations. It's time to get comfortable with them.

Dragging parts while cornering
Dragging parts while cornering will happen while you try familiarizing yourself with your bike's limits because with practice and experience, you will get better and more confident at knowing just what those limits are.Illustration by John Breakey

When the subject of crash causation arises, motorcyclists are quick to blame inattentive drivers. But statistics show the majority of motorcyclists crash all by themselves, typically because they fail to negotiate a corner. This sort of crash scenario is growing. Cruiser enthusiasts are quick to point the finger at sportbike riders, who like to ride through turns briskly. Although the statistics about the types of motorcycles involved in these sort of adventures are sketchy, it appears most involve cruisers.

There are several reasons you can run off a corner. You can screw up your braking and lose control, either on the approach or while turning. You can encounter something in a corner that causes you to lose traction or to vary your line so that you depart the pavement. You can arrive at the corner going simply too fast to negotiate it successfully. Also, it is com­mon for a rider to decide he can't turn hard enough and to run off the corner, when, in fact, he probably could have completed the turn successfully if he had sufficient experience and confidence.

During group rides this past summer, I had several opportunities to observe either these actual errors or the results when cruiser riders failed to exit a turn still on their wheels. Fortunately, only one of these incidents involved actual injury, but one had the potential to turn into a double fatality when a rider straightened his bike up in a right-hander and crossed the centerline. In all of these cases, the rider was surprised when his bike dragged and he reacted inappropriately.

Too Low?
I believe some cruiser motorcycles simply lack adequate cornering ground clearance. A few models drag pieces in ways that can up-end a bike before a rider has sufficient warning he is running out of room to lean. The Marauder, tested in this issue drags its side­stand lug in left-handers and is an example of the latter. Let me say that some people I respect disagree with me strongly. They feel cornering clearance is just another limitation, such as tire traction, brake power or acceleration—a compromise we must cope with when we choose a motorcycle. We trade potential lean angle for lower seats, floorboards and other cruiser attractions. It is, they contend, a rider's responsibility to learn and respect the limits of his machine. I strongly agree on that latter score.

I can’t think of any cruiser that, when leaned into a smooth, dry corner, cannot drag something well before its tires run short of grip. Yet many riders say they have never dragged anything and don’t plan to. Some believe this shows they are safer riders because they don’t lean over much. How­ever, this also means these riders are not prepared to lean over when the need arises. They will get into trouble the first time they have to turn harder and lean farther than they planned to. Why would that happen? Because the corner un­expectedly tightens up. Because a corner exit is partially blocked by debris or an obstacle. Because the planned line turns out to be coated with something slippery. Because a car cuts into your lane.

When the only avenue of escape requires a rider to lean over farther and tighten up his line, the rider who has not leaned that far before will either: 1) discover he can do so and thereby escape, 2) refuse to lean beyond his comfort zone and follow that wide arc to disaster or 3) lean over and get surprised when something drags and straighten up again to be delivered back to the disaster zone.

Looking for the Limit
If you accept your responsibility to know the limits of your motorcycle, you must discover how far you can lean your bike over. When I get on a cruiser that is new to me, or one that has been changed in some way that might affect its cornering capability, I try to lean it over until something drags on each side in the first few corners I come to or in a convenient parking lot. During a ride with my son on the back of a Yamaha Venture this summer, I made a point of dragging something in the first corners of each day. Another rider witnessed this a few times and asked what I was doing. "Calibrating the rider," was my answer. Other experienced riders in the industry, many who ride dif­ferent motorcycles all the time, have told me they do the same thing.

Before you discover what your lean limits feel like, it's worth trying to find out what will drag first on each side. You can get an idea (perhaps with the help of someone else) by leaning your parked bike over until something touches, though this isn't foolproof, since the suspension is compressed during actual cornering. Typically the first item to drag on the pavement is a floorboard, footpeg or sidestand. Many bikes have tangs or nubbins projecting from the pegs or floorboards designed specifically for this purpose. Such pieces, which are in the middle or rear of a bike, and fairly well outboard, are generally benign when they drag—particularly because they have some give and will yield rather than upset the chassis. Things get a bit dicier when the part that drags is unyielding and far forward or close to the centerline of a motorcycle. A piece that is forward on a bike can lever the front wheel off the road, and the closer a solid dragging object is to the centerline of the bike, the more it unloads the tires. There are two current cruisers that might give you pause in this regard, Suzuki's Marauder and Intruder 800, the latter of which runs an up-front footpeg bar under the bike from both sides.

Perhaps the best way to become comfortable leaning over that far is by attending a racetrack school, some of which have cruiser-specific sessions.

Dragster
There are two reasons you should perform this calibration ritual yourself. One is to become familiar with your motorcycle's cornering limits. The other is become comfortable leaning over that far. Perhaps the best way to become comfortable leaning your bike over that far is by attending a racetrack school, some of which have cruiser-specific sessions. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Experienced Rider­Course (www.msf-usa.org) will give you an excellent opportunity to test your bike's lean limits also.

You don’t need a racetrack to do it however. A corner that bends 90 degrees or more is enough. A parking lot can do the trick, but I like to check out a lot carefully before I trust it to provide solid traction. Too many parking lots have oil spots, sand, uneven pavement, slick paint or other traction reducers.

You’ll want to find a place where you can settle into a corner and lean progressively deeper until something other than your tires touches the pavement. A 180-degree switchback is perfect, or a safe place in an empty parking lot where you can make a similar turn at 25 mph or more. Your practice venue should permit you to easily run through it repeatedly, so a busy road where turning around is tricky is not a good idea.

Once you have chosen your practice pavement, the drill is simple: Ride through the corner repeatedly, leaning slightly deeper each time. If it is a road and your line is consistent, you should go a smidgen faster during each pass. If it is a parking lot, you can tighten up your arc at the same speed. On some bikes, you will drag your boot before anything else on the bike touches. In that case, put the part of your foot that touched the pavement on the footpeg. Some parts drag quietly with relatively little drama. Other pieces, such as floorboards, make very impressive noises and may fold up, jolting your foot. Part of what you are doing here is getting used to the feel. Once you have grown accustomed to dragging things on one side of the bike, repeat the process leaning the other way. Repeat this exercise regularly to stay comfortable leaning over.

How much more you can safely lean once things touch down depends on what’s next, though probably it will be something that doesn’t fold up, and it will unsettle the bike more than a part that gives. As a rule, the first thing that drags is best regarded as fair warning you are really running out of room to lean.

There are a few things you can do to get slightly more angle. One, is to stay off the brakes, since braking compresses the front suspension. Getting on the throttle also helps, especially on shaft-drive bikes, where accelerating causes the rear end to jack up to varying degrees. Shifting your weight to the inside also increases cornering clearance because you move the bike/rider center of gravity without tilting the bike as far as if you leaned it over.

If you never or rarely drag anything, getting comfortable with it will increase your confidence. At the least, you will know what sort of cornering angle your bike is capable of and how comfortable it is when leaned over all the way. Some riders who have tried the daily grind told me it was a revelation. You might even discover that it’s fun.

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