Finding the Right Line

Lines and shadows

Finding the Right line
Don't fully commit to a line through a corner until you can see all the way to the next exit or at least far enough ahead that you can react to the unexpected.Photography by David Dewhurst

You hear roadracers and roadracer wannabes, talk about lines through corners. To some, “the right line” seems a mystery, but it’s actually simple. It’s the arc that allows you to negotiate the corner, but it also has applications on the street. Because motorcycles use relatively little of the width of a road, we have more flexibility in the lines we choose than do drivers of other vehicles.

On a racetrack, the good line generally entails entering the corner as wide (that is, as near the outside edge of the track) as possible and, at the last possible point where you can still clip the inside edge of the road, steering toward the inside edge. Done right, you arrive at the inside edge (or apex) of the corner carrying plenty of speed on an arc that allows you to accelerate full-bore without running off the road. The perfect line varies from corner to corner with changes in corner arc, width, degree and direction of pavement’s banking, bumps and other factors, but the same principle applies.

Your options become fewer the faster your corner entry, so it's best to use a relaxed entry speed into a corner. The faster you arrive in the corner, the more you need to adhere the racer's "right" line. Slow to a velocity that leaves you adequate margin for possible mid-corner surprises. Get slowed before you start to turn and then accelerate, opening the throttle gradually by the time you reach the apex. Acceleration stabilizes the bike and increases cornering clearance.

Traced at a lower speed, racing's "right line" has advantages for street riders. It minimizes forces on the tires and other components, and involves the minimum lean angle for a given speed. Entering wide, you get the best view into the corner before you commit to it. If something happens in mid-corner, you have traction in reserve to brake, accelerate or tighten up your line. You generally don't want to use all of your lane, leaving at least a foot or so on either edge in reserve, and leaving a cushion for opposite-direction traffic.

It's important to let your eyes lead the way into a corner. They should sweep along the line you expect to take.

The street is less predictable than the racetrack. The conditions change, and hazards pop up unexpectedly. This is why it’s important to let your eyes lead the way into a corner. They should sweep along the line you expect to take, checking for traction problems and searching for potential hazards. By the time you’re committed to the corner, your eyes should already be pointed down the road, looking for the exit or the next turn. If you focus on a point just ahead, you won’t be able to react to surprises in time or set up for what’s farther ahead.

The realities of street riding frequently require you to desert that optimum arc in favor of a safer path. I tend to take an inside line on most interstate-highway ramps. That’s because when fuel or coolant is spilled, the liquid is either thrown to the outside of the lane by centrifugal force or stays near the center.

On a corner with a loose hillside lining the inside of a right-hand corner, a wide line might be the best because it keeps you clear of loose sand and other debris that falls down the hill. A wide line might also keep you clear of squirrely on-coming traffic in a left-hander.

Your line may also change when you have to set up for another corner immediately after the one you’re entering. For example, if a right-hander follows a left-hander, stay tight at the exit of the left-hander to set up for a wide entrance to the right-hander.

Blind corners require a line that provides plenty of flexibility. In a right-hand corner, you may confront an oncoming driver who has straightened out the corner to carry more speed. Other possibilities include disabled vehicles, debris and other hazards. If the corner isn’t familiar, the list of dangers is even larger, including the possibility that it’s a decreasing-radius corner (one that gets tighter the deeper you get) or a change in the banking of the road surface.

Your line through a blind corner should leave room for anything, including stopping. You can accomplish this by doing much of your turning in the portion of the turn you can see as you approach it. This means entering the corner slowly, then accelerating (or making appropriate avoidance maneuvers) as you can see through the corner.

If you carry a lot of speed deep into the corner, dropping into the apex early is a recipe for disaster. This early apex line will leave you wide as you exit the turn. If you can’t slow down and turn, that speed will carry you out past the outside edge of your lane.

If you arrive at corner and suddenly recognize that you’re going too fast, you have to balance the need to turn against the need to slow. Excess speed in a corner, or the perception of it, is a major cause of single-vehicle motorcycle accidents. If you straighten up completely, you can use full braking power but will probably run out of your lane. Leaning far enough to negotiate the corner may exceed the cornering limitations of your bike. Limited dragging of bits of the underside usually isn’t dangerous.

If you recognize the problem early enough, you can shut the throttle, feather the brakes, tighten up your arc and turn toward the apex. Straighten up the bike when it’s pointed at the farthest point through the corner that you can see and hammer on the brakes. Hopefully, this will get you slowed down sufficiently that you can start to turn again before you reach the limit of your lane. It requires a lot of skill—a quick turn, immediate hard braking, then a transition from brakes to hard cornering again. It’s much better to arrive with your speed under control.

If cornering makes you uncomfortable, you'll benefit from a Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Experienced RiderCourse. This one-day refresher is a fun way to get your technique in shape. To sign up for a class, visit MSF's website.

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