Lines Through Corners

How to make your motorcycle carve the smart arc through corners.

You hear roadracers, and roadracer wannabes, talk a lot about lines through corners. To some, "the right line" seems like a big mystery, but it's actually quite simple. In racing terms it's the arc through a corner that allows you to negotiate the corner in the least time, 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, steer toward the inside edge. Done exactly 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 on the outside. The perfect line varies from corner to corner with changes in corner arc, width, degree and direction of pavement's banking, traction, bumps and other factors, but the same fundamental principle applies.

Start Slow

Speed helps determine your line through a corner. Your options become fewer the faster your corner entry. For this reason, 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 slower speed, racing's "right line" has advantages for street riders, even if speed is not an object. It places minimum forces on the tires and other components and involves the minimum lean angle for any given speed. Entering wide, you get the best view into the corner before you commit to it. If something happens in mid-corner, you are have some traction in reserve, which may be used 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 between you and the opposite-direction traffic.

Better Safe Than Speedy

Of course, the street is much less predictable than the racetrack. The conditions of corners change, sometimes from second to second. Obstacles and hazards pop up unexpectedly, and the "right line" can quickly become the wrong line. 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 are 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 a short way ahead of you, you won't be able to react to those surprises in time or set up for what's ahead.

The realities of street riding frequently require you to desert that optimum arc in favor of a path that keeps you clear of hazards. I tend to take an inside line on most interstate-highway off-ramps and all on-ramps, particularly in the city. That's because the one area where fuel is almost never spilled is the inside of the lane, and there is a surprising amount of fuel that splashes onto urban freeway ramps, at least in L.A. 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 of the lane. For illustration, let me cite the morning several years ago when a co-worker and I both rode to work using the same freeway off-ramp. I came in first. Using my normal inside line I caught a whiff of diesel fuel, though I couldn't see anything. I had no problem. My colleague arrived coated in fuel on a bike much the worse for the experience. He had taken a conventional line and encountered the slippery (but invisible) stuff as he steered across the center of the lane. He was down before he knew what he'd hit.

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 squirrelly 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 are 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.

The Look-Ahead Line

Blind corners require a line that provides plenty of flexibility. In a right-hand corner (most blind corners are right-handers), you may confront an oncoming driver (or another motorcyclist) who has straightened out the corner to carry more speed. There are countless other possibilities including 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 closing-radius corner (one that gets tighter the deeper you get) or a change in the banking of the road surface. In blind left-handers, oncoming drivers who over-cook the corner are most likely to end up on your side of the corner.

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. In a right-hander, that puts you into the path of on-coming cars. In a left-hander it sends you off the road.

The Need to Un-Speed

If you arrive at corner and suddenly recognize that you are 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 one of the biggest causes of single-vehicle motorcycle accidents. If you straighten up completely, you can use full braking power, but will probably run out of your lane. Trying to lean far enough to negotiate the corner may cause you to exceed the cornering limitations of your bike. On a cruiser, those limitations are usually dictated by the cornering clearance of your bike, which is why you should be familiar with them. Limited dragging of bits of the underside isn't dangerous on most bikes, providing that it doesn't startle you into straightening up. (See the Survival column in our first issue for more on dragging.)

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 the bike up when it is 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.

Teaching Turning

If cornering makes you uncomfortable, you'll benefit from a trip to school -- the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Experienced Rider Course. This one-day refresher is a fun way to get your technique in shape. You can get information on a site near you with a call to (800)446-9227. If you enjoy cornering and would like to get to practice it in safer environment with fewer hazards, contact one of the racetrack schools like the dp Safety School (805/772-8301) or CLASS (805/933-9936). Some schools have sessions just for cruisers.

Cornering behavior is what distinguishes motorcycles from convertibles, gurneys, skateboards and other open-air vehicles with too many wheels. Leaning into a bend is one of the great pleasures of riding a motorcycle. Planning and executing that perfect line is like chrome on billet; it enhances the experience.

Art Friedman

Drop Friedman a line at _ Art.Friedman@primedia.com _or at _ ArtoftheMotorcycle@hotmail.com.

_For more information on safe-riding equipment, strategies, techniques and skills, see the _ Street Survival section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.

As you enter the corner, your eyes should to looking as far through the corner and up the road as you can see.
Though approaching a corner as wide as possible gives you the opportunity to take the smoothest arc and lean the least amount for a given speed, hugging the centerline can also make you more vulnerable to oncoming traffic that crosses the stripe.
Carrying a passenger increases the need to be smooth in a corner, and the added weight will make the things drag at slightly reduced lean angles, and perhaps farther rearward on the motorcycle.
Considerations like slippery surfaces, (in this case those painted lines) in the corner may require you to readjust your line or straighten up as you cross them and then turn back harder.
On bikes with limited cornering clearance, the "racing" line can minimze the amount that you drag things.