Riding Around The Corner - Street Survival

Around The Bend

It could be that my favorite thing about motorcycles is the way they turn, leaning over to balance all the forces involved in making a single-track vehicle change directions and go right where you want it. Even after doing it hundreds of thousands of times, it's still exciting and challenging. I'm also sure that there haven't been more than a handful of times that I arrived at the entry to a corner and entered it just perfectly, with exactly the right amount of handlebar pressure, body English, throttle opening and lean angle to deliver me to the ideal point at the apex of the turn without minute adjustments. You virtually always have to make some sort of adjustment as you commit. However, to keep all those forces balanced, you can't make any violent changes or you'll quickly find yourself flat side down.

Yet the moment of commitment to a corner is the crucial one, and the way you do it should depend almost entirely on what you see as the corner appears ahead of you. Maybe you have ridden it thousands of times. Maybe this is your first time drawing an arc on this particular stretch of pavement. But even in a corner that I ride every day, one where I know every crack and ripple in the asphalt, I can't commit until my eyes have evaluated the surface first. Even if you have ridden through just minutes before, the situation may have changed. A car might have stopped just behind the embankment or bushes that hide the exit to the corner, or a passing vehicle could have left oil, water, sand, tacks, a ladder, an inflatable wading pool or hundreds of other things in the corner that will upset the perfect balance you created on your last pass.

So before I commit, I need to be able to observe and evaluate the entire surface I will ride across while I'm leaning over. Many turns don't permit you to see completely through them as you arrive. Any number of roadside objects can block your view of the road ahead. So what do you do? Well, I don't commit myself to more than I can see. I reduce my speed and, if conditions permit, enter the bend on the outside of my lane, which normally gives me the best and earliest view of the road ahead.

However, there are circumstances where entering a curve wide may not be the best approach. A wide entry to a right-hander means you are closer to the centerline and therefore more likely to come eyeball-to-hood-ornament with a car (or another rider) that has crossed the center line to straighten out the corner. And if the corner is questionable-say it looks sandy or greasy-straightening up in response to that squirming sensation from your tires could make you cross the center line. In that situation, I'll forego the added up-the-road visibility and tiptoe around the inside of my lane at a speed that permits me to respond to anything I might encounter. Just imagine that there may be a boulder up ahead and you'll probably approach at a safe speed. I have learned that this is easier to visualize once you have actually come around a turn and found a recently arrived boulder there to greet you.

As I proceed around the corner, my eyes repeatedly trace the line I plan to take as far as I can see up the road and back to a short ways in front of the bike. The standard recommendation is to look as far as you can up the road, but perhaps because my vision is less than perfect, I want to double-check and reevaluate the road surface as I get closer. When I can see all the way to the exit, only then do I commit to leaning over hard.

Unfortunately, not all hazards are visible. Freshly spilled diesel fuel and some coolants are virtually invisible on the road surface, though your nose can often alert you to their presence. A thin sprinkling of sand can reduce traction but can be very hard to spot, and you certainly won't smell it.

Lighting can also limit you. A low sun glaring into your eyes can make it very difficult to see much of anything, and I frequently end up riding one-handed as I use my left hand to shade my eyes in this situation. A low-hanging sun can also throw shadows across turns. On more than one occasion I have watched a rider dive into a shady corner and emerge sliding on his butt after encountering sand, leaves or some other slippery material hidden in the shade.

Shade can actually create a hazard. The coastal mountains around Los Angeles frequently get a nice coating of dew overnight, and the winding roads that traverse them are often slippery until the sun reaches them and dries the dew. However, during the winter months, the sun may never get high enough to remove the dew from a corner, so the shaded portion remains wet all day. These moist patches will often exactly match the shaded area, making it very difficult to tell that the road is wet unless you are aware of this situation. In colder places, the shaded area may hide black ice, and in fact this dew sometimes freezes on cold nights, even in the SoCal mountains.

Anyway, whether it's shaded dew, sand, oil or a warthog, any hazard that you discover on your intended line as the turn reveals itself requires an alternate plan. If you have entered the corner at a reduced speed, you should have enough reserve traction to do some braking, even though you are leaned over. The slower you are going, the more options you have, including perhaps stopping. And if your only option ends up being an off-road excursion, reducing your speed means you will do less damage to the guardrail or tree that you hit.

If you are going slow enough, you can simply straighten up and ride across something slippery. If the hazard is in the middle of the lane, with some reserve in hand you can go around it. I prefer to tighten my line and go inside, because that allows me more options for the rest of the turn if there are further hazards. Also, if I misjudged, I can straighten up and still have pavement left to use for further slowing and changing my line. Going around a hazard on the outside often leaves you leaning over close to the edge of the road, so there is no room to straighten up and remain on the road if things don't go according to plan.

Fortunately, there are plenty of brightly lit, perfectly clean corners that you can see all the way through before you have to commit to a line and speed. Those are what make all the dirty, slimy, frog-infested ones worthwhile.

Art Friedman gets email at artofthemotorcycle@hotmail.com.