Monday, April 20, 2009

Scary Corners

What kind of corner scares you? If you ask most riders, they'll quickly acknowledge that certain kinds of turns induce a lot more fear than others. Some riders just feel like they have a favorite "side" to turn to, left or right. Some remember with particular vividness a corner or turn that really made them pucker. Can you think of such a turn?


When I first started riding, I shared the sentiment that the majority of riders here in the states have. The scariest kind of corner for the new street-rider is the dreaded decreasing-radius right-hander. I'm not sure why this is, specifically, but I have a pretty good guess. Here in the states, we drive on the right-hand side of the road.

If you're out in the canyons or the wooded backroads and you run out of lean in a left-hand turn, usually the worst that'll happen is you slide into the dirt on the side of the road...maybe hit a tree if you're unlucky. Broken bones can happen, but likely you'll be able to walk or hobble away from the accident.

If you slide out in a right-hander, you're drifting right into oncoming traffic, possibly into the path of an oncoming pickup truck. Vehicle-to-vehicle accidents are much less forgiving. The last thing any rider wants to do is get run over.

(I'd be interested in finding out if our friends across the pond in the UK feel the same way about left-handers.)

Feeling the Squeeze

Decreasing-radius turns, turns that "tighten up" midway through the corner, only compound this fear. Now you don't even have to slide out of the corner. All you have to do is come in a little too hot to end up running into the "line-of-fire".

A decreasing radius often comes as a nasty surprise to a new rider on a new road. When the road starts tightening up, that's usually when panic sets in and mistakes happen. Fear draws our eyes away from our intended path (where they should be) and toward our potential untimely end, the guardrail or ditch on the other side of the road. And as everyone learns, the bike goes where you look.

Worse yet, many riders chop the throttle and start squeezing the brakes, overwhelming the front tire. The best-case scenario at that point is that the braking force causes the front wheel to turn in further, standing the bike up and running it right where you don't want it to go. The worst-case scenario is that you lock the front brake in the middle of the turn, tucking the front wheel and smashing your machine (and you) into the asphalt. Then you're sliding in the wrong direction instead of rolling there.

It's About Control

The interesting thing about the street-rider's fear of the tightening right-hand turn is that it's based on the rider's level of confidence in controlling the motorcycle. It's the idea that the rider may encounter a situation that he or she cannot control that will cause them to drift into oncoming traffic. This fear is indicative of a couple of attitudes that one should look to outgrow as one matures as a rider.

A mature street-rider should never get "surprised" by a turn. If you do, you're just going too fast. Not too fast for the turn, but too fast for YOU.

A good rider won't race into turns he doesn't have an intimate knowledge of. If it's your first time on a road, you shouldn't feel compelled to keep up with a rider who dives into a corner faster than you. Slow down, take your time, and leave plenty of lean in reserve your first time through.

This will give you the opportunity to discover how that corner works. Does it get looser? Does it get tighter? Is there wash-out or gravel in a certain part of the turn that you should be expecting? Is there a driveway? Does it lead into a set of switchbacks or a long straight?

Once you know a decreasing-radius right-hander, you can plan for it. You can hold some lean in reserve for when the turn tightens on you. Or you can get deeper into the turn before you commit to it and steer more aggressively to take a tighter line.

To be a mature street-rider, you also need to have full confidence in your ability to control the bike. That means if you DO end up getting into a corner too hot, you have the presence of mind to consciously control the bike, instead of letting your panic reactions take over.

That means that you have to develop the discipline to keep looking through your corner, even if it tightens on you. It means you have to know how to countersteer your motorcycle to lean it over further and tighten your line, if necessary. And it means you have to have the nerves to keep the gas on and leave the brakes alone.

In other words, you have to be confident that you, as a rider, can control your motorcycle enough to make that turn.


I realized a strange thing when I was out riding a couple of days ago on my favorite patch of back-road. I'm no longer as nervous about tightening right-handers. If I come on one that's particularly spooky, I just back off the speed a little bit. But even now I find I'm becoming faster and faster through those turns, mainly because I'm starting to acquire confidence in my ability and the machine's ability to make those corners. The idea that I am out of control of the machine doesn't typically cross my mind.

Now, I'm still more concerned about the decreasing-radius right-handers than other turns. Here's the kicker, though...they scare me more going the OTHER way.

A decreasing-radius right-hander going one way is an INCREASING-radius LEFT-hand turn coming the other way. So why should I be concerned about making this turn?

Truth be told, I'm not concerned about ME making this turn. I'm concerned about the traffic coming the other way. As I'm entering a loosening left-hand turn and setting up an early apex, I always feel this reminder in the back of my head that for oncoming traffic, that turn is still a tightening right-hander. That means if the truck coming the other way (or the squidly noob-rider) isn't prepared for it, they will end up with two wheels in MY lane.

So as it turns out, I can't really take the line I want to, because I have to account for the other traffic on the road. I'm comfortable with my ability to make the's the OTHER guy that makes me nervous these days.

Right-handers, I know as I approach my apex, I'm hanging close to the side of the road, so even if a car DOES drift into my lane, I'm well-over out of his way. And I have enough confidence that I'm not going to drift wide, that I know the road, my bike, and myself well enough to keep the bike in my lane...whether that means quicker steering, better line, or just slowing the hell down. :)

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