Cornering A Motorcycle: Touring Safely

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Cornering a motorcycle through gloriously seductive bends in epic locations around the globe is one of the most exciting parts of riding a motorbike.

But no matter how much you love it, it’s one of those things that has caught us all out at some point.

In fact, if you told me it had never happened to you, I’d say you were telling lies!

Reading the road and negotiating bends is an art form.

But it’s an art form that can keep you alive as well as ensure you get the very best riding experience from your tour.

bmw s1000xr - cornering a motorcycle
Reading the road and negotiating bends is an artform (Image via BMW)

Bends On Tour

Cornering a motorcycle properly on tour seems to take a bit of a back seat for a lot of riders. As mentioned in our Overtaking On A Motorcycle post, the excitement just gets the better of us.

We’re so pleased and excited to be riding San Bernadino Pass or the Col d’Aspin that we open the throttle and attack the bends with a grin that practically fills our helmets.

And that’s great!

Until it all goes wrong.

And on passes such as the ones listed above, it can all go very wrong, very quickly.

Often times on high mountain passes, there will be precious little (if anything) between the edge of the road and a drop off the side of a mountain.

motorcycle on mountain pass
Sometimes there isn’t much between you and the drop!

A Hazard On Every Bend

And that’s not to mention the variety of vehicles coming around the bend in the opposite direction.

With tight bends and narrow lanes, it’s inevitable you will come across a tourist bus straddling both lanes halfway through the bend.

So the intention of this guide is to help people with the art of cornering a motorcycle in order to enjoy those wonderful passes fully, but safely.

traffic on stelvio pass - cornering a motorcycle
If only we could have the roads to ourselves

Body Positioning

To get the most from cornering a motorcycle, you may need to adapt your body position a little bit.

Now, I’m not talking about anything too drastic here.

We’re talking about corning a motorcycle whilst touring, not corning a motorcycle whilst on a track. And whilst the two share similarities, we can dial everything down a touch!

When that first glimpse of an Alpine pass or a French Col comes into view, it’s time to adopt a more ready position.

two bmw s1000xr's on mountain road
Body position plays a huge part of cornering efficiently (Image via BMW)

Cornering A Motorcycle: Change Your Position

For me, this usually means sliding my arse back a bit on the seat. The result is a body position that is leaned forward a touch more than that used for normal riding.

With my knees gripping the tank, I can lightly grip the bars rather than leaning on them to support my body weight.

Having a gentle connection with the bars (rather than leaning on them) means my arms are bent – perfect for effectively guiding my bike.

And I say ‘guiding‘ – because, in this position, I prefer to see myself as guiding my bike rather than ‘steering‘ it.

bends in the dolomites - cornering a motorcycle
Dancing rather than steering

Look Where You Want To Go

You would’ve heard this a million times, but it’s absolutely true.

When cornering a motorcycle, look where you want to go. And this is especially true when a bend catches you off guard.

If you go into one a bit quick, the temptation is to look at what you think you’re going to hit – whether it’s a curb or a traffic island or a grass verge, or whatever.

That’s called target fixation.

If you look at something for long enough, I guarantee you’ll hit it. And that’s ironic considering the reason you’re looking at it is because you don’t want to hit it!

That’s why we look at where we want to go instead.

It’s still target fixation – but it’s target fixation that’s refined for a positive outcome.

motorcycle on leaf-covered road
Avoid target fixation by looking where you want to go (Image: S. Smoak)

Into The Bend

On approach to the bend, this is where your body position changes.

I’ll quite often shift my bum off the seat when cornering a motorcycle. So if I’m preparing for a left turn, my left cheek will ever so slightly shift to the left of my seat.

It’s not a big movement – it’s just enough to transfer weight to the left side of the bike.

Keep your elbows relaxed and slightly bent – and a gentle grip on the bars.

As you enter the bend, your head stays up. You’re looking where you want to go and your body weight is transferred to the left. Your left shoulder is leaning into the bend and your elbow is bent.

bmw rider with pillion - cornering a motorcycle
Subtle changes in body position help when cornering a motorcycle (Image: Streetmasters)

Pressure On The Pegs

Many people find it helps if they apply pressure to the pegs when cornering a motorcycle.

So for example, in the left bend above, they would adopt the position as described but they would also apply pressure to the left peg.

This isn’t something I do all that often, but I have tried it and it does work. I tend to use it more off-road when standing on the pegs.

motorcyclist changing gear
Practice and an improved body position builds motorbike cornering confidence

Cornering On A Motorcycle: Counter-Steering

If you’ve never tried counter-steering, you need to!

You need to counter-steer. It will transform how you ride a bike forever – it really is that important.

Counter-steering is essentially using physics to steer the bike.

So for the left turn above, you would expect that the bars would twist to the left (because this turns the front wheel left.)

But with counter-steering, we push the left handlebar forwards which effectively steers the bike right.

Yes, I know this sounds counter-intuitive.

But if you’re steering right, what you’re actually doing is tipping the bike over to the left.

And if the weight of the bike is falling left, then the bike will steer left.

cornering a motorcycle in the dolomites
Counter-steering really is a skill worth learning on roads like these!

Learning Counter-Steering – Exercise #1

  • Sit on your stationary bike – engine off, both feet on the ground and on a flat surface.
  • Put both hands on the bars.
  • Push the left bar forwards so you’re effectively steering right – and see which way the weight of the bike shifts. It will move onto your left leg as the bike tips left.

Learning Counter-Steering – Exercise #2

  • On your next ride out, find a road that’s preferably downhill and has a speed limit of about 40mph.
  • Riding downhill at 40mph and in about 4th gear, keep your right hand on the bar, and use ONE finger from your left hand to push the left bar forwards.
  • The bike will steer right, but you will go left.
  • Try the opposite way.
  • *NB – do make sure the road is empty before you start weaving down it whilst practicing counter-steering!
practicing counter-steering
Counter-steering: A skill worth learning

Bonus Tip: Counter-Steering Can Save Your Ass

If you find yourself cornering a motorcycle and you’re too fast, you should look where you want to go as mentioned above.

But you can also use counter-steering.

By applying more pressure to the bars, you will effectively lean your bike over more resulting in an increased turning angle.

You can also pull with the opposite hand to increase the effect.

So if you were turning left, you could push your left hand forward, pull your right hand back, look where you wanted to go, AND apply pressure to the left peg with your foot.

bmw s1000xr twisty road at sunset
Counter-steering can get you out of trouble (Image: BMW)

Counter-Steeing: Dancing Through Bends

I mentioned in my Touring On A Sports Bike post about dancing through bends. And a massive amount of this effortless partnership when cornering a bike is to do with counter-steering.

You can generate a huge amount of force through the bars by pushing and pulling.

If your body position is correct and you’re using physics to your advantage, you’ll be surprised at how you can throw your bike around some of the twistiest roads on earth with such little effort.

And it’s the biggest joy ever on two wheels!

bmw s1000xr cornering position - cornering a motorcycle
Counter-steering will change the range you ride

Cornering A Motorcycle Using IPSGA

If you’ve done any sort of advanced riding training, you would have heard of the term IPSGA.

IPSGA is the basic riding system used by police motorcyclists. It has been passed down to advanced riding schemes to teach – mainly because it’s simple, effective, and intuitive.

  • I – information
  • P – position
  • S – speed
  • G – gear
  • A – acceleration

The beauty of IPSGA is that it applies to every situation on the road; from cornering a motorcycle to roundabouts, and from overtakes to basic town riding.

It’s a universal system that can be applied to any road-riding scenario and it works perfectly.

If you’re looking to start advanced riding and want to learn more about IPSGA and motorcycle cornering training, I highly recommend starting with BikeSafe.

So let’s take a look at IPSGA in action when we talk about cornering a motorcycle.

uk bike cop
IPSGA is the system used by British bike cops (Image: Tom S.)

Information

When it comes to cornering a motorcycle, it all starts with observations. Yet on many occasions, it all goes wrong for riders because they’ve failed to observe properly.

Information is the absolute foundation of riding – using those two holes in the front of your head to observe your surroundings in order to negotiate the bend in front of you.

Use Visual Clues

Most countries give motorists hints these days by way of signs or paint. And this is especially true when on somewhat sketchy mountain passes.

Corner chevrons are there to draw your eye to the corner. As soon as you see these chevrons, you know there is a tight bend in front of you.

In the UK, the centre white lines (dividing lanes) become shorter and the distance between them decreases as you approach a hazard.

You may encounter flashing, neon signs warning you of the bend, or there might even be speed cameras on approach which forces us to slow.

But it’s not just the purposefully laid visual clues that we need to use. As thinking riders, we need to take initiative and do our own observations when cornering a motorcycle.

uk road signs - cornering a motorcycle
Learn to use visual clues – something you will learn during motorcycle cornering training courses

So What Can We Do?

Well, we can look ahead for a start. And when I say ahead, I mean wayyyyyy ahead – as far as you can possibly see.

Yes, there might be a bend in the road that limits your view. But on approach, can you see over the tree line? Or through the bushes?

If approaching on a downhill, can you use your current elevation to follow the road with your eyes?

Use this time wisely to spot potential hazards. If nothing else, it will at least give you a heads up as to what direction the road goes after you’ve gotten through the current bend.

Does the bend you are about to hit go uphill or downhill? Do the upcoming bends look tight, or do they look long and flowing?

All of this information keeps you one step ahead of the game. It keeps you in control and allows you to plan ahead.

bmw s1000xr on country road
Information is the foundation of cornering safely (Image via Moerisport)

Riding With A Police Motorcyclist

I was once riding on some country roads with a Police Motorcyclist. He was leading, I was following, and he was giving me a running commentary about what he was thinking and seeing whilst cornering a motorcycle.

At one point, he said that there was a white van approaching in the opposite direction.

No matter how much I looked, I couldn’t for the life of me see a white van – to the point where I thought he must have made a mistake.

And then, about 2 minutes later, the white van came into view.

That was the point I realised just how far ahead my forward observations had to be.

cornering a motorcycle - observations
Use forward observations to pre-determine what’s up ahead

Seeing Hazards

But even at a more foundational level, observations mean you won’t be caught out by a tractor at the side of the road after the bend – because you already saw it on approach to the bend before it.

You won’t be caught out by vehicles approaching in the opposite direction during an overtake – because you’ve already seen them.

If you’re behind a slow-moving vehicle, forward observations (especially elevated ones) can help you predetermine possible overtake spots.

Recognising passing places in advance prevents you from potentially doing that stupid overtake – because you know there’s a better spot coming up!

And it’s not just forward observations.

Checking behind you every time you approach a potential hazard is a good habit to get into.

99% of the time, those rear observations won’t show you anything you don’t already know. But for the 1% of the time they do show you something, they’ll save your life.

motorcyclist rear observations
Rear observations before shifting lane position is crucial

Cornering A Motorcycle: Positioning For Bends

As an active rider, I find myself in a lot of circles – from advanced riding instructors to experienced tourers and frequently riding with Class 1 police motorcyclists.

And everyone I’ve spoken to has their own opinion on what is the optimum riding position when cornering a motorcycle.

To begin with, let’s look at a ‘normal’ riding position within a lane.

Some people choose to ride smack bang in the middle of their lane. Others choose to ride a little to the left or right of centre of their lane.

road positioning
Many people ride in a central position (green), whilst many ride slightly left or right of centre (purple)

There is no right or wrong to these positions – we all have our reasons as to why we choose a particular riding position.

But when it comes to cornering a motorcycle, there are two main reasons why we shift our position.

Changing Position Within Our Lane

The first reason we shift position is to open up our field of view. By shifting position, it allows us to see more as we enter a bend. And then it shows us more of the road as we exit it.

So looking at the image below, if we take a right-of-centre position (green), we have more visibility through the corner than if we take a left-of-centre (red) position when taking left-hand bends.)

cornering a motorcycle - road positioning
Using road position to increase visibility ahead

The new way of thinking (and one I agree with) is that no dramatic positioning is needed when cornering a motorcycle on slow (30 mph / 40 mph) roads.

So, for example, let’s say you’re riding in Europe. You will be riding on the right-hand side of the road as in the image above.

Best practice indicates that we should adopt a position over to the right when cornering a motorcycle to the left. And vice-versa if the bend is to the right.

The problem with shifting too far left in the image above is that it puts us close to oncoming traffic in the opposite lane.

So it is now argued that there is nothing to be gained by any extreme positioning on roads where you are traveling at a reasonably slow speed. In this circumstance, sacrifice position for safety and maintain a central position within your lane.

person driving motorcycle on curved concrete road near trees - cornering a motorcycle
(Image via Guduru Ajay Bhargav/Pexels)

Cornering A Motorcycle: Speed

Speed is a really easy one.

It’s just the appropriate (and legal) speed for you to take a bend whilst still being able to stop safely if you need to.

But it requires the observations and positioning mentioned above to gauge the correct speed!

On approach to the bend, we need to figure out whether the speed we are currently traveling at is appropriate for cornering a motorcycle. Can we maintain throttle? If not, we need to slow down.

If we need to slow down, ease off the throttle rather than just letting it go.

Aggressively releasing the throttle unsteadies the bike.

What we’re looking for is a smooth roll-off that maintains the bike’s stability and smoothness throughout the bend.

harley-davidson through corner
Positive throttle keeps the bike stable whilst cornering (Image: Leichtbeauwelt)

Positive Throttle

It’s true that we may have to roll off as we approach a bend. But in many cases, the bike is more planted if we maintain a ‘positive’ throttle.

So we roll-off to scrub off speed in order to enter the bend at an appropriate speed. But then we maintain that speed by applying positive throttle.

As we begin to exit the bend and we can see that it’s clear ahead, we can progressively apply throttle into the acceleration phase.

It’s worth noting, however, that we don’t always need to roll off for bends.

Oftentimes, we can maintain our current speed and use gears to negotiate the bends.

Here’s how…

cornering a motorcycle - winding road through autumnal trees
Roads like this are excellent for developing motorcycle cornering confidence

Cornering A Motorcycle: Gears

Cornering a motorcycle in the correct gear makes a massive difference as to how easily the bike goes round.

If the gear is too high, we tend to carry speed into bends – and then lack acceleration when exiting it.

Being in a lower gear keeps the revs higher which naturally gives us engine braking when we roll off for the bend.

Similarly, being in a lower gear ensures we have power at hand when we roll back onto the throttle as we exit the bend.

That being said, there are occasions when we change down a gear whilst maintaining the same speed.

For example, there is a road where I live that now has 50 mph average speed cameras all the way along it.

I know from experience that I can take every single bend on that road (easily) at 50 mph.

However, for some (flatter) sections of the road, I’ll be in sixth gear. For a few of the bends, I’ll drop to fifth gear, and for the slightly tighter ones, I’ll drop down to fourth gear.

But for each of the sections, I maintain 50 mph – just in different gears.

motorcycle rev matching
Rev-matching whilst changing down keeps the bike smooth and stable (Image: HuskerzGBR)

Cornering A Motorcycle: Acceleration

Finally, acceleration.

We don’t ever need to be aggressive with the throttle when cornering a motorcycle.

Easing the throttle on or off maintains the stability of the bike – ensuring a smooth power delivery (or reduction) as needed.

Rolling gently off the throttle into bends rather than coming off it entirely ensures power is going to the rear wheel which keeps the bike planted.

Maintaining a steady roll-on as you exit the bend keeps the bike planted and smooth as you enter the straight.

mountain road in spain
Ensure smooth power delivery and roll-off with a controlled throttle

Cornering A Motorcycle: Conclusion

So, next time you find yourself over-cooking your bends on tour, slow things down and work through the IPSGA system as you ride.

Are you taking in all the information on approach to the bend?

Adopt a position that gives you the greatest visibility through the bend and moves you away from oncoming traffic – but never sacrifice safety for the sake of position.

Approach the bend at an appropriate speed.

Determine the correct gear – maintain, or drop down.

And finally, accelerate smoothly out of the bend if conditions allow.

It all sounds a bit much, to begin with. But once you get used to it, the system becomes second nature.

Not only this, but you will develop more motorcycle cornering confidence.

And when that happens, you’ll get so much more from your ride!

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