Hairpin Bends On A Motorcycle: 9 (And A Half) Things To Remember!

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If you ride a motorcycle, you’ll likely remember the first time you encountered hairpin bends.

And that’s because you either fell off – or at least nearly fell off – in the process of trying to negotiate them.

Yes, you’ll always get that feeling of apprehension on approach to a series of hairpins. But they don’t warrant the level of fear you give to them.

Hairpin Bends On A Motorcycle: Confidence, Control, & Mastery

When it comes to tackling hairpin bends on a motorcycle, we need to be confident and in control.

And with mastery over the clutch, throttle, brakes, and observations, hairpin bends become a thing of joy and satisfaction.

In this post, we’ll look at 9 (and a half) tips to turn you into a hairpin pro!

nockalm high alpine pass austria
Hairpin bends on a motorcycle need confidence, control, and mastery. Image via Victor Hanacek / Picjumbo

Hairpin Bends On A Motorcycle: Cue Stelvio!

Like most people who ride a motorcycle, I’ve had my fair share of dodgy encounters with hairpin bends. Nothing serious – just mere complications which are a part of the learning process.

And if you’ve ever ridden Stelvio Pass, you’ll see this is a common issue for many riders across the world.

Why?

Because they’re not systematic in their approach. They reach the bends with no observations and expect the bike to go around. And of course, it doesn’t.

So they tense up.

And this in combination with being in the wrong position, and/or in the wrong gear, and/or traveling at the wrong speed, means everything falls to shit.

Some may put a foot down to stop the bike from falling and then carry on.

For others, getting the first bend wrong shatters their confidence (and their positioning) for the subsequent bends.

And it all continues to go tits up from there.

hairpin road stelvio pass
We need to be in the right position, in the correct gear, and at the correct speed. Image via Victor Hanacek / Picjumbo

1. First Things First: LOOK!

Whether you’re going uphill or downhill, you need to assess each bend as early as you can.

If you’re heading uphill, look upwards and back through the bend and towards where you’re heading.

You need to know the basic layout of what you’re heading towards. And you need to know if any traffic is coming the other way as this will affect your positioning going into the bend.

2. Correct Motorcycle Positioning For Hairpin Bends

If there is no traffic coming in the opposite direction, feel free to use ALL the road. If the road is empty, you don’t need to take the tightest angle.

In contrast, if there is traffic heading towards you, you’ll need to take a tighter line through the bend. And this means making further adjustments.

Taking a wider line will give you greater visibility. And the slightly quicker speed you can carry makes the turn more natural.

yamaha - hairpin bends on a motorcycle
Position is key when tackling hairpin bends on a motorcycle. Image via Jiminez Fernando / Pixabay

3. Determine Your Speed

Speed plays a big part in making hairpin bends on a motorcycle. Too fast, and you’ll run wide. Too slow, and you’ll de-stabilise (and eventually drop) the bike.

Plan ahead. Look at the bend and assess your speed EARLY. You shouldn’t be changing your speed mid-bend.

Do your slowing down BEFORE you reach the bend – give yourself extra time to look and observe.

4. Select The Right Gear

Once you’ve got the right speed, you likely need to change gear. On the steepest of hairpins, it’s not uncommon to roll around in first gear.

In fact, on many mountain passes such as Stelvio, you’ll spend most of your time going from first gear to second gear, and back to first gear.

If you go around the hairpin in a gear that is too high, you’ll likely stall. And that’s the worst thing you can do mid-bend with a fully-ladened bike and a pillion!

Make sure your gear selection is appropriate for the bend.

motorcycle stelvio pass
Selecting the correct gear is important for both entering and exiting the bend. Image via Antoine Schemkes / YouTube

5. Accelerate Out Of The Bend

Where possible, avoid jumping on and off the throttle – it will de-stabilise your bike.

On an uphill, select a gear going into the bend that allows you to maintain a little bit of throttle.

And as you exit the bend, you can gradually send power to the back wheel to accelerate away.

Think of it more as throttle control rather than acceleration.

6. Hairpin Bends On A Motorcycle: Avoid Target Fixation

Target fixation is a big problem – whether going uphill or downhill.

If you fixate on the apex of the bend, you WILL hit it. That’s why you see many bikers riding over them and dropping down the apex steps on Stelvio Pass.

Don’t fixate on what you think you need to avoid. Fixate on where you want to go instead.

Rather than looking at the apex, look up to the road towards where you need to go.

glosglockner road - hairpins on a motorcycle
We need to avoid target fixation when riding hairpin bends on a motorcycle. Image via Victor Hanacek / Picjumbo

7. Motorcycle Luggage Affects Hairpin Bends

Don’t forget that you have a fully-ladened bike. And this will dramatically change the handling of your motorcycle when negotiating hairpin bends.

On a downhill, the bike will gather momentum a whole lot quicker than normal. And it will also take longer to slow it down.

In contrast, you may need to accommodate the increased weight by selecting a lower gear, and/or applying throttle when tackling uphill hairpins.

8. Don’t Brake Mid-Corner!

As mentioned above, you need to select the correct speed and the correct gear BEFORE you reach the bend.

Because if you go in too fast, you’ll have to apply brakes which will de-stabilise your bike and mess up your positioning.

Jumping on the front brake mid-bend WILL result in you dropping the bike.

stelvio pass in rain - hairpin bends on a motorcycle
Keep away from the front brake mid-bend. Image via Vicor Hanacek / Picjumbo

8.5. The Back Brake Is Your Friend

If you have selected the correct speed on uphill hairpins, you shouldn’t be going quick enough to warrant the use of your front brake. The rear brake will keep you smooth and stable.

On downhill hairpins, the front brake will do most of the slowing down. But using the rear brake is much smoother and can give your front brake a rest.

Accordingly, you need to be the master of both the front and rear brake when it comes to descents.

As mentioned in Point 8, do not touch your front brake mid-bend – whether going uphill or downhill.

On the downhill sections, feather your rear brake on approach to the bend to smoothly shave off speed.

9. Use Your Slow Speed Motorcycle Skills For Hairpins

Depending on the individual bend, you may or may not bring this into play.

If you’ve done any advanced riding, you would’ve learned how to balance your clutch and rear brake in tandem with positive throttle.

Whilst you would never do this on a downhill hairpin, it comes in handy on particularly tight uphill hairpins in locations such as the Pyrenees.

In this scenario, you can often treat your uphill hairpin as a U-turn – in which case you balance your clutch and rear brake with positive throttle.

stelvio pass motorcycles
Riding hairpin bends on a motorcycle can call for slow speed skills. Image via hpgruesen / Pixabay

Hairpin Bends On A Motorcycle: Conclusion

The takeaway here is timing.

Firstly, starting your observations early means you can get into the correct position early. That then allows you to ascertain the correct speed, and subsequently the correct gear.

Secondly, look where you want to go, et voila!

Lastly, don’t get worked up about it. Indeed, hairpins can be challenging with a luggage-ladened bike. But you’ll never get your bike around those hairpins if you’re tense!

Take your time, practice, and enjoy it!


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Top image: Victor Hanacek / Picjumbo

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