In my early days of learning to ride a motorbike it took all my focus just to stay upright and operate the various levers and pegs at approximately the right time. Straight roads were a chance to relax, breathe and for a brief moment think ‘ this is nice – a bit like flying’.
Corners were something to be negotiated gingerly at slow speed. They weren’t really a ‘thing’ at all any more than braking, stopping or starting. Indeed to begin with stopping and starting were far more terrifying, especially at junctions where I had not only to start moving but to turn at the same time.
Gradually, of course, I mastered the various controls and became sufficiently competent to pass my test. I had proof that I could now actually ride a motorbike. Not only that, I could buy a nice powerful machine and go out all on my own with nobody behind telling me to check my mirrors or move away from the parked cars. Enter the Suzuki 650 V-Strom.
I rode it from our garage to the roundabout at the end of the road, intending to turn left. There was a car coming towards the roundabout. I applied the front brake and immediately the bike dropped to the ground. Lesson one: if I apply the front brake harshly with the handlebars turned the bike will fall over. Clearly the piece of plastic that said I could ride a bike was no proof that my learning days were over.
Having recovered a shred of confidence some weeks later I ventured out again. After months of riding round town in preparation for the test (OK I was a slow learner!) I was keen to get out into the countryside and enjoy the scenery. After all that was my personal reason for wanting to ride. I quickly discovered two interconnected things. Firstly, the countryside is full of roads that bend at frequent intervals. Secondly it is not possible to enjoy the scenery and negotiate bends at the same time.
The third thing I discovered was that my training so far had not actually taught me how to negotiate corners competently; I was making it round the bend but only very slowly and with much anxiety. In coaching terms, I had moved from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence. I knew I was riding badly but didn’t really know how to improve. The following are a few of the things that helped shift me from fear to enjoyment.
Additional training with my riding instructor (advanced lessons)
Having agreed with me that my cornering was slow and less than confident my instructor took me to a small double roundabout. On the back of my instructor’s bike I got a feel for how far it was possible to lean and also a sense of how much throttle was needed. Roundabouts are perfect for practicing right hand bends. Personal insight: Quiet roundabouts (big and small) are great for bend practice. Turn your head so you are constantly looking where you are going next, keep the throttle at a steady rate of tick over until you exit when you can open it up as you straighten the bike. Start slowly and experiment with speed and lean angle as you get more confident. Look out for traffic!
Reading books and then putting it into practice
We all have different learning styles. Some of us like to see information first (videos, books) while others learn by doing. A book I found helpful is ‘A Twist of the Wrist II’ by Keith Code. His first book, ‘A Twist of the Wrist’ is aimed more towards track riding, whereas the second book explains why some of our instinctive fear responses when cornering actually make things worse. He then goes on to explain how to overcome them. For me the crux was entry speed. I was guessing how fast I could take the corner then panicking and rolling off the throttle, or even worse coasting/braking as I went round. With practice I found that a slower entry speed meant I had the confidence to open the throttle a little as I entered the bend to maintain a smooth stable line. I could then open it up more as I saw the exit and make good progress once the bike was upright again. Personal insight: If you find yourself wanting to slow down after you start turning it means you went in too fast. Practice going into bends really slowly (stupidly slowly) so that you can open the throttle and feel the extra stability that gives you as you go round. Gradually build up entry speed as your confidence increases.
Joining IAM and taking the advanced test
Another biker recommended NAM as an excellent way to improve my confidence and general standard of riding. I went online, made contact and started working towards my test with my observer. Through my own practice I had got to the point where bends did not totally scare me witless, but I was still cautious and for some reason found right hand bends far worse than left. I knew I should keep to the left hand side of the road for an improved view round the bend, but that left me scared I would fall off the edge of the road. How would I know where the edge was if I was looking ahead round the bend? I have no answer to this other than peripheral vision. I’m still working on that.
A significant AHA moment occurred that led to a step change in my cornering confidence during this time. I had heard about the limit point and that I should always be able to stop in that distance. What I hadn’t really fully understood is that the limit point constantly moves. I needed to continue watching it constantly as I moved round the bend. My problem had been that I was clocking it once and once only as I entered the bend. I then assumed I knew how tight the bend was. Not so! Some bends open up quickly, others tighten. Personal insight: By concentrating and watching the limit point move whilst actually in the bend I could read the bend accurately, adjust my speed accordingly and quite often I found I could start to open up the throttle much sooner.
Taking courses such as I2I and California Superbike School
I have invested in courses because I started riding late in life and wanted to improve as quickly as possible. I might have got where I am now without the extra help, but probably not at the same rate. Both i2i and California Superbike School California Superbike School provide excellent training aimed at improving cornering skills. I’ve tried and enjoyed both. If you have the time and money then these sort of courses will certainly improve your riding.
Other books include ‘Fast But Not Too Furious’ by Neil Scarlett and Ride Hard Ride Smart by Pat Hahn.
Additional personal training with riding experts
There are a number of individuals/organisations who will take you out and critique your riding, helping you to achieve your own goals. I have enjoyed a couple of exciting and satisfying days with Ridewell , based just south of Newcastle. Again, it takes time and money but the value is in having the feedback and suggestions from an expert tailored to your own personal goals.
Hours and hours and hours of deliberate practice
Cornering used to make me feel ‘oh s**t that was awful!’ more often than it left me thinking ‘oh yeah that was great!’. The percentages have slowly changed in favour of the positive response, though there are still and probably always will be dodgy moments. The gravel on the corner that I didn’t spot until it was too late. The corner that I didn’t see coming because I was looking at the lovely sheep in the field. Knowing the theory and being told what I was doing wrong by someone I trusted was helpful. But the golden key to what moderate success I’ve had so far is simple and costs little – it’s hours and hours of practice. That doesn’t necessarily equate with hours of just riding. I can ride and not really think about what I’m doing. It’s fun, I get to the cake stop and enjoy the journey. The really good stuff happens when I go out and consciously notice what I’m doing. I have a goal for the ride. It may be to focus really well on the limit point. Or I might practice throttle control as I go round the bend. Whatever it is, I’m thinking about what is happening and getting feedback so that next time I’m that little bit better.
I’ve listed some of the things that I believe have helped me become a better and more confident rider. Some may resonate with you, some may not. This has been my own journey so far; I wish you the joy of the open road and happy cornering!