When I glanced in my left mirror, I saw my new friend cross into the oncoming lane, running wide at the exit of the previous downhill right-hander. I hadn’t been checking my mirrors much because the pace was pretty quick and my attention was needed forward, but I immediately brought the pace down. Although he was a racer, he had never been on this road before, and he was quite young.
I knew what happened: He saw my brake light come on for the previous corner and thought, “Now I can make up some time and distance because I’m not gonna use my brakes.” Wrong. Not “dead wrong” because there wasn’t a car in the oncoming lane, but wrong for several reasons.
When you’re riding slowly, say 40 mph into a clear, clean, dry 50-mph corner, you can indeed increase your cornering speed with the throttle. But we weren’t riding slowly. We were approaching the 50-mph corner at speeds above 50 mph.
What I did: I closed my throttle and squeezed on a little front brake to “guarantee” my speed setting. Yes, you can use the rear brake on longer-wheelbase bikes but the front puts weight forward better and is stronger. I left my brake on past the tip-in, or turn-in, point, helping to keep my front tire loaded and my steering geometry numbers slightly tighter so the bike would turn better. The main reason I turned in with my brake on (trail-braking or brake-assisted steering) is because I wanted to have my “slowing and steering components” in place. I wanted to enter the blind downhill corner with my brake pads against the rotors. I used about 4 percent of my bike’s total braking potential but I used it for a long time.
What my new friend did: He closed his throttle and “hoped” he had closed it early enough to make the corner but not so early that he couldn’t gain back some time and distance on me. The closed throttle put weight forward and loaded the front tire but not to the extent that braking does. That means, all things being equal, it took him slightly more time and distance to turn his bike. The radius of a corner is based on the bike’s speed and lean angle, and his speed and chosen lean angle put him across the centerline at the exit.
What happened to me: I slightly over-slowed my bike and I know that because there wasn’t a lot of load on the tires mid-corner. It wasn’t boring or uninteresting, but I sensed that the tires were well under their limits. Since radius is based on speed, my radius tightened nicely and I had nothing else to do except initiate throttle to load the rear tire and then drive my bike off the corner as I took away lean angle.
My bike was nicely “pointed” mid-corner, and if I had needed to continue to tighten my line due to a tighter-than-expected corner or gravel or car on the centerline, I could have easily done so by leaving the brakes on and throttle shut at the same lean angle. I had reached the all-important “decision point” of the corner, the point at which I could begin to see the exit to make a decision on what I do with my radius.
A note here: We are rarely (if ever) hurt by entering a corner too slowly.
What happened to him: He rushed into the corner sans brakes and his speed didn’t match the corner’s radius; he had no adjustments in place other than to add more lean angle, which, at our pace, was a limited option. He raced past my decision point with no possible option of tightening his line in case of gravel. His tires were heavily loaded for a long time as his speed finally bled down and the bike finally got pointed—in the oncoming lane.
Because he spent so much time at lean angle saving the corner, the last thing on his mind was initiating throttle. He finally got a chance to crack the throttle open, but it was quite late in the corner (and in the other lane) because the entry had lasted so long. It took him a long time to get his speed and direction set because he relied only on engine-braking, which is not an adjustable or repeatable way of slowing.
If we had been riding more slowly, engine-braking could have scrubbed off the handful of mph needed to make the corner, but when the pace is up, decelerating to set speed is a distant second to decelerating and braking. Riding slower or riding into a more-open corner would have suited his deceleration-only approach, but we need to develop our approach to suit every corner. For more on trail-braking, see “The Brake Light Initiative” and “The Pace 2.0.”
Bottom line: I met this rider that morning as his company was interested in hiring the YCRS to host street and track riding for a new product. The first hour of the street ride was on hugely fast roads, and we rode nose-to-tail; he seemed comfortable at speed and races a literbike in his home country. But when we turned onto the downhill more-technical road, he struggled to run the same risk-level pace in the tighter corners due to the issues described earlier.
It would be easy to say he needed to ride slower, but let’s be real. We ride motorcycles for many reasons, but one is the enjoyment of their performance. This young racer was having a great time, and part of that greatness was running an enjoyable pace on a fantastic supersport bike. It was my hope that he too would go to his brakes when he saw my brake light on before and into the corner, but his natural competitiveness came out and he rushed in sans brakes. I wrote in “The Pace” and “The Pace 2.0” that we ride with our friends on the street, but we had just met and he perhaps hadn’t seen those articles.
Kenny Roberts preached “slow in, fast out” but don’t for a second believe that KR got into corners slowly. His point was that the rider who rushes corner entries to make up time has the sport backward. Kenny talked about trailing the brakes into the corner and that allowed him to slow his bike relatively late in the corner. It went slow enough to get direction and fire off the corner because Kenny used his brakes into the corners. He didn’t roll off and hope; he guaranteed that he’d consistently hit the corner’s slowest point with the bike’s adjustable slowing component: the brakes.
Avoiding disaster: MotoAmerica racer Kyle Wyman tells students at YCRS, “Crashes are a series of events; it’s usually not just one thing.” The young man I was riding with could have been jet-lagged; he had never seen the road before and had just picked up the rented motorcycle that morning. Those are relatively legitimate reasons and perhaps he slept poorly and was hung over. So now we have five reasons a rider could use to explain a crash. At YCRS and in my writing, riding, and racing, I don’t deny those types of reasons, but I add in the safety valve that saves a lot of drama: trail-braking.
If a rider habitually rolls off the throttle to the brakes for a corner and uses the brakes past the turn-in point, that rider enters the corner with a larger front contact patch, the steering geometry slightly tighter, and with the brake pads on the rotors. If there’s an emergency or even if the corner simply tightens, the safety device is already in place and the radius is tightening at the same lean angle.
Final thought: This weekly column is a ton of fun and we’ve done everything from videos to fiction to audio to bike building, but this week’s words could be the most important you’ve ever read. I wish I could run this column for a year, and I’m asking you to share it with clubs, forums, family, and friends.
Trail-braking is a life-changing, industry-growing, mistake-saving skill that we need to move to the top of the rider-priority list. If you are off the brakes before you turn into the corner, study this column and “The Brake Light Initiative” because there’s a wonderful world of safety, speed, and consistency waiting for you.