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Fear and Lean Angle, Part 2 by Nick Ienatsch, March 24, 2020

A decade ago I was invited to participate in a Cycle World 600cc comparison test at the Streets of Willow Springs. I was 48 years old, teaching at YCRS but not racing very often. CW staffer Don Canet was my age but every other tester was significantly younger.

These shootouts follow a pattern: Bikes are unloaded before daybreak, rolled out for pictures in early light, then a quick sag check with spring preload and damping adjustments made. All the bikes are on the same sticky tires and the testers begin lapping, tweaking setups, and getting ready for timed laps.

Wow, Time To Quit

I moved from Southern California in ’03 and that took me out of the usual Cycle World testing loop, so this visit to the Streets as a test rider hadn’t happened for a long time. And halfway through the morning, I began to regret my decision to attend. It was going to be embarrassing. As in: “Who invited the old slow guy?”

As the warm-up/setup laps wound down, a young tester was complaining the footpegs on several of the 600s were dragging on the ground while cornering! I stared out across the desert and felt old. If this guy was dragging footpegs on the ground, I was so far out of my element, so behind the times, so much of a has-been that I decided to just get through the day and remember to never subject myself to this embarrassment again.

Time For Lap Times

With the morning warm-up laps done, Canet installed timing devices on all four 600s. Each of us would take a handful of timed laps on each bike and add our thoughts in each bike’s notebook. Standard stuff, and I was in the testing rotation, taking turns on each machine.

As the lap times began coming in, I was, on average, four seconds per lap faster than the young man who was complaining about dragging the footpegs. Four seconds! That means in three laps I would be ahead by the longest straight. No contest: like bringing a rifle to a popsicle-stick fight.

Why Was The Young Tester Slow?

Last week, in Part 1, we equated lean angle with risk. If you have seen my 100 Points of Grip video, you will remember that a front tire’s traction is made up of lean angle percentages and braking percentages during corner entries. Rear traction is made up of lean angle percentages and throttle percentages on corner exits. In a nutshell: The young tester was slow because he spent too much time at lean angle. His tires were near the limit of lean angle and that meant very few braking or throttle percentages were available; it looked fast and it must have felt pretty crazy—but the lap time was slow in this group of magazine hot shoes.

Freddie Spencer Says…

Three-time world GP champion Freddie Spencer brings us this week’s Fear and Lean Angle message: We want to run maximum lean angle for the shortest time possible. Freddie is a master at getting the bike “pointed” and at getting “direction.” He knows that good bike direction midcorner is the secret to big speeds on the adjoining straights. And when you get this sport figured out, you realize that it’s all about getting the bike into the corner and ready to accelerate. Street riders, we’ll talk about that in street parlance in a few paragraphs.

Freddie Spencer
Freddie Spencer now works for Dorna in MotoGP, but ran a riding school for 12 years, seen here at Las Vegas. Spencer’s world championships and a long, safe, and continuing riding career come from respecting midcorner direction. – Ienatsch Collection

Our young tester attempted to get direction with lean angle, but lean angle is not infinite. What we examined last week was how adjusting our bike’s speed adjusts our cornering radius, but the young tester mistakenly believed that the secret to going quicker was to use less brakes. One-hundred-percent wrong. He was off the brakes too early (no trail-braking) and that gave him only one way to make the corner: Flick it in there and count on the incredible grip of hot racing tires.

At the point where the bike needed to be slowing to get direction (see red circle on illustration), this rider was not adding brakes like Freddie does to get direction. In fact, this rider often picked up the throttle far too early, extending the fork and holding or increasing his speed, making the job of getting direction even more difficult. The faster you try to ride with this approach, the more difficult and painful the sport becomes.

Mark Schellinger
When 60-year-old Mark Schellinger raced my long-term Tracer GT to a second-place finish in MRA SuperStreet last summer, he had a challenge because the Tracer GT had less cornering clearance than all the bikes he was racing against. What did he do? The solution can be seen in this picture: Mark uses the brakes longer into the corner. Lean angle was not infinite, so Mark knew the bike had to be a little slower at the direction change. Mark entered and exited the corners with verve, but held the brakes a bit longer to play with the equation of Speed Equals Radius. He “got direction” and took a streetbike to the podium against a field of younger riders on race replicas. – LUKE HUMMEL

Isn’t this fascinating? A young, talented, aggressive rider needed to go slower midcorner to run a faster lap time! Freddie Spencer would be slower than this rider midcorner, but significantly faster on the adjoining straight. Multiply this by 12 corners and you can see where my four-second gap came from.

While my knee touched somewhere in the red circle, illustrating my maximum lean angle, the young tester’s knee was dragging all the way into and through the corner. “I’m at the limit,” he must have thought. And he was right. Speed control via trail-braking all the way into the corner if necessary cheats those limits. You’ll be safer and faster—that’s a pretty good deal.

Direction On The Street

I constantly remind myself and the readers that we must leave a safety margin on the street. If we find ourselves soaking the throttle to redline, using maximum lean angle, and braking late and hard, we will be eventually hurt by the unexpected surprises that crop up due to the uncontrolled arena. Ride for joy on the streets with at least a 30-percent safety margin; take the aggressiveness to the track.

Yet our personalities generally enjoy a little speed. We buy and modify our bikes in part because of the performance.

Let’s be clear on this: It isn’t speed that kills us on the back roads, it’s a lack of controlling that speed. It gets back to our young tester at the Streets of Willow; he needed to use more brakes, longer. And that’s the change that will add joy and safety to America’s street riding.

lean-angle constraints
Both of these motorcycles might run the same speeds on the straights, but the cruiser must be slower midcorner due to lean-angle constraints. There are several ways to be slower midcorner: 1) Go slow all the time everywhere, but that is boring and will lead to a non-rider. 2) Roll off the throttle early and coast to a slower speed, but that is nonadjustable, inefficient, and out of control—scary and eventually painful. 3) Use the brakes longer into the corner, trailing off brake pressure as the rider adds lean angle in a linear, non-abrupt fashion.YCRS ChampStreet

Decision Point

There is a point in every corner where the exit begins to be visible, where the corner begins to open. This is the Decision Point, the point where the rider can decide to accelerate off the corner because it’s clear, or decide to continue to slow and turn to go under gravel—or to stop because there’s an elk in the lane and a truck already stopped in the oncoming lane. Look at the illustration again and see the red circle as this extremely important Decision Point.

We need to get to the Decision Point with the bike slowing or maintaining its speed, not accelerating. If we are accelerating the bike before the Decision Point, building mph before we can see out of the corner, we have forfeited the opportunity to easily tighten our line; getting the bike stopped is also significantly more challenging. We aren’t running wide in corners because we’re slowing the bike too much. We’re running wide because we are accelerating too hard, too early.

Mark Schellinger
Mark Schellinger and I caught mid-demo at one of our cruiser clinics, illustrating how riders can tighten a motorcycle’s radius midcorner with trail-braking. Why not just add lean angle? Because additional lean angle isn’t always available if hard parts are dragging. Riders with a gentle touch on the brakes will easily survive a rushed corner entry. Game changing, smile producing, industry growing—and we can all do it. – Ryan Burke

An Important Last Word

There is an exact word that illustrates why I was faster than the young tester, and why great street riders enjoy two wheels so much: discipline. On the track or street, we must allow the motorcycle to slow and steer midcorner and to get direction, matching the corner’s radius by using the control that best modulates speed, steering geometry, and tire contact patch: the brakes. We will be enormously safer—and faster.

The ability to trail-brake pressure into a corner until you’re happy with your speed and direction is within us all. The young tester had the skills, but not the discipline. Freddie Spencer has the skills and the discipline; we call that combination: “champion.”