Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Crash On A Wet Corner, The Easy Way

I don't often travel by bus, but using a 'park and ride' recently included a return bus ticket in the price, so it seemed a waste not to go for a ride. And back. So it was that I stood at the front of the queue waiting for the 'back' bus to arrive. Unfortunately it was raining, heavily. I didn't mind too much, a waterproof coat with hood was keeping out the worst, although I had to feel sorry for groups of riders heading up the hill out of town since most of them had camping gear strapped to the back of their bikes (but not as sorry as I did for the two cyclists, also with camping gear, struggling up the hill). Did I mention it was raining, hard?
Due to a quirk of routing, the 'out of town' bus I was waiting for would actually arrive coming down in towards the town. And what set me thinking was a large Rorschach 'blot' on the road.
It wasn't water - the road was already sodden - but rainbow-coloured oil that had been dripping from the bus's engine, every time the bus had stopped in the same position. A regular route, same bus, same stop, every 15 minutes, drip drip drip . . .
The rainbow stain might be clear to me - but it might not be too obvious from a different angle, to any riders approaching.
I mentioned the road was on a hill, and a fairly steep one at that. An added complication was that just after the bus stop there's a tight right-hand bend.
Not just tight, but off-camber, and with a 'No Entry' junction straight ahead - an awkward hill start for traffic heading uphill.
So to recap: an off-camber, wet, tight, steep downhill, bend, with the likelihood of traffic pulling out and it's on a bus route used by a bus we know is leaking oil. Easy, eh?
No. Let's add a final complication: just around the corner the bus route takes a side turning to the right off the main [wet, steep downhill] road, often stopping to wait for oncoming traffic and so blocking the lane in the process. But of course, unless a rider is a 'local' they probably wouldn't know about the bus route . . .
So a rider could reasonably see:
- Downhill
- Wet
- Corner to right
- Limited view
- Junction to left
- Other traffic
- Adverse camber

How could those aspects affect their planning for the corner?
- Downhill braking requires significantly more effort, and the bike will be likely to increase its speed even with throttle closed or when the brakes are released
- The wet surface reduces grip, and a steamed or smeared visor may be more likely
- The corner is a right-hander. This gives a longer forward view - so the rider might be tempted to enter the corner faster
- The view, even then, is restricted by buildings on the right on the 'inside' of the turn
- Although the junction on the left (what previously would have been a 'straight ahead' for the road) is 'No Entry' for the rider, there's the possibility of traffic emerging - especially if the driver sees an approaching rider slow then move to (the rider's) left and so thinks the rider will be turning off (whether or not they should - the driver may not realise it's a one-way road, as this is a 'tourist' location with plenty of 'lost' drivers). On the other hand, at least the rider has a possible escape route if the driver does pull out!
- The adverse camber adds extra work for the tyres, and will make the bike feel as if it's being 'pushed' out of the corner

All of those are 'physical' problems associated with the corner.  Each problem also brings an additional complication: increased mental pressure on the rider.
How does that pressure make itself felt? Tension, showing as a harder grip on the bars, reluctance to counter-steer, tendency to look down at the surface rather than around the corner, reluctance to drive the bike around the corner, loss of smoothness when using the controls, and panic reactions to any problems - possibly problems which originate from the problems just listed. In other words, the rider is starting to lose control - and this may even be before they've arrived at the start of the bend!
The 'cure' to these mental issues is simple to suggest, but more difficult for the rider to do. The rider must maintain - or regain - control, by either blocking the mental problems or overcoming them.
The problems aren't so much mistakes that the rider makes, but 'just' result from the rider making incorrect decisions on the approach - perhaps because some of the rider’s concentration is already focussing on the possible outcomes rather than working out a plan to deal with them. For example, if the rider has had a small slide in the wet at some time, then that's likely to be remembered when approaching a sharp, downhill, adverse camber, bend!
So what the rider must do is try to plan to stay within the limits imposed by the bike (tyre grip, brakes, etc.), the road (view, road surface shape and condition, and layout), and their own limits.
By their 'own limits', the rider needs to use self-restraint to ride at a speed they can cope with - if there's fear of a slide, which is causing tension, then ride at a slower speed where the tyres have an easier task to manage. Remove (or reduce) the fear of sliding, then the corner will become easier to negotiate as the tension is reduced.
Also, by taking those decisions the rider is using self control - staying in mental control as well as physical. The keys are honesty and realism, seeing the hazards, assessing them, understanding how they affect you, then planning your riding accordingly - and building in a reserve.
I mentioned having earlier seen groups of motorcyclists passing. Beware of peer pressure: just because the rider in front chooses a particular speed, doesn't mean it's the 'right' speed for you too. Ignore, too, the rider behind you're 'holding up'.
As is often the case with riding, the 'secret' of success with the corner is to get as much information as possible - actively search it out - then make the best decisions. The 'secret ingredient' is that honesty and self-restraint. The temptation with cornering is often to decide the fastest possible speed for a corner. Realism and honesty will build in a safety margin too.
On this corner the rider needs to allow for emerging vehicle - so have an escape route planned - and be ready to stop if the road is obstructed just out of sight. Particularly important if double-decker buses stop just around the corner to turn right . . .
Is that enough mental pressure: the bend, junction, wet surface, adverse camber, possible obstruction? Let's add some more: What goes up must come down. Or in this case, if buses are going down the hill, then there's a fair chance they'll be heading up the hill too - and they usually can't get around tight corners without swinging wide. You'll need to add that complication when planning a line through the bend.
Earlier I said that the 'secret ingredient' is honesty and self-restraint. That's on the approach to the corner. When starting to negotiate the bend there's something else you need to do. That nagging voice inside your head saying "Wet road! You've had slides on wet roads - you might crash here!" won't shut up and go away just because you've slowed a bit more. Instead of giving it free rein (or 'rain'), give it something to do to keep it occupied. Singing is a good distraction. Better still: give it something useful to do, like telling you what you should be doing to get smoothly around the corner, and when to do it!
You may have heard the expression PMA - Positive Mental Attitude. PMA doesn't mean you can achieve the impossible (e.g. ‘flying’; however hard you believe you could, you'll never be able to fly more than a few feet forwards, although you may manage some considerable distance downwards). But PMA can focus your attention is on what you want to achieve, rather than concentrating on failure (whether imagined or based on previous experience).
If this sounds odd, then compare a homo sapiens-based, British Standard, biker . . . with a mountain goat. Both are a few thousand feet up the side of a mountain, perched on a small ledge a short way across a sheer drop. The goat's mental process is (probably) "Ooh - grass! I'll jump over an eat it!", while the vastly mentally-superior human being will be looking at the drop, while thinking "Sod that for a game of soldiers!" and concentrating instead on legs turning to jelly while paradoxically managing to be frozen rigid at the same time.
For the goat, the drop could have been inches or miles - it makes no difference as the goat will only decide based whether or not to jump on to the length of the gap and the desire for fresh grass.
Lifting our rider off the ledge, and returning him back to his bike, approaching the bend, he needs to get his 'nagging' mind telling him about the bend [gap] and how to get around it [short jump] rather than the wet surface [the drop].
So the sequence becomes:
- Identify the corner, and all additional problems of wet surface, adverse camber, junction, traffic
- Choose a suitable speed to negotiate the corner, allowing for the downhill 'acceleration' effect, and then reduce the speed to allow a margin (so reducing that mental pressure)
- Slow earlier than you might usually, again this eases that mental pressure
- This gives a 'buffer zone' which allows you to make final adjustments if you need to
- Head and eyes UP! The temptation will be to look at anything which worries you. Resist it! Get the nagging part of your brain reminding you to look as far as you can around the corner, giving you the most time to react to anything you see, and maintain your sense of direction. You'll still be concerned about the wet surface - looking for problems at the limit of vision means you have plenty of time to react rather than a panic reaction to something just a few yards away
- Mentally prepare for likely problems. Being ready to change line for road surface problems, or brake if there's an obstruction, reduces your reaction time. Having a plan ready for these outcomes means you're more likely to do something useful rather than panic and grab at the controls, or 'freezing'.
- Negotiate the corner, using your - now useful - inner voice to help you around. Get it to tell you what you need to do. Keep the worrier too busy to worry!
- Finally, straighten up out of the bend, and smile - you had it planned and it worked as you expected, and even if there had been a problem mid-corner you already had an action planned.
So that's my 'Bus Stop' guide to cornering. According to a couple of motorcycle magazines I read, to achieve perfect cornering all that's required is either a new set of tyres, or a few laps of a roundabout. Who's right? You decide.


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