How to Master Downhill Corners
You might’ve seen a downhill corner and been filled with dread. That certainly was the case for me. But now, these are some of my favorite corners on the road. So, what is the trick to make a steep, nasty, downhill, blind, decreasing radius corner so much fun, instead of sucky?
Why is an uphill corner such a gas while a downhill corner isn’t? Well, the answer is quite simple. Gravity. Fighting gravity on the way up helps us more accurately manage our speed and contact patch. If we get nervous, all we have to do is reduce the amount of throttle or even ease all the way off the throttle and the bike will slow down until we are happy with our speed again. Easy-peasy.
But also, gravity makes going back down harder because it’s pulling us down the hill. It’s a lot more challenging to manage our speed because easing off the throttle may not slow the bike down much at all.
If you’re still subscribing to the “do all your braking before the corner” idea, then this creates an even bigger challenge, right? In order to accelerate, or even maintain throttle through a downhill corner, we must set our entrance speed crazy-slow so we don’t end up going faster than we want to go before the end of the turn. Listen, here’s the thing. If we want to be able to control our rate of speed in downhill corners the most effective way is to use or front brake, a lot. Not surprisingly, Champ School says it best; compared to going up the canyon, 100% more brakes going down the canyon.
Won’t using the front brake cause the front tire to slide out from under me?
Well, we can’t control everything, there might be diesel fuel in the corner, but front brake or not spilled diesel is going to be a problem, that’s all part of the risk of riding, so pay attention to the road surface and all that, but in general, No, not if you squeeze the brake. I mean, if your hand works like an on/off switch going from zero to 100% in an instant, then yes. You will most likely land on your head, so lets not do that. Lightly drag our front brake, adding and subtracting small amounts of pressure to precisely control our speed so that we are happy with how fast we’re going.
Doesn’t using the front brake in a corner make the bike run wide?
No, it doesn’t. Grabbing the brake in the middle of the corner does all sorts of weird things, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about gently dragging the front brake to control our speed and help the bike turn.
When we apply the front brake, especially when going down a hill, our weight goes onto the front tire and compresses the front forks, reducing the rake and trail of our bike to make it change direction.
If I’m using my front brake in a corner, won’t that use up all my suspension with nothing left over for bumps in the corner?
I suppose, but if your motorcycle forks are so soft that they bottom out under light braking then your bike is in desperate need of a trip to your local mechanic, and you probably shouldn’t be riding it. But I doubt that’s the case.
Remember, we want the forks to compress a bit to help the motorcycle turn. We are not using 100% brake pressure; or even 50%, we’re using maybe 5% brake pressure. We want to smoothly add and subtract small amounts of front brake to control our speed.
But I thought we needed to be on the gas to stabilize the chassis in a corner, so then shouldn’t we be on the gas and the brakes at the same time?
Nope. We never overlap the front brake and the throttle. This is one of the very few absolutes in riding. Absolutely never, overlap throttle and front brake!
Wouldn’t it be safer to drag my rear brake instead of my front?
Well, you can, and it works, but the front brake works a lot better. When we slow down, weight goes to the front tire, away from the rear, so we have more available grip on the front and less on the rear. Plus, all the benefits of the forks compressing to make the bike want to turn. We can also be a lot more precise with our hand adding and subtracting small amounts of pressure than most of us can be with our foot.
What is the Technique?
Look, riding through any downhill corner, especially a steep one, is going to be a lot more challenging. They’re a lot more challenging. Despite what you may have been read or even been taught, we are allowed, hell, we’re supposed to use our front brake in corners. Its how our motorcycles are engineered and designed to work. What we need to do is be mindful of how we apply our front brake. Smooth, progressive brake inputs.
As we ride, we want to keep our focus on where we are and what we are doing. Downhill corners are hard. Try to enter them from the outside, within reason of course, don’t go into the oncoming lane or anything crazy like that. But going wide gives us more visibility, we can see further into the corner and opens the corner; it makes it less-tight.
We simply control our speed by gently adding and subtracting brake pressure with the throttle closed. We are in control. We decide how fast or slow we want to go. We want to ride at the speed that brings us joy. If we are nervous, we can add a little more pressure to bring the speed back down to where we want it.
On super-tight corners like these, be mindful that a car could come barreling around at any moment, so keep our bike away from the center, if it’s crazy-steep and narrow, our best option may be to stay near the edge of the road. Make good choices. [freaky friday/pitch perfect] And it’s totally okay to stay on that front brake with our throttle closed until we can see our exit and we may stay on that front brake all the way through a corner. Don’t worry about your brake pads. They’re cheap and easily replaced. You’re not. You’re way more important than saving money or brake pads.
Then, when we can see our exit and take away lean angle, since it’s a downhill corner, all we may need to do is release even more brake pressure and allow our speed to increase.
The trick, well, it’s not necessarily easy, but it is simple; simply leave the throttle closed and stay with that front brake; use finesse to add and subtract small amounts of pressure to manage our speed, until we have direction! We are in absolute control of how fast we want to be going through any corner. Especially downhill corners and even more so in steep downhill corners.
Listen, I’ve ridden down corners so steep that even if I had entered from a dead-stop, without using any brakes, the way I was originally taught, I would still end up going too fast to stay on the road. Let’s abandon those outdated, 1970s, riding methods. Instead of riding with hope, hoping we’ve slowed down enough, hoping it’s not too steep, hoping it doesn’t get any tighter, hoping we can lean over far enough, lets become technical riders and precisely manage our speed, be in precise control with the most powerful and versatile tool, literally, at our fingertips. Our front brake.