Like most riders, I love riding my motorcycle on twisty canyon roads. Come to think of it, for most riders that’s one of the great pleasures of riding: canyon carving. But all too often, novice riders will test their new skills or their new motorcycle on these roads with disastrous consequences.
Twisting mountain roads are the most challenging and dangerous roads you can ride on your motorcycle. They can be very technical, unpredictable, and are filled with obstacles. So it makes sense to learn proper techniques for riding these roads, and to practice those skills responsibly so that you enjoy your ride and make it home in one piece.
Before You Ride the Twisties
Like every good ride it all starts before you leave your driveway. Make sure your bike is in good mechanical condition, brakes are working, chain is clean and lubed, nothing’s leaking, etc. Make sure you are also prepared for the ride. If you’re not up for a challenging ride, feeling under the weather, hungover, angry or upset, consider saving the ride for another day. But, if you’re feeling good and mentally alert, then go for it.
Wear all you gear and get dressed for the slide. This is not the place to skimp on riding gear. Wear leather if you got it, good boots, gloves, jacket with armor and good knee protection. If you’re going to be pushing yourself, be prepared.
There’s a lot of debate about the perfect tire pressure and it is somewhat of a personal preference and can vary with every type of tire and motorcycle combination. So, I’m not going to make any recommendations in this article. But, there are a few things you should know about tire pressure.
Every tire manufacturer has a different recommended tire pressure which will vary depending on the terrain. Know the tires you’re running and look up the manufacturer recommendations for technical street riding. Check your owners manual for the right pressure and don’t go by the psi printed on the sidewall of the tire. That number is the maximum psi your tire can handle, and will be too much for a good ride.
Under-inflated tires will result in a larger contact area, which is great if you’re riding dirt, but not so great if riding on asphalt. Your bike will be harder to handle and sloppy, with heavy steering. Conversely, if they are over inflated, you will have less traction.
Check your tire pressure when the tires are cold to get an accurate reading. Since many riders like to adjust their tire pressure by as little as 1/2 psi, it’s important to use a good tire pressure gauge like this one on Amazon.
Take a Practice Lap
Often motorcyclists will have a few favorite roads where they can run laps. So, before you start pushing yourself, take a practice lap at a reasonable speed and at about 50% of your riding ability. This lap will allow you to inspect the road conditions before you go all out. Take note of any gravel, rocks, oil spots, or wet spots on the road. Get to know the turns and corner combinations. Be aware of who else is out on the road such as pedestrians, cyclists or other vehicles. This first lap will help reduce surprises on the route. Now that you’re ready to ride, let’s get into the nitty gritty of canyon carving techniques.
I remember riding with a group of sport bikes, enjoy one of our favorite roads. It was very technical and we weren’t going very fast, maybe 45mph. The guy in front of me was sliding one cheek off the seat at every turn, sticking his knee out every time. Yet, his upper body was still straight up over the tank. I tried not to laugh at him too much, but I couldn’t help notice that I had no problem keeping up with him without a single butt cheek leaving my seat.
Basic body position through the corners should start with the head and the shoulders instead of the hips. At lower speeds, hanging off the bike is unnecessary, but as you go faster, getting your weight to the inside of the turn, will help the bike stay more upright around the corner, placing more traction on the tires.
When you approach a corner, lead with your inside shoulder and pull your upper body down and towards the turn. This will allow you to turn your head in the direction you want to go. Aim with your head and eyes towards your target and allow your upper body to follow by dipping that shoulder. Often, this is all the body adjustment you’ll need to get around a corner. But, if you’re really flying and your speed is high enough, add your hips to that equation and slide your butt slightly off the seat to add more weight off the bike around the turn. The faster you go, the more hanging off the bike will benefit you. But, it always starts with the head and shoulders.
Practice adjusting your body position smoothly but quickly to set up for consecutive turns. If you’re leaning into a left hand curve and the road transitions into right hand curve, you’ll want to change your body position without upsetting the line of the motorcycle. Avoid using your arms to push yourself into position. Instead, use your legs to lift yourself off the seat slightly and slide over to the other side of the seat. If, at the end of a ride, your thighs are sore and burning, you’re doing it right.
Other tips for body position is to keep your toes on the inside foot peg to avoid scraping them, and put more weight on the outside foot peg. Aslo, slide back in your seat a little allowing you to lay your shoulders over the bike.
Reading the Corners
Out in the road you’re going to come across different types of corners; blind corners, off camber, delayed apex, double apex, each with their own challenges. One way to read a corner is to look for its vanishing point. That’s the furthest point of the corner you can see before it disappears around the bend. If the vanishing point moves toward you as you approach it, the turn is getting tighter and may require you to slow down before entering. If it moves away from you as you approach, the turn is opening up to a straight and you may be able to take it at a higher speed. The danger of judging a corner based solely on vanishing point is that you don’t always know what’s beyond. The corner could tighten suddenly, or have a double apex. The vanishing point is only one tool you can use to read a corner, so don’t chase the vanishing point and take into account other conditions.
Camber is the the way the road tilts around a corner. Well designed roads have a positive camber which means the road is higher on the outside of the turn and lower on the inside. This improves traction as you go through the corner. Off camber, or negative camber turns tilt the opposite direction. The high side is on the inside of the turn. Tire traction will be reduced going through these turns, so you need to take them with more caution.
Selecting the Line
You probably learned to take a corner by starting from the outside of the turn moving toward the apex, then exit towards the outside of the turn again. This technique works great on the track and still holds true on public roads. However, there are some adjustments you should make since you’ll be dealing with a lot of unknowns.
The first tip is enter the turn late and as wide as you can without crossing over into the oncoming lane. Entering late gives you a wider view of the corner so you’ll be able to judge how tight the corner is. Entering late puts you in a better position to complete the curve if the curve has a surprise double apex. So, if you find yourself often drifting over the center line on a right turn, it means you’re entering the corner too soon. You apex the curve too early and the bike can’t finish the last tight cut of the curve, so it drifts into oncoming traffic.
When approaching a section with two consecutives turns, start on the outside of the first curve just as you usually would. When you hit the apex on the inside of that curve, hug the inside a little bit longer than usual. This will put you in position to approach the second turn from the outside. So, as you exit the first corner, you’ll be on the outside of the next one setting yourself up to follow a good line through the second turn.
Lastly, when choosing your line on a left hand curve, the apex of the curve will often be the center line dividing a two way road and you will likely be leaning into the opposite lane even if your tires are in your own lane. This can leave you vulnerable to oncoming traffic. So choose a line that places you a little farther away from the center line in case oncoming traffic runs a little wide.
When approaching a curve always try to get your braking and downshifting done before you enter the corner and not while you’re in it. Squeezing the front brake while leaning through a corner will upset the stability of the front tire and could cause it to wobble out from under you. Using the front brake also causes the bike to lunge forward taking traction off the rear tire, which could result in a skid. Get in the habit of using 2 fingers for braking rather than all four. This will help keep you from grabbing a handful of front brake.
Using the back brake is a little bit safer, but will still cause the rear tire to lose traction and can cause it to skid out. So, stay off the brakes as much as you can through the turn. This is one area where taking a practice lap will help you judge how much acceleration you’ll need between turns, so you can brake early enough to set up for the curve.
Practice rolling on and off the throttle smoothly. Quick throttle reactions can upset the stability of the motorcycle just like braking can. Suddenly letting off the throttle in the middle of a curve can cause the front end to dip and result in a loss of traction in the rear tire.
Staying relaxed in your shoulders, arms and hands will help you have better throttle control. Keep your grip light and your shoulders down and relaxed. As soon as you start tensing up and gripping the throttle hard, your acceleration will become jerky instead of a nice smooth on and off the throttle.
Riding Uphill vs. Downhill
Twisty mountain or canyon roads are not going to be all the same level. You’ve be climbing up in some sections while descending back down in others. Riding uphill is a blast and is much easier. Not as much braking is required when approaching a turn because the uphill incline will slow you down on its own. Sometimes letting off the throttle will be all you need to do to slow down to turning speed.
Going downhill is a bit different. Gravity and momentum are pushing you to go faster and it will require more control in the brakes and throttle to maintain a safe speed. Prepare for a corner earlier and get all of your braking and downshifting done before you enter the curve.
Adjust your body position when going downhill. Sit further back in the seat and grip the tank with your knees. This will keep some of the pressure off your handlebars providing you with more control. Be careful when downshifting and keep track of what gear you’re in. There is a tendency to downshift and use engine braking a little more, but don’t over do it. Downshift while you’re braking and approaching a turn.
Ideally, your favorite motorcycle road is going to be a nicely paved road with sweeping turns. But, even the most pristine road surface will change day to day or with the seasons. It’s important to anticipate what kind of obstacles you might encounter based on road conditions.
Did it recently rain? If so, how much? Even a couple days after rain some portions of a canyon road can still be wet if they are in constant shade. Add to that some wet, rotting leaves and you have a nice coating of slime that your tires can easily slip on. Erosion often occurs when it rains too, spilling mud and gravel on the roadway. So, take extra caution even a few days after the rain.
Other roads will not be as well maintained and you could be dealing with a twisty road filled with uneven patchwork or potholes. I’m not sure about the rest of the country, but here in Northern California, the road condition can change drastically as soon as you hit the county line. One minute you’ll be riding on a perfectly paved dream road, then suddenly the road will narrow and be riddled with potholes. So, be aware of the road surface conditions and change your speed accordingly.
Out on public roads you’re going to deal with a number of different obstacles. Potholes, gravel, rocks, leaves, pine needles, wet patches, tar snakes, cows, deer, trucks, cars, people, cyclists; just to name a few. Some of these obstacles you can prepare for and expect such as gravel hiding on the inside of a curve, which is where it usually likes to hide. But other obstacles are completely out of your control. You never know when oncoming traffic, that big RV, is going to take a corner wide and end up in your lane.
Road signs as well as your surroundings can give you clues as to what kind of animals you might encounter. A deer crossing sign will tell you that deer are present and commonly cross the road. If you’re riding through pastures and you encounter cow grates, be aware that you could turn a corner and find a cow standing in your path. Staying aware of your surroundings can help you prepare for those surprise encounters.
Let’s face it. Getting stuck behind a slow car on twisty roads can be torture. All you want to do is pass them. But sometimes as riders we get a little too eager to pass and we put ourselves in unnecessary dangerous situation. Legally, you are only allowed to pass when there is a broken yellow or white line on your side of the lane. Even then, you should only pass when oncoming traffic allows you room to do so. That’s common sense.
Other roads will break out into passing lanes allowing you to fly past a line of cars and get out in front again. But often passing opportunities are few and we’re stuck behind a line of slow cars. If you do choose to pass in a non-passing zone, do so at your own risk and only pass on a straight section of the road, not on a turn. If you’re passing a line of cars sometimes you can pass one or two cars at a time until you make your way to the front. Pro tip: Don’t be a jerk. Dangerous and irresponsible passing not only endangers you, it also puts other vehicles at risk.
Commonly traveled canyon roads, especially those frequented by campers, trailers and RVs, will have pull-out sections at the side of the road. If there are more than 5 vehicles behind a slow vehicle, that driver is required to pull out and let the faster vehicles pass. Often people will recognize that a motorcycle wants to pass and they will use these pull outs. If this happens, always give the driver a thank you wave and a nod, they just did you a big favor.
Group riding on Canyon Roads
When riding with a group on wide open roads, we are taught to ride in a staggered formation. But when you enter narrow canyon roads you will need to ride single file and increase the distance between you and the rider in front of you. Often you can learn from the more advanced riders about choosing a line as well as braking.
Often in a group situation, riders of different skills will naturally break into their own groups. More advanced riders will take off up front, intermediate riders will form a small group and ride together, while slower riders will take up the rear. Every group ride should have a designated sweeper to make sure slower, novice riders aren’t left behind.
As mentioned in the section on passing, you will encounter different types of traffic depending on what road you’re riding. You can get an idea of how heavy the traffic will be based on several factors. Summertime weekend traffic will be heavier than during the week. Popular scenic roads will have more car traffic and you’re more likely to run into the typical Sunday driver. Roads that lead to lakes will often have boats on trailers. Keep in mind that at the end of the day, when these boaters drive home, they are often tired, had too much sun, and could possibly have been drinking, which creates an even more dangerous situation.
If you’re riding in farm country, don’t be surprised to see some farm equipment slowly driving down the road at a snail’s pace. Slow down and pass them when it’s safe. So, to avoid annoying traffic situations, consider these things before you choose where to ride. Try to choose routes that will take you away from the tourists. Start your ride early to beat the crowds.
Ride Your Own Pace
The most important thing you should remember when riding canyon road, especially if you are riding with a group, is to ride at your own pace. It can be tempting to keep up with the faster riders but this is where riders get themselves into trouble and they don’t have the skills needed to handle the turns at higher speeds. Too often I’ve heard stories of serious or fatal crashes because riders are trying to keep up with the big boys.
When you’re on your own, take it easy at the beginning of your ride. It takes time to warm up, get the feel for the road, and get yourself in the right frame of mind. Don’t push your limits while on a canyon road. There are too many risks. You should start out riding at about 50% of your ability at first, then gradually push yourself until you’re riding at about 70% of your ability. If you want to ride at 100% or push yourself further, don’t do it on public roads. Instead take it to the track. For now, ride at a safer pace.
Build Your Confidence
The more you ride twisty roads, the more your confidence will build. As you ride, try to become more comfortable with leaning your bike at a more aggressive angle. Gradually you will become more comfortable with the sensation you get when you lean. Trust in the bike and trust your tires. If the road is clear and if you’ve entered the turn properly, your tires will grip and support you around the turn.
Lastly, commit to the corner when you’re in it. This goes along with trusting your tires and the lean. Once you’re in the curve, stay there, roll on the throttle as you exit. The last thing you want to do is have a mental hick-up in the middle of taking a corner and change your mind. This would cause you to panic, let go of the throttle, resist the lean and that will cause your motorcycle to do all sorts of bad. Commit to the corner all the way through it.
Riding twisty canyon roads is one of the great pleasures of motorcycle riding. So, when you’re out there remember these tips. Wear all your gear. Ride at your own pace. Start slow and work your way to a faster pace. Watch for obstacles, traffic and animals. And above all else, ride safe.