In a few days I'll be picking up my Versys in the UK, then heading to the Continent and down to the Alps for another week of riding some of the greatest goat trails anywhere. The first time I rode the Alps in 2006, I had thought that my experience in dealing with hairpin turns was pretty solid, but I found quickly that the Alps can dish up more hairpins in a day of riding than I had encountered in a month, or even a season of riding here. Nothing like practice to make you better, so today I want to share a few thoughts about hairpin bends, in anticipation of the practice I'll be getting in about a week.
One of the key skills necessary for riding is making yourself consistently look where you want to go. Sounds easy, but with distractions, uncertainty, surprise and fear entering the equation, it's a challenge for many riders to maintain the visual discipline necessary to keep themselves smooth, safe, and happy. Rather than go into depth about visual skills and how to develop them in this post, please have a read of Lee Parks' book "Total Control" and his chapter on vision. He's done a nice job with the topic, and he's got a killer drill to help any rider develop better visual discipline.
Today, I'm just going to write about one particular type of turn and one aspect of visual discipline. The one turn that seems to create the greatest challenge for riders not accustomed to hairpin bends is the right-hand hairpin because for those of us riding in countries where traffic keeps to the right, these turns have the tightest radius, resulting in the least available room to execute the turn.
This issue is compounded for many riders if that right-hand hairpin is also downhill. Downhill turns can make it feel as though the bike is going to run away with you, which can make riders stiff. Downhill makes it more critical to get your entry speed set low enough that the bike can be easily controlled through the turn. Downhill makes it more difficult to keep your weight off the grips and to maintain a light touch for optimal control.
There are many factors to be addressed to execute one of these turns well, but today it's just one trick that I'd like to leave you with. As you approach the downhill right-hand turn, you will evaluate it for appropriate turn-in point and entry speed. Having done that - and while slowing the bike as you approach the turn-in - your eyes should begin looking through the turn, all the way to the vanishing point (addressed in this very helpful thread on BARF). So far, so good. Where many riders get into trouble is that at this point they can see traffic coming the other way around the hairpin bend on what may be a very narrow road, they can see the outside of the turn, maybe a huge drop-off, and all these things can distract the rider from looking where he needs to look to finish the turn.
So here's the trick, and it's pretty simple. As your eyes look through the turn, play a little game with yourself - see if you can keep your eyes on the right-hand side of the road until the turn is completed, the motorcycle has returned to fully vertical, and you're headed in a straight line on your way to the next turn. This is made somewhat easier if there's a white fog line painted at the edge of the road surface, but even if all there is to look for is the gravel shoulder at the edge of the paved surface, see if your eye can trace that edge as you complete the turn. As always, keep your eyes as far out in front of the bike as you can. If you look at the ground right in front of the bike, it's quite possible that you'll find yourself on the ground, so keep your eyes up and out in front of you.
Themimoto, a German rider who makes the best videos of alpine riding I've ever seen, has a great video of descending the northwest side of Stelvio Pass and its forty(!) hairpin bends. One of his cameras is helmet mounted, so see if you can see his head moving so that his eyes can follow the right-hand side of the road has he completes the twenty or so downhill, right-hand hairpin bends in the video.