Braking & Downshifting | Code Break

By Keith Code, Photography by Kevin Hipp

Most corners last only a few seconds, yet an entire universe of activity happens between the entry and the exit. Enthusiastic cornering on a motorcycle is chock full of actions and perceptions.

Surveying riders to discover what helps them best negotiate corners is part of my job. I’ve asked more than 10,000 riders, “What holds your attention on corner approach?” An overwhelming majority answered “entry speed.” Successfully setting entry speed depends on where the rider places his attention well before arriving at the corner.

Watching other riders enter corners can reveal a lot. Start at the beginning, from the initial brake application to its release. Logic and experience tell us that the fewer distractions we have during those moments, the more accurately we will arrive at the proper entry speed. In my 1982 book “A Twist of the Wrist,” I provided illustrated and photographic descriptions of several key braking elements. Photos showed how to release the brake gradually as you lean the bike in to keep the chassis attitude as level as possible. Graphs showed the diminishing percentage of brake pressure used from straight up to leaned over. This has become known as “trail braking.” It was the first time it was written and illustrated anywhere for motorcycle riders.

I also described and illustrated how to use the front brake lever and throttle in combination so that braking and downshifting could be done together—melding them into one operation rather than several disconnected actions. While most racers were familiar with this technique, again, it was the first time anyone had showed or described it.

I mention these points because today, 30 years later, riders still have difficulty using this composite technique. Braking and downshifting is an especially active technique, which uses four out of the six controls of the bike simultaneously. Good coordination in each part is imperative in executing it smoothly and accurately.

To describe it in sequence is simple enough: The brake is applied. Roughly half way through the braking, the clutch is pulled in and the transmission is shifted down one gear. The rider then blips the gas (a rapid on/off twist of the grip) before releasing the clutch. Throughout this process, the rider also maintains or modulates front brake lever pressure to achieve the degree of braking necessary for the desired corner entry speed.

Using this technique, it takes less than half a second to execute a one-gear downshift. And just so it is clear, the throttle blip is done so that the engine revs match the bike’s speed once the clutch is released, making a smooth transition to that next gear down. You're the human slipper clutch.

What goes wrong? Commonly, I see riders pulling on the brake, pulling the clutch in, shifting down, and then slowly releasing the clutch. This can take two seconds or more. And that’s not all. There are a number of incorrect variations: over-revving the engine when the throttle is blipped; releasing the clutch lever too early, making the bike surge forward; letting the clutch out too late and losing the engine rpm needed; blipping the throttle before the clutch is disengaged causing a surge; and so on. There are many opportunities for mis-coordination.

Fast, efficient downshifts while braking allow the rider more time to see, feel and accurately track his changing speed. Attention is on tracking the decreasing speed rather than on what the bike is doing. Getting it wrong, as described above, creates distractions that take up and break up our attention.

Comments like, “I have a slipper clutch to handle that,” “I don’t see the need for it,” “Tried it but I can’t get it smoothly,” are all just excuses. Until your bike revs itself for perfectly smooth downshifts like MotoGP bikes and Formula 1 cars are programmed to do, you are wasting precious time and likely failing to set your entry speed perfectly. The information has been out there for 30 years. Isn’t it about time you took a day to master it? I guarantee a terrific sense of accomplishment once you have it dialed.

By Keith Code
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