Understanding why some corners can be completed effortlessly, engendering that warm, fuzzy feeling, while others seem riddled with small errors, has value. My original take on this from 40 years ago was—and still is—this: Success is based on how many reference points the rider used correctly. Reference points can make or break any corner.
The simple definition of a reference point is easy enough: an object or area that doesn't move and, more importantly, alerts the rider to some action necessary for controlling the bike. Examples include: a designated turn-in point for a corner or a beginning brake marker. What is not so simple, however, is deciding how exactly to use the reference point you've identified. Is it the place to prepare for the action? To initiate the action? To have it completed? In terms of timing, there is a world of difference. A confused rider may have all three of those ideas in his mind at once with none of them clearly defined.
A good reference point is a godsend, but lingering on it too long can transform it into a liability. Having too many reference points can create problems too. Our hunt/scan/focus visual mechanism is handy but lazy, taking 0.35 second for each complete cycle when we indulge it to continue. That's an eternity in terms of making decisions when a corner is fast approaching, and it opens the door for visual errors.
Visual errors are the worst because these occur "naturally" and extract such a heavy toll in terms of time and distance lost dealing with the results. Target fixating and what I prefer to call funnel vision—rather than tunnel vision—are the most common and dangerous examples.
My research and testing have generated 27 visual drills to address everything I currently understand on the subject of improving visual skills, but I'd be hard-pressed to say the battle to dominate our vulnerable visual system has been won. While the methods to hone our visual skills become ever clearer—no pun intended—the questions of what is a reference point, how do we use one, and why is this process so intuitive to some and so utterly foreign to others, have still not been answered sufficiently.
The crux of the matter is this: Whether recognized or not, virtually all rider errors are based on visual malfunctions. Not a malfunction in terms of the body's survival instincts but, rather, a malfunction in terms of misdirecting the rider's attention in his bid for cornering conquest. Where do we look to find the source of an error? Most often, one to three seconds before it happened. Recalling the moment, you'll often find that your eyes went off the rails chasing something irrelevant to your riding needs. Next time you make an error, stop and remember where you were looking and how long you looked there, just prior to the error.
The racetrack is the most efficient place to train your visual skill set because it's a relatively pollution-free environment (read: no cars and fewer other distractions). Finding useful reference points is easier at the racetrack, too, compared to an unfamiliar and always-changing piece of twisty, two-lane road. If a rider cannot learn to locate and use reference points in the racetrack environment, it's hopeless to think he'd ever be good at it on the street. In either case, this skill requires practice.
Finding and using reference points is an integral and essential part of the art of cornering. Approaching corners with the purpose in mind to rapidly identify reference points, with the minimum amount of random and time-consuming visual scanning, will nearly instantly improve your riding. In addition, it's one of the few things that can be effectively self-coached. Tracing your mistakes back to the original visual error will shed light on the exact areas you need to work on in order to improve this valuable skill.