Reading the Road

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Yamaha Motorcycles Street Event - Skagit


Reading the road

How well can you read the road?

Watching for changing road conditions and road direction is essential to our survival. Color can help identify hazards such as water, oil, antifreeze or a change in pavement. Texture can clue us into other traction changes like gravel, sand, or broken pavement. Another thing we need to do is learn to read the road for directional changes. One of the most precise ways to do this is by using the vanishing point in the road. When we are unable to see completely through a corner what we find is the vanishing point. As we look through the corner it will appear as if both sides of the road come to a point (the point at which the road vanishes), this point tells us what the road is about to do. It will tell us whether the road is opening up or closing in on us. We can also use other indicators for changes such as tree lines, traffic signs, painted lines, other traffic or by reading the width of the road approaching the vanishing point.

During Puget Sound Safety's Advanced Street Skills course taught at Pacific Raceways we teach an acronym called S-M-A-R-T cornering. The first part of corning SMART is to Scan the corner. We start by understanding what makes up the corner in front of us so that we can read the road. There are two main things we are scanning so that we can Mark our line... traction changes & directional changes. What we want to learn here is to use clues to determine what the road is going to do before we actually see the exit. Our eyes should always be focused on where the road disappears, also called the vanishing point... If there are three corners visible it is the fourth corner we are trying to figure out. What we can see, we know... it is what we can't see that we want to plan for. The idea is to stay in tune with the environment so that you are less likely to be surprised with changes or hazards.

The radius of a corner describes the curve itself. This is referred to as an increasing radius, decreasing radius or constant radius. The line is our intended path of travel through the corner, this is an imaginary line we create and then commit to. The apex is the point that we come closest to the inside of the curve, where we apex strongly effects our lean angle and exit point. We talk about selecting a street line and apex as a separate lesson. For now we want to learn to read the clues so we can effectively identify changes in the direction and traction of the road. We want to accurately predict what the road is going to do before we actually see it.

Directional changes

One of the easiest ways to determine directional changes is to use the vanishing point. We should always be searching for the next entry point... In a corner without any obstructions, we can do this as long as we KEEP OUR EYES UP. When we are unable to see completely through a corner what we find is the vanishing point. Looking through the corner it will appear as if both sides of the road come together to form a point this is the vanishing point= the point at which the road vanishes. The vanishing point can tell us what the road is about to do. Once you use this technique you will find it very simple. If the vanishing point appears to move away from us, then we know that the corner is an increasing radius (opening up) and we can apex early and roll on the throttle. If the vanishing point moves closer to us then the corner is a decreasing radius (tightening up) and we will need to late apex the corner. The last thing to watch for is if the vanishing point remains constant (no movement)... this indicates a constant radius corner. Next time you go for a ride, try practicing this. Watch the outside edge of the road as it will give you a slightly farther view and has a tendency to keep your eyes up higher. You always go where you look so NEVER look down...

The vanishing point:

  • Increasing radius - the corner opens up
  • Decreasing radius - the corner closes in, or tightens up
  • Constant radius - the curve on the entry is the same as the exit
  • Traffic lines can tell you what is about to happen also. If the lines are double solid you can be pretty sure the corners will continue with maybe some short straight-aways. However if you see the lines begin to dash you can assume that the road is about to straighten out and it is safe to add throttle if you so desire. Beware of oncoming traffic doing late passing!

    Signs include warnings, speed, and directional. Although the signs posted on the public roads are based on the abilities of autos, they should give you a clear indication of what to expect. Higher speeds mean fewer crossroads and larger radius corners. Slower speeds mean more corners, more hazards. Remember that the other users on the roads are expecting traffic to be traveling near the posted limits so if you come around a corner doubling the posted limits you may find an unexpected surprise. As for warning signs and directional, pay attention and alter your riding accordingly

    Tree lines can't be trusted completely but may give some idea of what is to come. Often this method is helpful where there are rises or in heavily-treed areas. If you look up towards the top of the trees where the sky is visible you will see which direction the road probably follows. If it goes in two directions or the trees thin out, don't count on them.

    Don't follow power lines; they often will lead in directions that you don't want to go.

    Traction changes

    Color and texture are two common indicators for changes in traction.

    Color can help identify surface hazards such as water, oil, antifreeze or a change in pavement or indicate a change in the material used to build and maintain the road.

    Texture can clue us into other traction changes like gravel, sand, or broken pavement. It can also indicate a change in material used to surface the road, blacktop, chip-seal, or concrete. Each of these building materials have differing traction properties.

    Another indicator for directional change involve slope & bank (camber). These also indicate how your traction and ground clearance may be affected.

    Since slope and bank also affect our traction they therefore affect our chosen line through the corner. For this discussion we will define slope as a rise or fall in the road and bank as "twist" or camber.

    Slope can be identified by the width of the road at the vanishing point. If you look down the road that the vanishing point come the sharp tip you know the road is flat or has a rise. If the vanishing point is squared off there is a crest in the road and the road will drop off on the other side. The wider the road at the vanishing point the closer the drop. There is one more clue that might help you when approaching a rise. If you look carefully at the left and right edge of the road where it vanishes you may see a slight point. This may be indicating an immediate turn as the road crest... so be ready for it.

    Bank (camber) is important to determine when corning as it will effect traction and ground clearance. When you are looking through a corner to the vanishing point take note to the road leading up to it if it remains wide the road is likely banked into the corner (good traction and ground clearance). If the road becomes a thin line leading up to the vanishing point the road be poorly banked, flat, or worse yet bank away from you.

    Looking for more? Come join us at the track...

    Quick reference:

    Traction cues

  • Color & Texture
  • Posted warning signs
  • Environmental clues (shade, ice, standing water)
  • Weather conditions
  • Time of day/year
  • Directional cues

  • The vanishing point
  • Traffic lines
  • Signs
  • Tree lines
  • Don't follow power lines
  • Watch the outside edge of the road
  • Color & Texture

  • Bret Tkacs is the co-founder of Puget Sound Safety , a Northwest company that provides riding skills classes as well as do it yourself maintenance programs.


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