Why are motorbikes so slow around corners?

Posted on September 12th, 2004 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

Over the years I have become increasingly confused. Why do motorcyclists think that their bikes are so fast? Sure, I know that they’re fast in a straight line – I have been to the street drags often enough to see the quickest factory stock standard bikes running in the Tens and Elevens over the standing quarter. That’s mind-bogglingly fast. But it’s not straightline performance that I am referring to. It’s real-world, on-road performance. Over the sort of country road that has tight corners, bumps, surfaces that vary, dips and humps.

On those roads, it seems to me that bikes are pathetically slow.

While I am happy writing provocative material, in this case it’s not my intention to create a flamewar of the sort that you often see between bike riders and car drivers in discussion groups and forums. Instead, it’s a genuine confusion.

I remember perhaps 12 years ago when I was pedalling my then newly bought Subaru Liberty RS down the old Adelaide Hills main road. The dual lane road was sinuous and tight – an ideal road for driving fast. Or, I thought, riding quickly. I was in the fast (ie righthand) lane and ahead of me was a bike. He must have thought he was quick, because although the slow lane was at times empty, he resolutely stuck to the right. Despite the fact that he was impeding my progress.

This went on for several kilometres as I – doing what I would have done with any vehicle hogging the fast lane – drew closer. Finally, he pulled over and I went sprinting past. Further down the hill the speed limit slowed and since by then the fun part of the road was over, I dropped back to a more conservative pace. The bike had been left hundreds of metres behind but took this opportunity to catch up. In fact the rider drew alongside me, turned his head and waved his fist.

I was bemused – even more so when he then ran over the median strip and fell off. It was a low speed tumble and the rider jumped to his feet, retrieved his bike and rode off. (I’d stopped to make sure that he was OK.)

Now the Liberty RS was certainly a good handler in its day, but it was nothing awesome. Like, it was competent but any decent bike should have been able to show me the way home. But then again, perhaps the rider was hopeless – after all, he had fallen off.

But that story has been repeated many times since – though thankfully not the falling off bit. Just the other day I was driving up the difficult, demanding, complex and unforgiving country road that leads to my home in the Gold Coast hinterland. The 20 kilometres or so of road contains high speed sweepers, tight hairpins, dips and humps. Some corners tighten, some open out. I was driving my ’98 Lexus LS400, a car with dead standard suspension – in fact, less than standard in that the dampers are becoming tired.

Ahead of me was a motorbike. Now I don’t know what sort it was – and perhaps that’s part of the problem in this discussion – but from behind it looked big and fast. Certainly its rear rubber was wide and the straightline acceleration far faster than the Lexus could manage. But God, did he ever slow for the corners! It wasn’t as if he was taking it easily, either. Late braking, bum off one side of the seat then the other as he cranked it over, full racing line through the corners, hard acceleration on the straights.

But I could keep up literally without even trying. In fact, I’d categorise my driving as seven-tenths, max. To give you an example, around one climbing, tightening and bumpy corner (marked at 70 km/h, I think), I can do about 110 when going as hard as I dare. Listening to the radio and thinking mostly about something else, about 90 is reasonable. And that’s about as fast as the bike could go. I say ‘could go’ because I could see clear lateral movement of his machine as he met each bump.

There are other stories I could tell – down Gorge Road in the Adelaide Hills where a pair of bikes thought they were blisteringly fast… and there I was, maintaining station; my fiance driving my Lexus behind another bike up our country road (he was trying so hard a leg came off the pedal).

Simply, I have never come across a bike that could leave me behind on a good, hard country road. (And I certainly can’t say that about some cars I’ve met. The best was when I owned an Audi S4 and one night met a V8 Commodore. It was raining, we were on the difficult road I have been describing – and he whipped my arse. Yep, even when I had a four-wheel drive and he had only two. His car control was just fantastic. Well, a helluva lot better than mine, anyway!)

So tell me the truth.

Some of you must have a high performance bike and drive a good handling, high performance car. I don’t need to be convinced about the straightline speeds of bikes – that’s simply indisputable – but tell me about how fast they are on real, difficult roads.

Have I always just met riders who were incompetent? Or only bikes that didn’t handle? Or are bikes actually way slower around corners than nearly every car driver seems to believe? Does the fact that the Lexus has long-travel, reasonably soft suspension give it the travel and grip needed on these bumpy roads – where bikes just don’t have the suspension travel and resulting composure? (But then that doesn’t explain the fact that I seem to be able to keep up on smooth roads, too.)  I don’t care about racetrack performance – so don’t write in with lap times – but real road performance…

Those of you who are proficient on both vehicles – tell me.

18 Responses to 'Why are motorbikes so slow around corners?'

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  1. Adrian said,

    on August 20th, 2007 at 6:19 pm

    On a modern vehicles Driving a car it’s 90% car 10% driver, while riding a bike it’s the other way around…..

  2. Darren Roles said,

    on October 16th, 2007 at 9:07 am

    Have to agree with Adrian, It’s a lot harder to go fast on a bike than a car.
    The limit on a bike is a much finer line; understeer in a car and you just lift and correct – On a bike it’s hello Mr Armco 8 times out of 10.
    I reckon it’s the main reason why motorbike RACERS are much better car drivers on average. They are used to correcting (or inducing) two wheel slides, understeering, wheelstanding etc so to have 4 wheels and be able to do all this sliding stuff without the worry of coming off is reletively easy.

    I was once passed by 2 bikes on the Great Ocean Rd just out of Apollo Bay. I was in a Magna Sport (Not a sports car but quick enough) and these two bikes came underneath me on a downhill off-cambered righthander with the front wheel chirping and the back end sliding & hopping on the corrugations that were in the middle of the road. Both were then off the brakes and on the power continuing the slide leaving a nice long black line of rubber on the road.
    Even my wife was impressed; I used to race moto-X and super-X for 10yrs so I’ve got a bit of an idea how difficult that sort of thing is to do especially on the tar.
    I mean they were obviously familiar with the road and the bikes were far from standard but it certainly demonstrated the difference between a good rider and an expert, it was very impressive to watch.

  3. Julian Santa-Rita said,

    on January 1st, 2008 at 4:12 am

    My bike will always be slower, because i like my face.

    have both a reasonaby high performance bike (Kawasaki ZRX1100) and a reasonably high performace car (Saab 9000 Aero) and though the bike is more thrilling in stops and goes the saab is a better performer on twisting roads and much much safer. That layer of safety also inspired more radically sporting use than on the bike. If i hit a spot of gravel and lose traction on the bike, i’m toast. if i hit gravel in the saab it has an extra two tires to rely on…so… i might not even notice. Riders know this dangerous limitation, and often drive within their margin of testosterone and nads.

    Bikes have half the tire tread traction and they do not have the axial forces that act across the car’s width to leverage more and more traction into the opposing wheels when it is lost to one wheel. Both machines are very engaging, but the contact patches of the tires for both machines are immensely different, as are the chraracteristics of the forces on them. Motorcycles (well, most anyway, some machines have been engineered to somewhat silken yaw and steering with complicated mecanisms (see ELF racers and BWM) also have the disadvantage of being steered and dampened by the same mechanism…the forks… essentially doing double duty whereas in a car the suspension’s reaction is much more independent from the steering inputs.

    Cars are safer and less affected by temporary friction losses, and often have cup-holders. Bikes are quicker to react, offer a whole body engagement, but are not as capable of distributing turning forces without superior personal balance.


  4. Julian Edgar said,

    on January 1st, 2008 at 7:20 pm

    That all seems perfectly fair and reasonable. So why do most motorcycle riders seem to *think* that they’re so fast around corners!?

  5. Jake Charleston. said,

    on January 9th, 2008 at 11:42 am

    Firstly I drive both cars and motorcycles.
    When pushing a car hard it is quite obvious when you are on the cusp of maximum traction, the area before and after the point where you start to lose traction is generally more easily felt through all your senses, and there are many spirited drivers who are happy to drive there cars, at times at this level.
    Bikes are a little different, your average rider will never ride to the bikes limits, they are riding to an internal limit, and it’s difficult to explain…
    When I was younger I raced motocross competitively, I had a break for a while and started riding again, and of course some of my skills had been lost. But I hadn’t forgotten how I should be able to ride.
    I’d be cornering, going as fast as I could, as fast as my mind and body would let me, but I was going slow, I could feel it was all wrong, that I was no where near what the bike could do, but it was all my mind would allow, it was quite a strange sensation really.
    But lets apply it to someone who has not lost any skills, they go around a corner, they ride as fast as there mind tells them is possible, (not the bike) and there is the point, they went as fast as there mind, their internal limit aloud them to, and that means they do indeed “think” they are going fast, when they are not.

  6. Steve said,

    on March 30th, 2008 at 12:18 am

    I ride and drive and know I corner faster in the car on most roads, I also know that I don’t push as hard on the bike ’cause when it’s only my clothing between me and the road I don’t like the thought of coming in contact with it. Also I’ve been driving a lot longer then riding and can feel what the car is doing more then on the bike. There’s also the fact that if one of the wheels on the bike looses traction thats 50 percent of my grip gone where as in the car if one wheel looses traction I only looses quarter of the grip so it’s not so scary. The bike probably could be faster then the car but then again I choose not to become another statistic on the motorbike.

  7. Dan said,

    on April 16th, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    It is generally understood that a well setup car will carry more corner speed than a bike. Look at F1 vs GP, its common sense, much more contact area. However comparing complete factory options things get quite close. Theres a recent comparo of the 1098 vs new Lambo, and there is very little in it with a capable rider and driver. (on youtube for sure, theres and old and new one both duc’s and lambos)

    The difference in reality as others have said, push a car to 99% of its traction and often you can correct any slides and inturn get maximum cornering ablity. Now to ride a bike to this limit takes much more skill and balls, and to do this on the road is just crazy.

    Basicly forget about the bike you following next time in the twisties, cause the bikes a small part, its mainly rider. Get a top rider int he twisties on a CBR250RR and he/she will punt it along as quick as a big bike (negating the straights, ie just corners).

    My original interests were cars, extented now almost soley to bikes, so much more rewarding, enjoyable and dangerous, which I guess where the thrill comes in, that and having a 9second vehicle capable of 300km/hr std, need a lot of coin to get that from 4 wheels. I certainly know i’m no Rossi, but have had the odd little mountain scratching with a car or two (usually a turbo japper) and can certainly hold my own, yet have many bike mates that would certainly have looked slow to the car driver in comparison.

    A track is a better comparison, a rider will definately push more and carry more ‘realative’ corner speed to the road in comparsion to a car (road vs track). Some rough speeds at QR (the stupid times i’ve look @ speedo) 160 through turn 1, 185 just after the apex of turn 2 (know i can get more speed her), stock bike street tires, not sure how these compare to cars. Speedo is about 4% optimised against a GPS.

    One last thing, higher speed corners bikes will do better in the comparison to lower speed. Again, given the rider has ablity.

  8. Brett said,

    on May 23rd, 2008 at 8:34 am

    Don’t forget Dan, your speedo should be reading much higher as you are leaned over quite a bit in turn 1 and turn 2. I agree many bike riders are on their pesonal limit but may be way off the bikes limit. That being said, I have been around on QR on my race bike many times and the one time I went around on my road bike with sacked out suspension I was apexing turn 2 about 30km/hr slower and filled with the fear of God while hanging on for dear life.

    Slow corners (<100km/hr) are a big pain in the butt for a bike, as gyroscopic forces at high speed can hold the bike up for quite a while during a front end slide giving you a little chance to sort things out, where at slow speeds you just fall over.

    I think bikes have had the power, tyre and suspension advantage for so long greating the perception that two wheels are better than four and now many lower end cars are finally getting some decent rubber and suspension the differences are less pronounced

    just my 2c…

  9. Morgan said,

    on January 1st, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    I think it’s just that Australian road bike riders are mostly wimps. When I lived in Sydney years ago I ran a Yamaha LC that many looked down on because it was “only a 350”. However I can’t recall being passed by any 750 or 1100 anywhere but a straight. My fellow kiwi mate (an awesome rider) currently lives in WA and runs a Honda 900 Hornet and regularly cleans up every “better handling” super sport bikehe sees on the local roads. What Adrian said about bikes being 90% rider is so true. That’s why when people bleated about Valentino Rossi winning because he had the “best” Honda, he switched to the “inferior” Yamaha and won the championship again (and again).

  10. ben said,

    on February 13th, 2009 at 9:45 pm

    It’s already been mentioned here but the biker is the key, not the bike. And 99% of road riders have no idea how to ride a bike quickly, even though they may own an R1 or something similar. You just need to see how quickly the racers can travel at the Isle of man TT to realise the potential of a bike skillfully ridden on undulating, bumpy and cambered roads. Most sports cars would be left with brakes on fire before completing one lap of the circuit, assuming the suspension could cope with the large number of jumps on the course.

    Personally I like bikes and cars, but they are completely different beasts and comparing them is a useless keyboard warrior type exercise.

  11. shane "popi" said,

    on February 21st, 2009 at 8:29 pm

    hey there i have to agree with the comments i have been reading i have a gt250 comet and s5 rotary the amount of nervous poshies on there big bikes that cant ride is sad to see feathering their throttles round the twisties 20km slower than the speed limit i thought the hills was about getting the most out of your machines and finding the limits. The amount of big bikes i have disposed of by pushing the boundrys on my 2000thou korean dunger and 50$ jacket is incredable i thought i was a good rider and having a ball along the way because i can push the bike to the limit not at 45% like you over shooting giants that call me out then the next bloke because he heard of a good rider. Im not good their bad and they still wanna run thru the godsland. The same thought i have with cars rotary’s and other little squirters can enjoy the boundry’s alot further than heavy cars it is about having fun not trying to pull ya 2tonne barge up at the next twisty with ya brakes smelling if yas can’t hit the limits then why buy them. I would like to hear from other people that think the same…….

  12. K7 750 said,

    on February 23rd, 2009 at 10:27 am

    Personnally, I think you just haven’t seen any half decent riders. I don’t know anyone in a car that could stick with my friends on their bikes (I can’t even stay with them on my bike!). While I’m slower then them, I haven’t had any car keep up with me through the tight twisty roads like on the Great Ocean Road.

    On tight roads like the those down to the south coast, I’ve never seen a car keep up with my mates. I’ve only done that road once on my current bike and that was the day after I got it, so still running it in, nervous as hell, and it was wet, I was crawling, but now when I do that road, it’s totally different.

  13. coast_rider said,

    on March 19th, 2009 at 8:29 pm

    I do both, i ride a cbr600f4i and drive a 5speed vt commodore. i ride to work everyday. with riding the same roads everyday i know i can get more corner speed out of my f4i, then what i can get out of my vt. say i can get 130k/h out of my vt around a cirtain cnr i can hit that same cnr at 155k/h. and feel like i can get more out of my bike. I don’t know? Maybe i’m a bad driver. lol. saying that on a road i dont know i feel more comfortable pushing the limits in my car. have a look on youtube ( mogo R1 / ripperton ) its not me, but this guy can ride. my only advice would be buy a bike, or even ride a friends bike and see what it feels like. just don’t think that you will cnr at the same as you do in your car. you will still get rush. have fun…. i’m out….

  14. Tim said,

    on April 12th, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    Yeah, I ride, and I drive.

    Personally, through the hills, where so many of our rider mates get killed each year, some at fault, some not at fault, I am always a little reluctant to push “hard”. I tell my wife I love her and promise to come home every time I go out, I have to keep it.

    In Adelaide, there are quite a few car drivers happy to cross the lines regardless of whether they can see the next corner or not, you only have to run wide to avoid a head on once or twice, and it kinda pulls the “fast” right out of you.

    That said there are a lot of terrible riders too. I’m not claiming to be great, but I try and stay smooth, and I stick to my lane. And that said, when you only have 6 square inches of contact patch total, you have to be really selective on public roads. Your lines have to be solid, a bit of gravel, some spilled diesel or fluid, which seems to happen a lot in the hills, and it can be all over. So I just don’t try to push that hard.

    And remember, if you are catching up and passing riders, your skill and machine are obviously in better sync than theirs. But what about the ones you just don’t catch? I promise that even though I’m not one of them, there are plenty of them around.

  15. Random said,

    on April 30th, 2009 at 6:32 am

    A motorcycle should easily outbrake and out accelerate most cars.
    Most cars should be able to out corner a motorcycle.

    Now factor in that most riders on the street/public road are not going to use (or are not capable of using) maximum traction (braking, acceleration, not to mention cornering traction), it should be obvious when ridden “normally” a car should easily be able to keep up with a motorcycle.

    The Rider may “feel” like he/she’s going “fast”, but the car filling their side view mirrors (assuming they bother to use them) should be a wakeup/reality check for them. However, ego’s being larger than common sense, most riders claim to be “fast” and claim to be “faster” than cars.

    I personally don’t claim to be fast. I ride for the enjoyment, at the speed I feel is prudent yet enjoyable. If anyone wants to pass, I slow down and wave them over where/when safe to do so (car, truck or motorcycle). If folks would just leave their ego’s @ the home doorstep, the (motoring) world would be a much better place!

  16. jon said,

    on May 31st, 2009 at 11:50 am

    all of the above comments seem to make no sense until you have personally ridden a bike. you seem to have good credentials knowing about and driving cars, so why not the same for a bike? get out there and see for yourself

  17. Rider said,

    on May 31st, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    Obviously you were following not a fast person. Search on some bike forums. I am sure may ppl will come forward just to show you your ‘way home’. If u’re so good, then be it, go on the track and race,show your guts mate. Sounds like you were trying that ‘trick’ often, making riders do street like racing?? Is that responsible for a 44 yr old guy? Remember there are many ‘Sunday cage drivers’; there are many ‘Sunday bike riders … see my point?
    Last thing, just to let you know, if we’re riding fast, we’ll chose roads with minimum traffic, for the safety sake, and as many corners over 60 km/hr as possible… not on straights.
    Julian, you are a ‘funny’ guy, you really are 🙂

  18. nick said,

    on September 23rd, 2010 at 1:52 am

    i bet a lot of bike riders like the one above me are just too poor to buy a performance car, so ride a “sport” bike instead and drive a hyundai haha.