Explaining The Leg Wave: Guy Coulon And Wilco Zeelenberg Speak

Watch a modern MotoGP, Moto2 or World Superbike race with a casual fan and you can be certain there is one question they will ask you: "Why are they waving their legs about like that?" Many theories have been offered, often directly contradicting each other. For example, several years ago, I suggested that the leg wave is entirely mental. Earlier this year, the Australian motorcycle coaching organization MotoDNA described the possible role which aerodynamics play, the exposed leg helping to create more drag. Much has been said, yet it seems impossible to settle the argument one way or another.

Asking the riders to explain does not help much. It is a question I and other journalists have asked of many different riders, including Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner, Cal Crutchlow, and Dani Pedrosa. Their answers always boil down to the same thing: "It just feels natural," they say. An interesting response, perhaps providing an insight into how deeply racers have internalized so much of the physical part of their riding, but not doing much to help explain the phenomenon.

To attempt to get to the bottom of this mystery, I turned to some of the best minds in the MotoGP paddock. For an explanation of the physics behind the leg wave, I asked Monster Tech 3 Yamaha crew chief and technical guru Guy Coulon, while for further insight from the point of view of an observer and ex-rider, I spoke to Wilco Zeelenberg, team manager of Jorge Lorenzo - the one current MotoGP rider who does not dangle his leg while riding.

The answer, said Coulon, was not simple. "This is quite difficult to answer. We can believe that when you put your legs in this position on braking, the center of gravity is more inside and you can keep straighter on braking for a longer time." So was the point of the leg wave to move the center of gravity of bike and rider? "I think so, because on braking, you have to be quite straight on the bike, so you cannot move your shoulder or anything else," Coulon replied.

Coulon accepted that the mental aspect could be one reason which riders dangle their legs. Could it be that seeing other riders do it, and believing it conferred an advantage, other riders start to copy the behavior? "Yes, of course," Coulon agreed, but more physical aspects also played a role. "But maybe also because of bike geometry, and the kind of tire being used, and what they are able to do on corner entry, so step-by-step they can use this sticking the leg outside," the Frenchman added. "But for me, it's really complicated to explain." He had seen the maneuver become ever more prevalent among riders, Coulon said. "Like everybody else, I can see step-by-step, one rider, two riders, and more and more riders are using this style. But themselves, they don't know really why, and sometimes they don't feel they are doing it."

In a previous article, I argued that Valentino Rossi was one of the first riders to start to use his leg off the pegs on a regular basis, and that the fact that he saw other riders copying him gave him a confidence boost and a mental advantage. Though Coulon emphasized that he believed there were sound physical reasons for the leg wave, he agreed that riders tend to watch each other closely and copy each other. "I think it is similar to when the first riders started to use sliders on the knees. One guy started to do that because it helped him control the slide, and it was like a sensor to check the lean angle, then after this, everybody started to use this style," Coulon explained. "But I think [dangling] legs outside can be used for better stability, and to keep the center of gravity center more inside in the corner where the rider is going, to keep the bike straighter for longer, to keep it in the same position."

Was there any evidence in the masses of data collected after every session which might help to explain exactly what was happening? "I think it's a bit complicated to see on the data," Coulon said.

"Maybe if someone was focused on this and tried to find something in the data, they could. We didn't try. But for sure, using data, it would be possible to test with a test rider, for example, and we could understand with the same speed, the same deceleration, the same line, with the legs [dangling] outside or not, if the angle is same or different. But for sure angle would be different." The question is whether a test rider would even be capable of performing the test, as the styles required are so very different. "It's not so easy to ask one rider to change his style only to compare the data," Coulon added. "It seems they are doing it without thinking, finally." Mainly, it was a question of balance, he said, the leg being used "like a tightrope walker uses his pole to keep his balance."

The one rider who does not use the leg wave is Jorge Lorenzo. "Yes, but Lorenzo is very stable on the brakes, because of his own style," Coulon explained. "Because he is really really smooth everywhere, so we never see him with real jumping on the brakes, he controls everything very smoothly, he brakes, releases the brakes very gently. and early. He can carry a lot of corner speed, then also opening [the throttle] he is very smooth. It seems he needs to find less extra stability, because he is already stable because of his own personal style. He always looks very clean."

Wilco Zeelenberg agrees. As Jorge Lorenzo's team manager, part of his role is as acting as rider coach and helping identify areas where the Spaniard is having problems. As part of this, he spends a lot of time at track side watching Lorenzo, and assessing what is going on. Zeelenberg agrees with Coulon, it is the smoothness of Lorenzo's style which precludes him taking his feet of the pegs. "He's not really an extremely late braker," Zeelenberg said. "He wants to keep his bike as stable as possible, as soon as you take your leg off the peg the bike begins to wander, and you have to search for stability. It looks to me like they [the riders who dangle their legs] are looking for stability this way, because they have so much pressure on the front wheel. They are trying to gain some control over the bike, to keep it stable, but [Jorge] never lets it get that far."

So Lorenzo is creating stability in a different way? "He brakes a little earlier, but in a different way, so he never arrives at the corner with the bike on its front wheel, which makes it want to go all over the place, which makes you lose control. Your foot is a good lever to handle this." Lorenzo arrives at the corner with the bike already under control and at the right speed, Zeelenberg explained.

As a rider, Zeelenberg said, he had never taken his leg off the pegs, so he could not speak from personal experience. But he could see how it seems to work for some riders, from the time he has spent at track side watching. "It seems to have a limited advantage. So I think for some riders, especially really late brakers, it helps," Zeelenberg explained. "When you brake really, really late, your heart rate goes up a lot, your pulse starts really racing, and you stiffen and cramp on the bike. That's no good. By throwing your leg off the bike, you relax again, which makes it possible for you to stick the bike into the corner."

"The leg helps with this," Zeelenberg continued, "because you can throw the bike to the left a lot more easily. If you're braking, and thinking 'Shit! I'm too late,' at the moment the riders get that 'shit!' feeling, that's the moment they take their foot off the peg. They realize that at the moment they have that feeling, and stick their leg out, they can still make the corner." It is a way of breaking through their own mental fear of braking too late, Zeelenberg explained. "Everyone has a sort of mental barrier at which point you think 'Shit, I'm not going to make it," at that point, you cramp up even more, and then you won't make the corner." So it is a way in which riders force themselves to loosen up again, to take away the cramped stiffness? "Yes. But also, it's left-handed corners. None of them stick their right legs out if there's a left turn coming. So it definitely has something to do with balance, but also with forcing the bike into the corner at the moment you stick your leg out."

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... These guys have no idea why riders "leg wave" either. Definitely NOT ragging on either one's experience or credibility in the paddock by the way.

You are right. Neither one is certain of the reasons, but they both have good and credible explanations for it. I did not expect it to solve the arguments. But it's nice to hear educated opinions on the phenomenon.

Thanks for a great article. When explained the way Guy and Wilco have, I think it makes sense and seems even intuitive. After watching them do it for several years now, you can sense the feeling of trying to gain stability on corner entry from the riders.

My first theory was... it was a very small way for the riders to gain a little bit more feel of what the front end was doing. Basically taking away from one of their sensory inputs, the foot, it was putting more pressure into their hands, giving them a bit more feel.

Maybe that's part of it, but I doubt it's a conscious feeling and probably much more to do with balance like they said.

seems to be an obvious weight and therefore CofG shift, which should aid grip and corner speed for a given lean angle. In my experience you can feel the air brake effect by sticking your knee out, so a whole leg perhaps helps with turning the bike too. As the experts say, it may also help maintain balance when 'teetering on the edge'.

Presumably not doing it on right handers is something to do with using the rear brake (I thought that I had seen it being used on right handers, but perhaps that's my memory playing tricks). I don't know if thumb brakes are popular in MGP but such a fitment would allow you to wave any leg you like!
Not being versed in the art of braking/accelerating etc whilst in the corner to aid steering/stability/instability (as opposed to getting there and getting out again or aiding 'sitting up' in a chicane) I don't know how much rear brake these guys use in the early or mid phase, but presumably they have to have their leg back on the peg by the apex anyway. (Amazing what you realise you don't register/remember when you think about it!).

The other aspect which is often mentioned in commentaries is blocking the gap. That always seems a minor aspect to me (these guys don't often leave too much room)but in a world of seeking miniscule advantage you can imagine a leg perhaps making the difference between taking the gap or not.

Please keep the tech studies coming David!

might also be another factor - having your leg out already perhaps means a possible save should the front fold when they hit the lever. Another Bridgestone factor/influence?

dude163 is correct. Watch the '93 race at Laguna. Schwantz is dangling that thing all over the place. When the practice was revived a few seasons ago, I kept wondering why no one ever asked Kevin why he used to do it. I don't think anyone has asked him yet. Maybe someone should.

I asked Schwantz about a couple of years ago. He said it wasn't conscious, and it wasn't as long or as intentional as it is nowadays. "Your foot would just sort a slip off the pegs," he said. He certainly never intended to use it as part of his riding style, it just sort of happened. Contrast that with Stoner, Rossi and Crutchlow, who all use it as a specific tool in their riding toolchest.

In the '93 footage you can really see that Schwantz is merely repositionning his feet after going down the gears, it's not the same thing they're doing today.

It seems to me it's Rossi who started it. Would be interesting to pin point exactly when, wich race, and so on. It's in the archives after all !...

I do not believe I have seen Nicky Hayden swing the leg out either. Considering he is a dirt tracker by nature, I find this somewhat surprising. From a speedway riders point of view, I can tell you that swinging the leg out upon corner entry has most to do with the balance and center of gravity first and holding the rider/bike up secondarily. The foot only touches the ground for a brief moment or two just for a reference point, then the balancing, bike and throttle position can accurately by applied relative to available grip. The order is reversed on difficult or very slick tracks. Although in MotoGP, the riders may be looking for stability with the leg swing while breaking, the end result or purpose seems to be the same - finding a balance or stability reference point.

re: "several years ago, I suggested that the leg wave is entirely mental"

perhaps initially it was, but now it's entirely TACTICAL.

here a few years on, sure all the CoG and aero suggestions make for nice off-season chatter, but the truth is, it's purely a move used to block the inside line. i've tried it, and it's been a very rare instance where i've ever felt more balanced. heretofore, sticking a knee out made you "wide", however extending a full leg makes you "WIDER" (so as to discourage overtakes this).

trust, i'm a fan of rossi as much as anybody else, but i never bought his early explanations. him and all the other riders who have currently adopted this just want you to keep BELIEVING this is the reason (thereby they can keep doing it). personally, i think the move should be banned in anything other than "a save your ass" moment. sticking your leg out 10x per lap for 20 laps is neither safe nor sportsmanlike. it actually needs to go away, not be further embraced or encouraged imo.

"ladies and gentleman, for your safety please keep all arms, hands, and legs from out the windows while the bus is in motion. thank you." (tour guide voice)

I tend to agree with normgshamarone . Several times riders have shoved their legs out in front of the bike behind. But I'd suggest it will stop as soon as a rider behind trying to make an overtake runs his front wheel into the offending leg. Schwantz doubtless did it as a result of having difficulty keeping his rather long legs tucked up on the pegs, so he'd lose his footing, so to speak. Mick Doohan once had his leg off the peg heading into Turn One at Phillip Island whilst engaged in a hectic tustle for the lead with his Rothmans Honda team-mate Wayne Gardner. At the time it looked as if Doohan had kicked out at Gardner, but Doohan said he was "nearly blown off the bike" and was regaining his balance. Judge for yourself in this clip, around 5m 23s in: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0niPmkyXzNc

that it seemed natural that using a race gear-shift pattern under heavy braking required the left-toe to slide from the bottom of the gear-shift lever to the top once you are in the lower gear (i.e. in order to be prepared to shift into second as quickly as possible on exit). This would mean that the foot is more likely to 'slip off' the peg - especially with very heavy braking. This would also explain why you don't see them do it on the right-hand side.

Of course, the stability, mental, and other aspects all now play a role too.....

That its more a mental thing. It probably starts as a few "oh shit" moments where the rider goes to put their foot down as a precursor to going down or running off as they have gone in too hot. Then they save it a few times with the leg waving and it starts to feel like safety net, then a habit.

Marquez does something else again I believe. He axtually slides his heel along the ground more often than not. I reckon he's using the technique as a sort of gauge and stability aid, like getting the knee down is used for.

How far do you want to go back... my father used to do it sometimes and that would be 30+ years ago. He would ague that he did not do it till we got a pic of him. There would have been others.

I agree with Desh - that is my preferred answer. I do not agree with the blocking idea - why do they do it when nobody is around? The wind makes no sense as it is mainly done on slower corners. Lorenzo's style argues against the better balance / lower COG ideas.

Interesting contrast was Sepang in the wet. Jorge stabbed his foot out and saved the front end whilst Marquez hangs his foot out too far - when he lost the front the foot slid out to the left so down he went. Not a natural dirt rider. He will do well in the dry on a 1000 but not in the wet till he works it out. Dani has but it took a lot of years.

Here is an example of Rossi doing it with the right leg in amonsgt a good description by Kevin on how to brake.

re: "why do they do it when nobody is around?"

why is the behavior nearly ABSENT in the more competitive series of WSBK...?

A: motogp riders are BLOCKING.

guy and wilco aren't riders (not anymore anyway), they're wrenches and vale, casey, cal, and the like aren't dummies, they could articulate an answer to "the leg question" just fine if they wanted to. conclusion...? they DON'T want to. they are being deliberately vague so as to continue pulling a ruse on a mostly gullible public. they know your natural disposition is to BELIEVE that they are doing something heroic or special. they aren't going to say anything to break that illusion. if i were them i wouldn't either.

They are not blocking anything. How much more room are they taking up? Maybe a foot? not even. How is someone's leg going to stop a full size bike from passing?

make it appropriate to sit up and use your body to slow down. If you are going into a 'fast' corner you will keep tucked and with weight over the front of the bike and keep your feet on the pegs. In 'slower' corners you need to move more to keep weight where it needs to be, largely because your lean angle will be greater, rate of turn higher, and the CofG shift etc. is therefore (more) effective.
I think that in that way it is similar to knee down - that doesn't happen in the really fast turns either.
I'm not convinced by the 'space-take-only' suggestions. I'm sure that any of these riders (especially MM) would soon shove their bike into the space if they thought that was all it was and the space was actually there. The rider with his leg out would soon learn and it wouldn't be a dangerous move either in the racing sense.I don't think that at MGP level riders often leave that much room. Also, as mentioned above you see it relatively often when riders have a good gap to the bike behind (assuming they read their pit boards). I'm pretty sure that I have seen that circumstance in WSB/BSB too.

One data point. Early in my racing career (1987 to 2004), I had racing boots that had heels, and you could hook them over the pegs, and that would prevent your foot from flying forward under braking. Later in my career, the boot style evolved into the heel-less flat bottomed versions we see now. I noticed immediately that my feet were flying off the pegs while braking. I hated it. Racers today have no choice in the style of boots. I'll hazard a guess that not having a heel was safer for some other reason (crash survival/injury), which is why we have them.

While that might give a racer an excuse for having a foot off the peg, what I believe the real reason is, and what others have stated, it is nothing more than a crude blocking maneuver, an attempt to make yourself wider. Some might say dirty racing, I wouldn't. If I was still racing I'd be using it too, and anything else I thought could get me a win...

re: "I had racing boots that had heels, and you could hook them over the pegs, and that would prevent your foot from flying forward under braking."

if that's what you were doing, then your body position was all wrong. you're supposed to be back and up on the balls of your feet. if your heels are anywhere near the pegs you'll be scraping a toe and startling yourself before you're 15 degrees from vertical in some turns (ie. on camber). you're expectation of first touch is your knee.

Your 5 year old must have monster feet to be able to brake and down shift while the balls of his feet are on the pegs. Me, I liked my heels hooked over the pegs WHILE braking. If you read what I posted, that is what I said. As far as you 5 year old having heels, great... show me a mans roadracing boot with heels available today...

David, once again great article. Contrasting Lorenzo's style to others then breaking down the center of gravity aspect. But to me, it comes over from dirt bikes. If you have ridden motocross bikes or dirt track bikes, it is something you do all the time. You are not leaning with the bike in the dirt, (unless you want to hit the dirt). So you tilt the bikes to the side while you are far more upright than on a road bike. The lean angles I get out of a cr450 at a motocross track in a berm are about the same as my roadbike at a race track, but it is done two different ways. My head is far closer to the ground on my road bike, where as my head is pretty up right on a motocross bike with my foot out. It starts, (foot out), when I am braking, and continues through a good part of the corner. Stability, just like Coulon was saying. COG.

I could be wrong, but I could have sworn a couple of years ago Rossi answered why he did it and where he got it from. He said he got it from Supercross. If you watch any Supercross races, all of them do this. Jeremy McGrath was one of his idols. If you look at any dirt bike racing, enduro, Supercross, Motocross, Dirt Track... etc. You will see all the racers do this.

Thanks for the article. I was going into hibernation mode before I read this.

In a sport were milions are spent on exotic materials to get weight down or move it around for millimeters, Guy Coulon says "Maybe if someone was focused on this and tried to find something in the data, they could. We didn't try." How strange / hard-to-believe is that?

I started on road bikes then went enduro racing. When I got back on the tarmac,the old leg dangling and feeling bit gleaned from the dirt became ingrained and I always felt the better for it,confidence wise if nothing else.
I don't believe anyone can put a handle on this issue. A combination of a gyroscopic thing, a mental thing, a gravity thing, a 'save ass thing' on the limit, I have no clue. A left/ right thing. First tarmac bike I raced had a one up/4 down gear shifter on the right. Ducati 750S 1973. Still got the lump and all of its 60BHP with 19" front wheel and Scarab caliper/Lockheed discs to boot. The front boot back then was 60 to 90 cross section. Makes you think. 120 cross section front is the norm these days. The huge change is the rear tyre cross section. Back then,110 or 120 was about standard,coupled to a 90 or so front. With current 200+ rear cross section rubber pushing the little front man,no wonder the blokes are using their legs as an extra bandwidth.
Tell you what. The wavey leg or Marquez style,heel scrape is fine if it gains you lap times. Thats what its about.
For sure though,it looks as ugly as hell. Hailwood kept everything pinned, Kenny downloaded the knee,which started a new fad or phase. Valentino will be synonomous with the 'leg out'. It certainly works for the upper echelon.
Great article David. Next topic...Elbow down and the reasoning behind it.

I saw a cheetah at full speed and the narrator explaining while the shot was in slow motion of the cheetah using his long tail as a way of balancing himself in quick directional changes. It acts as a rudder or a way of counter balancing himself to make those hard quick directional changes and I immediately thought of Vale or Dovi using their legs to help them just before the corner. It really is interesting!

I saw a cheetah at full speed and the narrator explaining while the shot was in slow motion of the cheetah using his long tail as a way of balancing himself in quick directional changes. It acts as a rudder or a way of counter balancing himself to make those hard quick directional changes and I immediately thought of Vale or Dovi using their legs to help them just before the corner. It really is interesting!

IMHO in MotoGP there are 2 different types of "leg swing"

1.the one when they are quickly changing direction, they seem to throw a "kick" at the side they want the motorcycle to turn, I've seen Pedrosa doing this since his early years in GP and Crotchlow too, you have to be very observative and pinpoint the exact turning point when they throw "the kick"

2.The other "Leg" I observe is when maximum braking, and I totally agree with the dirt riders out there, the leg comes out naturally when you feel you're in the hairy edge.The fact that Rossi has made an art of that movement, is another topic, I love the grace he exercises when approaching certain corners, and that can or may be used as an air brake and fulcrum point to turn. When you stick a leg out at more than 150mph,the wind will try to rip it off you, try just to wave your hand at 150 and you can imagine what the leg will do!

Almost every rider who sticks out the leg you will notice how he expands his shoulders and enlarge the arms, trying to create the best possible parachute to stop the bike(real or imaginary) I suspect there's more than imagination to sticking out limbs, anyone that has raced a motorcycle knows the feeling when you hit your braking point and you sit up in the bike, the wind hit is enormous and you can feel your body is in the middle of a big turbulence, Just to give an idea of what the leg can or can't do.

This is much much simpler than we all think. It's a factor of laziness. The rider drops all their downshifts during braking, and then needs to reset their foot on the peg (ball of the foot) after the down shifting. Most riders actually remove their foot from the shifter/peg assembly, and the braking forces are pretty great at this point. It's easier to just let that leg dangle for a little while, conserve energy, and then put it back on the peg in "attack" mode when the G's aren't quite so great.

i agree with ajpags, but to add to the bit when they reset there feet after downshifting. it aids getting the foot in the right place for any particular corner. hence the right foot dont dangle because the foot dont move so much during braking as it does during downshifting.

Reasoning behind the Elbow down isssssssss........ Because they are fooking heroes and they can lol
Leon Haslam did a leg dangling test a year or two back and said it helped ever so slightly as a wind breaker to initially help with the turning of the bike due to gyroscopic forces.
But he did also mention it could well just be a minor distraction to a n other rider trying to pass because he would have to be approx 2 to 3 ft further away (depending on leg length of dangling rider's leg, Simoncelli about 4ft as an approx guess) from the rider being over taken thus putting said over taker even more off line.
Crutchlow uses both legs. Watch closely and he does his rear braking, then dangles/waves his leg.
The leg waving will stop once (hopefully not) a rider gets tangled up in a front wheel. I would foresee immediate rules put in place but as i say i do hope it does not happen, it would be very messy and even more painful for the rider... Lets not go there hey....

Simoncelli using the leg wave on the right can be seen at the 2011 Jerez race five laps in.