Updated: Mar 16, 2020
Cornering on a bicycle
On a Sunday afternoon back in 1981, Tony Tom (owner of A Bicycle Odyssey, LBS) and I drove to a small town in the Sierras, called Nevada City to watch the Nevada City bicycle race. I will never forget standing at the bottom of that hill (among 50,000 spectators) on Broad St watching the Pro ½ field come barreling down the main street in Nevada City and then make the sweeping uphill turn back up the hill. They were going downhill at over 50 mph and then flying back up the hill. I distinctly remember telling Tony, “I’ll NEVER EVER do that! Those guys are CRAZY!!!”
You know what they say… Nevada City became my favorite bicycle race and I even had the experience of winning the race from wire to wire! Once I learned how to go around corners really fast, it became quite the thrill.
Compare that to the sheer fear of cornering in a pack of crazy bike racers. Most racers on our team prefer the solo riding of a time trial compared to racing against a field of riders. However, whether you like time trialing or criterium racing, you will still need the skills I’ll develop in this version of Thur Training Tips.
Single Track Vehicle
A bicycle is a “single-track” vehicle: A vehicle that leaves a single ground track as it moves forward. Single track vehicles have unique dynamics as they require leaning into a turn and usually include counter steering. Believe it or not, most cyclists and motorcyclists do not know about these unique dynamics of steering. I learned about counter steering at a MSF (Motorcycle Safety Foundation) course and have since adapted what I learned to a bicycle. Once you understand this feature of bicycle steering, you will be much more comfortable cornering and especially if called up for emergency action. Because most of us drive cars, we tend to turn in the same direction as if we were driving a car, however this causes the opposite effect.
Try this experiment for yourself.
Ride along in a straight line at about 15 to 20 mph. Without leaning, try turning the handlebars to the left and notice which way the bicycle goes. (Use very slight turning motion!) You’ll find that the bicycle will lean to the right and the more you turn, the more it leans. This is called counter steering and is due to Newtons First law: Objects in motion tend to remain in motion. When you are going straight ahead, and you turn the handlebars to the left, the bicycle wants to go straight, but the turned handlebars creates a resistance to forward motion and the bicycle falls/leans to the right. While some of you may do this without thinking, what often happens in a emergency situation, is you turn the bars in the direction you want to go and the opposite happens. Therefore it is imperative to learn, study and practice counter steering for best cornering ability. This will make negotiating a corner whether alone or in a pack so much easier and safer. Another way to think of turning is to push left to turn left, effectively pushing your handlebars away from you (just slightly) and the bike will lean and turn to the left. Make this so habitual and you’ll find that cornering is effortless and you won’t be fighting the bike in a turn.
Now let’s talk about the lean aspect.
Most cyclists are afraid to lean their bikes into a corner! When you lean over, you are accountable to the forces of gravity and if you lean when you are not moving, you will continue leaning until you hit the ground. However, when you are moving and you lean, the bike begins to turn in the direction of the lean effectively neutralizing the falling action. Hence it’s a balancing act of the various forces on the bicycle that creates the turn. The more you lean, the tighter the turn, until the lean angle is too great that the tires lose their grip on the road. So lets discuss some features of the lean into the corner
I was surprised at the last cornering clinic how many bike racers did not use correct body position on the bike in a turn. It’s basically very simple. Keep your body lined up with the bicycle. I saw hips off one side of the saddle, shoulders turned away from the corner, and lots of other aberrations of cornering. For the forces to balance in the corner, your body leans with the bike. Your body position should stay lined up with the bike, throughout the turn. Now there are exceptions for slick surfaces, loose gravel and high speed cornering, but for the basic criterium turn, keep your body directly over the bicycle.
This is also very important. If you have ever witnessed a crash in a corner, notice how the crash starts and ends. Traction is normally lost on the REAR wheel, which then slides out and the rider pivots off the bike. In 40 years of racing I have seen many, many crashes and when a rider slides out its always the rear wheel! Why is this? When cornering on a bicycle, if you are sitting on the saddle, there is more weight on the rear wheel than the front wheel. Ideally, you want the weight equally distributed between both wheels. If there is more weight on the rear wheel, it will lose traction first. As you lean into a corner, you redistribute your body weight between both wheels. So you will have to put more pressure into the handlebars, lighten your weight on the saddle every so slightly and transfer more weight to your pedals, particularly the pedal on the outside of the corner, which will be the extended leg. This also allows you to control the lean angle with the pressure of the outside leg. This technique will redistribute your weight to equalize the forces so that both wheels get maximum traction.
What are you lookin at?
When you are cornering its critical that your eyes are looking in the right direction. I normally keep my gaze on the place where I will be next. Usually about 2 to 4 bike lengths ahead of me.
When cornering, your gaze should be looking through the corner. Believe it or not, you will go to where you are looking. If you are fixated on the rear wheel of the cyclist ahead of you, you will find it difficult to manage the corners.
The fastest line
What is the fastest line through the corner? On a regular 90 degree turn, hitting the “apex” of the turn will be the fastest line. If the corner is greater than 90 degrees, the apex will be later and for shallower corners, the apex is earlier. We will cover the apex in the cornering clinic. You should know before the race starts, where the apex (fastest line) is for each corner.
Follow the pack
After you know where the apex is, normally the pack doesn’t do a good job of hitting the apex. If you are on the front or solo, you can choose your fastest line, which will help you maintain the lead. However if you are in the pack, you need to follow the same line (however bad it may be) so as to not cause problems with the other riders. If you don’t like the line the pack is using, either go to the front or get off the front so you can choose your own line. In the meantime, sit tight and follow the same line as the pack for the safety of everyone in the bike race.
When cornering in a pack, where do you want to be? Inside or outside on the corner. Which is safer, which is faster? Typically, the inside line is always faster since you are going slightly less distance than the rider on the outside line. Also, if someone in front of you falls, they slide to the outside. So the inside line is also safer. If the race is going one way, either clockwise or counter-clockwise, keeping the inside line is easy. However if the course has multiple, left, right turns, you have to work to get the inside line on each corner.
The Louisville cornering clinic is this Saturday. I will cover counter steering, body position in the corners, equally weighting both wheels, apex, both early and late apex corners and we’ll learn how to preview the course, checking for obstacles, cracks in the road, bumps and other cycling obstacles to watch for. I’ll also discuss ways to move up in a field, how to set up the sprint and how to ride safely in the field. Finally I will teach you a principle I call “access” which will keep you safe and also allow you to win races by being in the right place at the right time, always having “access” to the front. It’s a skill I developed by riding the Miss and Out races on the track.
Cornering on a bicycle/single track vehicle is fun… if done correctly.