Cornering, the Centerpiece of Cycling

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Image from Wikimedia

Riding a bike requires almost equal parts skill and trust. And successful cornering is all about trust. One cannot ride in a straight line forever, though I suppose it is feasible, so inevitably turning is going to come into play. There are at least two kinds of technical turns which cause trepidation and fear among cyclists: turning on a fast descent, and curves from a steep ascent into a steeper grade. They require different technical skills, but the same level of trust.

A. Trust

To succeed, you have about three things to trust: your skills, the road, and your bike. Trust in your skills comes from experience and practice. The more and longer you are on your bike, the more comfortable you will feel on it. Read my prior post on training for an overview. Shifting and braking skills are particularly important in cornering.
Trust in the road comes from knowing the road: where the turns are, the amount and ferocity of traffic, and the likelihood of debris or potholes. You will trust a road better if you’ve been on it, or if you’re on an organized ride where the host has, ostensibly, driven the route and place warning signs for cyclists and drivers.
But, for most, the lack of trust comes from a fear of mechanical failure. So you need to know your bike. You need to make sure the chain is lubed and clean. You need to make sure your tires are properly inflated. You need to make sure you’ve replaced the consumables on your bike within the manufacturer’s wear specifications: chain, tires, chainring and cassette, brake pads, cables.
Again, confidence in your bike comes from experience riding it, but more it comes from knowing how it works (Exploratorium’s excellent page on bicycle physics, but a Google for others), and knowing how to repair it. Both of these topics are huge; I’m going to write a non-egghead article on why a bicycle stays upright (teaser answer: we don’t know).
But you can start to gain more trust in your bike by working on it:
As you ride, you will gain confidence. It is inevitable.

B. Universal Cornering Skills

Making a turn on a bicycle is easy compared with explaining what you do to make a bicycle turn. Your position, the bicycle’s position, and the position of the front wheel all make a difference. In our experiments with bicycles, the Exploratorium staff has discovered that you can initiate a turn to one side by steering to the other side. Motorcycle riders call this “counter-steering,” a small jerk on the handlebars in one direction to initiate a turn in the opposite direction. (Emphasis added.)

But these are some tips I’ve learned over the years:
  • Keep your head up.
  • Look into the corner, not at the ground.
  • Moderate your speed before you enter the turn, not while you’re in it.
  • Beware of gravel on the road, but don’t freak out about it — Don’t slam on your brakes!
  • Brake evenly with both hands, not just one.
  • Lean into the turn, and press on the handle bar with the inside hand (counter steering, this may never need to be a conscious activity, but its important to think of it this way).
  • Keep your inside foot up and your outside foot down (to keep from bashing your pedal into the ground).
  • Avoid riding your brakes to keep them from overheating (thus heating the rim and leading to a popped tube, see the section on Fast Cornering).
All this takes practice — or not. You learn this stuff by feeling it and doing it more than by reading it. But you can visualize yourself on the bike performing all these techniques, and improve in that way. Try it!

C. Fast Cornering

Oh, geez, this is hard! I’m an new rider, and my descent skills are just beginning to bloom. However, one lesson I’ve learned is that I have to let go — mostly of fear — to get down the hill. The more I ride, the faster I can make it down the hill. And believe it or not, faster is better.
If you ride your brakes to descend slowly, you will wear out the components on your bike faster, make it more likely that you have a catastrophic failure of some key system (most likely the tires), and increase the chances of slipping on gravel or in a pothole. Instead, practice using your brakes sparingly on descents — to moderate your speed when you cannot do so by other means (gently brake, release, gently brake to keep from overheating), and to lower your speed as you enter a turn (keep your head up!!).
The Charles River Wheelmen have an excellent article on descents:

.For some, a descent full of twists and turns is nothing short of bliss, while for others it’s pure terror. Wherever you fit in this spectrum, you may find helpful some instruction on how to handle unforeseen problems.

Steep descents can be tricky. Steering will be exaggerated, small turns become more difficult, and your weight is transferred forward. This is a very different experience from riding the flats, and you must know how to counteract these forces. In addition, the road surface conditions play a greater role. At slow speeds, potholes, gravel, spilled oil, and fallen tree limbs are a challenge, but at high speeds such conditions can become a greater threat.

On the topic of cornering in descents, the article continues:

When cornering, lean your bike while keeping your body more upright. Weighting your outer pedal [another way to look at counter steering] and/or pointing your inside knee into the turn can help you maintain proper cornering position. An abrupt steering correction can break the front tire loose, as can the front brake if applied with too much force. Ride within your limits, and adjust your speed based on your line of sight.

And as to braking:

Speed control on descents is essential, which is best accomplished by feathering, or light taps, of the brakes. Stopping distances increase greatly with speed (especially when the rims are wet!). … The steeper the descent, the less hard you can brake without pitching over the handlebars, so choose a speed that will allow you to stop comfortably if there is an obstacle or hazard just out of sight.

Another problem in descending steeply is that the wheel rims and brake pads may get hot if you apply them too frequently or for too long a time, potentially causing tires and tubes to fail. Use both brakes and short intervals of braking with time in between for the rims to cool.

The article then recommends braking in less steep area rather than on the steepest portions of the hill. Great advise to keep you from doing an endo and will help keep your brakes cooler.

D. Slow Cornering

Equally daunting for some is a slow assent into a steep turn. I’ll have to ruminate on this and draft a complete article, but the principles will require, again, practice! The primary tips I have are:
  • Make sure you’re in a gear that can accommodate the increased steepness (possibly your lowest gear, or “granny gear“).
  • Keep your cadence up (this is the other half of being in the correct gear for the hill) so that you don’t burn out your muscles half way through the ascent.
  • Keep your head up and look into the turn.
  • Most importantly: Don’t stop pedaling.
Well, that’s it for now. Don’t hesitate to ask questions or make comments!
Your, Bear.

3 thoughts on “Cornering, the Centerpiece of Cycling

    Corner Stone « Bear's ALC Page said:
    March 2, 2015 at 3:19 pm

    […] few months ago, I wrote a piece on cornering — including ascending and descending, speed, posture, and trusting your bike. Reading the […]

    […] Cornering: Whether you’re climbing, on a flat, or descending, knowing how to take a corner will help you not to crash, to maintain your speed in a safe manner, and keep you and your fellow riders safe. Remember to turn by counter steering. Press away from your body with your outside leg, keeping your inside leg high. (Read my first blog post about cornering.) […]

    Never Cross the Yellow Line « Bear's ALC Page said:
    September 22, 2017 at 3:50 pm

    […] as is safely possible. There are times when you need to move out into the lane. For instance, when cornering, when passing cyclists, to avoid obstructions, or if road conditions in the curb are too poor for […]

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