Attacking the switchbacks at Ironman St. George/Photo by Jay Prasuhn
In John Howard’s last article, “Cutting Corners, Done Right,” he covered how to turn corners under sub-optimal conditions like heavy traffic and with other riders. Here, in part II, he expands his advice to two important areas, teaching us how to apex and corner on trails.
Another technique for fast and efficient cornering is apexing, which is used to straighten out a turn. First, the turn is entered from the outer edge of the road to create the widest angle possible. Next, the apex, or midpoint of the turn, is cut on the inside. Finally, the turn is exited on the outside. Since the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, this technique shortens the distance and lets you get through the turn with less lean and loss of speed. When approaching a curve, pick the line you want before entering the turn. The line you choose depends on the presence of automobile traffic and other cyclists. If you must brake in the turn, apply light, even pressure on both brake levers.
Certain techniques can be applied to maximize stability while cornering. With the inside crank at the 12 o’clock position, extend the knee into the turn while leaning your body into it. Look through the corner without focusing on any particular object in your path. Inexperienced cyclists tend to watch their front wheels or look directly at objects, which can unintentionally carry them into the very objects they are trying to avoid. Additional stability can be gained by shifting your weight back in the saddle. Another trick is to apply pressure to the inside drop of the handlebar in the direction of the turn. If your knee is already cocked out, and your momentum is increasing too rapidly, use your head and shoulder as an outrigger, leaning them into the direction of the turn. If you feel you are losing control, apply light, steady pressure to the brakes. If you spot gravel or other slippery debris, straighten your bike briefly as you pass through the area, resume your lean, and complete the turn. Above all, remain calm and respond to challenges with action rather than emotion. Maximize stability while cornering: Extend the knee and body into the turn and apply pressure to the inside drop of the handlebar in the direction of the turn.
Negotiating sharper turns at lower speeds or practicing in a parking lot with cones may help you to get a feel for the handling characteristics of your bike. Carving through a course of plastic cones or water bottles that are partially filled will do wonders to improve your cornering skills and build your confidence. This is a fun activity that few clubs practice. If you want to have some productive fun, invite some friends to do it with you. Bring a stopwatch.
Skillful cornering requires a lot of practice, and although helpful advice can be offered, these skills cannot be learned from a book. Relax and stay calm while cornering, especially during descents. When choosing your line through a turn, scan it for obstacles, potholes, and debris. Cornering reduces your speed, so you may want to either downshift before entering the turn or stay in the current gear and come out of the saddle, sprinting back up to speed as you exit. Avoid braking suddenly or making jerky movements, and maintain a smooth, fluid motion.
Regardless of your strength and speed, confidence comes from practicing (see my article on how to practice), riding with experienced cyclists, and gradually building a sense of control and mastery. The best way to do this is by riding regularly with a group. This environment can help teach fledgling cyclists about riding etiquette: how and when to pass other cyclists, pointing out road hazards, signaling when stopping, and alerting cyclists behind you when a pedestrian is in the road or a car is pulling out. Effective communication among cyclists reduces the risk of accidents and injuries.
You should never negotiate single-track trails and fire roads with utter abandon, especially if you aren’t familiar with them. Since four of my five broken bones from this sport have occurred in the dirt, I speak from experience. Off-road practice should progress in difficulty no matter how good a road cyclist you are. Many of the physical parameters of cornering on the road also apply off-road, but differences do exist. When riding through a downhill turn on a loose surface, try standing on the pedals in a crouched position instead of sliding back in the saddle. “Crouching forward on the pedals with your arms bent is an aggressive stance. The idea is to keep the upper body fluid and your elbows bent. Be ready to shift your weight backward or forward as needed” says Bob Schultz, a former national NORBA champion in cross-country racing.
Unlike cornering on the road, the crouched position helps absorb shock and allows you to make sharper turns faster by literally throwing your body weight into the turn. Instead of the traditional crank positions of 6 and 12 o’clock favored by road riders, Bob suggests adopting a pedal position of 3 and 9 o’clock for improved weight distribution and balance. Just as you would when executing a turn on gravel or soft dirt, always set your turn up wide and begin early enough to straighten slightly when you hit the loose spot. Cornering rapidly on a trail is very much like downhill skiing. Timing is critical. If you lose your rhythm on a fast set of turns, the error will be compounded as you go. The best downhillers seem to follow a policy of going in slowly and out fast; that is, they brake lightly before the turn, take the turn slowly, and power out of the turn. Ideally, you don’t brake at all, but if you’re coming in too fast, you do not want to wait until you’re into the turn to brake.
Suspension systems on mountain bikes have changed the skill, since they can corner safely with faster lines. However, even the best dual-suspension systems do little to prevent crashes if the speed of execution is beyond the skills of the rider. If you are competing off-road, arrive early and do a pre-run to scope out the terrain, establish your points for braking and shifting, and choose the correct line of entry and exit for the turns. Many top pros will run a particularly tough spot several times to try different lines before competition.
Good luck, practice safely, and enjoy your newfound skills and confidence.
John Howard holds world records at both ends of the spectrum of madness: In speed (152 MPH) and endurance (539 miles in 24 hours). He is an 18-time elite and masters USA cycling national champion, an Ironman World Champion, a professional coach (he created the FiTTE System), and author of the new book, Mastering Cycling. For more information on his agenda check out www.johnhowardsports.com