Becoming a competent cyclist means acquiring the skill set and awareness of your surroundings needed for survival on the streets. In motor racing, drivers must attend and pass a driving course to enhance their skills before they can enter an open competition. Triathlon and cycling have no such standards. In spite of the much higher speeds involved in auto racing, it is statistically far more dangerous to race a bicycle than a car. Anyone who’s competed in or attended a higher-category criterium or ridden a draft-legal triathlon knows that many participants lack basic skills. One athlete’s mistake can result in a domino effect that can bring down other riders, shred skin, leave flesh on the pavement, and mangle bikes in the process.
A bicycle, unlike an automobile, cannot be simply steered around a curve.
To borrow a much-abused cliché, there is a proven methodology for teaching students techniques and skills that help them keep the rubber side down. Equipment has evolved, speeds have risen, and the rigors of competition have tightened, but no schools currently teach cyclists or triathletes the basic techniques on an ongoing basis. There seems to be a notion among many that an activity learned as a child requires no further instruction. This toy syndrome, as I call it, continues to plague our sport.
The skills I’m going to outline here and in Part II will help give you more control on the streets in traffic, the ability to corner with other cyclists, and the skills to negotiate turns, terrain, and road hazards. Your goal should be to develop cycling skills that preserve life and limb and to gain bragging rights about medals, plaques, and trophies instead of about scar tissue and misaligned bones. The sport becomes safer and more enjoyable when adequate skill levels are attained.
Cornering in traffic
Cyclists must understand that automobile traffic is generally predictable: Assume that motorists can’t see you and proceed with caution. Be especially cautious when you cross several lanes of traffic to get to the left-turn lane, and signal your intention before crossing. Even when you signal, wait for a clearing in traffic before proceeding, since not all drivers respect a cyclist’s right to be on the road. Right turns are easy to negotiate, but try to exist harmoniously with motorists; never block a right lane when cars are turning right and you are not. Drivers are often uncomfortable turning in the presence of a cyclist. They will either sit impatiently behind you or speed up and turn in front of you, whether you’re moving or not.
Cornering effectively is a technique that requires the ability to quickly judge the elements of a turn, which include sloping, curvature, traction, and other factors that limit speed. A bicycle, unlike an automobile, cannot be simply steered around a curve. Steering can bring the bike into a steeper bank than anticipated, and if you’re going too fast, or if the road conditions aren’t optimal, one or both wheels could lose traction and send you to the pavement. The bicycle must be leaned into the turn. You must estimate how much lean is needed to counteract the physical forces that want to project you and the bicycle in a straight line. The amount of lean depends on the speed traveled into the turn, the tightness of the turn, and the degree and direction of the road bank. When the road is sloped in the direction of the turn, less lean is needed, and the turn can be negotiated at faster speeds. However, if the road is sloped away from the turn, the lean angle will be greater, and slower speeds will be required through the turn. Keep your torso low and near to the top tube, and maintain weight on the outside pedal while easing up on the pressure to the inside pedal. You must also take care when negotiating roads that are wet or have potholes, loose gravel, and dirt and certainly to do this in traffic further heightens the awareness factor.
Cornering with other riders
Experience is the most critical factor when it comes to cornering. Some years ago, I coached an international group of some of the era’s best triathletes in the Tour of Redlands, an early-season professional stage race in southern California. The athletes were all powerful cycling time-trialists, and I hoped those skills would make up for their universal lack of bike-racing skills in pack tactics and etiquette. In the tight circuit course of about a mile, riders were required to negotiate a series of sharp right and left turns in rapid succession. Entering the turns in the thick of high-speed bike traffic was a challenge for seasoned pros, since riders were positioned just inches from one another. The course demanded a high degree of bike-handling skill, and if they fell behind the peloton at 30 mph (48 kmph), they would never catch up.
From my position near the apex of one of the turns, I watched the pack bank from edge to edge, nearly clipping the apex where I was standing. I quickly jumped back and watched the riders exit wide and fast, losing a minimum of speed by using only a single gearshift. With my stopwatch, I timed my six triathletes. Three of them had some experience riding in a pack and positioned themselves in the group, staying there. The other three had problems in the turns. Lap after lap, the latter three lost ground in the turns, drifted off the back, then powered back to the pack on the straights. After 20 laps of this anaerobic seesaw, they were shelled off the back, where they were soon lapped and pulled from the race.
Stay tuned for Part II, where I’ll cover apexing and off-road cornering skills. 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.