How to Descend and Corner on a Road Bike

Welcome to the first in the Braking Steering Turning (BST©) series

I had originally penned this article back in July of 2009, but I think it is one of those timeless pieces of advice. Applying to all riders, both new and old. So I am sharing my experience and skills of bike handling for a safer and more enjoyable ride!
—–

The 4th stage of the ’09 Tour de France highlighted the Team Time Trial (TTT). The TTT
requires many skills from all 9 riders in the team “train.”

Among them are obviously speed, power, and endurance- which are needed to keep such a high rate of tempo for the entire TT distance.

But one of the most overlooked skill in any type of bicycle riding is; bike handling skills.
In fact of all the acquired skills of riding, handling skills are by far the most important to being a good overall bike rider (both on and off road).

During stage 9, team Bbox showed the importance of understanding, focusing and
implementing the mechanics of cornering, or lack thereof in their particular instance.

Four of their nine riders rode right off the road in a sweeping right-hander. The corner wasn’t that tight, nor was it a decreasing radius corner, It was basically a constant radius, flat turn.

Besides this instance, there have been many examples of riders riding right off the road or riding wide, missing the apex. Some of the more spectacular examples were Frank Schleck, who went right over a guardrail in the ’08 Tour De Suisse, then there was
Verbrugghe who went over a guardrail as well. Plus many, many more who have be in similar crashes, mainly due to missing a turn-in-point and subsequently, the apex of a corner.

But in the 09 TdF TTT, once the lead rider of Bbox drifted wide, missed the apex and
began to go off the road, his three other mates follwed him! Why? Simple.
Target Fixation. Besides knowing how to corner properly, a rider needs to know how to avoid following a wreck or the same path of carnage.

This is where quick and firm Countersteering comes into play.
(But more about countersteering later…)

A corner is made of three basic elements. The entry, (turn in point – “t.i.p.”) the apex,
(the middle or center) and the exit (the end of the corner).

There is a proper way and an improper way to corner efficiently, safely and quickly.
Bbox showed the world how NOT to corner, while team Saxo Bank and team Astana among others, showed how to perfect a corner.

To be somewhat fair, in a TTT, riders are riding time trial bikes- which are usually more rigid, have more rake in the front end to be aerodynamic and subsequently, are more
unstable in corners.

But that’s not to say these riders get a pass on their lack of good handling skills. These guys are in the pro Peloton are supposed to the best of the best- but surprisingly, that’s not always the case.

While some of these riders are amazing climbers, sprinters and all around good
endurance and power athletes- they are not necessarily all-around good bike riders. What makes a complete rider, is all the aforementioned, plus knowing and
understanding how to Brake, Steer and Turn a single-track, two-wheeled machine properly. Braking, Steering and Turning– are the core skills of bike handling.

cornering-apex

The entry is where turning/steering starts and the rider begins to lean into the turn.
The apex is the point where the rider reaches the furthest point on the inside of the turn and the exit is where the rider can start going upright so as to pedal and power up again.

There are 4 basic laws of physics- gravity, inertiatraction, and balance, that apply to cornering. The laws of physics dictate that when a bicycle is leaned over, the position of its center of gravity will  influence the lean angle of the bike.

cornering example

In addition to kinetic energy, a rider has two other forces working on the body and the bike- Gravity pulling you down, and Centripetal Force pulling you either left or right-
depending on which way the rider/bike is turning.

The lines in the above picture display the forces during cornering.
The illustration is designed to better understand these basic forces involved
when cornering.

The bottom line on the graph represents the road which induces frictional forces.
The horizontal line is the centripetal force and the vertical line, represents the force
of gravity.

Countersteering

In short, counter steering moves the wheels out from under the center of mass.
It involves turning the front wheel in the opposite direction you want to turn the bike, be it a motorcycle or a bicycle. Counter-steering is achieved by pushing on the inside of the handle bar in the opposite direction you actually want to go. Now, counter-Steering a bicycle versus a motorcycle is slightly different in the fact that the bicycle is much, much lighter and requires ‘less’ force or input to the bars. But, none the less, counter steering is an efficient, proper way to steer and turn on two wheels.

steer-push

Select your turn in point as you approach a turn. But before reaching your “t.i.p.” look through the turn and select a reference point (RP). When you reach the “tip”, begin to steer (countersteer). Now you can countersteer in the drops or in the hoods, which you ever you may prefer, But, you will have more control in the hoods, despite all the popular opinion and rhetoric on descending. When you are in the drops, your weight shifts farther forward and you have to ‘hold’ more of your body weight up. Steering in the hoods, gives you more control, because you have better leverage. Hunker down, and steer in the hoods, once you adapt, you have more confidence and control.

It is important to intiate firm countersteering- to keep the right trajectory and proper line.  As the rider nears the apex (on a single apex corner) and then has the need to turn more sharply to keep from running wide or off in the turn, the rider turned-in too early.

A gradually, early turn in has the rider following a parabolic path, a wide arc at first that tightens until maximum lean or turning is reached near the apex. This is an example of “lazy” steering. This often results in a rider(s) missing the apex which causes a dramatic slow down and/or riding off the road.

Turn in slightly later but quicker and the rider follows a more circular path that requires less lean angle but reaches the apex sooner and is able to hold the arc longer.
This technique is known as “squaring off” a corner, which usually enables a rider to carry more speed/momentum through the corner.

Head, shoulder, hips

In addition to utilizing counter-steering, a riders body can also influence the trajectory and lean angle of a bike. Pivoting your hips (like a skier) in the saddle will assist in the turning of a bike. Pressing the inside leg against the top tube, weighting the outside pedal and using your shoulder or chin to ‘turn-in’ will greatly increase the ease at which a bike turns and steers.

All the while, keep your body as relaxed as possible. Light grip on the bars, keeping your body low instead of upright. This may slighty lower the center of mass. Do your best to keep the bike as upright as possible and not leaning too much. This will aid in keeping as much tire/rubber contact patch on the surface of the road.

My former days as a motorbike roadracer had taught me how to corner at very fast speeds, on many various tracks, some flowing some very technical. When I first started road cycling,
I discovered that all of the manners of a motorbike were nearly the exact same on a bicycle,
albeit on a much lighter machine. Therefore, the steering and turning techniques were nearly identical and I immediately felt right at home.

So, as speeds increase, all of these turning techniques become even more critical. As speed goes up, the ‘forces’ of physics become greater and more resistant, making
it increasingly difficult to turn and steer, especially in those fractions of seconds when descending very fast, demanding downhill roads or trails. Not too mention the ancillary factors that are acting against you and your machine; fatigue, road conditions and
the elements.

Unfortunately, there are many riders, from the pro’s to the casual cyclist who don’t bother to work on their cornering technique and when it’s crunch time- may find themselves in an unsafe situation.

Today, those 4 Bbox rides cost their team precious time– in a race against the clock,
where seconds and as it turned out, even hundredths of a second enormously count.

Though with thoughtful practice, almost any rider will be able to improve their ability to corner and descend safely, quickly, more efficiently.

Some quick tips:

  • Use counter steering (pushing on the bars) more so than leaning your bike
    (keep your bike as upright as possible)
  • Pivot your hips and shoulders to assist counter steering
  • Utilize your feet and legs to assist your turning
  • Look through the corner (keep your eyes up and looking down the road)
  • Keep light to moderate pressure on the bars

(*no death grip- easy on the bars. This allows the bike to follow its  ‘natural’ centrifugal path – by holding on too tight you prevent the front end from following its inherent course- this causes the already rigid front end to become even more unstable)

  • Use the brakes sparingly and try not too brake much when the bike is mid corner or when you are leaned over. Especially the front brake, which will cause the front to ‘wash out’ – lose traction. Apply most of your braking force before the turn in point.

Remember, a bit slower in…but almost always faster and smoother out.

(side note: these techniques work well for me, given my background and experience on two-wheels. Not every aspect or technique is suitable for everyone. By riding and experimenting, you will discover what works best for your own style and methodology- this is just a guideline)


Author is a former WERA, CCS sportbike and Grand Prix roadracer

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