Descending and Cornering on a Bicycle
Most racers want to climb better. Climbing is a measure of worth for many even though climbing speed alone wins very few races. Unless the finish is at the top of the mountain, a climber who doesn’t descend well will be caught, and a moderate climber who descends and rolls well can rejoin the field. By getting to the top of a mid-race climb in the lead, one earns the right to hurt the rest of the field by forcing them to chase over the top and on the descent, but if one descends timidly or lazily, the slower climbers catch back on with no special effort, and the advantage of having topped the climb first is lost.
Improving climbing significantly requires months of focus on weight loss and increasing aerobic power. Often the same competitive advantage can be gained more quickly by improving descending, and yet many racers bust their butts to improve climbing while never specifically training for descending. Most riders already descend about as fast as they feel safe, so subconsciously the idea of practicing to go faster is interchangeable with the idea of going dangerously fast. The logical connection is false though as improving descending technique makes one able to descend more safely even while going more quickly. (Those readers who live in flat areas and don’t expect to ever go anywhere with hills can apply most of this article to cornering, in the absence of hills.)
Fear vs. Confidence
Some knuckleheads preach a “no-fear” approach to riding, but ignoring fear is not a good approach. Fear is a protective mechanism. It’s the emotion that occurs when one is unsure of skills but aware of danger. Sometimes fear is justified and sometimes not. When one descends at speeds beyond one’s skills, fear is appropriate. Fear is best defeated by increasing skills and the confidence that comes with them.
Fear prevents learning. If one practices a skill while afraid, one learns to be afraid more than one learns the skill. That makes it essential to practice descending, cornering or any new bike skill in ways that don’t trigger fear. The no-fear preachers would say that you should choose not to be afraid and go for it. Unfortunately that tends to be a self-limiting attitude as there’s nothing like road rash or broken bones to teach fear. Instead of ignoring justified fear, learn to execute new skills in a safely and build confidence. When one feels safe during practice one can master new skills quickly.
There are several tricks to safely learning descending. They include: Keeping the speed down to a level that feels safe with current skills; Choosing a quiet road with good visibility on which to practice; Keeping the bike in good condition or paying a mechanic to do it so there won’t be surprises; and using trustworthy tires. If these precautions are taken, it is possible to learn to descend without ever getting hurt.
Dealing with Extreme Fear
Before discussing descending techniques, let’s cover a few items for people who are terribly afraid of cornering or riding down hill. First, riders who are scared enough to ride the brakes down any descent or creep through corners can often get a “breakthrough” by pedaling down very slight grades and riding hard out of corners entered slowly. That helps shift the emotional context from “faster is dangerous” to “faster can be safe and fun”.
A rider who habitually squeezes the brakes on straight descents can eliminate that habit by doing repeats on a descent that leads into a flat stretch or climb. The rider starts low enough on the hill to feel safe coasting down without brakes and rolling out onto the flat or up the other hill. By starting a bit farther up the hill each time, many such super-timid riders can quickly overcome the compulsion to ride the brakes when descending.
Many riders have irrational fears of descending. Here are some tricks from sports psychology that can really help. 1) Tell yourself that if others can make a turn at a certain speed without crashing, you can too. Follow others down hills and through corners taking advantage of their experience and judgment of safe speed. 2) Eliminate negative self-talk: When someone repeatedly tells you that doing something is dangerous, that you’re going to die if you do it, that you’re bound to get hurt and so on, you’ll eventually start to believe it, so don’t tell yourself that kind of stuff. If you find yourself thinking negative thoughts about descending, replace those thoughts with a silly word or phrase. Say, “nyah” or “there you go again, being negative.” Making yourself aware that you are engaging in behavior that undermines your riding should help you stop it. 3) Stop replaying the bad video: Many riders reinforce their own fear by imagining or mentally replaying a crash. Stopping that and replacing the mental images with images of being in the right position, strong and in control can quickly transform such riders into awesome descenders. 4) Finally, always descend at a speed that feels safe so you’ll be practicing confidence rather than fear. Confidence is what one feels when in control in an otherwise perilous situation. Confidence may or may not be justified, so practice descending enough to be sure of your skills.
Good bike fit is essential to bike handling. A bike that is too large or small won’t corner well. A bike with the handlebars too high will never be stable but will tend to veer suddenly and wobble in various directions, making cornering scary. Weight distribution is also essential. If there’s a question of whether a bike is suitable for a given rider, put it on a trainer. Weigh the front of the bike with the rider on it with hands on drops and also the total of rider plus bike. If the weight on the front wheel is outside of the range of 42-48% of the total, the bike will most likely not descend well, no matter how much the rider works at it. If the bike is already set up well but the weight distribution is off, a different bike is needed. If there is currently too much weight on the front wheel, a longer top tube with a shorter stem will help. If the front wheel is currently underweighted, a bike with a shorter top tube and longer stem will handle better.
On a straight descent, optimal speed is achieved by tucking and pedaling until one is spun out. Tucking means getting as low and narrow as possible by putting the hands on the top-centers near the stem or on the aero-bars. Elbows are bent, while shoulders are low and “shrugged” to ears, not relaxed. (Look in a mirror while bent forward in a riding position and see that shrugging makes a rider dramatically narrower and therefore faster.) For maximum speed, knees are in close to the top tube. The extreme tucked position requires triceps strength so it requires practice until one can hold the tuck for the length of the expected descents.
Rider Position for Aggressive Cornering
Bikes are inherently stable. If a bike leans a bit, the mechanics of the front end make it turn to that side, bringing the wheels under the center of mass. If it leans the other way, it naturally turns that way, again bringing the wheels under the center of mass. It’s actually quite hard to make a bike fall over at any significant speed. The extent of the lean determines the tightness of the turn. Just as an upright bike tends to go straight, a bike leaning over a certain amount tends to make a corner of a certain radius. By adjusting the lean of the bike, one can make tighter or wider turns with the feeling of stability one has when riding straight.
Good position of the body on the bike makes it possible to take a corner at a high speed with stability and a feeling of confidence. The position for aggressive cornering is often called “countersteering” because it starts with pushing the bars in the direction that causes the bike to turn opposite the way the rider wants to turn. Putting the front wheel to the outside causes the bike to lean to the inside, which then causes it to turn. Good countersteering position is characterized by:
• Hands on drops • Weight on Inside handlebar to push bike down • Both elbows bent but the inside elbow straighter than the outside one • Outside leg straight but knee not locked, allowing some suspension • Weight on outside pedal • Outside pedal down to avoid clipping inside pedal • Pushing with the ball of the outside foot to unstick the butt from the saddle • Shoulders low enough to keep elbows slightly bent • Butt back, overhanging back of saddle • Head vertical to simplify visual processing. • Eyes to apex and then to exit
When one corners in a good countersteering position, the bike feels very stable, there is no wobble, and no sense of wrestling the bars. It takes some practice to get the right amount of lean for a given corner.
Reading a Corner and Choosing a Line
Choosing the best line through a given corner can often increase the safe speed at which it can be ridden by 50% and often even double it. The generic best line through a corner starts wide, cuts to the curb at the apex and exits wide. The apex is the tightest part of the turn. The skilled descender chooses a line that makes the radius of the turn nearly constant. He or she follows a circular arc as much as possible. The tightest part of the turn determines the safe speed for that turn. Following a large, circular arc maximizes the radius of the turn allowing the greatest speed. Conditions in specific corners often require adjustments to the ideal line. The speed at which a corner can safely be ridden depends on many details so skilled descenders are skilled observers. Approaching a corner they are aware of:
• Banking (if the outside of the turn is up, it can be ridden faster. If the inside is up, slow down!) • Traction reducers such as oil, water, sand, gravel, leaves or bumps • Obstacles such as rocks, pot holes or debris • Traffic • Possibility of hidden traction reducers, obstacles or traffic • The parts of the turn: Entry, Apex and Exit • The curvature: Tight or wide? Decreasing radius? Decreasing radius requires lower speed. • The grade: Constant or drop-away? Drop away reduces traction • What’s next: Another turn? First exit will be the second entry in an S-turn, so keep first exit tight.
Assuming that visibility is good and the road is clean, the fastest line through a tight corner uses the whole road from shoulder to shoulder if one has access to both sides of the road. Approaching blind corners, one should stay in one’s own lane or use little enough of the other lane that one can get back over sooner than an approaching car can get to where one would otherwise be riding. However much road will be used, start wide – move left before a right turn and right before a left turn. Most riders without specific training initiate their turns too soon, so if you are working on this skill, when you feel it’s time to turn, count “one-one-thousand” and then turn. It also helps to wait until you can see across the apex of the turn. (see figure 1)
Once the turn is initiated, the fast line cuts close to the curb at the apex. If one does it right, one passes the apex with half or more of the turn completed. The skilled descender exits the turn only as wide as necessary. If one is able to exit without going to the centerline or outside curb, one could have cornered faster.
Braking for Corners
The timing and intensity of braking dramatically affects the feeling of confidence or fear associated with a given corner. Taking a corner more slowly usually feels safer, but braking before rather than in the turn also allows a lot more speed to be carried safely. This is because braking shifts weight to the front wheel, increasing “stability”, making the bike stand up and try to go straighter. Braking in a curve makes it harder to get the bike to go around the curve, making one want to slow down more. On top of that, braking demands traction from the tires. If one is near the safe limit of speed for a given part of a corner, applying the brakes can push one over the edge into a slide. The fastest descenders make a point of being done with heavy braking before the tightest part of the turn. They get the speed down where they feel safe and in control before the apex, and allow some margin for error in case they need to adjust for traffic or a pavement defect. They pedal out of corners as soon as the bike is upright enough not to catch a pedal. (By the way, skilled descenders sometimes skitter through corners, especially if the pavement is bumpy and the wheels are very stiff. A bit of sliding does not mean instant crashing).
Most riders can, with practice, descend quite fast without compromising safety, but doing so requires practice and development of a high level of skill in body positioning, curve reading and line choice. Every corner one takes is practice and reinforces habits. Taking corners in a sloppy fashion is counterproductive, as it reinforces sloppy cornering. Pushing the envelope too hard is also counterproductive, as fear blocks the acquisition of skill. Riders who want to improve their cornering should make a point of practicing good habits every time they corner. Since fear prevents learning, riders looking to improve their descending should practice descending in control and at a speed that feels safe, no matter how fast or slow that is. Repeating challenging curves leads to rapid progress. Many riders will come through a corner thinking, “I could have done that better”. The one who goes back and does it again right away is the one who will improve his or her descending.