How to Corner in a Criterium
One of the most common issues for bike racers of all levels is how to corner fast in a criterium. While confident cornering takes practice at varied speeds on various types of corners, there are a few basic principles of cornering in criteriums that can make it go much smoother and faster. These are all components that can be practiced in training, alone and with a group.
Process the Information You Need to Judge the Turn
- Appropriately shift your line of sight and focus: Going into a turn, your eyes need to focus on the entry, apex and then exit while looking ahead for openings in the pack at all times. Eyes should not be on the wheels directly in front. Rather, you should be looking up the road so you see what the riders in front of you are reacting to. Then you can anticipate the way the pack will move. You should also be aware in your peripheral vision where the wheels are around you.
- Eyes stay level with the horizon. Nearly all cornering at race speeds involves counter-steering, which involves leaning the bike while the body stays straighter, above the bike. When cornering it’s tempting to lean your head into the direction of the turn. But you should actually do the opposite. Like an ice skater keeping an eye on one spot during a spin, your gaze and head in a turn should stay level with the road. This helps your brain process the scene without having to correct the angle first, and keeps you from getting dizzy from the constant changes of head angle. It also helps you keep the weight of your head more over the tires.
- Pedal a gear that allows you to respond to changes in speed swiftly and strongly. RPMs should be high, around 90-95 RPM at the lowest as you corner, so that the first pedal strokes out of a turn go quickly and don’t challenge muscle strength as much as the aerobic system. A good crit rider will usually average 90+ rpm but, unless the rider has extensive track training, will stay under 105 RPM. Why is this related to processing information to judge the turn? By monitoring how the gearing relates to speed at all times, you’ll never be caught out of gear and can respond quickly and with minimal lag to attacks and accelerations, keeping gaps small. Attention should be paid at all times to choosing a gear that will allow you to stay at 90+ rpm for the current speed. This may mean changing gears many times even within a single lap as the pack speeds or slows.
Recognize lines through the turn and the natural extensions of them at various speeds
- Note the optimal line through each turn each lap. If the riders in front of you are going even faster into a corner for a prime than they did in a previous lap, for instance, attempting to advance position on the outside line through the turn may no longer work five riders back because the excessive speed will cause the riders in front to move farther to the outside. So, sprinting from that outside position is rarely the best plan in the final laps.
- Pre-ride the course and note which obstacles can be ridden over and which can’t. Is there a crack or manhole that few others are willing to ride over but you know from practice to be safe terrain? You may have found your own private line through the turn.
Manage and Preserve Momentum
- Momentum is your friend. One of the most effective ways to save energy at any time when riding is to preserve momentum. If you can see that the pack is slowing for a corner ahead of you, rather than braking when the back-up reaches you, start coasting early and ride to meet the back so that your speed doesn’t vary so much over the distance.
- Coast before braking. If you are looking far enough ahead, you should note in plenty of time when the front of the pack is slowing. When you see the pack slow, coast rather than brake to slow yourself at first. This makes the whole process smoother and avoids scraping off more speed than necessary, and therefore carrying more momentum. Braking should occur only for downhill or decreasing radius turns.
- Move into empty space in a turn any time that momentum can carry you there. It’s a free way to move up in the pack. Professional crit riders will coast as much as 20 percent of a criterium, with much of this coming into and through corners. This means any time they see riders starting to slow ahead of them, they start immediately to slow instead of awaiting the wave of braking or coasting to reach their area of the pack. That way they can ride into the gaps rather than just sticking to the wheel in front of them. It takes a little practice to judge exactly how much the pack is slowing and time going into the gap, but if you can master it it’s a major energy saver.
- Move up! Yes, it’s easier said than done, but it’s one of those actions that’s well worth the initial effort. Riding closer to the front of the pack means less accordion action as the pack widens going into turns and then thins out again as riders jump out of the turns. Is worth it to move up several places on a straightaway even if it temporarily costs more energy. Being near the front means you also have more choices in choosing your line through each turn.
Balance Weight and Forces
- Keep your hands in the drops and your center of gravity low. A lower center of gravity allows for quicker and deeper lean into a turn, which on dry pavement means being able to go faster and brake less or not at all. At the same time, keeping your arms and shoulders relaxed will also help to soak up bumps and keep on stable on your chosen line.
- Outside foot is down and holding most of the body weight through the turn. The outside leg holding your weight helps ensure that your weight is as closely over the tires as possible. The downward, outside leg serves as a shock absorber for any bumpiness in the turn. This allows a faster line through the turn. Because the weight is on the foot and not the saddle, you can use the thigh of the outside leg to help steer the bike. This position also keeps the inside foot at the ready to pedal as soon as the bike is upright enough.
- Be aware of the wind direction and if the pack is clinging to one side of the street in a particular section. For instance, if the pack is heavy to the right side due to a wind from the left and the upcoming corner is a right turn, the inside line of the corner will get pinched and lead to more braking in the back end of the pack on the inside. You’ll need to anticipate these pinches and may even want to switch the side of the wheels in front of you from straightaway to straightaway, depending on the wind and the corners coming up.
- The same corner is ridden differently, depending on the conditions. We aren’t going into detail today about the different kinds of conditions, but realize that the same turn will be ridden differently depending on whether it’s clean and dry, scattered with debris, recently rained on, or consistently rained on. This is why it’s important to pre-ride a course whenever possible.
Wenzel Coaches are available for one-on-one cornering skills sessions and group clinics. Search coaches with skill specialties here.