The death of Robert Hyndman on a Rapha Gentleman’s Ride has evoked numerous responses all over the interwebs. One particular response spoke to me in a way that made me feel a bit uncomfortable, and it should have. The blog ‘Cycling in the South Bay’ ran this piece and one particular part hit home:
“We get so caught up in the unsanctioned racing of the group ride that we leave newcomers to figure it out the way we did: by getting shelled, by sliding out in the corner, or by hanging on through God’s grace and the sheer luck of the dumb.”
Followed by something actionable:
“Each one of us can honor Robert by taking note of the guy or the gal we’ve not seen before and sharing what we know with them. Whether they’re new to the sport or just new to the neighborhood, it’s time we did what others did for us back in the day: reach out, share, include. Knowledge in this case isn’t power. It’s the difference between life and death.”
I am very guilty of this, partly because I’ve never considered myself ‘expert’ enough to be giving anyone advice, and partly because I’ve never taken the opportunity to ‘school’ anyone, even if they obviously needed it.
Please allow me to make amends…
I came to cycling as a means to train for motocross, and I have an extensive background in riding motorcycles. Fortunately, there is considerable crossover between cycling and motorcycling. Often times it doesn’t occur to me that someone doesn’t know about cornering technique, probably because it’s something that I have practiced for most of my life. Not everyone’s background is the same, and we don’t all come to the table with the same skill set.
My take on cornering and descending…
My ‘method’ if you will, is a hodgepodge of stuff I have learned over the years. Some of this came on a bicycle and some on motorcycles, but I’ve found that the two work basically the same in most instances. Some pieces come from Nick Ienatsch’s ‘The Pace’ and others from Keith Code’s ‘no brakes drill’, as well as his Twist of the Wrist series.
Some of it comes from doing something stupid, falling off, and living to figure out what I did wrong…
The first thing to keep in mind is that you have to go at your own pace. There is no point to riding faster than you’re comfortable with; your brain won’t be able to process all the information, and panicked is no way to ride a bike.
Don’t rely on someone else’s judgment. Just because they can descend at a certain speed, doesn’t mean it’s safe for you to follow them at that speed.
A corner in its most basic description consists of a curve in the road or trail onto which you have superimposed a turn in point, an apex, and an exit point. The arc that connects the dots that are the turn in point, apex, and exit is what’s known as the ‘line’.
The turn in point is the place on the road where you are going to initiate the turn. As much as circumstances will allow, you want the turn in point to be on the opposite side of the road from the apex. When you’re on public roads it’s not a good idea to leave your lane. For a right hand turn, the apex will be on the right hand edge of the road, so you will want to set the turn in point as far to the left as is practical.
The apex is the point in the turn where you will be at the most inside edge of the road. You’ve probably heard people talk about late apexes and early apexes, it doesn’t have anything to do with the time of day, but rather where on the corner you come nearest the inside of the curve.
If a corner has a constant radius, the ‘normal’ apex is at the center of the turn and the arcs from turn in to apex and apex to exit are symmetrical. If the corner has a constant radius and you turn in early you will reach the inside of the turn before going half way around, your initial arc will be shallower than your exit arc, and you have executed an ‘early’ apex. If you turn in ‘late’ and you reach the inside of the turn past the halfway point, your initial arc will be steeper than your exit arc and you have executed a ‘late’ apex.
The exit is the point where you have completed the turn, and the vehicle is pointed down the road in the direction of the next turn, and has no lean angle. If two turns are ‘connected’ then the exit of the first is the turn in point of the second.
It is difficult to get a feel for the proper corner entry speed when you have to scrub off a bunch of speed that you have carried to the turn in point. Make sure that you have reduced your speed well in advance of the place that you want to initiate the turn. Braking points can only be established after you determine the correct turn entry speed.
The speed that you are able to carry through a corner is affected by the rate at which you initiate the turn: how quickly you can get to max lean angle. If you just gradually feed in lean angle you will have to go slower than if you can ‘flick it in’. If you’re not on a closed course you shouldn’t be going ten tenths, but the ability to quickly initiate the turn allows you more time to see thru the turn and delay your turn in. It also gives you margin for error as far as your corner entry speed.
Before you initiate the turn in, you need to be stable on the bike, try not to move around, it makes it difficult ‘feel’ what the bike is doing. Setup for the corner with the outside pedal down and weighted, have the brakes within easy reach, and don’t put a death grip on the bars. People tend to tense up when they get out of their comfort zone, this just makes things worse. If you can’t relax, you’re probably going to fast.
So here is the idea: you arrive at the turn in point at the proper corner entry speed, you then initiate the turn and establish the proper lean angle which will take you to the apex. Once you are thru the apex, you have the choice of reducing the lean angle and carrying more speed to the exit point, or continuing with the lean and tightening the exit.
When I’m learning a corner/descent I always maintain the lean and stay as close to the inside edge coming out of the turn as I can. If you don’t use the whole lane on exit, then you know that you can use a higher corner entry speed next time, or that you have a corner entry speed that allows for maneuvering if for some reason you can’t use the whole lane.
The part about ‘you arrive at the turn in point at the proper corner entry speed’ is the key, and it’s also the hard part. If you’re on an unfamiliar descent, how do you know what the ‘proper corner entry speed’ is? Well, all I can say is that ‘feel’ and experience will tell you; but at all times you should ‘feel’ that you can make the corner without question.
When you read the phrase ‘arrive at the turn in point’ hopefully it made you think of a place. The turn in point is a discrete position on the road, you could put a paint dot on it if you wanted to, and some people do.
Perhaps ‘point’ is a bit of a misnomer; because when you get there you also need to be headed in the right direction. It won’t work if you have to execute a 6 G bat turn to get to the ‘turn in point’, only to then have to execute another 6 G bat turn to get headed to the apex.
The sensation of speed is a relative, the further you look down the road or thru the corner the slower you’ll feel that you’re going. The ability to see thru a corner has a great effect on setting the turn in point and the entry speed. The ability to see also has bearing on your safety, if you cannot see that the road is clear you should never assume that it is.
The sensation also works somewhat in reverse as well. All of my best lap times on a track came when I felt like I was going slowly, so slowly that all of the track cues came in an unrushed manner and it felt like I had all the time in the world to get everything done. If you feel that you are being rushed to maneuver your bike on a decent, that’s an important clue that you’re going too fast for either the conditions, or your present familiarity.
By working a descent in this ‘corner centric’ manner I have been able work up to the point where I can allow the bike to run down the mountain comfortably. By knowing where my ‘turn in’ points are, and what entry speed to use, I can establish where I need to get on the brakes to obtain the proper entry speed. Also, by linking tight corners together the turn in points and exits can be adjusted to allow for carrying the greatest speed.
Over the years, thru practice and repetition, you can get to the point that a ‘conservative’ descent can be accomplished at a pace that is very nearly the maximum speed that you would prudently do on a public road. Yes, you could go considerably faster on the same descent if the course were closed, but allow this knowledge to bolster your confidence and sense of security rather than cause you to ‘push the envelope’, that extra speed buffer is also a safety margin.
Everyone has a process; a way of working through the problem of a corner and coming up with a solution. With experience and practice the ‘process’ can look like talent to a bystander, and to be honest, it does seem to come to some people easier than others. But, everyone can improve with practice, and anyone can get rusty if they don’t.
Most of the time, given that the roads are constructed so that a little old lady can drive her Cadillac to church on Sunday morning without coming to grief, a cyclist’s skill isn’t particularly taxed.
Some of the time, cyclists can go screaming down a twisty mountain road in excess of the posted speed limit. Not that I would ever suggest or admit to such activity…
That takes skill, skill that has to be learned, and practiced. No one was born with it…
I’d like to leave you with one last parting shot…
When I was qualifying for my first motorcycle road racing license, one of the instructors told me something that I’ve never forgotten:
‘When you get to the turn in point… TURN!’
It doesn’t matter what you’ve done right or wrong, when you get to the turn in point you’ve got to turn in, period. If you do that, it’s highly probable that you’ll make the corner, but if you don’t, you’ll low-side trying. If you low-side, chances are that you won’t even slide off the pavement…
If you ride off the road trying to stop, bad things happen…
Here’s a good example of how it looks when done right: