Cornering on a bicycle is a fundamental skill for any cyclist. It's also something that our modern generation of e-racers are largely neglecting at their peril.
Almost every cyclist I have ever worked with had been so focused on developing their power output or racing their mates on Zwift that it was very easy for me to help them find improvements.
We didn't find those improvements in power output or aerodynamics, we found them in improved technical skill. Simple things like cornering, gear selection, riding effectively in a group, climbing and descending, to mention but a few, are areas that make a massive difference.
On coaching courses, it's not unusual for me to characterise being a time-trialist and triathlete this way:
"I fly on the outbound leg of the course, really burying myself into the wind. Then I tiptoe round the roundabout ('traffic circle' for my American readers) before flying on the return leg with the wind. I do all I can and am massively disappointed because I'm ten seconds short of the 22-minute mark, as I was for each of the last 3 weeks. So, I go home and try to find another 5 watts by sweating buckets on the trainer."
What's wrong with the above? It's easy...
Those 10 seconds were almost certainly lost on the roundabout because I was cornering like a postman!
Here is how to improve your cornering on a bicycle...
Learn and Practise the Basic Technique Points for Cornering
Some of the technique points for cornering on a bicycle are well-known, some are misunderstood and some are completely unknown to most.
I'm going to cover these in what I consider to be the order of importance. This is key because riding a bicycle is dramatically affected by body position - everything you do has a knock-on effect on everything else.
Look at where you want to go!
Let me ask you a question? If you hadn't seen the headline and I asked you where you should look when cornering on a bicycle, what would you have said?
Most people would have said, "Look where you're going."
Newsflash: your bicycle will go where you look. If you're looking at the hedge, you will end up in the hedge. If you look at the ditch, you will go in the ditch.
The correct answer is to look where you want to go.
Others phrase this as look through the corner. I always feel this is a bit vague. I'd rather tell you to look as far ahead as possible at where you want to go.
Why does this work? It's simply that when you turn your head to look somewhere, there is a reaction further down your body position ("kinetic chain" if you want to sound clever) - shoulders, torso, hips, feet. Where your body goes, your bike goes.
Put all your weight on your outside foot
Most coaches I speak to would phrase this as "keep your inside foot up" and emphasise it as a safety point. While there is a safety issue here - clipping your pedal on the ground in the middle of a corner can be disastrous - it's a vital technique point for getting your bike to stick to the ground so that you can take a far tighter line on the corner.
Cornering on a bicycle is all about grip. Lose grip and you fall off, it's that simple.
By putting all your weight through the outside pedal, you push the bike into the ground, maximising that all-important grip.
Brake before the corner, then stay off your brakes!
There's an old saying in cycling: slow into the corner, fast out.
Most people do the exact opposite. They go in way too fast, get a massive fright and have to scrub speed in the corner. You can do this two ways. Either you run wide in the corner or you grab a handful of brake.
Running wide is the better option because it doesn't cost as much momentum.
Braking is a very poor option because, not only will it throw you off line, but you run the risk of falling off. Using the back brake is the common advice because this is interpreted as safer. The problem is that if your back brake locks up, the wheel loses grip and you almost certainly end up on the floor.
How you avoid all of this is simple. You brake before the corner, down to a speed that you think is too slow for the corner, get your hands off the brakes and take the tightest line possible through the corner.
Lean the bike, not your body
Cornering on a bicycle is not like cornering on a motorcycle. Yet, time after time, I see riders imitating their favourite MotoGP star - knee out, bike upright, leaning the body away from the bike.
When you do this, you sacrifice that all important grip. A bicycle doesn't weigh what a motorbike does. You're also not trying to stop the bike standing up due to the effects of its mass and centrifugal force.
Instead, you should lean the bike over and keep your body above the bottom bracket. Similar to having your weight on the outside foot, this pushes the bike into the ground and adds grip.
Hold the lowest, widest part of your handlebars
This is all about control, very little more needs to be said.
What I will add is that this position helps to balance your weight across both wheels, once again, enhancing grip.
It's also far more aerodynamic.
Take the natural line around the corner
The classic coaching approach for the road cornering is to take a line that looks like this:
Enter wide, cut across the apex and exit wide.
On a corner where the surface is dead flat, this is absolutely correct but it's not the fastest line in every circumstance.
For example, on a corner which has a berm shape, you will be able to carry far more speed if you use follow the shape of the berm. This will allow you to lean the bike over further because the berm enhances your grip. BMX and MTB riders call this "railing the berm".
Add More Complex Techniques Points for Cornering
All the technique points above are the basic technique points for cornering on a bicycle. Once you have those down, you might want to experiment with some of these in order to find even more speed in corners.
Press down on your inside hand
This is another one of those technique points that aims to enhance grip.
Once again, you're aiming to balance your body weight across both wheels and you're pushing the front wheel into the ground.
What often happens to riders is that they "wash out" or run wide on the exit of the corner. Nine times out of ten, this is the result of too much weight on the rear wheel and the front wheel being too light. Putting more weight on your inside hand helps to fix this.
Weight on your inside hand also adds to your ability to pull the bike round. It creates a torsion effect between your shoulders and hips.
Point your belly button where you want to go
You might have heard people tell you to "steer with your hips". This is very hard to implement for most people. If you focus on pointing your belly button in the direction you want to go, you will be steering with your hips.
Look with your head, look with your shoulders, look with your belly button.
Practise cornering in a group
Cornering at 20mph by yourself is different to cornering at 25mph in a group.
- You don't get to choose your own line
- You don't get to choose your own speed
- If you brake in the corner, you affect everyone and you're an accident waiting to happen.
Once you understand how to ride effectively in a group on neutral terrain, cornering fast in a group has to be your next step. Losing ground in the corners means you have to expend enormous amounts of energy to catch up again...after every corner. This is no way to ride fast.
Practise On Different Terrain
People who ride road bikes tend to stick to the road. You don't like to get muddy? I get it, neither do I. But by avoiding the loose stuff, you're missing out on the opportunity to improve your handling skills dramatically.
What mountain bikers understand about cornering on a bicycle is that wheels lose grip but also regain grip. Knowing that, they stay off their brakes and usually stay upright.
Unfortunately, most roadies who fall in corners do so because they panic when they momentarily lose grip and grab a handful of back brake. The result is road rash.
Mountain bikers also understand that body position matters. Body position influences grip dramatically. The same body position that works for mountain bikers works on a road bike.
The bottom line here is that riding a different type of bike will make you a better bike rider. Cornering on loose surfaces teaches you a trust in your bike that almost nobody will get by solely riding a road bike.
If you can't corner on a bicycle, fast and with good technique, you're leaving a huge amount of free speed on the table. The moment your race includes more than one or two corners, you'll quickly find yourself using far more energy than you should. And after all that effort, you won't be there at the one part of the race that matters: the finish.
The good news is that cornering is a skill you can learn fairly quickly and sessions that improve cornering can be done in that comfortable 70% zone that is so good for aerobic development. That way, you're killing two birds with one stone.
Want free speed? Learn to corner smooth and fast.