Triathletes sometimes get the unfortunate rap of being poor bike handlers and lacking skills. Have you ever shown up for a group ride with a group of cyclists and felt a bit out of place with yoru sleeveless jersey, arm compression sleeves, aerobars and disc wheels? If not, consider yourself fortunate!
But to be honest with you, our lack of bike skills is kind of our own fault. Most triathletes take up at least one of the three sports at an “advanced” age, meaning after formative years of the pre-teens and teens. At those times picking up new skills is relatively easy when the consequences of a possible fall or crash are not as dire…kids have more flexibly bones and heal faster than 40 year olds!
As adults, when we take up cycling for triathlons our training time is limited and our main focus is on building time-trial like speed. Simply learning how to get in the aero position and go as fast as we can. Our bodies are locked into position, head down, legs pumping and aero-bottle allow us to never leave go of the aerobars and shifters! God forbid we have to brake as that would ruin our average speed! (LOL).
Well it turns out that bike skills are important, especially for triathletes! Most of the triathlon related cycling injures I’ve heard of are due to a bike handling error at some level…either on the person who was injured, or more often…the person in front of them ! (frequently both).
I teach a bi-monthly bike handling skills session for both triathletes & bike racers in order to improve comfort and safety for everyone involved. If you are planning to train or ride on roads with traffic or in groups, improving your bike skills will benefit not only you, but also improve safety for the group as a whole.
A list of essential cycling techniques would be incomplete without a mention of turns & cornering in the top three. (the first two being braking and riding in a straight line).
How to Corner a Bike – Progression of Skills
photo credits: Fred Jordan
Step 1: Relaxed the Body Hands & Arms Especially
Learning to turn and corner a bike involves developing comfort in your physical relationship with the bike. You should be able to maintain a relaxed posture with supple elbows and a loose grip on the handlebars. Loose grip means that the forearms are relaxed, but the thumb and fingers should still circle the grips gently. I’ve seen people who neglect to wrap their thumb around the bar and if they were to hit a small pothole (or get hit), their hands would fly off the bars losing control. Relaxed hands and elbows allow you to focus on the body english used in cornering.
Step 2: Look into the turn
Basically look at where you are going. A perfect target is to turn and look towards the center of the circle’s radius that you are turning. if you have cones set up to form a figure 8 for practice, turn your head and look to the center cone as you start your turn. AS you come through the turn and are ready to straighten the bike shift your gaze to the apex of the next turn.
Step 3: Stand on the outside foot
This physical cue helps you establish a solid connection with the ground through the pedal cranks and the tire contact areas. You don’t have to literally stand on the outside foot (you can though), but you should be putting some body weight on the outside of the bike allowing you to gently lean the bike into the turn. The combination of looking (above), and standing on the outside foot allows a natural lean to begin. This lean is critical and the stance sets it up.
Step 4: Lean into the turn
For many people this comes naturally but if you’re reading this article, it’s probable that you don’t feel comfortable leaning the bike. Assuming that you have some momentum coming into the turn, you’ve looked in the direction you want to go and your upper body is relaxed, the bike should almost instinctively start leaning in the direction you are turning. This is the key to making turns feel effortless. You might wonder why this isn’t step 1 if it’s so important, but without the preceding cues, leaning the bike will feel unsteady & unstable.
You should feel like the lean is directed from the hips and the thighs…gently begin shifting the weight from your hips, similar to how you might turn on skis or roller blades. Thinking of gently pressing the nose of the saddle with the inner thigh can also help you get a feel for how to “steer” with the hips.
In reality all of these elements occur at the same time, but the key is to practices and focus on each element as it’s own skill while you are building comfort. This is the progression I follow with my bi-monthly sessions.
Turning & Cornering Drills & Activities
1) Warmup on a large figure 8 course (each loop being 30-40 feet in diameter). Play with your speed coming into each turn and as you are able to gradually increase speed, you’ll naturally feel (or allow yourself to feel) an increased lean of the bike.
2) Get 3 or 4 friends onto the same figure-8 course with you…communicate about what will happen at the crossing point. This gets you to start building awareness to your surroundings and get comfortable talking and/or directing other people while you are riding. This is an important skill in group riding situations, and doing so in this drill is a fun way to practice
3) Set up several smaller figure 8 courses…just 2 cones are needed… in an empty parking lot. Reduce the radius of your turns and again experiment with the elements above. AS the radius decrease, speed will have to be slower or else you’ll out ride the boundaries of your turn. AT first don’t set specific outer boundaries, but try to stay a consistent distance from the cones.
4) Set up a “box” and stay inside the boxes. Using a single parking lot stall for reference, set up cones to delineate the corners of 3 stalls together. (IE your box is 3 stalls wide and 1 stall deep). Practices doing figure 8 turns inside the boundaries of this box. As the box gets even smaller, balance becomes more and more important
5) Set up a “2 stall” box and a “1 stall” box. as your ability to do figure 8s in the 3 stall box improves, test your abilities by trying to do a figure 8 inside of a single parking stall.
Exercises like these are valuable ways to improve and practice your bike handling skills, specifically turns and cornering. The more comfort you build, the better your ability to ride safely on roads, with groups and during races.