Cornering Can Be Scary
I think the scariest part of mass start racing was the cornering in the field. In fact even now, when I get to a race and I see a pack of racers diving into a turn, I wonder how they all make it without crashing. Of course once I'm whatever race I'm doing then it's okay, but watching it from the outside is still intimidating for me, 30-odd years after I started racing.
I addressed some cornering thoughts in previous posts on the blog. One highlight:
Late Apex and Looking Where You're Going
The big takeaway from that post is that you should strive to look where you're going. I've read (but not confirmed) that people tend to go where they look. For me that holds true so I try to look forward through turns. I do look around the front of my bike also, just to be safe, but generally I'm looking forward.
How Do You Corner In A Field?
The most important thing when cornering in a field is to follow the other racers. It sounds basic but you'd be surprised at how many racers try to follow some imaginary "optimal line" and end up going across other riders' paths.
Optimal cornering lines only exist if you're riding alone or, in rare cases, if you're leading out a very strung out field. For example, in this leadout, I knew that the field was waiting for me so I could choose any line I wanted, and I chose an early line. The pertinent part starts at about 7:45 or so, when I'm in the lead.
If you're not on your own or leading out the field then you need to adapt your line to those around you.
Recently I've been thinking about how I corner in a group, to try to explain it to others. I found that I basically do the following:
1. If on the inside I follow the rider in front of me.
2. If in the middle I follow a path parallel to the rider to the OUTSIDE of me.
3. If on the outside I follow the rider in front of me or do a parallel line to the rider to my inside.
By focusing on the riders around me I avoid looking at the curb and therefore cutting in too early or too much. This is a common error with new racers, where they turn in too much, then they correct and swerve out. By following the rider in front you avoid creating new lines and you keep the field in harmony.
Obviously I'm keeping an eye out on curbs and such - if following one of my basic rules above puts me into the curb then that's no good. A few times this year I've found myself skittering on the edge of control as the field collectively went really wide, putting most of the riders on the outside into the curb. The trust that the racers had in each other meant that many of the racers, including the really experienced ones, ended up following riders on lines that were just a few inches too wide.
Where Should I Hold The Bars?
For me this is a huge peeve. All too often I see riders diving into pretty dicey corners on the hoods. For example, in 2010, at the New London Crit, I was vying for position going into the last turn. The course was really interesting, it had a one lane (with curbs) downhill going into a super sharp corner (well it was way more than 90 degrees) into an uphill finish.
The guy in front of me went into the turn on his hoods. His front wheel washed out and he crashed. I was on the drops, I could avoid him, and although I had to brake really hard and shift down a couple gears, I got going again and ended up placing in the race.
The answer, assuming your bike fits properly, is that you should be on the drops. The drops give you the best braking, best steering, and best overall control of the bike. It usually gives you more power and speed but that's for a different post. Right now I'm concerned with finishing the race, and since the corners are the diciest place in a race, you need to stack the odds in your favor that you'll finish the race. If you stay upright then that's good, and being on the drops increases those odds.
A few years ago at the Rent a guy rolled his tire going into Turn One. A very, very, very good racer was next to me, on that rolled tire guy's wheel. He happened to be on the hoods. He ended up crashing and breaking his collarbone. I don't know if he'd have been able to save it if he'd been on the drops but from my video it's apparent that the racer had to give up trying to stay upright because he couldn't slow down nearly enough. He couldn't steer or brake enough to save himself.
I was on the drops. One of the bike's wheel hit my neck, but I was otherwise fine. I fixated on the curb and fortunately managed to avert my eyes (and my path) and didn't it that curb, but I never felt like I was out of control.
You should get into the habit of using the drops when you're in flatter terrain or on downhills. It's a great default position with virtually no drawbacks (on a properly fit bike). You should be able to turn, brake, and shift 100%, and if that's the case then there's little reason to use another position.
There's no hill at the Rent but a great default position on hills is on the hoods. That's a different topic though.
Front Wheel Weight
Not your front wheel's weight! I'm talking about how much weight you have on your front wheel. If you're on the drops you put a bit more weight on the front wheel. For virtually all paved corners this is a good thing. You can almost always recover from a rear wheel skitter or hop, but if your front wheel goes sideways the chances of staying upright are a lot lower.
Therefore it's important to weight the front wheel. It's easier to do that when you're on the drops. I also slide forward on the saddle. This lets me blast into turns with a lot of confidence that the bike will go where I want it to go.
Pushing Away From The Front Wheel
When a rider gets scared in a corner they push away from the front wheel. They tend to sit back, they literally push the bars forward, and they'll even stand up out of the saddle. An additional normal reaction is to do an early apex, i.e. enter the corner early. All of these instinctive reactions make the bike handle worse in corners, making the rider even more scared. It's a bad cycle and you need to avoid falling into it.
It's not just the amateurs either. An unfortunate example of a pro rider like this is Levi Leipheimer. When he raced for Gerolsteiner he made a huge move on a stage in the Tour. He gave away minutes on the descent as he screwed up the corners, doing many of the things I list above (in particular his early apexes, sitting back on the saddle, and unweighting the saddle).
I've fallen victim to this as well, when I first descended down Palomar Mountain near San Diego. It's 35 minutes of descending for me, it's quite steep, and there are a bunch of switchbacks. Some are blind, meaning you can't see the exit point of the hairpin.
However the scariest parts are the fast sweeping turns, especially the ones with just sky beyond the guardrail. The drop offs are pretty big (being scared of heights I avoided stopping and looking down on the way up) and obviously if I made a mistake, or I had a massive mechanical, it would be bad.
Descent on the way to Palomar.
Trucks regularly pass me going about 50 to maybe 65 mph.
I typically hit about 45-50 mph on this road.
Well I found myself pushing the front wheel away from me, pushing the bars away, trying to get away from the guardrail. This unweighted the front wheel such that I had to go really slow in some of the corners and I was still drifting to the outside. I was turning in early, in spite of myself, so it was even worse. I came to a stop once on the wrong side of the road and basically had a miserable time doing the descent. I even got a crick in my neck from being so tense, and I had to actually stop to let my forearms rest because I was braking so hard.
In later years doing Palomar I could descend on the drops comfortably. I had more confidence that I wouldn't go shooting off the cliffs (even if I had a massive mechanical - I thought of how I'd slide to catch the guardrail etc), I had confidence in my cornering ability, so I could weight the front wheel like normal. This let me blast into turns quick enough that I could catch a car halfway down the mountain.
Essentially when you're cornering in a field you want to follow the field. Think "school of fish". Follow the other riders' line, they follow the riders in front of them, and everything works out nicely. If you try to do your own thing then it gets a bit messy.
Remember that cornering well lets you stay in the draft better and gets you going on the next stretch of road closer to a sheltering wheel. This increases the chances of you finishing the race.
(Disclaimer/note: I am putting these posts up in response to some internal requests from individual riders for advice etc. I am not singling out any particular rider or their request, and this advice works for all racers. In fact I'd claim that these pieces offer universal advice for all new mass start bike racers.)