Monday, October 23, 2006

cornering lines

I read yesterday that Boonen was talked out of racing a Porsche 996 in a 10 hour race. It's a pity. First off, I think Boonen would have had a blast. The Porsche is a reliable race car, and many pure drivers (i.e. car racers) own one, regardless of whose car they race for work. Secondly, I think that driving a race car would be incredibly educational for a bicycle racer. The reason is that, from what I can tell, pro cyclists know not too much about cornering lines. And cornering is one of the keys to descending.

Descending doesn't take fitness. EPO won't help you descend. Neither, at a certain level, will testosterone, HGH, or any othe performance enhacing drugs. It's brains that help you descend quicker, knowledge and understanding about cornering, G-forces, and inertia. It seems that during that fateful stage in the Tour, Floyd gained much of his time on the descents. This was apparent watching the peloton's lackadaisical descents during the stage (heck, the whole Tour) as well as Floyd's downhill lateral-stress-test wheel descents where it looked like he was riding skiis, not a bike. He was visibly faster than his opponents.

I don't know who decided to take it easy on the descents but when someone sitting upright, coasting, braking, and basically going as slow as he can - Mick Rogers - can't help but pull away from the field on a descent, something is very, very wrong. Where did the flowing marbles look go, the one where you see various switchbacks full of racers zigzagging across the screen, led (in many cases) by a tucked and flying Lemond? I dunno but in general the Tour descenders this year looked pretty tame. Floyd excepted.

Why is that? Descending in a straight line is easy. It's the turns that count. If you watch the timid descending in the Tour, you'll see all sorts of elemental cornering errors. You'd think the pros would know how to corner - late apexes, double apexes for variable radius turns, things like that. A lot of the racers make the most basic, elementary error when cornering - the early turn in. It's the worst move for a motorsports racer unless you're protecting your line in a tight crit (and face it, most pros in the Tour are not too worried about protecting their spot on a descent). An early entry point puts you on the inside of the turn, going sort of straight, when the turn isn't even half done. You have no room to maneuver, no room for error.

On the other hand, a late apex is the racer's dream. Maybe a bit slower in but you can accelerate out, possibly even before the "apex" (since you're apexing a bit early), you are pointing down the next straight halfway through the turn, and you are not at your cornering limits at that time - so when people start bouncing off the outside wall of the turn because of their early apexes, you can dive to their inside.

On a bicycle, it's hard to press home these kind of concepts since you're going so slow that mistakes rarely result in more than some road rash. But in a car, finding yourself driving off the course at 100 mph because you turned in too early on that long sweeper could mean a really nasty crash. If you make it through your mistake, you'll be sure never to repeat it again.

It's as if the pro cyclists have forgotten the basics and focussed only on the engine (i.e. the whole doping thing). A thousand horsepower car is useless if you don't harness that power. Okay, fine, it goes really fast in a straight line. But not much else. Formula 1 cars peaked at 1300 HP in the mid 80's. Drivers said the way to drive them was point the car down the straight, floor it, brake, creep around the corner, and repeat. The cars were virtually undriveable due to the inherent imbalance between power and handling. The 750-800 HP cars today are faster than those untamed power monsters because the current cars are so much better balanced - they can corner as well as "go".

Unfortunately, the old F1 cars are like modern day bike racers, except the racers don't have that much wattage to spare. The pros seem to focus on only how fast they can climb, not how to actually race a bicycle. They hammer up the climbs, bank some time, and trade time for their lack of descending skills. You get these guys who are lean, strong, fit, but have no clue about "how to race". It might be the earpieces spewing commands or something but a certain intuitiveness is gone from the racing scene. The back markers, the ones that lose time on the climbs, they're the ones descending like mad. They have to learn because they don't have the engine to climb at, say, Floyd's pace. (Just so you don't misunderstand, please note that I mentioned earlier that Floyd knows how to descend as well as "go".)

Instead of dissuading Boonen from doing the 10 hour endurance race in a Porsche 996, his team should have brought all his teammates and made them all race. Or at the very least gotten them on some nice 70+ mph karts at Spa or some other reasonably famous outdoor course. Or failing that, do what Jelly Belly did a couple years ago - get a nice corporate discount and go karting, as a team, indoors at a serious indoor karting venue.

If you're a team director, next time you see your racer dive into a turn only to brake, desperately stick their knee inside, leaning over the bike to try and keep it on the road, think of this post. And if they go flying over a guardrail because of their erroneous cornering line, don't get mad. Buy them some driving lessons.

And email me.

I'll be glad to drive with them.

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