Friday, June 01, 2007

How To - Learning to Corner When You're a Kid

One of my first posts has to do with cornering. Cornering, as I mentioned in that post, is a great way to pick up your pace. It takes virtually no training, you can corner great without being a fit cyclist, and you really don't forget once you learn.

It's free speed. What more could you ask for?

Well, the race at Hartford reminded me that not everyone is interested in free speed. There are those out there that have the bikes, the fitness, but not the skills. What drove that point home was when couple riders slammed into me in a slow corner at the top of a short hill. They were cornering like they were riding solo, not in a field. And when they corrected their mistake, it caused a huge ripple effect in the field. Not a good thing.

I first started riding with a group when I was 14. I was a scrawny kid with dorky glasses, a toothpick thin build, and had a bike that was probably a bit too big for me. I joined the team that winter, got a Basso with a mix of Campy and Excel Rino, and started riding pretty seriously.

That first year of racing and riding was pretty illuminating. Our group rides were directed by the whims of two riders, one a Cat 3, the other a legendary-in-my-mind Cat 2. The latter was sometimes cruel, usually nice, and almost always impossible to read. He once laughed at me as I tried to stay with him on a climb - everyone else had long gone as he ramped up the pace little by little, and at the top of the climb he gently rode me off his wheel. I must have been visibly smarting from his laugh as he slowed and wholeheartedly commended me for being the last guy he dropped.

Anyway one of the great things I learned from this guy was the idea that routes are flexible. He would take us on crazy rides. I missed the one where you had to walk along a log across a gorge about 40 feet deep (imagine that on leather soled shoes while holding your bike!). I did make the one where we turned into someone's driveway, rode over a bridge made of 2x4's simply laid across some beams (they bounced as you rode over them), then turned left into a field. A foot tall hump hidden in the two foot tall grass caused virtually all of us to somersault over our bars (me included).

Of course he forgot to mention the hump until we'd all fallen. Then he turned around and said "Oh, I forgot to tell you guys about the bump".

Another time he took us on a road where the Empire (the British one, not the Star Wars one) used to hang "rebel spies". Sounds dramatic but it's simply what happened before and during the Revolutionary War. The road is called Gallows Hill Road and it's in the locale in which the book "My Brother Sam is Dead" takes place. Gallows Hill Road has, appropriately, a couple very steep hills. I didn't know this as I'd never been on the road before - I was simply following wheels.

Another junior Bill (tall, lanky, and very strong) attacked ferociously going up a steep, winding climb. As a little rider who jumped decently, I took off after him. I'd round each bend just in time to see him disappearing around the next one. I was turning over a huge gear on this hill, a hill I'd never climbed before, and was praying it would end before I blew up.

I rounded some random bend and presto, the road flattened out. My prey in sight I notched it up, readied myself for some serious hammering, and set about closing the gap. Bill seemed to have eased up a bit, I smelled blood, and I closed in for the kill.

I rounded the bend and learned why Bill had eased up. The road dove straight down - it looked like a ski slope. I could barely touch the brakes before I had the bike leaned way over to the left. The road switchbacked, the bends obscured by the bushes next to the road. I cranked the bike over to the right, touching the brakes for the brief moment I was sort of upright, and leaned the bike way over for the next switchback. I couldn't tighten up my line. And suddenly I forgot about Bill. I went over the yellow line.

The road turned left in front of me.

And I was already on the left side of the road.

I desperately swung towards the right but the left bend came up too quickly. I cranked the bike over to the left and prayed.

In the middle of the curve the pavement leveled out a bit then dropped at something like a 20 or 25 percent grade. I don't think I'd have made it even if the road was level but there was a sudden drop where the pavement dropped off like a half pipe.

The transition launched my front wheel off the ground. It landed, my back wheel went light, my bike tilted sideways, and then I was sliding on the road.

A huge tree filled my vision. It could have been a sapling but to me, my first ever real crash, on virtually my first ever switchback, well, that tree looked like a redwood. I have no idea what happened next but I bounced into the bushes and bounced back out into the road.

I sat on the yellow line, dazed, my head ringing. Luckily I was wearing a helmet (a Bell Biker - check out 1975). Not a fancy one mind you. But one that actually worked.

The rest of the group whizzed by me, some barely missing me as they negotiated the dropoff and the new human-based chicane plopped down in the middle of the road.

I really knocked my noggin. I don't remember if I bled from my head but I think I had a bloody nose. My head really hurt though and I wasn't sure what to do. I had to crawl up the hill to my bike as it was too steep for me to stand. I guess my adrenaline kicked in, the guys with me weren't sure what to do, and eventually I declared I could ride.

It was a long, painful ride home.

I realized then that there was more to riding fast than, well, riding fast. That day I hadn't set up for any turns (I didn't know about them either, but that's a different point). I fell because I'd apexed about 90 degrees early. I should have been more aware of the road, its direction, and set up accordingly.

When I first got into riding I'd been focused on going up hills fast. Then on my first group ride I realized I had to learn simply how to go fast on the flats. And now I learned that cornering also makes a big difference.

I consulted with my high school cycling buddies - the famous Ken, a quiet guy named Tom, and the most outgoing one Rob. They all recommended (probably based on hearing from other racers) going to a parking lot and cornering there. They also talked about sticking out my knee, leaning more (or less) than the bike, and a whole bunch of confusing, sometimes contradictory stuff.

The parking lot didn't work for me. Too slow - I couldn't build up speed in any of the parking lots in the area. Leaning a lot when going slow is a bad thing. And it was hard to experiment with cornering technique when I couldn't go fast enough for anything to make a difference. A long sweeping turn allows you to compare techniques. Short, abrupt turns do not. I started looking for a better spot.

And found it.

There was a section of main road near my high school. The main road went past the tennis courts and some buildings. If I made two rights off the main road (the first being a 90 degree turn, the second a bit sharper), I'd be on a road heading the opposite way, parallel to the main road. Conveniently a second cross over street put me back onto the main road. The loop was probably about a kilometer long. Perfect.

With the main road's traffic moving along at about 35-40 mph, it was a perfect road to jump up to race speed. Then as I blew up, I'd take the two rights to line up on the smaller parallel street. I'd recover and do it again.

Although this only involved right turns, it allowed me to practice cornering on a flat road at speeds approaching 40 mph. This was great - I could sprint, go fast, and turn fast. For someone who eventually decided crits were great, this was fantastic training.

The problem was figuring out how fast I could go around the corner. After all, without going to the limit, you simply have no idea about the limits of your bike.

So I set out to find that limit the only way possible.

I went faster and faster around the turn. I would jump later so that I could sprint virtually up to the turn, then try to stay off the brakes before I laid the bike over for that first right turn. A couple times I went a bit wide on that first turn but I'd only go that fast if there weren't any cars there.

That second turn though was a bit tricky. Sharper than the first, exhausted from the sprinting and the nervousness of the first turn, I'd hit the second turn a little less prepared.

Mind you, I was still doing the things like weighting the outside pedal, hand on the drops, inside knee out, no brakes, etc etc. But it was hard, for example, to make sure there were no cars there while I was setting up for the first turn. Often I'd come out of the first turn and see cars waiting at the second.

Nevertheless, in the interest of improving my cornering, I aggressively attacked that second turn whenever I could. I did this in the dry and in the rain - wet roads scared me then and they still make me very cautious now.

And on one wet day I paid the price.

I sprinted into the first turn, came flying out of it, did a pedal stroke or two, and dove into the second turn.

And at the limit, my front tire slid out as it hit a tiny pavement seam.

I went down like a sack of potatoes. Well one that someone tossed across the road at 30 mph. When I stopped moving and opened my eyes, I was looking at the bottom of a BMW bumper (3 series, if you want to know). Apparently I'd slid across the road and ended up underneath the Bimmer as it approached the intersection. Stunned, a bit road rashed, but fine.

I think the driver was more scared as they thought they ran over my head. Someone at the tennis courts called the police and my very worried mom came and picked me up after receiving what must have been a most nerve-wracking call from the PD.

That corner seemed a bit scary now. I told some people what happened. Well I probably told everyone I knew what happened, but one of the racers, probably that demi-god Cat 2, said that I had to get over the fear of crashing while cornering. So I went out there and did laps again. I was healed so it was at least a few weeks down the road.

It was dry.

And it didn't make a difference.

On one of my hot laps, at that second turn, I slid across the road. No cars to slide under, I simply ended up sitting next to the wood fence on the other side of the road. I picked myself up and called it a day.

I returned many times that summer, each time aggressively cornering, each time focusing on technique. And I didn't fall any of those times. I felt like I'd conquered cornering. I checked it off my mental list.

One winter day I was hammering down that main road. Heavy traffic and a sandy shoulder meant I was getting squeezed between the unrideable shoulder and some pretty close cars. I decided I'd turn off the main road to get myself some breathing room. As I had just passed the high school I decided to parlay this need to turn off the road into a chance to practice cornering.

The first turn was sketchy but I made it.

The second? Well, the main road was pretty clear of sand. But that secondary road... Suffice it to say that the tires picked up a lot of sand on that short bit of relatively unused road. And that layer of sand reduced traction. I went down somewhat softly, picked myself up, and rode home.

I don't recall crashing in a training ride in a turn since then. I crashed in races, yes, and a couple times on training rides (can't remember the last real crash I had on a training ride - and I had one "topple over" doing a trackstand in the last 15 years), but never when I've been cornering on a training ride.

I learned the importance of knowing the right line. That swinging out before the turn doesn't really buy you anything. And that weighting the front wheel put a lot of control in your hands. Rear wheel sketchiness is reasonably easy to control. And you can recover from it. But front wheel sketchiness?

Put it this way. Front wheel sketchiness took me down three times in that turn.

I'm not saying this is the optimal way to learn how to corner. But it's virtually the only way to learn limits.

My brother skateboards. He's been skateboarding as long as I've been riding. And he pointed out something. The "kids" that skate where he skates (skate parks and stuff) will try all sorts of things, fall spectacularly, and get up and try again. It's like they're impervious to "hurt". The older guys, they have one or two bad falls, and they sit out a bit before giving it a shot again. The older guys simply can't withstand the abuse the younger kids can.

And that's how it is now. I hate to fall. It's painful, it takes time to heal, and all sorts of things can happen - you get sick, you get out of shape, you have to buy new parts, and you have to install those parts.

It's possible to corner at unimaginable lean angles. You can pedal through anything where your pedals don't hit the ground (usually 30-34 degrees lean angle). It's very, very hard to exceed the cornering limits of a bicycle on a normal 90 degree turn. It's only when other riders around you do unpredictable things that crashes happen.

In California a couple riders on a group ride commented that "the guy from Connecticut descends well". The rider in question? Me. Really what they should have said is that "the guy from Connecticut corners well". Because descending is just about tucking and letting the bike go. But getting down the curvy California canyon roads - that takes cornering skills.

And, yes, I figure I get around corners pretty well.

But I paid to get to that point.


Anonymous said...

You are scaring me. I still have to put my brakes on at the corner if I'm going downhill. :) Hope you're getting lots of interest on your house.

will said...

Great post!