You’re piling on the base miles, and since Phil didn’t see his shadow, you’re able to get out on the road. While your racing goals may still be far away, there is no better time to work on your handling skills. Since most of the racing we do involves wither criteriums, one of the best things you can do to improve your bike racing is work on your cornering. Going through a right hander at 30 mph can be down-right scary, but with practice, especially in the early season, you can turn good skills into an effective racing tactic to help you gain time on your competitors in a break, or save energy in the pack. Before we look at drills to help you improve, lets break down the anatomy of fast cornering.
Most riders have the mechanics of a turn down when riding alone, and can competently coast through a corner without problems. Racing is a different matter, which can really be broken down into four areas that when put together, will make you feel like you are on rails. Those areas are:
- Mental Focus
I put equipment first, as it’s really the easiest to control, but also sometimes the most often overlooked. The obvious one is tires. But taking a closer look, often riders neglect to experiment with tire pressure (or even check to see if you have an accurate pump! Compare your gauge with others). Too little air, and you run the risk of flats, the sidewall collapsing under pressure, or even ripping the tire off the rim. Too much, and the slightest rock or pebble will turn your wheel into a speedball, causing the bike to buck and possible the tire to skip or worse. So where is the sweet spot? Well, the first and foremost thing you want to examine is the max pressure that your tire and rim will allow. You do not want to exceed that for any reason, as you can risk serious injury. (and my lawyer made me write that).
That aside, the best way to find the sweet spot is with experimentation. Split the difference between 100 psi (the standard minimum for most performance tires) and the max psi, and the work up or down until you feel that you are achieving maximum traction when you lean the bike into a turn. Also keep in mind that your front and rear pressures may not be the same! Since you have more weight on the rear of the bike (ideally a 45% front, 55% rear balance), you can keep the rear a little higher to compensate. Additionally, you may want a little more give (less pressure) in the front tire so allow for absorption of those micro rocks and pebbles I mentioned earlier. Don’t forget to consider the weather conditions as well. High temps can make the road surface sticky, and rain comes with it’s won problems. I don’t follow the conventional wisdom that you should run a lower tire pressure in the rain, as I feel that ultimately, your contact patch is still the same with the pavement, and the newer tires on the market do a pretty good job of channeling the water out from underneath.
The tires themselves also bear important consideration in the mix. In a perfect world, we’d have our sticky dual compounds for crits, our smooth-slicks for road races, and our diamond treads for the rain and pave, but knowing that’s not possible, I think picking tires based what you race, most of the time, is the safest bet. When you’re working on your drills, it’s really best to use the same tire/wheel combination you plan on racing with to get an exact feel for what’s going on. Without giving an exact endorsement of one brand over another, the newer tires that feature a dual compound tread often offer better cornering adhesion than a single-compound tire. One label that you will often see on tires, aside from size (700 x 23 or 25) is the TPI, or thread count. Just like your sheets, the higher thread count equals a more supple feel, and a higher price. While that is usually ideal, bigger riders may want to look at a slightly lower TPI (120 or 180 at the most), as they add some stability to the sidewall.
The world of wheels is really beyond the scope of this article, but a few things are worthy to note when looking at how your wheels factor into the mix. Tall or “Aero” rims/wheels are becoming more mainstream, and can add some nice benefits to cornering. The added stiffness they provide helps keep the bike on it’s path through the turns, and while they are heavier that the box-rim counterparts, they keep the momentum up and can help you maintain speed. The downside is that they add a significant amount of gyroscopic force to the bike, that requires more force to control, and that added momentum can be a detriment if you’re in a race that requires a forceful acceleration out of the turns. Even if you’re able to corner faster that everyone else, if you’re stuck in the pack, and have to keep winding it up out of every turn, that’s a significant power output you have to make. Generally speaking, if you’re a smaller rider, who lacks the powerful “pop” of a sprinter, I would stay away from the deep section wheels, but if you’re a bigger rider, and have the power on tap to turn them, the deep section wheels are the way to go for performance cornering.
Regardless of the tires and wheels you use, a quick pre-ride or race inspection should always be performed. Look for any cuts in the tire or debris, and replace anything that has a cut bigger than a 1/16” across. Grab the spokes and wiggle them, looking for play. Put the wheel in the dropouts and tighten the skewer. Wiggle the rim back and forth, to see if there is any play in the hubs (and tighten/repair as needed). Finally, check the rim it’s self, especially around the seam and the spoke nipples for any cracking or excessive wear. If you’re unsure, your local mechanic can give you an expert opinion.
Part II of Skills Drills will focus on the next area of cornering skill development – Speed! Look for it to be posted around the beginning of May. Get advanced notice by signing up for the newsletter, “Forging the Athlete”
Author David Burke has over 10 years of bike racing experience and writes articles on bike training in association with Steel City Endurance, Ltd.