Turning Technique – Cornering Skills to Make You a Faster Rider

Today’s long travel mountain bikes do a great job of eating up bumps on the trail, enabling even the novice mountain biker to ride faster than on bikes from a decade ago. But if you go on a group ride, you’ll find that suspension doesn’t have much to do with who the fastest riders are. Singletrack is full of twists and turns, and it’s the riders who have mastered the art of corning that are the fastest.

Scott Russel railing a high speed sandy turn

When we first learned to ride bikes, we were taught to lean with the bike when turning. But leaning is only part of the cornering equation. Simply leaning with the bike when going through a turn unweights the portion of the tire that is in contact with the ground, pushing the tire in the opposite direction that you’re leaning.  Here are some cornering skills that will make you a faster rider.

Proper Body Positioning and Balance – For maximum traction in a turn, the rider must lean the bike over, while at the same time keep their upper body more upright. Most mountain bike tires have very aggressive side knobbies, and keeping the upper body more upright will drive the knobbies down into the dirt for maximum traction. The faster or flatter the turn, the more you have to emphasize your body positioning. Sliding your butt over to the outside edge of the seat through a turn helps get your body in the proper position to weight the tires. Use your arms to get the bike leaned over while keeping your weight over the front tire. Keeping your weight properly balanced between the front and back tires is also important.

Look Through the Turns (photo by Scott Russel)

Stay Off the Brakes – Another key to turning is to stay off the brakes as much as possible. Braking in a corner can slide the tires, but it also changes your weight distribution on the bike. This effect is amplified on a suspension bike; upon braking, your body weight is thrust forward,  the front suspension is compressed, and the geometry of the bike changes. To keep from braking in a turn, get your braking done before you enter the turn.  And as a bonus, if you’re not on the brakes through a turn, your perfect balance and control will allow you to start pedaling after the apex of the turn and accelerate out of the corner.  The more you ride, the easier it’ll be to gauge how much speed you can carry through a turn.

Look Through the Turn – As you’ve discovered while riding, sometimes not under the best of circumstances, your front tire will go in the direction you are looking. Look off the trail or at a rock, and that’s where your bike goes! The same is true for corning. Look towards the exit of the turn, and that’s where you’ll go. Use your peripheral vision to keep an eye on the obstacles in front of you. This can really help on singletrack in overgrown grass. If you wanted to see the trail in this situation, you’d have to look almost directly down in front of you, and this makes it hard to turn. It takes a little faith, but you can look through the turn and see where the trail is going by the break in the grass.

Riding smooth through twisty singletrack is fastest

Ride Smooth – One way I like to practice my corning technique is to find a stretch of singletrack with a gentle descent and try to go as fast as I can without using the brakes. This forces me to balance to the best of my abilities through the corner, and ride smooth without constantly changing between acceleration and braking. While powerful braking and hard acceleration looks really fast, riding smooth is faster. You’ll have more traction, you’ll be less fatigued, and the trail will be in better shape from not skidding.

While this article primarily focuses on mountain biking, it also applies to biking on the road.  Getting your body weight over those skinny road tires is equally important.   Take advantage of your bicycle commute or road ride to practice body positioning around the corners.

I hope you enjoyed this skills tip.  Let me know how it works for you. Did I leave anything out? What other riding skills would you like to learn more about?

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7 thoughts on “Turning Technique – Cornering Skills to Make You a Faster Rider

  1. All of it is good advice.

    Re your paragraph on road riding: Since I started mountain biking a few short years, my road handling skills have improved tremendously. I’m not a super coordinated individual, but riding on singletrack really educates you on getting a good feel for how a bike handles.

  2. Shifting your butt to the outer edge of the seat is something I learned during my dirt biking days. There was this guy that could go around corners twice as fast as I could, and he gave me some pointers. As you’ve probably seen, dirt bike seats are really long. He taught me to slide all the way to the front and outside edge of the seat, so I was almost on the tank. It seemed counter-intuitive at the time, and took much practice. It really helped though!

  3. Another small change that helps dig the tires in I learned on the road bike… push down on the outside pedal! This helps put your body in a more upright position with the added bonus of a feeling that you are helping gravity keep the bike down.

  4. Good post Mr. Moser.

    Another trick is to push forward on the inside of the handlebar. This ensures that: a) the front wheel is in line with the back and not steering the bike (the leaning will do the turning) and b) you have to move your body forward on the bike to do so, putting more weight on the front tire. Mr. Russell is showing a fine example of this in the first picture.

    Your comment on riding smooth is good. Take a favorite section of trail and ride it focusing on being fast. Go back and then try it again and focus on being smooth. Smoother riding is almost always faster.

    Practice. Ride a favorite (or difficult) corner or section over and over to find the best line, balance, transition, etc.

    Also, ride only as fast as you can see and stop; the pedestrianss, other cyclists, horses, deer and bear will appreciate it.

  5. I also find that altering your pedal stance, much like a skater would alter his footing for certain tricks helps out. It’s not comfortable at first to put your dominant foot to the rear but it can help you lean your bike.

    What I mean by this is, if you are comfortable standing on the bike (pedals level or vertical) with your left foot forward, try rotating the cranks so your right foot is forward when you are leaning the bike to the right. I find that altering the stance (right foot forward for leaning right, left foot forward for leaning left) keeps my thigh from hitting the front part of the seat, allowing me to drop the bike lower. It gives me more range of motion with the bike.

    If you are really hammering the corner tight and have your pedals in the vertical position, and are more comfortable with your right foot down, try altering it. I mean, you are going to want to have the foot up on the side you are turning anyway, so this kind of goes hand in hand with when you have your pedals in a level configuration.

    I’m just now starting to be comfortable leaning my bike to the right. I am way more confident leaning the bike to the left because of how my brain is wired. Its the same with snowboarding, I feel a lot more comfortable carving to the left than to the right. Lately I have been giving this one a shot and it’s making me more confident in my turns.

    The hardest thing to get used to is the whole dominant, non-dominant foot switch. It feels like trying to kick a soccer goal with your weak leg.

  6. The best article I’ve ever read concerning corning stated that there is basically 3 ways to round a bend….1st – lean bike over more than body….2nd – bike and body are at about the same angle – 3rd – bike is more upright and body is more leaned. Depending on the radius, traction available and speed 1 might be better than the other. When you add counter steering and how much pressure you unknowing use to get the bike leaned it adds more variables….throw in tires and frame geometry and you have lots of things that can make a corner feel good or bad…..I didn’t mention braking because Moser will post on that next. I think these subtleties are what makes biking so great. You can learn something even if you ride the same trails every single day. Or you can just ride the same trails every day and be happy…

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