July 11, 2010

Dicey Descending

This is a blind curve. What you cannot see around this bend is dangerous—the grade drops steeply into an immediate hairpin turn that hooks left.

The extra orange sign was placed to warn cyclists participating in a charity ride to slow down; normally, on this curve, it is just you and your best judgment.
Tip #1: If you cannot see around the bend, be prepared to stop.
You normally brake to reduce your speed before heading into a curve; be especially cautious when you cannot see what surprise might be lurking around the bend.

What is wrong with this picture?


Let's start with the guy on the left. He is on the wrong side of the double yellow line. [Did I mention that this is a blind curve?]
Tip #2: Stay in your lane.
Why do you suppose he is over the double yellow line? Perhaps he noticed that the other three riders are not skilled descenders, and he wanted to pass them.
Tip #3: Do not pass on a blind curve.
Even if you can stay in your lane. You do not know what you will find around the bend. If you need to veer suddenly to your right, you will endanger the cyclists you just passed by cutting them off. If you need to veer left and there is oncoming traffic ... well, enough said.

Next, let's consider his position on the bicycle. His bike is tilted into the turn—in this case, to the right. That is good. His feet are level, with pedals at the 9:00 and 3:00 positions. That is less good. I saw this on every mountain bike heading into that curve. A mountain-biking friend tells me that this is proper mountain-biking technique, to avoid clipping a pedal on a rock, tree root, or other miscellaneous obstacle on the trail. I am not a mountain biker, and this cyclist is riding a road bike on a road.

What is the stable position on the bike, when cornering? [Hint: Did I mention that the other three cyclists are not skilled descenders?]
Tip #4: Lean your bike into the curve, with your leading (inside) knee up and your weight planted firmly on the extended (outside) leg, pedals at 12:00 and 6:00.
Your body should be nearly upright, with the bike tilted underneath you. Like the pros in this photo I snapped during the last San Francisco Grand Prix,

cyclists on our local curve need the same good form:

Think: Right turn, right knee up. Left turn, left knee up. [If you tend to confuse "right" and "left," come up with your own mantra.]

Maybe these were lucky shots, and I just happened to catch the riders' legs at a particular moment during the pedal stroke? Nope. They were all coasting downhill.

In the second photo at the top, three riders have positioned their legs exactly opposite of where they should be. What could go wrong? Well, as the bike rounds the bend and naturally tilts into the turn, they risk clipping the inside pedal (extended leg) on the pavement and crashing. Notice their upright posture. With their weight distributed through the extended leg beneath them they risk toppling over as the bike tilts. I can only imagine how unbalanced this must feel; I am not about to give it a try.

What about lane position? That guy in the blue jersey is in the middle of the road, and the guy in the white jersey is right next to the double yellow line. Shouldn't they keep as far to the right as possible, like the guy in the first photo above?

By "taking the lane," they are more visible to traffic approaching from behind, and they send a clear message: It is not safe to pass us on this curve. There is no room to share the lane; you would squeeze us off the road. [They are really taking a good line through the curve, but let's call that an advanced topic.]
Bonus Tip #5: Descend at your own pace.
Your skills may not match those of the rider ahead of you; don't give chase. If you are less skilled, you risk losing control of your bicycle.
Bonus Tip #6: Before the curve, slow to a comfortable speed you are willing to carry through the curve.
You want to roll through the curve; if you grip your brakes and your wheels lock up, they are not rotating and you will skid (or worse).
Bonus Tip #7: Look where you want to go.
Your visual system is powerful. Your body will follow where your eyes are tracking. If you look at the edge of the road, guess where you will end up?


  1. Biking is like skiing: weight on the downhill "ski"; look downhill.

  2. Jerome adds:
    Also, in skiing, the downhill leg should be flexed a little to absorb bumps (at least that's the way it was back when I skied). I find it works the same riding, if the outside leg is bent a little, you are more stable if you hit any pavement irregularities.