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The Complexities of Cornering

Updated: May 26, 2020

Kirsty working on her bike lean on a corner with a slight berm.
Being able to corner confidently is an essential part of riding with flow.

Of all the skills in mountain bike riding the one that I focus the most on is cornering. It is quite simply one of those skills that helps me to flow through the trails smoothly and seamlessly, allowing me to carry speed without needing to unnecessarily pedal. And for those of you that know me a little bit, you'll probably be aware of my dislike of pedaling.

At its core are the fundamental skills of cornering off-road. The basic technique itself seems, well, basic - even if it does feel unnatural. Lean your bike not your body - and shift your arms and legs into different positions to do so.

Ethan practicing the fundamental cornering position during the Grade 1 Intro to MTB Skills Course. You'll find that no matter how far along our courses you progress, there is heavy focus on cornering all the way through.

But if it's so basic, why do so many of us seem to struggle with cornering confidently on the trails? Why is it that some riders seem to be able to effortlessly flow through a trail with corners without losing speed while others struggle to maintain traction and have to slow down to make the turns?

Well, back to basics. In its simplest form cornering is a balance of centripetal and centrifugal forces - which technically could be considered to be fictitious forces but let's not go there!

The interplay of cornering forces at an instantaneous moment of time. The strength of these forces can change dramatically as you attempt to flow through the corner requiring constant adjustment.

When you attempt to corner, you apply a centripetal force through your tyres to turn. Other elements such as your body weight or the shape of a corner, for example a berm, can also contribute to this centripetal force. The centrifugal force is the force that you feel that acts to push you outwards from a turn. In general it keeps the centripetal force balanced and Mr Isaac Newton happy with his whole 2nd law of Newtonian physics.

However, this only holds true while your tyres are able to grip the ground and stay balanced with the centrifugal forces at play. When they don't, scary things can happen. And that's what our self-preservation instincts don't like, which is what can make cornering so hard.

To maximise tyre grip around a corner you need to work on both bike lean and balancing the front/rear weight distribution. And there can be a tendency for us to shift a weight back when cornering.

So in a nut shell, to corner well we have to maximise tyre grip while turning. Again, simple enough... until you take into consideration what that actually means.

Let's start with bike set up which can drastically affect how well you maximise your grip to be able to corner well. What sort of tyres do you have on your bike? How wide are your rims? What tyre pressures are you running? How is your suspension set up? How long is your handlebar stem? How high or low are your handlebars?

But let's just hypothetically say that your bike has been perfectly set up for cornering. How much do you lean your bike? What should your arms and wrists be doing? Should you have your weight the front or rear - and what is it doing when you corner right now? Should you have a pedal up or feet flat? Where should you be looking? Should you brake and if so when?

This corner continually changes as you ride around it requiring you to constantly adjust your balance in a variety of different directions to maintain tyre grip.

Those are a few of the basic elements of cornering technique that you need to consider. Which is actually quite a lot to take in, if you think about it. I mean, how are you going to remember all that when you're cornering?

But let's just say that you now have your bike perfectly dialed and you've had a lesson where you've refined your cornering technique in a controlled environment. You're good now, right?

When mountain bike riding, no two corners are ever the same. And even within a single corner, so many factors can change that require you to constantly adjust how you ride through it to maximise traction. Is it dusty, rocky or does it change as you ride through the corner? Is it flat, off camber, or is there a berm? Are you level or descending as you ride through the corner? It is a tight arc, a long sweeping corner or a combination of both? Will you be riding out onto a straight or heading into another corner.

There is more than one way to skin a corner. Using the berm and rocks for grip and combining that with pumping I'm able to generate centripetal forces without relying on bike lean to attack this corner.

All of these factors can drastically affect how adjust your balance to attack a corner. And when you start enjoying corners what you'll likely find is that you'll have a tool bag of different tricks to attack corners with, rather than one set standard technique.

Which is what makes cornering so much fun to learn. It's yet another journey within the realm of mountain biking that you undertake to find flow. It's not something that's learnt in a single skills clinic, but instead it's something you learn how to do well over time. And to do it well isn't a necessarily easy journey. But ultimately it's a very rewarding one.

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