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How to Safely Take Corners On a Bike

How to Safely Take Corners On a Bike

On a bicycle, steering and balancing are pretty much the same thing. Cornering is harder than riding in a straight line, so how can you ensure you do it safely?

On a bicycle, steering and balancing are pretty much the same thing. You can't do one without the other. Cornering is nevertheless harder than riding in a straight line, as anyone who has helped their child to learn to ride a bike will remember. Your centre of gravity is different and the lean of the bike makes the traction of the tyres on the road more important.

How Bicycles Steer

You don't just turn the handlebar when you steer a bike: you lean. You can test this by riding no-handed or by walking alongside your bike with just one hand on the saddle to control it. When the bike leans, it steers that way. The faster you go, more lean-steer matters and the further over you'll lean. You'll do this without thinking about it. You may find that you can turn better if you deliberately focus on your hips, pointing them into the turn.

Note that a tricycle does not lean steer, which can make it peculiarly difficult for bicyclists to ride. At speed, however, a tricyclist must lean – even thought the trike won't – in order to keep all wheels on the road! 

Toe Overlap and Steering

Because you steer so much by leaning, the front wheel turns through a much smaller arc than you'd imagine – at least when you're riding along at normal cycling speeds. But during a sharp, slow-speed turn, such as a 90-degree corner at walking pace, you steer more by turning the handlebar than by leaning. The front wheel sweeps wide, past the toe of your leading foot. This is a problem if your toe can overlap the wheel or mudguard. If it hits, you might fall off.

Many road bikes have toe overlap, especially in the smaller frame sizes. You don't need to panic about it but you do need to be aware of it. Test for it by standing astride the bike with the cranks horizontal and one foot in its normal place on the leading pedal. Then turn the handlebar back and forth. If your foot can hit the wheel, you've got toe overlap. Remind yourself of this whenever you're tempted to try a tight, slow-speed turn – or a trackstand.

Optimum Pedal Position for Taking Corners

Whenever you need to bank the bike over as you go around a corner, stop pedalling and set the cranks at six o'clock. Put the inside pedal – the one that's on the side you're turning towards – at the top of the pedal stroke. This gives this leaned-over bike more clearance as you corner, so the inside pedal won't accidentally hit the road. Press down on the outside pedal as you go around the corner. This makes you more stable and can help the tyres grip the road better.

Road Positioning

Taking the lane is a good idea if you – and therefore any following traffic – cannot see all the way around the corner as you approach it. It's not safe to be passed there, as any oncoming traffic will make the overtaking driver swerve back towards you. Similarly, take the lane if the corner you're negotiating is a junction: it's not safe to be overtaken there either.

Don't drift into the oncoming lane as you exit the corner. This is easily done if you come into a corner too fast and too close to the inside edge of the road. Take the lane. If traffic conditions allow, you can start wider still, out towards the right-hand edge of your lane. Look through the apex of the bend towards the corner's exit, then cut across towards the apex of the bend – again, staying in your lane. By doing this, you'll take a shallower corner than the road itself does. It's not a technique that's necessary at slower speeds, but it makes twisty descents much more manageable.

Braking On Corners

Scrub off speed before you get to the corner rather than panic-braking as you corner. You don't need to 'power around the corner', like you were told to by your driving instructor, but bikes nevertheless corner much better when the wheels are rolling freely rather than locking up. Braking in the corner can cause you to skid. It can also make the bike 'sit up' from its banked over position, which will make you less stable. Exercise caution when you're cornering on an unfamiliar road: you don't know how steep the bend will be, what the camber of the corner will be, or what the surface will be like. Better safe than sorry.

Surface Hazards and Corners

It should go without saying that if roads are wet or icy, cyclists should be extra cautious and take corners slower than they usually would. There's less surface friction so the tyres can easily slide if you bank the bike over. Keep a sharp eye out for things like drain covers and road studs. Cornering on wet metal causes crashes. If you've taken the lane, you'll have more room to get around such obstacles.

Roads that have recently been gritted often have drifts of grit in the corners. Steer clear of them by avoiding hugging the edge of the road.

Bike Tyres and Corners

Some tyres corner poorly, especially in the wet. To get more grip, you need more rubber in contact with the road. Reduce the tyre pressure a bit. If you're on skinny 23mm tyres, switch to wider (25 or 28mm) tyres to run lower pressures without the risk of pinch puncturing. Use slicks rather than mountain bike or cyclocross tyres with prominent tread lugs, as these can squirm alarmingly on tarmac corners. The rubber compound plays a part too: softer rubber, which you'll find on higher quality tyres, grips better.