Follow these tips to give you greater control and speed
Anyone can go fast in a straight line; it takes skill and technique to carry speed around corners. This guide will arm you with all the information you need to start carving corners and railing turns like a true pro.
We’re going to show you how to tackle different types of turn, and how to stay in control, even when you’re cornering faster.
Fancy Foot Work
A common piece of advice you may have been given is to drop your outside foot when cornering. While this isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s often taken out of context. If you tell a complete beginner to drop their outside foot while cornering, then it gives them a lot of confidence, but as soon as you start going faster, you’ll find that the only way to master traction is to control your speed.
Too fast and you slide out. The straight outside leg has revealed its limitations, meaning that you have no influence over the amount of weight you’re putting through the contact patches — the shape of the trail is doing that for you.
It’s not all bad, though. There are benefits to dropping your outside foot in a corner; you lower your centre of gravity, meaning that you’re more stable, you are less lightly to catch your pedals on the ground because your inside pedal is now lifted, and you can lean the bike further, meaning that you’re now facing the right way for the exit.
One massive downside, however, is that if you drop your foot all the way, so that your leg is straight, then your body is now completely rigid in the turn.
This is fine if you’re going slowly, or if you’re on a surface that is predictable — like a tarmac turn or a roundabout — but if your bike starts to slide, or if there’s a bump or a compression in the surface of the trail, then your weight will be affected and you’ll no longer be able to control the amount of traction that you have, meaning that you’ll slide and lose control.
Being rigid means your body cannot adapt to the changing grip level.
General Rule: Bend Zee Knees
We don’t want to oversimplify this, but as a general rule your feet should be level with the surface that you’re cornering on.
In other words, if you’re on a well-supported turn — like a berm — then your bike is more or less perpendicular with the trail, meaning that your feet should be level on the cranks.
If you’re on a flat turn, and your bike is leant over, then your outside foot should drop — but only enough that your pedals are still parallel with the ground. The more you lean the bike, or the more off-camber the turn, then the more you drop your outside foot.
As you start having to drop your outside foot all the way down for really off-camber corners, or when there’s a lot going on and you need that extra lean, just make sure that you keep enough bend in your knees and elbows that you can still move with the trail.
This will also mean that you can play with the amount of grip that you have by being able to back off if it starts to fade, or push if you need to follow the ground or feel confident enough to push for speed.
Just don’t lock out your outside knee or you’ll lose the ability to control the grip.
As your bars turn in the direction of the corner, make sure that you keep your elbows out and your head and shoulders lined up with the front of your bike. Your head should remain above the stem at all times, and there should be very little sideways movement initially.
If you are dropping your foot expecting a loss of traction, then your outside knee (still slightly bent) should be brushing your top tube, meaning that your hips are also lined up with the direction you want to go in.
Your bent knees will also mean that you can exert some influence over how much traction you have by pushing for grip and backing off, or letting the bike come up into you, if it starts to go.
The trick to carrying speed is to stay in control through the turn. You want to get to the last part with enough control over your traction that you can push with your legs and generate momentum out the other side.
If you’re already riding at your limit, then you’ll have to back off and control how much grip you have mid-turn and sacrifice the boost out at the end.
Similarly, if your legs are already straight because you’ve dropped your outside foot, then you’ll stall in the corner through being rigid and not be able to generate any push on the exit. This might feel like you’re riding on the limit of your traction, but you’ll have actually lost a lot of your momentum.
As you go from one corner to another you should be lining your hips up with the exit of each one. You’ll find that your outside kneepad starts tapping off your top tube more and more, and if you do loose traction then you’ll already be facing in a direction you need and control will return naturally.
Once you get the feeling of being able to control your traction, you can have a bit of fun with it.
When you see riders manualling out of corners, they’re not just lifting their front ends by pulling on the bars. They’re pushing so hard with their legs that they actually make the front end lift by pushing the rear wheel underneath it!
Your traction isn’t something that is set in stone. It’s dynamic, and something that you’re in control over, but only if you give yourself the room to explore it.
With bikes getting longer and angles getting slacker, what are the advantages of having a shorter stem and a wider bar? Does it work for every bike? And when do stems and bars become too short or too wide?
Modern bikes have more travel and slacker angles, meaning that your front wheel is way out in front of you. As long as you trust this new position it has huge advantages. The slacker angles make the front wheel less likely to be knocked off line by rocks or roots, but they also slow down your response time by making the steering feel sloppy.
Shortening the stem, meaning that you have less of a lever to rotate around as you turn the bars, can offset this. Using a wider bar with a set-up like this means that you get that leverage back on your side and that you can turn the slack angles quickly and with a lot of stability.
The slacker the head angle, the shorter the stem needed to balance it out. This is always up to the rider though and sometimes going too short will result in a floppy front end that wants to fall left and right.
And don’t forget it will influence your reach and comfort on long rides, too. When it comes to bar width we’d generally recommend as wide as you can get away with.
Smaller riders will be more comfortable with narrower bars, but your average rider can handle anything from 750mm upwards. If you prefer to ride in tight and twisty trees, watch out, as all that extra stability at speed will be useless if you can’t fit through the gaps.
No Pedal-Strokes: Find a trail that you know well, that points downhill and is normally a bit of a pedal-fest. See how far you can get without exerting a single pedal-stroke by pumping with your legs.
We’re not suggesting that this is the right way to attack these trails, but you’ll be surprised at how fast you can go if you come in a bit slower than usual to a turn and pump out the other side.
There’s an app for that!
Dirt School’s free coaching app lets you see the right and wrong techniques in slo-mo.
Words: Andy Barlow
Photos: Andy McCandlish