- Written by Tony Pedeferri
- Published: 12 October 2013
Handcycle Racing 101:
A new series from U.S. Handcycling, designed for the beginning handcycle racer.
While cornering is a skill you need to have, unless your name is Matt Updike, you are not likely to win a race because of your cornering. It is however, important to have “decent” cornering skills, so that you do not lose a race due to your cornering.
Many handcycling races are criteriums, and they can be intimidating...especially if you're a new racer and the leaders are lapping you. The most important skill you can have is understanding how to make it through the corner in the safest, most efficient, and fastest way possible...without taking too much risk. We have often seen people who *think* that they're good in the corners, only to crash out because they took the "early apex" option (see below) and crashed themselves, or worse: crashed other riders.
The "standard" corner arc is something every bike racer should understand and practice. The concept is simple: Carve an arc through the corner, in which the center meets the apex of the turn, and is equal on the entry and the exit. It's generally your best bet, and should set you up well for whatever may come next.
It is quite simply the most direct path -- and therefore the shortest -- around the corner. Therefore, it is usually the fastest because there is less distance to travel.
The "late apex" arc is a useful alternative to the standard arc in some situations. It allows you a little more flexibility to redirect *during* the turn, and can give you a little better look at the exit of the turn. By nature, it is slower than the standard arc, but a skilled cyclist can use it to their advantage.
The key to this variation is simply to start your turn a bit slower (sometimes), and a bit later than you normally would.
It's perfect when there is a "chicane" or if you have to make a quick right turn after a quick left (or vice versa).
The "early apex" arc is a variation we don't recommend. Ironically, it's a variation we often see practiced by new racers who are anxious and start their turn too early. It's basically diving in to the corner before you should.
For racers who are faster, this can be a dangerous move. If you enter the corner too early at speed, you will have to steer sharply, which could result in flipping over -- or you will very likely run out of real estate on the exit of the corner. This holds many consequences: 1)You could run in to the fence or whatever other object may be on the opposite curb. 2) You could interrupt the line of other racers taking a standard line, which would make them brake, alter their line, or it could even cause them to crash. Basically, don't use this technique unless you are savvy and experienced, know the course well, and have a real reason to use it -- like avoiding a crash, or getting around a really slow, lapped rider. Control your speed on the entry though...otherwise you'll cross paths with a rider taking a "normal" line. Finally, we often see newer racers try this line, end up crossing paths with another rider (who was taking a proper line), and yell about it -- to the rider he cut off. Don't be a clueless ranter...please.
One of the hardest things to gauge is how fast to go in to a corner. If you could ride behind a savvy crit racer, you would notice they barely seem to touch their brakes. This is mostly do to a combination of good steering, good body mechanics, good speed control, gear selection, and picking the right line. Generally speaking, you should have had an option to ride the course -- or at least some of the corners -- during your pre-race warmup, which should help you gauge how fast the corner can be taken.
In order to keep your risk at a minimum, it is best to control your speed *before* you begin steering, and for sure before you reach the corner's apex. If you grab your brakes at speed in the apex of a corner while you're steering madly...make sure it's on the corner nearest the medical tent because you'll be the next customer there.
Chances are, you'll take your first few corners of the race a bit slow, but that's ok...you'll learn how to be patient and won't start your cornering too early....you'll figure out the correct lines soon enough (particularly in a criterium where you'll do every turn plenty of times). By the end of the race you'll feel more comfortable entering the corners at a higher rate of speed...hopefully you're not DFL by then.
A lot of people who compete in sports such as alpine skiing, think there really isn't any skill involved in road cycling. This couldn't be further from the truth. In many ways, cornering in a bike race (and descending too) is a lot like skiing: If you're nervous, that means you're stiff and rigid, and you're probably going to crash. This probably also means you have a death grip on your pedals, which just expends more energy. It sounds hokey, but try to relax when you enter the corner. Think about your breathing. This is going to make your body more supple (and we don't care if you're paralyzed...it still applies!) which will prepare you for unforeseen things such as potholes in the middle of your line, or hot shots trying to dive in on you.
Another technique we can borrow from the skiing community is looking ahead. If you're looking down all the time, it's probably because you're nervous. This usually comes along with being stiff and rigid, which basically makes you a mummy. Mummys don't win bike races. While it's important to look at the riders directly around you, try to look "through" the corner. Your eyes should be focused on the line you want to take. If your eyes are focused on the light pole you don't want to hit, chances are, your head will steer you and your bike *in to* the light pole.
Hey Yo Yo...Ride at the Front!
Nope, we're not talking about "walkin' the dog" or "around the World" or anything like that. We're talking about what happens when you ride at the back of a group. If you're at the back of a group of riders going in to a corner, here's what can happen: 1) You can bet some joker in front of you is going to hit the brakes or take a bad line...this means you have to do the same. 2) If there's a crash, you likely won't have anywhere to go. 3) You'll get more fans cheering for you...because they feel bad for the guy "yo-yo-ing" at the back!
In all of these cases, the end result is the same: When you finally make it through the corner, you will be gapped. You'll have to chase back like a wild animal to get rid of the daylight in front of you, and when you finally latch on to the back of the group, it's time for the next corner and the whole process starts all over again. This cycle is called yo-yo-ing, and its NOT something you want to be good at. If you ride at the front, you can control things. Even if you have to scrub your speed or slow down to wink at the podium girls (not recommended), you'll be in control of the pace and won't have to chase back every corner. This will conserve valuable energy, which means you might have something left for the sprint...and since you're already at the front, you might even have a chance to win.
Steering a handcycle is different than steering a 2-wheeled road racing bicycle. However, there are some concepts that apply to both. If you are entering a right corner -- on a bike or a handcycle -- your head and body (the parts of it that you can move) should be leaning to the right, in to the corner. This helps counteract the centrifugal force that will try to pull you out of the corner's arc.
In general, if you take a good line and control your speed before the apex of the corner, you should be fine. However, if you steer too sharply, or are going too fast -- or a combination of the two -- physics will begin to take over. The first thing that can happen is the bike will go up on two wheels. Next, the force will continue to pull the bike over, and eventually you will flip on to your side. In *rare* circumstances, it is possible to save yourself from flipping over by counter steering (steering in to the direction you are being pulled out of the turn), but this is a last ditch effort that happens in a split second *while* you are on two wheels.
We see many handcycles -- particularly reclining style bikes -- where the riders are not "married" very well to the seatback. Usually, it's a stock bike where very little adjustment has been made, and there is a lot of daylight between the riders body and the seatback. This usually results in the rider being stiff and rigid (see "mummy" above), and limits their ability to make subtle body adjustments through corners. The end result is oftentimes a crash. To remedy this, we recommend getting a custom cushion, or adding and taking away foam so that you are "one with the bike."
Bike racing is a sport of tradition. This applies to handcycle racing as well. When it comes to racing, there are a lot of unwritten rules, and that includes cornering.
If you're new to racing -- even if your buddies or your coach tell you you're fast -- give yourself a few races to learn the ropes. It's best not to line up on the front row at the National Criterium Championships, gun it off the line, and take the hole shot through turn #1. While it is most certainly dangerous if you're inexperienced, it's also likely futile. The more experienced racers are going to "feel you out" for a lap or two, get around you when it's safe, and drop you like a hot potato...and then tell stories about it afterwards. Ride mid-pack for the first 5 minutes of the race and see how you fare...then begin moving up.
Handcycle racing is getting big. The largest races in the U.S. have 30 or 40 fast riders. This means you will likely be entering corners with a group of people, and many times, you'll be side-by-side with other racers. When you enter a turn with a rider next to you -- on your inside -- you should "cover" them. This means you should give them plenty of room to negotiate the corner. If you don't, they might crash, and physics tells us they're going to slide towards the outside, which means you'll crash too. Presuming that the person you're riding next to is near your same speed and ability, you should be taking similar paths through the corner....and that's what makes a good bike race.
In a lot of handcycle races -- particularly criteriums -- riders are often on different laps. The leaders often lap many of the other riders, sometimes multiple times. In other races (i.e. road races and time trials), a group from one classification might be passing another group of slower riders who started earlier. In all of these cases, it is the responsibility of the rider who is doing the passing to a) Choose which side to pass on , and b) Communicate it verbally to the rider they are passing. If you are the rider being passed, YOU DO NOT NEED TO ALTER YOUR PATH. Simply continue on your current trajectory, and let the riders pass you.
When it comes to passing people in your group -- as in trying to move up to the front -- try to be realistic about it. It's a good rule of thumb to only pass one rider at a time in the corners. If you try to to slingshot around the entire group of guys you've been riding with for the last 30 minutes, you a) could cause a crash, and b) will likely upset the other riders -- particularly if any of them are teammates -- and they'll make it their first priority to squeeze you out the back in to yo-yo land on the next few corners.
There's no question that to be a champion, you have to be well-rounded. Most likely, if you put in the training time, and are fit, you'll do pretty well. If you really want to take it to the next level, try working some of the techniques above in to your training rides. It might be hard to notice any difference at first, and to really be good at cornering, it's good to race a lot...but eventually, you will feel confident in the corners, which means you'll be there on the last lap...and who knows, you just might surprise yourself!