It was a chilly day high in the Dolomite Mountains of northern Italy during the 2000 Giro d'Italia stage race. Italian rider Paulo Salvodelli arrived at the top of the Passo Sella climb nearly two minutes behind the race leaders. Only 20 kilometers remained before the finish in the village of Selva Val Gardena in the valley far below.
Although the race was already far down the road, a motorcycle cameraman had hung behind; he knew that the real action was about to unfold. Nicknamed "Il Falco," or "The Falcon," for his incredible descending skills, Salvodelli was about to begin another one of his death-defying drops. If it had been a straight shot down the mountain, he would have had no chance of catching the leaders, but no mountain road comes without switchbacks.
Screaming down the twisting, narrow mountain road at speeds approaching 80km/hr., Salvodelli regained with every passing kilometer. He flew through the turns, deftly leaning over thousand-foot drops on one side of the road before banking across each turn at the last instant. Even the following motorcycle was having trouble keeping up. At the bottom, 12 kilometers later, he hooked back up with the leaders.
Climbers who win mountain climbs are often given the most attention, but just as much skill is required to descend - if not more, given that life is literally hanging in the balance as riders rocket down steep and twisting roads.
Although most of us won't have to rip down a mountain as fast as Salvodelli (he could work on his climbing skills to lessen the need for hair-raising descents), deftly maneuvering corners, whether going downhill or on a flat stretch (it's the same principle, only different speeds), is an important skill.
Cornering on a bicycle uses the same principles as turning on a motorcycle: counter steering, balance and approach.
When going more than a couple miles per hour, bicycles turn by leaning, instead of merely steering with the front wheel (as with a car). To lean the bike, counter-steer by gently applying pressure on the handlebar toward the turn. This pushes the front wheel in the opposite direction from the turn, but allows you to lean into the turn with your bike. Turning the front wheel the opposite direction isn't intuitive, so practice on a quiet corner.
Balance is the second part of turning. When you lean your bike over, your outside foot should be straight out at six o'clock; push down hard on the pedal as you go through the turn. Keep your inside foot high up and away from the ground, at 12 o'clock, with knee bent and pointing toward the turn. Sit firmly on the saddle and ride with hands in the drops, fingers ready on the brake levers.
Focus on pushing down hard on the outer pedal, which will naturally keep your weight balanced over the bicycle. The lower the lean, the faster the turn, but watch carefully for road conditions - wet roads, gravel and sand should factor in how far over you lean. Road rash doesn't accentuate turning acumen!
Direction is the final point. Line up to start your turn on the far outside point of the curve, hugging the yellow line on a two-way road (for a left turn), or all the way over to the shoulder (for a right turn). On your approach, aim towards the apex of the turn. The goal is to ride as straight a line as possible through turns, which keeps the ride smooth and doesn't slow down your momentum.
You may never have a need, or be brave enough, to corner like Il Falco, but smooth cornering skills make descents and turns all the more fun. Just think about that smooth, serpentine road waiting for you...