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Cornering in Challenging Conditions

This is an excerpt from Serious Mountain Biking by Ann Trombley.

Any condition you are not used to riding in is a challenge. I have done most of my riding in northern California and Colorado. In Colorado, the trails are generally loose and rocky. California has some wet, muddy conditions, but can also be dry and hard packed. The most challenging conditions for me are wet and rooty, so let’s start there.

In wet or muddy conditions your tires may already have some mud built up between the lugs, resulting in less traction. So when you come into the muddy corner, both your front and rear tire have more of a tendency to wash out. You need to come in to the corner at a slow speed to avoid having to pull your breaks when in the corner.

You also have to think ahead when coming in to the corner to avoid grabbing your brakes all at once. You need to slowly feather your brakes when coming in to the corner, then let them go once you have started to turn. Use this technique when roots are in the corner, but try to hit the roots at a right angle if possible. Never brake on wet roots!

Lastly, once you have begun cornering in wet conditions, do not shift your weight because you are more likely to slide out. It is best to keep your weight centered over your bike because any movement forward, backward, or side to side can cause you to slide out. When you come into the corner, keep your body hovering over your saddle, equally distributed over each wheel, and stay in that position while going around the corner.

Gravel and sandy conditions while cornering are similar to wet or muddy conditions. The difference is, your tires are not clogged with mud to start off with and you may have hard-pack conditions leading up to the turn. Clear tires allow for more traction leading up to the turn as well as going through it. Your brakes will respond faster and you can come in to the turn faster. For both of these conditions, it is still wise to do all of your braking before the turn and let it roll through the corner. Similarly, you shift your weight as little as possible once you are in the corner.

Loose-sweeping fire road corners can be taken at a higher speed following all of the techniques mentioned so far. The most important thing to be aware of with this type of terrain is not to pull too much front brake. Either use your brakes equally or use mostly the rear brake to ensure that you don’t wash out your front tire and end up on the ground.

In any tight cornering conditions, the key is to look where you want to go and your bike will follow. You may feel the urge to put your inside foot out to give you balance, which is okay as long as you are not going too fast and no rocks or roots are in your way. You don’t want to break your ankle while trying to shave off 5 seconds from your time; it’s not worth it!

I can’t stress enough the importance of experience in this sport, and it applies to cornering as well. You will encounter endless variations of conditions in your riding or racing. The more you practice on different terrain, the better your response will be when you encounter unfamiliar territory.


To practice cornering skills by working through an obstacle course at different lengths and variations.

Warm up 15-20 minutes at an easy pace.

Set up an obstacle course in a parking lot or a nearby open area with dirt. Set the obstacles in a line about 5 feet apart. You can use cones, flags, rocks, stumps, or whatever debris you can find. This works best if you set the cones on a gradual decline. Start 10 feet away from the first obstacle at the top of the decline. When you come to the first obstacle, go around it to the left or right, working on shifting your weight to the outside and putting the outside pedal down. If you chose to go right around the first obstacle, go left around the next, working again on weight shifting and putting your weight on the outside pedal (see figure 3.4). Once you have done that successfully, add to those skills by going around the obstacles and bringing your weight slightly forward and to the outside. Look ahead to the next cone you will be going around.

When you are smoothly going around the obstacles, you should look like your bike is doing all the moving while your body stays in one position. Once you have mastered two or three skills, add in another. Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to think about too many skills at one time; practicing two or three is enough.

Once you are comfortable with the cones at 5 feet apart, move them closer together and go through them again working on the same skills. This is a good way to practice if you are not near trails that have tight corners or if the weather isn’t conducive to riding the trails.
Once you feel comfortable on the obstacle course, or if you are anxious to go out on the trails, you should begin honing your cornering skills on wide fire road corners and gradually work toward the tighter switchbacks, or turns.

Read more from Serious Mountain Biking by Ann Trombley.

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