Old dog, new tricks? Lee works on his cornering © Annette Hayden

Old dog, new tricks? Lee works on his cornering © Annette Hayden

Masters racer Lee Waldman is still learning plenty of new tricks. This time it’s one simple tip that may revolutionize his racing – applying force and counter-steering through corners. Missed Lee’s last column, where reality comes crashing down and he takes a minute to reflect on the courses – and course designers that he prefers? Catch up here.

by Lee Waldman

Squeezing my brake levers, teeth clenched, careening towards quickly-approaching ruts, I hold my breath, praying I’ll make it through in one piece. Cornering IS my most current challenge. How do I improve it? That’s my question of the day.

I believe that, “If I’m not learning, I’m not truly living.” And … I’m not really living when I’m sitting on the sidelines watching. This philosophy applies in my life and, since this is a cycling column, in cyclocross. After all, I started racing to be “in it,” not to observe.

I’m constantly searching for ways to improve my skill set as a cyclocrosser. This year, for the first time, working with a coach has proved to be incredibly valuable (Thanks Ben!). If only … if only I had been able to afford it when I was younger, and faster. I know my power, strength and general race fitness is now at a higher level than I can ever remember. Even with that said, I know that there is still something missing in my racing. It’s that tentativeness that I feel riding through what I see as sketchy conditions.

My problems: I brake too much. I dab to negotiate turns, fearing my rear wheel will break loose. I’m tired of having to sprint out of corners, wasting energy to catch back up to riders who aren’t as strong as I am. I work harder than I need to. Instead of resting, I’m chasing.

I called my teammate Chris Phenicie, an accomplished bike handler, to help me pry the monkey off my back. He was immediately willing to share his considerable knowledge. And so we met at our Wednesday night training course.

Chatting easily, Chris rode behind me as we warmed up. Had he remembered why we’d decided to ride together? But I was motivated to show him my best technique; swinging wide into the corners, cut the apex and then letting momentum carry me to the outside again. I kept the bike upright and the tire tread on the ground, leaning my upper body into the turn and letting the bike follow.

Half-way through our second lap Chris had seen enough. Like every good teacher, he began by pointing out the positives: I kept the tire tread on the ground; I looked ahead; I was a bit faster than the majority of the riders he works with, even some that he races with. But, he said, if I learned counter steering, I could take my cornering to another level. I’ve always shied away from using counter steering on the ’cross bike mainly because of my fear of losing traction. On the other hand, I was tired of losing ground to other riders where I didn’t need to, and I trust Chris.

He explained the technique. The counter steering is created by pushing down and forward towards the outside of the turn with the part of the bar that’s on the inside. It’s completely counter-intuitive. But, it works. We started slowly; Chris setting the line and my following. Slowly but slowly, I started to understand. He peeled off, following and offering immediate feedback. About half way through our second lap I started to really feel it. The bike would fall into the corner and almost rail itself out the other side. My turns began to get tighter, I was exiting on the inside of the course rather than the outside edge. The wheels weren’t skidding! And even when they were, I was so balanced over the bike that I hardly even noticed, I just kept on pedaling. What a difference! My speed picked up as my confidence grew.

Chris and I worked on a couple of other skills, such as alternative ways to carry the bike, but for the most part we cornered, and then cornered some more. At the end I was left to ride a few more laps by myself. The difference was truly amazing. Not only was I more centered and more comfortable but there were a couple of corners where I leaned the bike so far I was dragging pedals! Now, I’ve done that on my road bike, but I was always too hesitant to do it while riding my ’cross bike. In the past, before working with Phenicie, I never would have risked pedaling through a corner. I also would have most likely lost control of the bike when it started to skid. Or, I would have entered the corner with my foot out.

This time, the back wheel lifted off the ground, I hardly noticed, I kept pedaling, and was on my merry way.

Why are you still reading? Go ride your bike!