Monday, June 6, 2011

The Correct Lines for Cycling Criteriums

In autocross, picking the correct line is one of the most important and most difficult skills to learn.  In cycling, it's even more difficult because one extra variable comes into play- fatigue.  While cars have the luxury to go all out at the press of the gas pedal, cyclist must pick and choose when to push the pace and when to conserve energy.

Before I go into the pros and cons of a specific line, I want to cover the three components of a turn- the entry, apex and exit.  The entry is where all of the braking and initial turn-in should occur. This is by far the most important component of a turn because the speed of the entry will determine both the location of the apex and the speed of the exit.  If you enter a turn too fast, there's the possibility of going off course (crash) and if you come into a turn too slow, you'll waste energy during the exit trying to get back up to pace.

The apex is the closest point to the inside of the turn.  The closer you are to the apex, the more room you have for error during the exit.  Be careful though... hitting the apex during a criterium puts yourself at risk of cutting off another rider and potentially crashing.  Always be aware of your surroundings and the intentions of the riders around you.

During the exit, this is where maximum acceleration should occur.  For turns that lead into a long straightaway, the number one goal is to choose a line with the fastest exit speed.  When the turn leads into a short distance up to the finish line, a tight line which produces a slower exit speed is usually faster.  Keep this in mind when riding through a couple practice laps around the course.  When in doubt, ask me or another experienced rider prior to your race and we can discuss your optimal line!

While perfect technique is perfectly impossible, if your technique is a lot better than your competitors, your chances at winning are even higher!  This is how the perfect cyclist would take a turn.  Before beginning to lean into the turn, all of the braking was completed in a straight line.  During the initial turn-in all the way through the exit, the cyclist either accelerates throughout the turn or coasts up to the apex- this depends on the amount of lean because trying to turn on the inside pedal instead of the tires is slow and dangerous!  To be safe, the perfect cyclist coasts up to the apex to gauge the outcome of the line and quickly accelerates after hitting the apex into the exit.

In the scenario above, I underlined "straight line" because braking in a straight line is something that many cyclists fail to do often.  The two major reasons why braking in a straight line is crucial is because it's safer and it's the fastest way to reduce speed.  Braking during a turn should be avoided because (1) braking during a turn is slower and (2) the weight shift caused by braking throughout the turn can create unpredictable levels of grip. The only time it's ok to brake during a turn is to avoid an accident or potential accident- this of course will also require you to straighten out the line to avoid sliding.  Unlike sliding in mountain biking, sliding on pavement is more erratic and it happens very very quickly, so always keep a conscious mind about the possibility of sliding!

There are three ways to approach the apex of a turn. You can either use a late, early or geometrical apex.

#1 LATE APEX - The late apex (blue line) is an approach that places the apex closer to the end of the turn. Like the name implies, almost everything is late- braking, initial turn-in and the location of the apex. While this sounds like the absolute worst way to take a turn, it produces faster exit speeds for one reason- early acceleration.  If you noticed, the blue line produces the straightest line throughout the turn.  This means that the cyclist will not have to lean as much while approaching the apex.  Rather, the cyclist can accelerate and pedal all the way through the turn.  If you're in a solo breakaway or catching up to the peloton, the ability to exit faster in a late apex is a major advantage when the large group is forced to take an early or geometrical apex for safety reasons.


  • Allows for the fastest possible exit speed.  When you're riding solo, use this when you can!


  • Requires more energy to accelerate out of the turn.
  • Slower entry speed means that people could pass you on the inside.
  • Bad line to pick if the turn leads shortly into another turn

#2 EARLY APEX - In most cases, riders will never use this line unless there's a last minute opportunity to pass.  The eary apex (red line) is generally used to prep the rider for a second corner that requires a late apex. It's also useful for preventing people from passing from behind. To perform an early apex, brake late, turn into the apex early and try to avoid going off course during the exit!


  • Fastest entry speed
  • Blocks passes during the turn.
  • Good if the turn afterwards is closeby


  • Slowest exit speed after the turn.

#3 GEOMETRICAL APEX - The geometrical apex (green line) is an approach that places the apex in the symmetrical center of the turn. Entry and exit paths look exactly identical. The advantage of this approach is that it's predictable, safer and faster than the early apex.  This is the most often used line in cycling.


  • Safest/ easiest line to execute.
  • Produces the fastest average speed throughout the turn.


  • Not the fastest method for exits that lead to straights.