The difference between a mediocre mountain bike descender and a great one usually comes down to cornering ability. Having the skills and confidence to carry speed in the corners will make you not only faster, but far safer as well. Understanding the basics of proper cornering technique is easy too. Once you understand the theory, then it is just a matter of putting in the practice time before you start gapping your buddies on your next ride. Check out this instructional video we put together that goes over the basics but don’t forget to read the setup tips below that will help you get the most out of your practice.
Before you start practicing make sure you have the right protective gear because you will make mistakes. Pick up a good pair of knee pads or knee/shin guards and always wear your helmet. Elbow pads and a full face helmet aren’t a bad idea either. Oftentimes fear of crashing is what keeps riders from developing new skills and locks them into bad habits. Having good protective gear will free your mind to focus on skills rather than fear. Flat pedals will help on this front as well. Being able to easily and quickly put a foot down when you lose control keeps you safe and worry-free as you practice your cornering.
Proper suspension and tire pressure will help as well. Setup your suspension with 25-30% sag and set your compression damping adjusters to full soft. This helps to improve grip, but as you get better you will likely add low-speed compression damping to eliminate mid-corner wallow. Set your rebound to that sweet spot that is between really slow and really fast but don’t worry about making it perfect for practice drills. The tire pressure you use will depend on your weight. For example, I am 175lbs and I run about 24-25psi up front on my 2.3″ tubeless 29er tires and about 28-29psi out back. Add 2-3psi for every ten pounds over my weight you are and subtract 1-2psi for every ten pounds you weigh less than me. If you are on 26″ wheels add 2psi to the baseline pressure I use to account for the lower air volume of the smaller wheels. If you haven’t made the switch to tubeless yet, now is the time. Tubeless tires exhibit noticeably more grip in the corners.
Good tires are important too. Look for a wide tire with large, soft compound side knobs that are fairly close together. The Maxxis’ Highroller 2 and Minion DHF are the two most popular tires in the history of downhill racing, and it is because of their cornering performance. That is also why these tires are the most copied tread designs in mountain biking (ironically though, the 15 year-old Highroller 1 is a knock-off of an older Michelin design). Other good tire choices are the Kenda Nevegal and Schwalbe Hans Dampf. They are my favorite pick for beginner to intermediate riders that are especially nervous about fast cornering. While these tires in my opinion don’t have the outright cornering grip that the Maxxis tires have, they are very forgiving at the limit of grip (they lose grip smoothly and predictably) and they have pronounced transition knobs that make tentative low lean angle cornering efforts safer and more predictable.