Cancellara on the Drop

In the last two weeks I’ve watched this video probably a dozen times. It’s a study in technique, what’s possible, what’s necessary, the limits that survival requires. We love to talk about the teachable moment, but we usually use that phrase in conjunction with some sort of screw up—the politically incorrect screed uttered in public. Sometimes, what’s most teachable isn’t a map to the minefield—what not to do—but the classic how-to.

The occasion is stage 7 of the 2009 Tour de France. Maillot jaune Fabian Cancellara had double punctured. That he would lose the yellow jersey was beyond doubt; there was a break up the road and this was the day Contador would show his teeth on the climb to Arcalis—the stage finish. Still, Cancellara didn’t want to finish the day alone, behind the laughing group so he dropped down the Porte del Comte in a way that a stage leader will rarely risk.

Clearly, when it comes to descending, Cancellara is doing it right. I’ve seen plenty of video of pros at the Tour taking turns in ways that seem to lack an understanding of basic geometry. Cancellara’s body positioning is a manual of physics, an illustration for every lesson I took from Davis Phinney’s interviews in Winning Magazine.

I’ve watched this just to examine his upper body position. I’ve watched it to look at his legs, his hips, when he keeps a pedal down vs. when he keeps the cranks parallel to the ground. And I’ve watched just to look at the lean angle of his bike in those most extreme turns as a means to remind me just what a bike can capably execute.

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  1. Dave King

    Thanks for bringing this one back to my attention. Saw it once a few years ago. What’s also notable is how relaxed Cancellara appears. He’s absolutely ripping that descent but does not appear to be in haste.

    What’s also notable about the last 10 years or so is seemingly how much more footage we get of a bike race. Are there more cameras than in 1990? I would love to see the entirety of Lemond’s descent of the Col du Marie Blanque in the 1990 TdF when he flatted and had to chase back on to the peloton being lead by Chiapucci and Delgado’s teams.

    What is striking about cycling (and perhaps missing in other sports?) is that most of us know what it feels like to do a descent like Cancellara does above. Or in the scrum of an argy-bargy field sprint. Feel dropped and lonely on a climb or feel like a conqueror on a climb. We’ve experience those physical and emotional sensations and relive them to some extent when we watch races.

  2. randomactsofcycling

    I have enjoyed watching this several times over the last few years. There is also an excellent clip, though much shorter, of Cadel Evans leading Phillipe Gilbert down a descent sometime in 2009. They are however, really pushing the limits.
    I have always felt that one of the things that sets apart a good descender from an average or even poor one, is their ability to look much further down the road and through a corner. Perhaps it is because they are so much more relaxed and can make the time to look up a little more.

  3. SusanJane

    I’m wowed by this. How did I miss it? Thanks for putting it up. I am reminded of a ballet dancer — perfect fluid grace doing something that is so so very hard. But dancers don’t have to worry about falling off mountains, dodging cars and motorcycles, and risking life and limb… let alone loosing the yellow jersey. Beautiful to watch.

  4. marc

    His form is pretty good for a bicyclist, but this would be considered average to poor in motorcycle racing. Examples: he needs to get the center of his mass inside the centerline of the bike; often he gets his hip inside but twists his shoulders to the outside. Another example: his lines are generally good but too often he hits the apex way early and is forced outside against the rail and has to slow his exit. Google Valentino Rossi for a few videos. The best techniques aren’t identical for each sport through. Motorcycles are clearly more extreme because they go faster and need more lean angle. But physics is physics, and racing lines are racing lines.

    In bicycle road racing it’s always easy to spot the guys who have motorcycle racing experience.

    1. Brian


      Motorcycle racers hang off the inside of the bike to keep it on the fatter part of the tire. Bicycle tires don’t have the same profile , (and don’t reach the same lean angles), and don’t have the same need.

      I learned from guys much better than me (over many years running around the Pittsburgh Zoo parking lot) that weighting the outside pedal and laying the bicycle down farther like he’s doing lets the frame and wheel flex act as more of a suspension, keeping the contact patch in better contact with the road.

      And late apexing is for when you have horsepower and you’re trying to maximize the drive out of the corner. Bicycles can generate more G’s on the brakes than accelerating, so a neutral- to early-apex is actually a better overall strategy.

      He’s not doing it wrong. 🙂

    2. Paul Skilbeck

      I am partly with Brian, definitely about body position being different in motorcycling and bicycling. Another factor in addition to the massive tyres is the CG (center of gravity) of a motorcycle is much lower because of the weight of the engine, frame, wheels, etc relative to the rider. This makes the bike less likely to slide at a given lean angle because the GC position is closer horizontally to the wheel contact point. In cycling, the rider attempts to move his CG more over the contact point, so you’ll see Cancellara leaning out slightly to the outside of the turn, and sometimes you might see him weight the outside handlebar.

      As to line, I’ve found a late apex works really well on some corners, catapulting me out through the exit at surprisingly high speeds. As a general rule it’s wise not to commit to a corner until you can see the exit line. Of course this isn’t always possible, particularly with decreasing radius curves, and if you haven’t memorized the course, sometimes you’ll make line errors and have to correct as Cancellara does several times in this descent.

      Having sound cornering technique is essential to make these corrections, especially at higher speeds. Otherwise you won’t make the corner, and I’ve seen several cyclists go down because of this.

  5. Andy

    Also, motorbike riders get to spot and experiment with turn apexes and exits and tele data over many practice laps. Fabs may have seen this descent a couple times before, but it’s basically a ‘redpoint’.

  6. jorgensen

    Terrific to watch. Shifting his weight fore and aft, swinging the inside leg inboard on a turn in to change the righting moment and lean angle of the bike. The choreography with the following cars was interesting. The civilian convertible who found themselves in the entourage finding themselves a moving slalom gate was the scariest as one would expect their reactions unpredictable.

    1. Eduardo de Sa'

      Jorgensen; the convertible is actually the race doctor’s car, definitely part of the convoy and of the choreography….still, that was way too close!!!

  7. Dan

    He looks like a GS skier the way he dips the inside shoulder and pushes down on the outside crank while keeping his hips/center of gravity over the pedals. Very fluid. He had a very smooth, and clean, tarmac that day which adds to the beauty of the decent. Great teaching tool. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Paul Skilbeck

      Bingo! Missy Giove, who raced on the US ski team and was a downhill mountain bike world champion once commented about the similarity of body position in slalom skiing and riding S bends on a bike. We did a photo shoot with her for a book I wrote back in 1995. You could’ve photoshopped her off the bike and onto skis, and it would’ve looked plausible!

  8. leo_d

    Never ever ride a yellow bike w the yellow jersey. Brings bad luck like a puncture (here) or chain slip (shlecked). Nibali stayed away from the yellow bike curse this year.

  9. Ron

    Beyond his skill, the confidence he has is truly incredible. Sadly, never descended in mountains like this and most of the corners near me have gravel/refuse so I’m never really able to test my corner/skill/tires. Oh, and I’ve gotta work on Monday, so a broken collarbone isn’t a good idea.

    Thankfully, that is what cross is for. Slipping out in mud on grass is much less bad than on pavement.

  10. Pingback: How hard can you corner a road bike? - Page 2

  11. Tom in Albany

    This is a great video and I’ve watched it several times as well. It does seem, though, that your video category has dried up. Any plan to revive it?

  12. Chris

    Impressive descending for certain. One thing I noticed is the majority of the time he points his inside knee into the turn. I remember reading advice from Davis Phinney about placing the inside knee against the top tube instead of pointing. Once I started doing this I started descending much quicker with greater control. Very few pros corner this way, but it is hard to argue with one of the best descenders of all time in Phinney.

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