The Chainlink

Chainlink Tech Corner: Target Fixation

Article and Photos by Scott Wilson

Normally these Chainlink technical articles are about cycling hardware, i.e. bikes and components and how they work. For this article I’d like to discuss the software of cycling, that is, your mind and how it interacts with the machine to get you around town. Specifically, I want to explore how you as a cyclist navigate corners.

Every spring in Chicago you see postings for something called a "Cornering Clinic." These are events sponsored by a shop or a coaching service with the goal of helping you get better at turning your bike. Skill-specific workshops like these are valuable to all cyclists of all levels because they help you build muscle memory and confidence in a controlled environment that you can transfer to real-world situations, but time and energy constraints stop a lot of people from participating, so I want to distill the cornering clinic to its most fundamental concept: the understanding and mastery of target fixation.

A little background: target fixation is a neurological impulse that works with our stereoscopic vision, enabling a person to track a singular object, regardless of motion, and ignore the miscellany around said object or the watcher. It's a useful evolutionary skill for all predators because it allows them to lock onto a target and chase it down, even in the chaos of other creatures running around and terrain getting in the way. We humans most likely acquired the ability to target fixate from our tree-dwelling ancestors who had to visually focus on one branch at a time in order to swing through the trees (if there are any evolutionary anthropologists who have a better explanation of how and why our vision works the way it does, please copy/paste your thesis in the comments section).

Although target fixation is great for hunting, Tarzaning, and seeing the image in those 3D Magic Eye posters, when piloting a fast moving vehicle it's the number one cause of self-destruction. When moving at speed you need to be cognizant of all your surroundings and have sweeping vision to see all obstacles, less like a jaguar and more like a gazelle.

Here's an example, you're riding fast through some vacant suburban park, going down Suicide Hill, the one with the wicked turn at the bottom –the intersection of Dearborn and Kinzie being its city equivalent. You've done the turn before at slower speeds but now you're pushing it to see if you can go around without tapping the brakes. Then, right at the apex of the turn, you see a light pole with an interesting architecture that you've never noticed before. Your brain is trained from millions of years of evolution to lock on to objects, and so without a conscious effort to avoid fixating, it does what it does, and now your body is moving towards the pole because it is hardwired to follow your eyes. You panic, grab handfuls of brake, and because you are reading this now that means you narrowly avoid disaster. That's target fixation in action.


You see the first motorcyclist go wide and head for the trees. The POV rider is on track to make it through the turn, but instead of swerving to avoid the crashed rider's bike, he rides right into it, in fact he adjusts his curve a little bit towards it. Target fixation caused his body to move towards an accident rather than avoid it. The vehicular world has been aware of target fixation since at least World War II, when the phrase was used to describe why fighter pilots sometimes crashed into things, and it’s a topic in every Motorcycle Safety Foundation licensing course. For whatever reason the bicycling hive-mind has been slow to address it.

So now that we know what target fixation is, what do we do about it? There are a few corrective methods you'll want to be aware of and incorporate in your daily ride:

1. Look through the corner. Target fixation is a natural thing to do and it’s very hard to fight your instincts. Therefore, when you're learning to mitigate target fixation it's a good idea to focus on something down the road, past the corner. This could be another rider or a spot on the pavement, but the idea is to focus on where you want your bike to go.

Again, your body follows your eyes so if you look past the corner, that's where you'll end up. This takes forethought, so go into a turn knowing where you want to exit.

Pro riders such as this cyclocross racer (at last year's Cross Vegas event) are trained to look through a corner (photo by Scott Wilson).

2. Scan. If you’re going into a blind corner you must consciously update your focus and look all around you. If you're making a right turn, keep your eyes updating on the inner right side of the road. If you're turning left, look to the inner left. Things can get weird on these streets so you need to train yourself to have a goldfish-like attention span and always be updating your vision.

3. Accept that target fixation isn't always bad. Master cyclists can work with target fixation instead of against it. Check out this video of Gregory Bauge vs Kevin Sereau:

Look at Gregory Bauge’s head in the second shot (40sec in) when Sereau goes down. He gets knocked askew by Sereau’s mistake, but he instinctively target fixates on a point in front of him and relies on his muscle memory, handling skills, and the gyroscopic forces of the spinning bike wheel to auto-correct. Now Bauge is an amazing athlete, but if he had focused on Sereau or kept his head down he probably would’ve crashed. The lesson is: when things go crazy, just keep looking to where you want to go and let your body and the machine figure out the mechanics of it on their own.

4. Practice. Learning how target fixation can work with your body is a skill and it takes time to master. The good news is that you can practice "looking through" any time, whether driving, jogging, cruising on your townie, or whenever you're moving and maneuvering.

There are a lot of different skills that go into a perfect turn, but if you can overcome target fixation your confidence in the bends will greatly increase and you’ll have a strong foundation to learn the many other cornering clinic tactics. In future articles we’ll go over some of the mechanical aspects of the bike that affect your ability to turn, like headsets, frame geometry, and gyroscopic forces.

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