Downhill Thrills and Skills

Descending can be the most exhilarating aspect of cycling - once you master the basics


Posted: 25 November 2009

Over many years of teaching cycling skills, I’ve found that going downhill is one of the hardest things for new cyclists to become used to. The reason for this is simple: speed scares people. There are even some pros who don’t descend well, because they’re either nervous or they don’t practise it enough. Personally, I live for carving turns on a descent, but I know that many triathletes struggle.

To start, familiarise yourself with the condition of the road surface by riding up the hill. Look for loose gravel on the shoulders, or potholes or cracks. I recently took a group on a descent in the Pyrenees where Italian rider Fabio Casartelli died after crashing in the 1995 Tour de France. After gazing at his memorial, I pointed out the shaded areas, where slick green moss sprouted from gaps in the Tarmac. Reduced traction, plus the quick changes in light from brilliant sunshine to heavy shade probably contributed to his accident.

Look also at the radius of the turns: do they follow a continuous arc or do they become sharper during the middle of the turn? Are there sections that suddenly become steeper? As you gain experience, you will be able to take in all of this and analyse on the fly, and at speed. When you’re ready to head down, follow these simple rules:

Ride in the drops

When your hands are on the lower part of your handlebars, your centre of gravity is closer to the ground. Also, your weight will be more evenly distributed between the front and rear wheels, which helps maintain traction, especially during braking and turning.

Scan ahead
Look for danger signs so you have time to react. In turns, keep your eyes on the exit, which will help you carve a smooth, steady line all the way through.

Stay relaxed
Start at the top of your body and let go of tension. Keep breathing, open your mouth to unclench your jaw, drop your shoulders, bend your elbows, release your death grip on the handlebars, uncurl your toes and let your feet lie flat on the bottoms of your shoes.

Use subtlety to slow
Anticipate what you’ll need to do next. This will help you avoid sudden braking. For controlled slowing, gently squeeze both brake levers equally with two-to-three-second pulses. Constantly squeezing the brakes on long descents can make the rims overheat – and possibly cause a blowout.

Corner smart
The biggest mistake people make is waiting until they’re in the middle of a turn to brake. Instead, reduce speed before the turn. (If you’re braking within the turn, you didn’t slow enough to begin with.) Push your outside pedal down (right turn, left foot down) with pressure on that foot. To initiate the turn, lean the bike – not your body – into the turn (right turn, lean bike right). The action is similar to downhill skiing: the lower body angles into the turn while the upper body stays upright. To exit the turn, gently straighten the bike.


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