A Five point formula for building skill and confidence
Descending on a bicycle should be fun, an experience full of flow and freedom as you take payback for the effort spent reaching the top of a climb. Clipping the apex of turns, feeling the bike “float” as you enter a trance-like state, reading the road ahead, scanning the scenery and smiling all the way down……..”wow, that was fun!” Sadly, for many riders (often even those who climb like Pantani) the downhill sections are filled with fear, loathing and tension and it just should not be that way.
Mastering the art of descending has its roots in confidence and to build this confidence, one must develop dependable, repeatable and ultimately “automatic” skills. So here are my five keys for going downhill fast. Master each and you will be well on the way to becoming a competent, confident descender, finding that flow that once sounded so abstract that you doubted its existence.
As with all learning, regular practice is essential. You will need to focus on just one of these keys at a time until each feels natural and automatic. Once you master all five, the confidence builds and the word “flow” will become a new and welcome addition to your cycling vocabulary.
One: Get Off Your Arse
To descend well your bike and body will, at times, need to move different amounts and even in different directions (more on that later). This is nearly impossible to achieve if you are planted on the saddle. Your weight should be on your feet (like the way a jockey is weighted on the stirrups) and the saddle should just be touching against your inner thighs. This way you can be “responsive” and the legs can act as shock absorbers, should you happen to hit an obstacle or bump in the road. On any sections of a descent where you can see ahead and the road is fairly straight, you may want to sit down for a rest, but be sure to get back on your feet, once the bends start again.
Tip 1: Don’t stand “tall” on the pedals, the technique is often described as “hovering” just above the saddle.
Tip 2: Your backside should be positioned just above the saddle for descents that are not too steep, but as the gradient increases towards (and above) 10%, you will need to shift a little further back. This is both a technique and safety adjustment that improves control and makes it far less likely that you will go over the bars (OTB) should you strike a bump or obstacle.
Two: Keep the Outside Pedal Down
This is important for two reasons; the first is to avoid striking the inside pedal on the ground as the bike leans into the corner and the second is to ensure that your weight is pushing hard down into the outside pedal, which increases traction (and control) for the rear wheel. So, for a left bend, your right pedal should be down and for a right bend, the left pedal is down. As you corner, not only is the outside pedal down, but your hips should be shifting across towards the lower leg so that most of your bodyweight is over this outside foot. You should really feel the weight on the straight (outside) leg as this is a good sign for keeping traction and control on the rear wheel.
Tip 1: When you are descending in a relatively straight line, NEITHER foot should be down. Your feet should be positioned at “three and nine o’clock” or horizontally. It is only as you approach a bend that you should adjust the position of your feet so that the outside foot is at six o’clock.
Tip 2: Never pedal through corners whilst descending. Keep the outside foot down and the inside foot up until you have exited the corner.
Three: Your Inside Hand (and shoulder) Controls the Front Wheel
Think about it this way; there are two wheels on your bike and it is important for control that each has good traction and to have good traction, each wheel must be weighted. Your rear wheel is weighted by your hips / backside and where you shift them. Whilst your front wheel is weighted by your hands / shoulders. Having your shoulders high and back (sitting too upright) takes weight off your front wheel, making it much more likely that it will skip and drift in corners. To avoid this, keep your shoulders low (hands MUST be in the drops) and chest closer to the top tube than it would usually be when riding in other situations.
As you corner, the hands / shoulders act as “counter” to your feet. In other words, the INSIDE hand / shoulder should feel weighted as you press the handlebars into the bend. You should feel like the inside shoulder is dropping and the inside hand is pressing the handlebar forward and down, like a counter-steering technique. This keeps the front wheel planted on the road and makes skipping or drifting much less likely.
Note: Skipping or drifting of the front wheel occurs when it is de-weighted and can cause it lose traction. It then begins to track out of the corner which may lead to running off the road.
Tip: Although your inside hand and shoulder press into the corner, your upper body should NOT drop inside the bike. In order to achieve this, the inside arm will straighten (just like the outside leg) although it should never be completely straight.
Four: Lean Your Bike, NOT Your Body
Cornering on a bicycle is different to doing so on a motorbike. Attempting to emulate Valentino Rossi and dropping inside the bike, knee scraping on the ground is a sure recipe for disaster. Motorbikes have a throttle and gassing the bike will cause the wheels to “bite” but we don’t have that luxury on a bicycle. Your bodyweight should remain outside the bicycle frame when cornering so that the bike leans into the corner and your body does not (or at least to a lesser degree). This keeps the tyres weighted and gives traction and control.
When you get the technique right (outside leg down / shoulders low & inside hand counter steering / bike leaning with body more upright) the bike tracks beautifully in corners which gives a confidence-boosting sense of control.
Five: Enter the Bend Late & Look Through the Corner not at it
A friend of mine calls it “target fixation” and in the context of descending, it is the tendency to fix the gaze on the corner rather than scanning more through the corner. Fixating on the corner itself tends to draw you in too early, reducing the space to exit the corner safely. As you approach a corner stay as wide as you can (away from the apex) for as long as you can. This is known as dropping into the corner late and is useful to keep in mind because almost all cornering errors start with entering a corner too tight (close the apex) and too soon. So stay wide for as long as you can, then when you do cut in to the apex of the corner, you will find yourself with plenty of room to exit the bend safely and without having to brake.
Another strategy that will help here is to practice looking ahead on the road to where you want the bike to finish up. This is referred to as “looking through the corner” and helps to create a “program” in the brain and body that improves both line and control. So, don’t stare at the point just beyond your front tyre. Instead look 15-20m ahead on the road (more if you are travelling quickly) and you will find the bike tracking much more smoothly.
A Few Words of Caution
Descending has an element of risk, even for very skilled and experienced riders. So here are a few things to keep in mind that will help to minimise the risks of descending:
Find a stretch of descent that is not too steep (4-7% works well), has a few bends and where you can ride up and down for an hour or so (a 300-500m stretch should do). Make sure you ride up easy so as not to become too fatigued. Complete a few (5-10 depending on the length of the road) repeats and each time you come down, focus on just one of the five keys I have outlined. Continue to do this (preferably each week) until each feels automatic and then take it to the road.
Descending well can dramatically increase your enjoyment of cycling. It may take a little while but it does require a strategy and practice. Once you master these five keys your riding will never be the same again and you will never look back.
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