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The Fine Art of Descending

For some strange reason when it comes to raising our game we all tend to focus on the physical side of things, like climbing; yet getting down a mountain safely and at speed is a vital part of and ride or race. We spoke with Canadian pro Christian Meier about the art of descending.

There’s nothing quite like the seat of your pants thrill of watching a top pro rider hurtling down some twisted mountain pass at full speed; it’s pure, on-tap adrenaline.

From the outside it often looks like sheer insanity; 70 kilograms of lycra-clad racer clinging to a rumpled and often slippery strip of road, held there by the grace of the gods and less than a square inch of rubber.

Nothing more than another four more squared inches of rubber and two skimpy wires hang there to control their near break-neck speed as they hit the 100kph mark, often while coming into a blind hairpin bend. Yes, it is indeed insanity, pure madness, and we love it.

As we all know, bike racing is often a game of power-to-weight ratio meets heart and lung capacity seasoned with the right mental approach, and logically these are the areas we all tend to focus on, as seemingly the biggest gains are to be made here.

Meier's right leg is testament to his commitment to speed.

But getting down a mountain, or even a hill, safely and at speed is almost as important as getting up one. A rider may lose some three minutes on a long climb, but if they’re a good descender they can slice half, or even all of that away on a matching descent. There really are huge gains to be made by refining your descending skills; watch any major pro race and you’ll see that.

Needless to say, refining and sharpening your downhill skills requires some thought and effort, but it requires next to nothing in the physical department – it’s like money for nothing, but you have to know where to find it.

Former Canadian champion Christian Meier of the Orica GreenEdge World Tour team has raced up and down some of the biggest and gnarliest of mountains. Here he offers a glimpse into the downhill spiral of a regular pro in the peloton. 

Hook, Line and Sinker 

“Experience is a big part of learning lines and how far to push them. For example; where I live in Spain I know that every corner and descent will not have more than a certain grade or angle of curve, and that the road will be fairly smooth coming out of the other side, so I always have a base knowledge of what to expect when I go into it.

Change down doming into the corner and finish braking before the apex.

“Race situations are always different to training – the roads are closed, so you can take different lines. Reading natural signs is a big part of choosing lines; if you see a speed warning then you can gauge how fast and what line to take – if a car can take it at 50kph then you know it’s not a severe curve, and can go in fast. In a race I also watch the accompanying motorbikes, as they will take a similar line, but ahead of you. Looking down at other sections also helps, especially if the road is not closed.

“You also need to think ahead, and make the best overall line decision. One corner’s line will line you up for the next one, and you’ll know whether you got it right pretty quickly.

“I tend to take lines a bit differently than most; by hugging the apex of the bend really tight and allowing myself the maximum amount of room coming out of the other side. It allows a kind of margin for error so that I can carry speed through a correction if I don’t know what’s on the other side of the bend.” 

Raising Your Game 

“Descending is a very important part of racing, and I do train for it – you can take back one and a half or two minutes on a long descent. I do push it in training, but confine it to staying in my lane, unless I can see the road ahead is 100% clear. Even in a race situation you have to be able to stay in a lane of sorts, restricted by other riders, and if someone crashes in front of you then you have to be able to tighten up that line, because these situations happen all of the time; and the only way of learning this is by doing it in training until it comes naturally.

Choose tyre size and pressure to suit the roads and weather.

“It also teaches you how far you can push your equipment, and helps to build confidence, and confidence is perhaps the main thing to work on. If you don’t push it in training then you won’t be able to do it in a race situation.” 

Mind Games 

“A big thing is to actually be able to turn your brain off. After you’ve descended and descended for a long time you learn how to read the road and it becomes easier to do.

“If you start to think about things too much you’ll slow down way too much. Sometimes you may see a crash, or have a close call. But with descending you have to keep focused to stay upright, so that memory is soon erased.” 

Risk Assessment 

“You will have a kind of comfort zone, which is based on how far you know that you can safely push things – this comes from doing it in training. Race situations often dictate how much you may have to push that limit. In a lot of races there will be descents where you know that there is a good chance that things will break up on the descent, and if you’re not in the right position then you’re out. If the finish is just after the descent then you cannot afford to leave a gap or get behind the wrong riders; you’ll never close up.

“In these situations you have to push to your limit when the opportunity arises; by getting past certain riders who cannot descend well and being closer to the front. At other times, if there’s a long run to the line then you know it’s probably going to come back together and can afford not to push it so much, but the more you push that line in training the more you will learn about where the line is.” 

Stay positive, keep your mind on good technique, not what might happen.

One Inch of Rubber 

“Your tyres are the most important element in keeping you upright and on the road; that inch of rubber is all that sits between you and the ground, and people generally don’t pay enough attention to that fact.

“All tyres are different, and some are much better than others when it comes to being under pressure on a descent. If you pay attention to a race where there is a wet descent you’ll see which teams have good tyres.

“In training I use clinchers, but in races I use tubulars. Technology has caught up a lot, but I still much prefer the feel of a tubular to a clincher. You can pump them up harder and still not lose the grip.

“We have a choice of which model of tyres to use. Normally I ride a 25mm tyre as it gives a more comfortable ride over a long race. But, if there’s a lot of descending I tend to prefer a 23mm tyre, as it can run harder and has a more rigid, precise, and responsive feel to it.

“We also have a choice of wheels; I prefer a 35mm depth rim, as it’s more supple, and a little more forgiving in the corners. For bigger guys they can use deeper section wheels, as they’re heavier and the rims will flex more for them.

Practice

“As for tyre pressure; when it’s wet I do run a slightly lower pressure. Again, pushing things in training does teach you about your tyres and their limitations. They are without doubt the most important ‘mechanical’ factor when it comes to descending, and I’d strongly advise anybody to invest in quality, and proven tyres.” 

Brake and Shift 

“For me, all of the braking is done before I hit the apex of a corner on a descent. Any braking after that is only done if I have to make a correction or go around a crash. By looking ahead I read the corner and determine how late I can leave braking.
“By the time I hit the apex I want to be off the brakes so that I can maintain my speed. Obviously you want to take a descent as fast as you can, and it’s the corners that break that speed.

“Coming into the corner I go at least two gears down, so that I can come out of the other side faster. Putting pressure down on my outside leg is a big factor; it allows me to keep my weight more upright and aid traction. My knee goes into the bend a little, so that my bike is effectively leaning more into the corner than I am, with my elbow also leaning in a little, it’s almost like diving into a corner, but the weight on the outside foot is essential to stay upright.

“The sharper the corner the more I try to drop my bike, but also keep my weight on the outside pedal. This allows you to take the corner a lot sharper.

“On a wide open corner I try not to brake at all. The natural instinct is to brake, but if you learn to avoid braking and tapping on the brakes you’ll take the corner at 5-6kph faster, and there are a lot of corners where you can do that. If you can maintain your speed it saves a lot of effort, as you don’t have to sprint to try and get back to the same speed.” 

Nip and Tuck 

“I’ve witnessed some pretty insane tricks; Bernie Eisel, he gets into an amazing position. But, he’s a lot bigger than me. When he gets down there he has more weight to be able to stabilise his bike. If a lighter guy tries to sit on his top tube at 90kph he’ll probably get a speed wobble, and you’ll feel the wind and be unstable.

“On a long straight I’ll go into a tuck with both hands on the tops, close to the stem. It is more unstable than being on the drops, but if you can see where you’re going it’s ok. That frontal area is the most important part to reduce. I have tried sitting on the top tube, but I don’t pick up any more speed. With my hands on the tops and close together, and with sitting on the tip of the saddle, that’s about as aero as it gets for me.

“Everyone is different though; it pays to play around with it in training. Try the same descent with different tucks and see which is most aerodynamic for you by checking your speed.”

Reduce frontal area.

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