The tour may be won in the alps, but it’s not just the uphill that can determine the winner. Descending with confidence and speed is integral to superlative performance. The speed doctor has some tips on how it’s done.
I know a rider – let’s call him Marcus – who worked really hard on getting as strong and fast as he could. He got as lean and powerful as his genetics would allow, and spent hours suffering in the saddle as he struggled up unforgiving mountains in an effort to improve his climbing. Then he went on a European cycling trip. As soon as the road turned upwards, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, he worked his way towards the front of his riding group and managed to crest the first summit of the tour ahead of all his peers. Feeling rather smug, he began his descent over the back of that magnificent mountain pass at least five minutes ahead of his huffing and puffing friends. He knew he wasn’t the best out there when it came to tackling the downhill, but he was staggered when virtually the entire group passed him effortlessly before the road flattened out. To add insult to considerable (but imaginary) injury, they all seemed to be having the time of their lives, swooping carefree through corners and yelling with delight as he grimly clung to the brake levers with sweaty hands, heart racing and images of broken, bloody kneecaps and elbows filling his mind.
Sound familiar? What should be one of the true joys of riding a bike – flying down a mountain you worked hard to climb – is a truly stressful experience for some people. We all know riders who seem to have a knack for riding fast downhill: they anticipate corners and cambers, stay calm on the odd occasion when things go wrong, handle wet roads with ease and generally have a grand old time letting gravity do all the work. If you happen to be one of those riders, this article is probably not for you. This is for those of us that struggle a bit, who want to go faster and have more fun doing it but can’t quite make it happen.
There are three things to be taken into consideration when we attempt to ride faster: we want to stay safe, we want to go quicker and we want to have fun. You could substitute confidence for fun – it’s essentially the same thing, as one is born of the other.
Instinct aside, descending is a skill like anything else and can be learned or improved with practice and application. And like most high-speed skills, it can be helpful to break it down into bite-sized chunks that can be learned in isolation and at a more manageable pace. So here we go…
Sounds pretty obvious, but stress on the bike – physical and mental – will slow you down and steal your mojo. Breathe deep and easy, relax your arms and grip on your handlebar, relax your body. A relaxed body and attitude will help you to respond better to things like wind gusts, perform minor corrections and counteract uneven road surfaces, potholes and debris as you ride through corners. When you stiffen up you lose fluidity and control, which in turn makes you anxious and makes you stiffen up even more. Practise staying loose and relaxed on the bike when you’re going down some gentler hills on your own at lower speeds, then pick up your pace as your confidence grows. Watch and copy seasoned riders and aim to learn from each corner and each ride. Speed is not inherently unsafe, but over-confidence and panic are. Know your limits and work up to them.
RIDE IN THE DROPS
This lowers your centre of gravity to make cornering easier, allows you to brake more powerfully and smoothly and ensures your elbows are bent for added shock absorption and steering control.
BRAKE BEFORE THE CORNERS
Most of your braking should be done before you enter a corner, using both brakes, so you are in complete control of your speed. If you go into a corner too fast, grabbing the brakes will send you off the road. A lot of people will instinctively dive into a turn full throttle, and then scrub speed as they exit, which is the exact opposite of how it should be done. Watch Europcar’s Thomas Voekler or our own Cadel Evans and you’ll see them start wide, brake where necessary before the turn, get down on the bike and lean hard into the corner, and accelerate out of the turn as the bike comes upright. Keep that ‘slow early, exit fast’ image in mind on your next descent. And just like the pros, remember to jump out of the corners. As you come out of the bend you want to almost sprint and accelerate back up to your max riding speed as soon as
possible. In a competitive situation, chasing riders won’t gain much ground on a long straight because there won’t be much difference in your speeds if you are both riding as fast as you can. But you can lose a lot of time through a corner that you have to make up somewhere else. Consider it free speed.
LOOK THROUGH THE CORNER
Focus on where you want your bike to take you, not on obstacles that you want to avoid. Don’t look at the edge of the road or potholes or rough patches – instead, pick a smooth line through the apex of the bend and follow it. And remember, you’re travelling fast so think and look far ahead and pick your lines early.
Lean your bike and not your body. When you ride into a corner, both your body and bike lean to the inside of the turn, but you should lean the bike more than you lean your body. To do this, plant your weight on your outside leg and extend the arm facing the inside of the corner. As you extend your inside arm, you’ll notice the bike drops into the corner and your body weight feels like it is divided between your outside leg and your inside arm. This is a very stable position, it makes the most of available traction, and enables you to see further ahead to the next turn. Moving back and to the outside of the saddle is also really helpful. Remember to steer with your hips. Don’t make big movements with your arms to change direction, shift your weight slightly. Try wiggling your pelvis slowly and check out how much this controls the movement of your bike.
DON’T PANIC IF YOUR BACK WHEEL FEELS LIKE IT’S SLIDING OUT FROM UNDERNEATH YOU
Focus on maintaining control of your front wheel, and slow down when you get the chance. The very best way to master this – and lots of other descending skills for that matter – is to practise on a mountain bike.
USE THE ROAD
It’s there to be used, and you’re on your bike, which at its widest point is only as wide as your shoulders rather than a car, which takes up an entire lane. Start from the outside of the corner and as you ride through the apex move towards the inside of the road; effectively cutting the corner. It’s important to keep the motion smooth, as you won’t need to wash off so much speed. It should go without saying though: unless you’re in a closed-road environment, don’t cross the centre line and put yourself and others in harm’s way.
PLANT YOUR WEIGHT ON YOUR OUTSIDE FOOT
To corner safely, you need your centre of gravity to remain over your tyres and your weight distributed appropriately across both wheels. With your body weight planted on the pedal facing the outside of the corner, you’re maximising the traction your tyres have on the road. By keeping the outside leg almost straight and with most of the body-weight concentrated downwards through the outside pedal, not only do you get more control and therefore more confidence, but you can cut tighter lines and keep the bike on the shortest course through the corners more easily.