Saturday, April 25, 2009

4 Ways to Become a Better Descender

Back on April 10th we blogged about "5 Ways to Become a Better Climber" ( If you've worked hard to be able to climb faster it only makes sense to work on your descending skills as well. Here are some coaching tips from Thomson Bike Tours (

Getting down the mountain one has just climbed is half the fun of climbing it — if one goes about it the proper way, that is. Are you white-knuckled after the first turn? If so, then read on... Are you fearless, but find yourself leaving skin on the mountain a little too often? If so, then read on carefully!

The roads in Europe are fantastic, fabulous in the most literal sense; they are very well engineered (better than most in the Americas), and getting down them can really heighten the experience of a Euro cycling trip. That said, there are certain rules of descending that act in accord with the laws of physics, and are therefore best well respected. Follow these simple rules, and learn to employ them—cautiously at first!—and you'll increase your speed and fun factor considerably.

Rule 1): Look ahead!
This sounds simple enough, but most people get into trouble by ignoring this obvious caveat. There are many things that can distract on a descent: e.g., potholes, other riders, splendid vistas, cute animals, a fast approaching concrete barrier, etc. The key is to look where you want to go, and nowhere else. Of course, if something unanticipated arises, you may need to adjust where you want to go, but the rule holds and is worth restating: always, always look ahead and look where you want to go.

Rule 2): Hand positioning.
When you begin a steep or twisty descent, it's best to be in the drops (even if you otherwise never use that part of your handlebar). Your center of gravity is lower, your back is (for the most part) flatter, and your steering is more controlled. The safest, most reliable position is in the drops. Some like to remain upright out of habit. It's best to train oneself to use the drops when going down hill. Some like to get super aero on the tops, nose skimming the front tire and all, but this is dangerous (for the practitioner and those around him/her). Good tuck in the drops allows for a lower center of gravity, and wider purchase for greater leverage in crosswinds and through corners, and better access to the brakes for speed control.

Rule 3): Braking.
a) Where descending is concerned, brakes are meant to slow you, not stop. As such, your brakes should be adjusted to the size of your hands. If your brakes are set up to engage from the moment you pull the lever in, your hands will tire quickly, and the rest of the way down the mountain will be no fun. You should be able to "cover the brakes", keeping them partially engaged but with little or no pad/rim contact until your fingers are partially bent, thereby allowing greater use of hand strength.
b) Control your speed (note: this is a preemptive idea [see "Cornering" below]).
c) Use the rear brake more than the front. Both should be used, but keep in mind the front has much more slowing power than the rear. When you slow too quickly, your weight is thrust forward, and your center of gravity changes unpredictably (esp. on steep hills). Feather the front brake and keep the rear from skidding.

Rule 4) Cornering.
This is, of course, the best and the worst part of descending, depending on your perspective.
a) See Rule 1 above: Look ahead! You must control your speed before entering the turn, so as to limit any emergency braking. Therefore, as you approach the turn (be it a sweeper or a switchback) you should slow to a speed to which you feel certain you can negotiate the corner. So look ahead, and control speed.
b) Be sure that your outside pedal is down, and that your weight is planted firmly on that pedal (more on this below).
c) Always, always, always look to the inside apex of the turn, whether it be the centerline, the shoulder, or some imaginary line. This is because the G forces will always pull you to the outside of the turn, so keeping your eye on the inside will help you stay on course.
d) Enter the turn a little wide, and then cut it in tight and hold it as tight as possible (tighter is usually better, as the Gs will pull you out anyway), and then exit the turn as tightly as you can given your speed.
e) Once you have entered the turn, you should practice letting off the brakes. This is a tough skill to master, but it works wonders. If you do need to use your brakes, you should feather the front, and apply the rear with moderation, lest the rear wheel skid and slide sideways. The front deserves special attention. (Think about this: if you grab a fist full of front brake, the body continues to move forward as the bike slows, and this sudden change in weight distribution sets up all sorts of undesirable scenarios. Also, when the rotation of the steering [i.e., front] wheel slows suddenly, traction changes, too, and rather unpredictably at that.) So, just as in a car, you should brake before the turn, let the wheels roll through the turn, and then accelerate out of the turn, carrying speed until the next set-up.
f) When in doubt, lean it more. A bicycle can lean much farther than an untrained rider will generally let it lean. If you find yourself in a little trouble (which you shouldn't because you've been controlling your speed, right?!), it's far better to lean it, than to hit the brakes and bail out. "Bailing" (refusing/failing to commit 100%) in a turn does a number of bad things; most importantly, it can send you into oncoming traffic, and/or cause you to straighten up suddenly, thereby throwing your weight forward and off center (think of yourself as though you're a plumb-line on your bike, and your weight stays more or less anchored), and when one's weight is thrown off the likelihood of "high-siding" is increased tenfold. To commit 100% to your turn you may have to employ "counter-steering" technique, which is accomplished by pushing on the inside of the handlebar as you simultaneously weight the outside pedal (see above), keeping the knees braced inward. This takes practice, and should be tried incrementally, not all at once at high speeds. Once this technique is mastered, however, it is very, very difficult to crash, because you're using the laws of physics in your interests, not simply charging downhill and hoping for the best.
g) Finally, when it's wet, respect the roads! European roads can be very slick when wet.

Follow these simple rules, be careful and enjoy your descents

Photos: looking down the Stelvio

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  1. Thanks a bunch! Better go out and try this.

  2. Reader Chris emailed me with this:

    Greetings from Virginia again. I've been following your coverage of the 100th Giro. Great job.

    I wanted to comment on your descending article. One of the other crucial elements is tire pressure! I still see experienced riders overinflating their tires. As you know, the max tire pressure on the sidewall IS NOT the RIGHT tire pressure for a particular rider. Having the right pressure makes the difference between holding a line and skittering off line and lowsiding.

    Keep up the great job.