The Secret to Faster Descents
Spoiler alert: It’s called “practice.”[content_box type=”with-header” title=”StartConfident Summary” text_color=”dark” color=”default” animation=”fade-in”]
- Excellent descending skills give you confidence. Practice them.
- Learn to see like a descender: choose great lines, steer with your eyes
- You’re not steering, you’re leaning
- Get low, get relaxed, support yourself
- Don’t coast
- Object fixation – find the path around
- Don’t brake IN the corner
I can’t catch you on the downhills.”
My friend in a recent group ride was exasperated. “Confidence,” he said while pausing next to me at a traffic light, “confidence is what I guess I have to work on.” I asked him what he wasn’t confident about. What were the specific aspects of descending that caused him concern. “I don’t know. I know I’m not aero enough.”
I explained that “catching wind” will certainly slow a rider down, but that there were many more basic skills that needed to be observed and practiced in order to really increase one’s skill at going down the hill as impressively as you made it up the hill.
Confidence comes from practice
If you expect to just show up at the weekly group ride and gain descending prowess by osmosis, I have a message: ain’t gonna happen. Now, it’s true that by following the lines of good descenders, you will get faster. But you have to practice the actions that good descenders employ to set up for those lines, follow through on those lines, and transition from curve to curve. These are all specific things that you have to encounter mindfully and practice in order to get better at them.
That means getting up your favorite hill, then going down your favorite hill, multiple times. We’ve all heard about hill repeats. If descending is a weakness, then you need “descending repeats.”
What are the aspects of descending to keep in the forefront of your mind as you practice them? Hold on. Here we go:
The Art of Seeing Downhill
In order to descend fast, you have to flow with the descent. My riding buddy admitted to being tense while descending. (We’ll talk about relaxation, later.) Being tense means you’re forced to turn what should be sweeping, smooth lines into a rapid series of short, choppy, straight ones — and that eats up speed. Your goal is to find the absolute shortest route down the hill, and take that route. In order to do that, you have to look far ahead.
You want to look with your whole head, not just your eyes, at the point in the upcoming curve where the road disappears. Literally point your chin at it. Where you look, you will go. That “disappearing point” will help you determine what line to take.
Generally, you want to stay wide of the upcoming turn, until you see the road “open up ” around the upcoming bend. As long as the curve ahead of you is “blind,” meaning, you can’t see where it’s going to end up, stay wide, and patient. When the road beyond the curve becomes visible — because your advancing position and the bend of the road shift your perspective, you can then lean in towards the apex of the curve.
Steering: It’s a Lean Thing
Up ahead is a sweeping, left hand curve. You’re on the right side of the road, rushing along on the descent. Your eyes — and chin — are focused on the point where the road disappears around the bend. Then, you see the road “open up,” as you approach: you can see that the road straightens as the descent continues. So you want to steer toward the apex of the curve. Since this is a two-lane road, with potential traffic coming up the hill, your apex is the “double yellow line,” whether real or imagined.
[callout icon=”hb-moon-bike”]Descending hills — or even mountains — is like everything else in sport: it’s a skill you have to practice.[/callout]
At speed while descending, this isn’t a matter of turning your handlebars left. It’s about the way you initiate a lean into the apex. By the way, I’m not going to get into the technical aspects of countersteering. But if you want to get all physics on this subject, feel free to do so. I dig it. You might, too.
- Bring your inside or left pedal up to 12 o’clock
- Gently (or not so gently — depends on your speed and how close you are to the curve) press your left handlebar hook down, as in towards the road surface
- Put weight on your outside pedal, while your upper body remains upright
- Need to turn quicker? Press harder, weight the downward pedal harder at the same time, maintain and upright body
Get Low and Float
A race bike was designed to put a rider of a certain size in an optimum position between the two wheels. Getting your center of gravity right is one of the supreme goals of a great bike fit. If you’re too far forward or too far rearward, all the pressing and leaning I’m talking about will be compromised. When you’re in the right position (I find it to be almost 50/50 between front and rear…you’re slightly favoring the rear wheel for traction) and low, you’re going to be more stable at speed.
By “low,” you must be in the drops. Just like sprinting, you DON’T want to be on the brake hoods! This isn’t just about “getting aero.” This is about using the full design and geometry of your bike to it’s intended purpose: keeping you stable and getting you fast.
“But Sam, I feel safer up on the hoods!”
I’m telling you right now, that feeling of safety is an illusion. As you’re descending, you don’t want to be “top heavy.” It’s critical that your get as much weight as low to the ground — specifically as low and close to your bike’s bottom bracket — as possible. That way you can “flick” the bike to either side of this “pivot” point. The only way to do that is to sit back on your saddle, and get down in the drops — on a perfectly-fitting bike.
Get fitted. Get your bars and stem right, and your brake levers dialed in so you can reach out and feather those brakes with your index finger.
What do you mean by “float?”
So you’re flying down the hill in your low and fast position, properly weighted over the bike, both fore and aft, as well as with a “weighted lean.” The next thing is to be sure you’re supporting your weight on the bike. You don’t want to have all your dead weight distributed between saddle and hands. Keep reading…
As long as you’re not in full tilt, diving into apexes, the last thing you want to do — especially on a long mountain descent — is to just shift your pedals to “inside up” and just coast. Doing so robs you of several things:
- At speed, as you hit every road imperfection, you’ll feel them all the way up to your poor, battered crotch and hands. Take the pressure off of them by remaining bent at the elbows and leveling the pedals to make your body a shock absorber.
- Descents can chill you. Again, if you’re descending in mountainous regions, it takes very little time to get very chilled. Keep your cadence high to simply maintain body warmth.
- Keeping the pedals moving helps you to float over and with the bike; it fights against being rigid. Rigidity while descending is tiring, unsafe, and slows you down. Three strikes, you’re SO out.
Don’t. Stare. At. The. Pothole.
This next incredibly powerful skill was drilled into my head during my time taking the Motorcycle Safety Foundation Course. Taking the MSF was one of the best weekends of my life. If you’re a motorcyclist, don’t let another riding season go by without taking this course, or the advanced course. It’s really awesome.
Let’s go back to that descent. We’re pedalling along at a high cadence. We’re relaxed and we’re looking ahead adn through the turns. We’re set up on the outside of the lane waiting to see the curve open up so we can determine where the apex is — when suddenly, we see a pothole.
It’s a big pothole. Like, time trial disk wheel sized pothole.
If you’re like most riders, you’re going to stare at that hole.
Problem is, you go where you look. It’s crucial that you always look for the path you wish to take. Find your line, and stay true to your line.
Acknowledge. “Pothole, check.” Now, let it go past. Find the line around the obstacle…
Use this technique if a rider goes down ahead of you: don’t stare at the rider. Find the line of safety. Take the safe line.
Learning to trust your peripheral vision is very hard. You desperately want to stare at that catastrophe in the road. But doing so will drag you inexorably toward it. Instead, snap to the line of safety and ride that line.
Gold-standard: DON’T brake in a turn.
OK, now you’re really carving this descent up: you’re in fluid position, seeing well, being patient with your lines. You’re pressing with your hands and counter-weighting with your legs. You’re shock-absorbing with your elbows and knees. You’re flying, and you’re one with this descent. It’s magical.
Until your spidey-sense tingles and tells you, “Whoa…you’re coming in to this next one a bit hot.”
You were hanging out on the outside of the curve, keeping your head up and pointed into that curve, but the road never opened up beyond it; you just kept twisting into the turn. You need to slow down.
Brake before you lean into turns. When you are leaning at-speed in a turn, you’re putting your tires at their traction limit. Braking upsets the balance of momentum, and will most likely cause a lock-up of the rear wheel. A slide is the inevitable result, with your momentum carrying you towards the outside of the turn.
You want to brake while you’re as upright as possible. You also want to have your weight rearward. Lastly, this kind of braking is “speed modulation,” to maintain your sense of flow. Error correction is another matter.
If you find yourself in the middle of a turn, at speed, and you know you need to slow down, the best thing to do is try to straighten out, first, then apply emergency braking while shifting your weight hard rearward.
Obviously, this isn’t always possible. You may already be to the outside so far that to straighten up means hitting a guardrail or worse. In this case, situations (and your jet fighter reflexes) will have to make a split-second decision based on the situation:
- Purposefully lock the rear in order to slide out, minimizing the damage of a full-frontal impact
- Attempt to modulate front and rear braking in simultaneous bursts, favoring the front, in an attempt to bleed off speed so you can lean in further and make the turn, safely. (Obviously, this is a totally pro move. Mere mortals aren’t usually capable of this.
Do “descent repeats.” Don’t hammer down your favorite long, sweeping grade — just point yourself down, and gently pedal until you get up to a regularly-fast cadence (85+.) Start by simply working with body position; feel how your bike responds when you’re a little forward versus a little rearward. Feel the curves when you press down on the inside bar and weight the outside leg. Control your speed for a gradual descent. As you continue to practice, you’ll become confident with carving corners, rather than having the descent intimidate you into a series of choppy, hard-braking straight edges.
[icon_box icon=”hb-moon-bike” icon_position=”left” align=”left”] Question: What is your favorite hill to descend — or would like to descend better? Describe it here for us! [/icon_box]