The Thrill of the (Down)Hill

Gastown 1983 - Cornering at speed and staying relaxed! Dave Mendenhall Photography

Descending can be the most exhilarating aspect of cycling but you’ve got to do it right. During this year’s Tour de France, watch the pros as they ‘bomb’ the descents. There is always a smooth, calculated line and careful consideration taken, even if it looks like they are descending like madmen. Many times during my European racing campaign I often had to rely on my descending skills to get me back into the main peloton…after being dropped on the climbs!

Over many years of teaching cycling skills, I have found that going fast downhill is one of the hardest things for new cyclists to get used to. The reason is simple: Speed scares people. Even some pros don’t descend correctly, either because they’re nervous or don’t practice it enough. As I noted above, the guys that don’t climb as well have to improve their descending in order to catch up. Personally, I live for carving turns, fast.

To start, familiarize yourself with the condition of the road surface by riding up the hill. Watch for loose gravel on the shoulders, potholes or cracks on the pavement. I recently took a group on the descent in the Pyrenees where Italian rider Fabio Casartelli died after crashing in the 1995 Tour de France. After gazing at his memorial, I pointed out the shaded areas where slick, green tinges of moss sprouted from gaps in the pavement. Reduced traction, plus the quick changes in light from brilliant sunshine to heavy shade, no doubt contributed to his accident. If you don’t know the road, GO SLOW.

For some quick tips, check out:

Look also at the radius of the turns—do they follow a continuous arc, or do they become sharper during the middle of the turn? Are there sections that suddenly become steeper? As you gain experience, you will be able to analyze on the fly, at speed. When you’re ready to head down, follow these simple steps:

1) Space yourself out. In group situations such as a Gran Fondo, leave at least a bike length gap to the rider in front of you. This will let you see the road surface ahead and give you time to react. You also don’t know the skill level of the riders around you!

2) Ride in the drops. With your hands on the lower part of the handlebar, your center of gravity is lower to the ground, like a race car. Also, your weight will be more evenly distributed between the front and rear wheels, which helps maintain traction, especially during braking and turning.

3) Scan ahead. Look for danger signs, so you have time to react. In the turns keep your eyes on the turn’s exit, which will help you carve a smooth, steady line through the whole turn.

4) Stay Relaxed. Start at the top of your body and feel yourself relax. Keep breathing (!), unclench your jaw by opening your mouth, drop your shoulders, bend your elbows, flex your fingers so that you don’t have a ‘death grip’ on the bars, uncurl your toes and let your feet lie flat on the bottom of your shoes!

5) Use subtlety to slow. It’s all about anticipating your next movement. By thinking about what you’re going to do next, you will brake more gradually and cause less anxiety for yourself and those around you. For more controlled slowing, gently squeeze both levers with 2 to 3 second light brake pulses, equal pressure on both levers. Constantly riding the brakes on big descents can cause rims to overheat—and possibly blow out a tire.

6) Corner smart. The biggest mistake I see people make descending is that they wait until they’re in the middle of a turn to brake. Instead, brake before the turn, so that once you enter it, you’re off the brakes with your fingers around the handlebar. If you have to brake while you’re in the turn, you didn’t slow down enough to begin with. After finishing your braking, push your outside pedal down (right turn, left foot down) with pressure on that foot. To initiate the turn, lean the bike—not your body—into the turn (right turn, lean bike right). The faster and sharper the turn, the more the bike leans. This action is very similar to downhill skiing where the lower body angulates into the turn while the upper body remains upright. Exit the turn by gently straightening the bike.

7) Practice. Start out on a flat parking lot and go through the progression until it becomes second nature. Then graduate to your favorite downhill corner going a little faster each time. NEVER cross the center line to shortcut a turn.

Visit The Smooth Ride for more details on how to descend.


About alexstieda

Cycling fanatic, Olympian and IT geek. Claim to fame: 1st North American to wear yellow jersey in the Tour de France.
Gallery | This entry was posted in Cycling skills, International Cycling. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Thrill of the (Down)Hill

  1. Ruth says:

    Helpful thx

  2. louisa says:

    great old pics alex!

  3. Roy says:

    Let me say “I love speed” I ski fast always carving big turns. I ride my mountin bike fast and smooth. In the last couple of years on my road bike I have encountered “Speed Wobbles” at high speed (at least to me) once at about 45 mph the oher time at 55 mph. Terrifying to say the least. Any comments on what might cause these. I find myself reluctant to go above about 40mph now.

    • alexstieda says:

      High speed wobbles are certainly a source of mystery for many ‘experts’ in the bike industry…everyone seems to have an opinion! I believe that it is a combination of factors (fork rake, wheel ‘trueness’, tire pressure, frame alignment, etc) and you can usually mitigate the ‘wobble’ by lowering your center of gravity by:
      1) putting your hands in the drops on EVERY descent;
      2) lowering 1 pedal all the way down and pressing your weight down on it.

      It’s never happened to me over my 10,000+ hours of riding and I descend EVERY time in the drops. So, that’s my entry into solving the mystery. Hope it helps!

  4. David Kosub says:

    I’m 185 pounds and have had a speed wobble twice, both times at speeds of 90kph+. It can scare the Jesus out of you (as you well know). Someone told me that it may be caused by a hormonic vibration created in the frame and it can be controlled by pressing your knees tight to the top tube. Does that work? I don’t know because the wobble has only happened twice in my life. As it’s a rare issue, I don’t let it interfere with my downhilling. Or as Alex says, stay in the drops.

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