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Descending Confidently With Skill and Speed

by Larry Theobald

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We have another descending article: Descending Skills - How to Go Downhill

Larry TheobaldNote from Chairman Bill: author Larry Theobald (pictured on the right) is co-owner of CycleItalia, a company devoted to guiding small groups of cyclists on cycling tours in Italy. Few people on the planet are as passionate about cycling as Larry. If you have ever thought about having a European cycling adventure, please consider letting Larry show how much fun it can be. Just give this link a click.

CycleItalia’s ride routes feature lots of climbing and descending. Climbing, while taking some level of skill (gear selection, pacing, etc.) is mostly affected by fitness level and body weight, but when you reach the top of the hill and head downwards, a skillful descender can make up a lot of time lost to faster climbers while truly enjoying the experience of getting down the mountain.

As a former nationally-ranked professional motorcycle road racer married to a former internationally competitive cyclist we offer these tips based on some level of proficiency as most of you who’ve ridden down a mountain with us will attest. Please use caution when practicing these tips.

While many ex-pros who run cycling camps or clinics will insist on a particular, personal cornering style (lean the bike WAY over, DON’T lean the bike way over, put your knee out, don’t put your knee out, etc) we offer these general tips to help you enjoy the descents you’ve "earned" by climbing to the top of the mountain. We call it free speed.

Cadel Evans

Cadel Evans descending the Passo di Centocroci at speed during the 2014 Giro d'Italia. He's going low and fast with a classic downhill position.

1. Body position. Too many folks descend steep, twisty descents with their hands up on the brake hoods. WRONG! Look at photos of the pros in action. Your hands belong down in the drops. This way you can use three fingers and your thumb to hold the bar while operating the brake levers with just your index finger. With modern brakes one finger is all you need.  If you have small hands and have trouble reaching the end of the brake lever in this position, try this trick: back off the brake adjustment so you can "choke-up" on the brake lever, pulling it in toward the bar with your index finger securely in place while not actually activating the brakes. Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of brake travel and power with this setup when it comes to actually using the brakes. We’ve run our brakes this way for years. You could also consider some of the newer handlebars specially designed to reduce the reach to the brakes, but whatever you do make sure you can easily hold onto the "drops" of the bars and still work the brake levers before you head downhill.

Story of the Giro d'Italia, volume 1

Carol and Bill McGann's book The Story of the Giro d'Italia, Vol 1: 1909 - 1970 is available as an audiobook here. For the print and Kindle eBook versions, just click on the Amazon link on the right.

2. Look ahead. Far ahead. This sounds obvious, but think about the fact that your eyes can’t actually "sweep" a field of vision in sharp focus.  You must focus on a spot far ahead, then move your focus to another spot further down the road as you come down the hill. Rely on your peripheral vision to deal with the hole in the road or gravel in the turn. Once you’ve seen them from far enough away you’ll have time to change your line or speed to avoid them, but don’t let your vision "back up" where you find yourself looking directly in front of your front wheel. Things that close, by the time you see them, can no longer be avoided at speed; you need to know what’s ahead while there’s still time to react. Larry learned at high speeds in motorcycle racing (150+ mph) that he needed to compensate for the split-second it took for a braking message to get from his brain to his fingers. Try to get all your visual information as soon as you can get it, so you’ll be prepared for anything.

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3. Tire traction. Quality tires, 23c or wider, properly inflated (100 psi is plenty), make a lot of difference but remember this about tire grip—think of your tire as the eraser on the end of a pencil. Stand the pencil on a piece of paper on its eraser end and push it straight down onto the page.  As long as you push it down with a constant weight, its "traction" (resistance to movement) on the page is the same, no matter which direction you push it.  Tires essentially have two forces at work for you while descending. The first is braking force—squeeze the brake levers and the wheel slows, squeeze too much and the tire (eraser) will begin to slide across the road (paper). Same with cornering forces—turn too sharp or lean over too far and you’ll overcome the tire’s sideways traction and it’ll begin to slide. Unlike in MotoGP, this is not a good thing on a bicycle. If the tire regains traction the sideways force returns (presuming you don’t lean over so far that you lay it down!) the wheels often collapse (the old "taco" or "potato-chip") as they are not designed to handle such severe side loading. Or worse, you get pitched over the "high-side" just like the MotoGP guys. What does all this mean? Each tire has only a limited amount of "traction". If you use the maximum amount for braking, you have nothing left for cornering and vice-versa. Exceed the tire’s grip in ANY direction and you’re usually in trouble, so try to separate braking and cornering as much as possible. When you’re braking hard, avoid turning. When you’re cornering hard avoid braking. Balancing the braking and turning forces is the key. If the tire begins to slip or slide, let off the brakes! You never want to stop the wheels from spinning as their gyroscopic effects help stabilize the bike. If you’ve ever gone really fast downhill (55+ mph) you may have even noticed your bike is so stable that it’s hard to steer into a corner at high speed.

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4. Stay in your lane! Even if you can see way down the mountain by using the tips in number 2 above, what about the Valentino Rossi wannabee who’s coming up the hill? Some of these modern motorbikes are incredibly fast and are coming your way before you know it. On left-hand corners you should enter the turn as far right as possible and sweep through the turn close to the center line, but on right-handers be very careful about moving left into the oncoming lane. We can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard the story (usually while picking up a dropped bike and checking out road rash) about how someone was totally surprised by the car (bus, motorcycle) suddenly appearing "out of nowhere".

5. Ride "light". In addition to the body position tips above, make sure you’re flexible when going downhill. Since most modern bicycles are incredibly rigid (with wheels to match) the only "suspension" you have is the tires (which is why you don’t want them inflated rock-hard!) and your ability to let the bike move beneath you, absorbing impacts from changing road surfaces. Make sure your upper body (especially your arms) is loose and flexible, you want road shocks to be absorbed by flexing of your limbs and muscles rather than lifting the wheels off the ground. Tires can do NOTHING for you if they’re not in contact with the road. Whether you choose to stick your inside knee out or not, weight your outside pedal in the turn, similar to weighting the outside ski on snow.

6. Use a smooth line and don’t hesitate to lean the bike. Don’t go around like your bike is still equipped with training-wheels. At speed, two-wheeled vehicles don’t really "turn" much at the handlebars, it’s all in the leaning.

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If you follow the tips above, holding a smooth line through the turns is much easier. You’ll not carve the perfect line each and every time but avoid sudden swerves and movements if you’ve not gotten it just right. Watch (carefully) other riders as they descend and observe their lines and techniques. Watching videos of the pros can help too. You’ll eventually get the hang of it and look forward to those thrilling descents as much as the daunting climbs—or if you’re like us, MORE!