Previously we looked at 5 ways to improve your climbing. Now you’ve made it to the top, it’s time to look at how to make it back down – safely and swiftly.
Descending is often touted as the reward for the hard slog up, but for some going downhill can actually be worse than ascending. So, what makes the difference between a fast and smooth descent and a nervous, wobbly one? Whilst there is an element of courage involved, the key to great descending really lies in skill and technique.
We’ve spoken to Helen Wyman, who is a self-confessed natural descender and ‘speed queen’ as well as Lex Albrecht (Team Tibco) who had to work hard to improve her descending when she transitioned to the European peloton. They’ve given Voxwomen their top pro tips and some advice on how you can hone your descending skills!
1) Smile: be relaxed and confident!
The biggest thing when descending is to remain calm and relaxed. Avoid the ‘death-grip’ and tensing up as this will be make your bike feel twitchy and affect your handling. Remember, if riding downhill fast makes you nervous, take it at a speed you feel comfortable with and gradually get faster as your confidence increases. Albrecht recommends ‘staying relaxed, keeping yourself loose and looking and thinking ahead’.
2) Down to the drops
Descending is much easier on your drops! By positioning your hands on the drops you have a lower centre of gravity, which increases both your stability and control. Additionally, having your hands on the drops is the safest place for accessing your brakes when you need to scrub off some speed.
3) Brake positively
The worse thing you can do is drag your brakes continuously down the whole descent. Instead, feather your brakes – applying them firmly, but not jerkily – so you can maintain a speed you’re comfortable with. Also, don’t forget to ‘double brake’ – that is to use both the front and rear brake together so that ‘you spread the pressure of controlling your mass at a high speed over as much surface area as possible’.
When taking on a twisty descent Wyman emphasises the importance of ‘braking before the corner rather than through the corner’. Braking through a corner can cause you to lose the front wheel so remember to knock off speed before the hairpin or bend.
4) Smooth lines
When facing bends or hairpins on a descent you want to think about taking the smoothest line possible through the turn. That is the shortest route with the least angle you can take. Wyman recommends ‘using the white lines as your guide so you can see where the corner goes’. In general, you’ll want to start wide and aim for the apex of the corner. (Remember to always stay on the correct side of the road!).
Another big tip Albrecht recommends when it comes to cornering ‘is to look where you want to exit’. The bike will follow your viewpoint so always focus on where you want to be after the bend.
5) Position your feet
On straight descents where it is too steep to pedal keep your feet level in the 3 o’clock/9 o’clock position as this allows you to raise yourself very slightly out of the saddle. By doing this you’re giving yourself some natural suspension, meaning you have more control should you hit some rough patches of road surface.
Also, through corners, remember to keep your inside pedal up and push your weight down through your outside pedal as this gives you the maximum clearance and control. If you feel confident enough to lean in corners, remember to ‘lean the bike not your body’ says Albrecht. ‘By leaning the bike out from under you and keeping your weight over the tire contact points you’ll have much more control.’
If you know someone who’s a good, confident descender, a great way to learn how to descend is to try sitting behind them. Notice their body positions, the lines they take and when they brake and as you follow them try to emulate their actions. Just remember to give them some space so you have a good view and plenty of time to react should you need to.
Ultimately descending is a skill best learnt through practice and over time your confidence and competence will improve. Focus on being smooth, feeling the flow and try not to overthink things. Descending can be great fun and it’s an important skill to master. After all who doesn’t love a bit of free speed?!