Don’t Dread The Descent!
Does riding downhill make you skittish? Read these tips.
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It’s a simple law of gravity: what goes up must come down. On a bike, however, going downhill can be scary. A steep descent can produce some of the highest speeds most triathletes will reach on a bike—a notion that leaves even the steeliest of triathletes feathering their brakes.
“Nothing is scarier than a high-speed crash,” says Scott Wilkinson, professional triathlete and coach with OutRival Racing. However, Wilkinson says the potential for crashing can be reduced greatly with preparation and practice. Descend like a pro with these tips from Wilkinson.
Do Course Recon
Before any major ride—especially one with significant climbing and descending—drive the route.
“Know the road as well as possible beforehand,” suggests Wilkinson. In addition to getting an idea of what you’re about to undertake, this course recon will allow you to confirm your route is safe. Look for areas with loose gravel, tight corners, or debris—all factors which can contribute to high-speed crashes.
If, for some reason, you can’t drive the route before you ride it, you’ve still got homework. Wilkinson says at the very least, cyclists should research the route online using Google Maps’ “street view” feature.
Instinct may prompt you to sit far upright and back on the seat when descending, but consider altering your position when coasting down. Lift slightly out of the saddle and affix your hands on the hoods (for road bikes) or base bar (for tri bikes) for more control.
Yes, the views from the summit of your climb are gorgeous, but your eyes should be fixed on the road. Because you’ll be traveling faster on the downhills, it will take longer to brake in an emergency. Staying alert and focused on the road will allow you to respond quickly to debris, stopped traffic, or other obstructions in the road.
If your descent is full of twists and turns, your entire face should pointed in the direction you want the bike to go—in other words, turn your head and scan the road instead of just looking to the side with your eyes. Your body’s alignment will allow the bike to follow your view.
It’s Okay to Brake
“The more experienced you become at descending, the less you will need to brake,” says Wilkinson. “However, I would recommend riding the brakes the first time.”
When your descent makes you nervous, squeeze your brakes gently until you’re at a speed that’s more comfortable. Unless it’s an emergency, avoid fast and hard braking, as it increases the risk of crashing and wears out brake components faster.
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Take the Lane
A bike lane isn’t always guaranteed, especially on mountain passes. When there’s a car on one side and a steep drop-off on the other, hugging the shoulder can be terrifying. Whenever it’s safe to do so, take the lane.
“Since you’re going faster, every inch of road counts,” says Wilkinson. “For really steep descents with low traffic, it’s fair game to take the whole lane, as you’re probably reaching car-like speeds anyway.”
This extra pavement is especially important when turning. Wilkinson instructs descending cyclists to swing as wide as possible going into the turn, get as close to the apex as possible, then exit the turn on the wide angle. This will allow you to take the straightest line through the turn, minimizing the risk of a high-speed crash.
Getting a flat tire on a descent can be dangerous, especially if the bike is traveling at high speed. A level head is imperative in this situation, says Wilkinson:
“Stay calm, keep rolling in a straight line if possible, and come to a stop at the next safe spot out of the way from other bikes and cars.”
Weather the Wind
Slicing through the air on a downhill is one thing—crosswinds are an entirely different monster to a skittish descender. To minimize the impact of being blown in all directions, Wilkinson says to eliminate anything that might cause a “parachute effect.”
“Shallow depth wheels will help tremendously, especially on the front wheel. I always choose shallow over deep when I’m on a course with a serious descent. Other than that, make sure your jersey is zipped up and nothing is hanging out of your pockets.”
Practice Makes Perfect
With time and practice, nervous riders can learn to master—and even appreciate— the descent. With more comfort comes an added bonus: more speed.
“Even in the pro peloton, there is a wide stratification when it comes to descending skill. It’s all about how much risk you are willing to take,” says Wilkinson. “As you gain more and more experience, you’ll learn your boundaries and you’ll see your times drop more and more.”