Relax, look ahead, and let the bike do the work.
Once you’ve gotten to the top of the climb, undoubtedly you’ll have a long, downward hill farther along the route. While for some riders the idea of descending with wind whipping through their helmet’s vents is thrilling, for many, descents trigger shaking and white-knuckled grips. It takes calm nerves and a steady body to descend with finesse and ease. Here are a few tips to help you improve your descending:
Although this may seen like a no-brainer, when you are speeding downhill it is often difficult to loosen your grip and let your shoulders relax. Allow your bike to “float” and don’t try to muscle it through any turns. If you put too much pressure on your hands, you may also feel like you are sliding forward. Instead, slide back slightly in the saddle to shift your center of gravity and keep your hands in the drops with your fingers gently forward around the brake levers. Keeping a loose grip not only means a smoother ride, it also lessens the probability of jamming on the brakes, which can cause your wheels to slide.
- Look through the turns
While some downward hills are very straight, others feature wide sweeping turns. As you descend, look forward at which way the road is turning and take the “cleanest” line through the turns. This means you will often be moving over a bit to the left as you head into the corner, thus “straightening” out the line through the apex of the turn. While I don’t advocate riding in the middle of the road for most of your ride, bikes ARE allowed in the travel lanes and it is much safer to take a downward hill through a wider line than it is to hug a gravel-covered gutter, which could cause you to slide out. Also, “taking the lane” makes you much more visible to cars who may not be looking at the gutters as they descend. Just be sure if you notice a line building up behind you to pause at the side and let them pass. This helps to “keep the peace” between anxious motorists and cyclists and shows good will. However, no matter which line you choose, do not ever cross the centerline.
While you are looking ahead, be sure to scan for road debris or obstacles, as you will need more time to brake while descending as opposed to riding on a flat surface. If you are riding in a group, be sure to warn fellow riders if you see something, rather than just swerving out of the way.
- Steer from your hips, not the handlebars
Your bike is able to hold a line on a descent without you muscling the handlebars. It does this best when your hands are in the drops, your weight is back in the saddle and your outside leg is straight with pressure on the pedal. Keeping slightly more pressure on your inside hand will also help to steady your bike. As you get more accustomed to trusting the tires (yes, they will grip the road), you’ll find that you may shift the bike frame out from under your body a bit more. This involves a bit of physics, but essentially keeps the tires’ contact points beneath your weight, allowing for even faster descents.
- Don’t sit on the saddle
While I mentioned shifting your weight back in the saddle, allow yourself a bit of moving room while you are on the saddle. You shouldn’t be pressed into it like a block of concrete! If you hit bumps or debris, you’ll want to be able to float just above the saddle smoothly and let your legs take the shock, not your bum. This technique allows you to ride through rough sections without undue braking.
- Lay off the brakes
While many riders feel they will be best served if they keep pressure on the brakes, you’ll find that lightly braking using both levers as you head into the turn works best. As you head through the apex, you are then able to ease up on the brakes and maintain fluidity in your speed. Keeping your speed consistent lends to a much better experience than jerky braking motions. If your descent is straight down, be sure to feather lightly throughout the ride. If you must scrub speed for debris or any other reason, be sure to use both brake levers at once.
While these tips will help you to become more comfortable while going downhill, the best thing to do is practice, practice, practice! Start with smaller descents and gradually move to larger, windier ones as you feel more confident. There is a sweet spot to every downward hill and the more you ride, the more you will be able to feel it.