In light of the tragedy on a Rapha Gentlamens ride last weekend when a rider died as a result of a crash (see more here) there have been a lot of discussions on various boards about descending. In reading what others have to say in these threads there is a lot of great advice, relaxing, looking down the road, counter-steering as well as tips regarding more subtle things like sticking your knee or elbow out and keeping your head level and chin out. So I thought I’d try to write a little summary of what people have discussed hopefully bringing it all together while leaving out misinformation. While I don’t claim to be a descending guru I’ve spent my lifetime riding bicycles and motorcycles and have given this subject a lot of thought over the last 30 years or more.
First, let’s define technical descending. To me technical descending is when your job to go fast no longer revolves around pedaling and fitness but controlling the machine instead. Technical descending is something you do when you are going down a hill of various or varying pitch and around turns of varying radius and camber. There are also other variables to consider such as road surface, weather, other riders and traffic. The key is that it is no longer about pedaling and pace-lines. It’s now you and your machine and getting from the top to the bottom in the fastest safest way you can.
Riders aptitude and desire to go fast depend on a few things. Age is a big one. Younger rides tend to be less inhibited than older riders. Younger rides have more to gain from the risk. As I’ve gotten older I’ve noticed that the risk does not provide the same reward to me as it did when I was younger. Fortunately now I have something younger riders don’t… experience. There are also (in my opinion) two types of riders. One type are riders who’s primary interest in riding is for fitness and exercise, the other type focuses more on the thrill of riding a bike. The latter may focus on fitness because it’s needed to really enjoy riding and the former may focus on riding because it’s necessary to be safe. I think you’ll find the latter riders are more attracted to the speed and risk of descending. And then there is also the individuals personality. Some people just prefer to take more risk, it’s in their blood.
So lets get started. The first and most important thing a rider needs to go fast and be safe is confidence. When you are in “the zone” there is nothing that can stop you. Confidence comes from practice and experience and there is nothing you can do to shortcut it. As time goes by for a given level of risk your speed will increase. Don’t go to the speed, let the speed come to you. If you try too hard it will be very difficult if not impossible to have the relaxed confident flow that comes from riding within your limits and knowing you have an answer for everything that comes your way (even if you really don’t). I might also point out that confidence varies and we need to know when to slow down. If you aren’t “feeling it” don’t push it. It just may be a day when you need to take it easy.
Below is the order in which a rider will go through a turn. So that we’re all on the same page let’s imagine that were going down hill about 50+mph and we’re going to enter a constant radius left turn with no camber and a mid corner speed of about 35mph.
So we’re cruising down hill, elbows bent, chin right down on our stem staying as low and aero as we can. Our pedals are level at 9:00 and 3:00, most of our weight is on our pedals and we’re holding the bike steady by gently squeezing the saddle with the insides of our thighs. We let the bike move and keep it lose but we also know where it is and are there if something happens. We’re allowing our ankles to absorb bumps or shocks. Our ankles are like pre-shocks while our knees and elbows take up the bigger stuff.
Looking into and through the turn we must use speed estimation to determine when to brake and how much speed to take off. At this time we want to identify when we’ll brake, turn in and exit (if you can see it) the turn. If you had a motor you’d have a greater margin for error but on a bike whatever speed you take off is gone so we try to take off the minimum that we can. Most of your braking is done on the front wheel prior to turn-in while we’re still going straight and are upright . The rear brake is more of a placebo but can stabilizes things a bit and if you’re very advanced can help rotate the bike (trail braking) into the turn, but focus on front brake. Two things will happen, first you’ll slow down, second you’ll transfer most of your weight onto the front tire. This is key and where a lot of the conversation about fit, stem and spacers comes from. Weight equals grip, a good handling bike will have a considerable amount of weight on the front tire when you turn in. If your’e body position is too upright or your stem is too short it becomes more difficult to apply weight to the front tire.
When cornering we want to choose the line that will make the turn as short and straight as possible. That usually means (for our left turn) that we’ll set ourselves up on the far right side of the road, apex at the far left (or centerline) and exit again at the far right. Remember there can be a lot of debris on the edges of the road and even the center so stay out of that. Also keep in mind that if there is a turn following we may want to adjust our position on the road depending on how far away it is and which direction it goes.
Braking into the turn we want to set up our body position for the turn. Once most of our braking is done we want to lower our outside pedal to 6:00. This is where we place as much weight as we can. This is THE KEY to getting around turns fast and safe. Stand on the pedal and let your saddle rest against the inside of your right thigh. As you turn in smoothly release the brakes. This will allow weight to transfer towards the rear tire and provide equal grip on both tires in the middle of the turn.
To turn in you’ll do what’s called counter steer. Basically the bike turns by leaning rather than pointing the tire. Counter steering is simply the process of pushing slightly on the inside bar which will induce the lean causing the bike to turn. Now we point ourselves to our apex. Wherever we enter the turn and the speed we choose will determine where we exit. While we can micro adjust in the turn, a well executed turn won’t require any.
When you enter the turn keep your weight on the outside pedal, your saddle against your inner thigh and your outside knee gently pressing against your toptube. You’ll want to bend your upper body towards the outside of the turn which will help apply more weight directly above the tires and it also encourages counter steering because you extend your inside arm and bend your outside arm. If you imagine your bike from behind at an angle think about trying to get all your weight directly above the point at which your tires touch the ground. As we start to turn in you may want to stick your inside knee out. It will create some drag and encourage the turn. You can also slightly adjust your radius by sticking it out less or more. It’s very subtle but it does make a difference and the faster your going the more you’ll feel it. You can also feather the brakes if needed but be very careful because it can cause you to lose grip and fall. Remember if you enter correctly adjustments won’t be necessary. When moving through the turn be sure to keep your head up and look through the corner. If the corner is really sharp, don’t be afraid to really turn your head to see where you’re going. Look where you want to go, not where you don’t. It’s common for people to fixate on an obstacle they want to avoid but that will actually make you go towards that obstacle. The farther down the road you look the slower it will seem your going. It will also prepare you sooner for what you need to do next.
The exit is pretty straight forward, get the bike upright and start pedaling as soon as you can.
Hope you found this interesting. I invite comments and suggestions. Check out this video of Cancellara. I think this is a great example of technique.