Fast, exhilarating descents are cycling’s way of saying thank you for the hard hills. Beginners often find them scary, but they don’t have to be, explains Andy Cook, if you follow a few simple rules.
Consciously relax your death grip on the bar and release the tension from your arms and shoulders. Apart from being unnecessarily tiring, a stiff body will transmit any bumps in the road to your bike, making it more difﬁcult to control.
A relaxed upper body will help you avoid any sudden movements, and keep your braking and steering smooth. Keep your pedals level so you can unweight yourself from the saddle and use your legs as suspension to smooth over any bumps in the road.
Most long descents come after a hard climb, so suddenly relaxing your legs and then stopping pedalling for protracted periods of time – especially in a racing tuck – will make them stiffen up. To avoid this, make sure you do some pedalling on the way down, even if it isn’t to make you go signiﬁcantly faster. That way when you get to the next rise in the road your legs won’t let you down.
Keep your distance
Remember that neither you nor the rider directly in front has brake lights, so you may get no warning if they have to suddenly brake or swerve. For this reason, make sure you look well ahead down the road – not just at the wheel of the bike in front – and always leave enough room between you and the rider in front for your reaction time.
Remember your highway code: ‘Only a fool breaks the two-second rule.’ Why not apply the same space management technique to the gap between you and the speeding riding in front, ensuring you can count two full seconds from when he or she passes a point to when you pass it too? If they really are too slow, then wait for a safe place to pass and get around them quickly and cleanly, leaving as much space as possible.
Anticipate possible dangers, cornering speed and sharpness, changes in road surface, lines, braking points, other riders behind or in front and cars in side roads. Focus ahead on the piece of tarmac (US: pavement) that you are aiming to roll over – your line – and leave your peripheral vision to do what it's fastest at: picking up movement in black and white and quickly processing it to the brain.
Covering your brakes at all times, even if it is simply with the foreﬁnger of each hand from the drops, will help you react more quickly when you need to.
The lower you manage to crouch, and the more you can tuck in your knees and elbows, then the less your frontal area and wind resistance – and the faster gravity will be able to propel you. If you’re ﬂexible enough you’ll be able to keep your head up and look where you’re going too – which is important.
To get extra pace, ride with your hands on the lower handlebar drops and dip your torso down towards the top tube. Choose an appropriately big gear so you don’t spin out if you suddenly want to put the power down. Keeping the chain on the big ring on the front will keep a decent amount of tension in your chain too and avoid the likelihood of it jumping off onto the bottom bracket if you hit a bump
Just as going aero will make you descend faster, if you want to wipe some speed off a descent without having to resort to protracted, rim-wearing braking, then sit upright and catch some wind. Switching your hands to the hoods or tops will help add drag too, as will sticking out your elbows and knees.
Using your body as a natural brake like this is a useful tactic for adding control while you’re braking before a corner.