Know How – Skills School, Get down like a pro

Downhill tips and techniques for road racing cyclists


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How often do you watch the pros descending Alpine passes on TV and almost swallow your tongue as you cling to the edge of your chair? The speeds and the lines are incredible, yet it always seems impossible to duplicate them when you’re on the bike. It’s all about technique, a very important part of cycling and racing.

A bad descent can lose you a race, get you dropped on a ride, or worse still, leave you in hospital. Maybe it’s time to take a look at your descending skills, and to brush some things up – it’s one of the few areas in cycling where you can get something for nothing, or at least for no extra effort.

Too many riders tend to focus purely on the main physical aspects of the sport, such as riding faster uphill and cracking out those extra seconds in time trials, which is great, but it’s no use dropping someone uphill if they hurtle past you on the way down

Few of us bother to focus any time or effort on going downhill faster, which is a crucial part of being a complete cyclist. A decent descender can afford to lose almost two minutes on a group on a 15km climb, and be sure of getting that time back on the descent. So many races have been lost on the descents. Indeed, classics like Milan – San Remo have been won and lost on the final descent. And how many great climbers have lost out to more rounded riders because they get caught going downhill?

In recent years some of the top pros have focused more on the descents, realising every second counts; we’ve even seen Tour contenders attacking, and gaining time on descents. Get things right, sharpen up, learn your lines and you could be saving time on every ride, even if you are not a racer, good descending skills will make you a better, more confident rider.

Australian fast man and Olympic Champion Luke Roberts has been riding in the cut and thrust of the European pro pelotons for some time now. He’s a man to be reckoned with when going downhill, which is why we caught up with him (well, almost) and asked him to demonstrate this fine art.

“Firstly, you need to be relaxed, no matter what the situation and conditions you’re facing. If you are relaxed you can become more at one with the bike, which means that you won’t be fi ghting it. Your upper body should be relaxed so that you keep everything smooth, and allow the bike to take its own way some more.”

One of the crowd

“It’s always advantageous to be near the front of a group when descending, especially if it’s a tricky descent. It only takes one crash or mishap and things split and it’s game over. This happened to me in the Bayern Rundfahrt in Germany; I was riding for the overall, but went over the top of the only climb in the race in 20th position. A guy in front crashed, the other 19 took six minutes out of the fi eld. You need to be aware of how the riders around you descend, be sure to steer clear of the nervy or not so good descenders, and always leave room in front for rider error. Keep you eyes well ahead and watch the lines of the riders in front.”

Wind cheating

“Aerodynamics can make a huge diff erence, especially on long and open descents – you only need to watch riders on the television to see how their different positions effect speeds. We all know what difference aerodynamics make in a flat time trial; on a descent you can be going twice as fast, so double the difference. In a small group or solo, most riders tend to get into a tuck position for long and straight sections.

The aim is to reduce your frontal area. This means keeping your head low, arms tucked in and legs level at mid stroke, with knees tucked in

I prefer to stay seated when I’m in a tuck; this allows me to keep pedalling every few seconds (otherwise you seize up, and end up in trouble when you hit a climb), and it’s also safer if you happen to hit something, or something jumps into the road. In a bunch situation you need to be able to use your brakes, so you attain a similar position on the drops.”

Know your lines

“If you know the descent then it’s far easier to choose your lines. However, in race situations that’s not always possible. The aim is obviously to look for the shortest and smoothest line – the classic racing line. But you also need to be aware of the road conditions; try to steer clear of the road centre, which may have slippery markings, and watch out for the grit and drop off at the road edges.

“If I don’t know a descent, I always ease off a little, and look ahead. If there are motorbikes or cars in front of you, or even other riders, then this will help you to judge blind lines.”

Wet and wild

“In wet conditions you need to know your equipment and its limitations. Be sure you know how your tyres react to the conditions, and your brakes. Many rims and brakes do not work so well together in wet conditions. Braking needs to be more frequent to clear the water from your rims, and you need to think and brake a long time ahead, maybe 60 per cent more than in the dry. You should always avoid any braking on corners, and do not lock up at any time.

When cornering you need to be a lot slower, keep the bike more upright and steer it through, as opposed to letting it take control, but always stay relaxed

Be more aware of road markings, slippery patches and diesel on the road – avoid these at all costs. Be sure to leave more space for error with the riders around you, and try and stay off wheels some more to keep the spray from your eyes (a race cap can help here).”

Tools for the job

“Knowing your equipment and making sure you know how far you can push things is crucial, especially your wheels, tyres and brakes. In windy conditions deep section rims can be unnerving if you’re not used to them, as can carbon rims in the rain. You should always try to wear track mitts – they could save your hands – and a helmet is, of course, obligatory. Glasses are also a must in dry conditions; one fly in your eye and you could be over the edge. In wet conditions you may need to wipe them more often, but that’s better than getting grit or spray in your eyes. For a long descent you should always have a gillet, jacket, or even a plastic bag, in your pocket. You sweat and get hot coming up, and then freeze and risk a chill coming down, so some protection is important.”

Panic stations

“Inevitably at some time or another you’ll have some kind of mishap on a descent. The first thing to do is to remain calm, assess your surroundings and then bring things under control if you can. If it’s a puncture or mechanical issue you need to get your speed under control as soon as you can, but remain aware of riders behind you, make sure they see you, and get out of the line they are likely to be taking, otherwise it will be carnage. If you crash then you have to think pretty fast, and get out of the way of riders behind you, then dust yourself off and assess damage to you and your bike. If it’s not too bad get back on as soon as possible and get yourself back in the action.”

Round the bend

“Most corners on mountain descents are of the hairpinned variety, which means they can be taken pretty fast. You are always looking to cut the axis of the corner and to make as wide and sweeping a line as you can, which generally means coming in wide, cutting the axis and exiting as wide as possible, without losing too much speed. Exactly where you cut in towards the axis depends on the sharpness of the corner; if it’s a sharp switchback then you need to cut in later than if it sweeps in. In dry conditions you need to be relaxed, do just about all of your braking before entering the corner, and try to kick in a couple of pedal revs on the way out, forcing down on the outside leg first, to pull you upright. On coming into the corner you should be on the drops, weight pushed to the back of the saddle, inside leg up, outside leg straight and leaning your bike into the corner. You also need to be on the mark with gearing coming in and out of corners; trying to keep your momentum going and smooth is the key factor, which often means a quick down change before you hit the brakes, so you can pedal out of the other side – just make sure that you’re in gear!”

Head case

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“But at the same time you need to be focused on the road and conditions, keeping an eye on the situation and surroundings, and being switched on so that you can react when you’re in tricky situations. Practice can help to ease your nerves on descents – if you are too nervous then you become tense and too reactive.”