Rob Wakefield is a certified coach with a background in BMX and road cycling, events and races across Europe and America. Here he explains how to tackle descents using the same techniques and mindset as pro riders such as Nibali.
One of the most thrilling moments of a major competition is when a rider seemingly throws caution to the wind to make a break for victory. Nowhere is this more thrilling than on a daredevil descent, and few are more exciting and effective at turning the hair-raising downhill plummet into a place up on the podium than Vincenzo Nibali.
Over the years La Squalo (the shark), now riding for Bahrain Merida, has perfected his positioning, technique and timing to seize some spectacular stage wins during the downhill dash. While his approach may seem brave to the point of thoughtless, the reality is much more calculated. Nibali optimises the tightest turns, maximises his aerodynamic advantage by reducing his frontal area to the barest minimum and almost always finds the fastest line.
These key components coupled with a seemingly fearless approach contribute to a skill many envy and few can emulate. By breaking down your own descent into its component parts you can improve your effectiveness in the saddle and enjoyment of your ride when things really do take a downward turn…
1. Practice makes perfect
Descending is a skill and, like any other, can be improved. Practice gives you confidence, which is key to descending quickly and safely. Like learning any skill, it’s best to start slowly and build from there.
Pick a local descent with a decent surface and good visibility. Do it a few times, until you are confident and feel relaxed on that descent. Then move to more technical descents.
2. Get on the drops
Your weight distribution on the bike is crucial. Getting on the drops with your bum back on the saddle spreads the weight over the bike, and gives you better balance. It also gives you greater control over the brakes, and keeps you nice and low compared to riding with your hands on the hoods.
When cornering, have your outside leg at the 6 o’clock position, with your weight pressed down on that foot. For hairpins, you will probably find yourself leaning harder on the inside hand down into the corner.
3. Timing is crucial
Many riders make the error of taking corners too soon when descending. Delay the turn to the last second, so that you're using all the road and have a good angle of exit. Turn in too soon and the only place you are heading is the scrub…
If you need to use the brakes to trim speed, try to do so before the bend rather than during the turn. You have two brakes for a reason, so use them both.
4. Keep calm
It’s easy to get swept up by the thrill of a decent descent. There may be times when you feel you have overcooked an approach to a corner or there is something unexpected in the road. Nothing good will come of panicking in this situation. Be calm and trust your skills — chances are you can avoid the problem if you stay in control of the bike.
5. Watch and learn
When riding with others, you can always learn from their strengths and weaknesses. Look at the smooth lines made by an excellent descender, look at how much time they have.You should also watch YouTube clips of professionals descending.
6. The golden rule — mind aims
Before any race or event, remind yourself that your number one priority is to finish safely.
Cycling can be dangerous, but there isn’t too much out there that you cannot control or influence. Fear and caution are important, but they should not inhibit your bike handling or your state of mind.
That is where practice and experience come in.