How To: Descend quickly and safely

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Descending is a skill that’s better learned on the bike than by reading a blog.   However, two-time Olympian Rob Crowe does a fantastic job of breaking down the art of riding downhill. 

Descending is obviously full of risks but when done correctly with good technique it will make your ride downhill much more safe.  Remember out on the open road there are many variables that you have no control over and I’ve seen far too many serious accidents on descents that should never have occurred.

Descending Tips

The thing with high speed skills is that the art is usually best learned at lower speeds first and then transferred to high-speed situations.  However, while it’s a given that highly skilled riders can surely teach us cool maneuvers, their actions are not always functional or even observable at lower speeds (i.e. these tips work best when you’re going fast).  What this means is that until you progress to somewhat upper-level descending speeds (over 50kph), you may not see the full benefit of all these tips.

1. Get Low on the Bike

Getting down in the drops and making yourself aero is only part of the exercise of keeping a high-speed up on descents. It’s more about getting a low centre of gravity. The lower you can get, the better stabilised the rider-bike system is for getting better traction and control. When cornering through a turn, dropping the inside shoulder to get that center of gravity even lower is often a good technique.

2. Set Visual Gaze Far Ahead

You will go to where you focus your view-point. Look much farther ahead than the wheel, rider or bend in the road immediately in front of you. It’s a common thing that first-time riders in the bigger packs will head straight into a crash scene they are witnessing from way off in the other side of the group!

When descending, set your gaze on the point where you wish to end up – after the bend. Peripheral vision can take care guiding you around gravel patches or other riders coming up into the cornering line.  Believe me, you don’t want to learn how true this is when you’re going 80kph for the first time, so, pretty please – focus past the bend!

3. Lean the Bike NOT Your Body

The traction of your tires on the road works best when the heaviest part of the rider-bike system is pressing vertically down upon the tire contact points with the roadway. Put more practically, it’s best if you lean the bike out from under you and you stay above the tire contact points with the road – for maximum control. For motorbikes, this does not apply (because the bike is the heavier object) as much as when applied for a cyclist (where the rider is the heavier object).

4. Outside Leg Takes the Weight

Riders lose most momentum and time through the corners through lack of rigidity, like when flexing in a bike-frame washes off your precious power as you push it through the frame to the wheels. By keeping the outside leg straight and with most of the body-weight concentrated downwards through the outside pedal, not only do you get more rigidity during the cornering moment,  but you can cut tighter lines & keep the bike on the shortest course through the corners more easily.

5. Don’t Sit On The Seat

For various reasons, it’s a good habit to sit slightly off the seat. Sit off to the side, off to the front, off to the back – whatever gets your weight centered over the wheels – but just in a way that essentially allows the bike to bounce around under your thighs if you hit bumps, cat-eyes or bitumen ripples, rather than bouncing you and your visuals around up above. This natural suspension technique might come and go as you descend different sections of road, but when its needed, it’s a critical safety and control factor to ensure you go more cleanly without having to brake through rougher surfaces.

6. Breathe Out Through the Apex

There is a concentration and muscular-contraction benefit as you exhale, so, while you apply yourself to the most important part of a fast descent (the apex of corners) and try to stay low, lean the bike, sit off to the side of the seat, change line, focus ahead, get ready to keep pedaling, push down on your outside leg and leave the brakes alone – you should also breathe out!

Keep the Motor Running

Keep pedaling as the descent progresses. The idea is to stay fluid with movement on the bike and use higher cadences to keep your heart rate from plummeting. Good descending is an exercise as well as some respite. Stay warm.

7. Smooth Out Your Line

Draw a line on an aerial map of the descent course that has the shortest route & least bend in the line of your curves – THIS is the line to take on the road-lane that you have for the descent. Simple.

8. Maintain A Safety Cushion

Things happen much faster at high speed. It’s physics 101. If you go faster, then changes come up quicker on the road (potholes, car doors, slower riders), but your brain still has the same reaction time it had at lower speeds.  The most critical thing to adjust as you get quicker is how much time you allow for decision-making and adjustments to your position on the road. Look further ahead. Brake sooner. Sit further back from others. Pass other objects with more of a berth. For this reason, it’s not worth the risk to have a look back at the gap you’ve got to others. It translatea into more time wasted and more momentum is lost, and the time it takes for you to head-check back may be the same time you just had to avoid a new situation arriving…

9. Double-Braking Habits Work Best

Use more rear? Use more front? Stay off the brakes!?! None of these work too well when you really need to pull up properly. There are 2 brakes partly because there are 2 wheels, but also because you need to spread the pressure of controlling your mass at high speed over as much surface area as possible. It’s good to brake earlier into corners and less during the turn itself as the bike goes through leaning angles, but when it comes to actually washing off some speed because you’re going too fast, use all brake levers possible together!!

Important Note…

Ironically, after reading these top nine tips, perhaps the most important tip of all will not be found in any tips list, but is uncanny in the way it often remedies the skill barriers for many riders.  And it is this. Don’t think about these tips. Feel them.  Like surfing a wave or catching your kite in a breeze, descending and cornering at high speed requires more sensing and experiencing the actual situation than thinking it into perfection. Just go and try it. You’ll ‘feel’ exactly what I mean.

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