Giro Rosa. Balint Hamvas. Cyclephotos. Chantal Hoffman
  • jules

    good tips! I love descending – sounds obvious but so many people just cruise down hills and forego valuable practice. particular tips I’ve found have made big improvements to my descending are leaning the bike, not your body. also learning to turn in late and from the outside is important for faster cornering. turning in too early will mean taking a tighter radius, ruins your flow (doesn’t allow a proper transition into cornering position on the bike) and generally stuffs you up.

    • Dave

      Worst of all, a tight line (or maximising mid-corner speed) means you minimise exit speed and you’ll need to make it up by putting down more power once you do finally get out of the corner.

      This is something a few commentators picked up on with Peter Sagan’s descent into Gap during this year’s Tour de France – he was carrying way too much mid-corner speed, compromising his exits and making it up with power on the straights, which probably cost him about 25-30 seconds on the descent and used up energy reserves he could have used to finish off the chase on the flat.

      • Paul Jakma

        100% this.

        Going too fast into a corner means you won’t be able to drive out of it at a minimum, and worst case you don’t get through it at all. You lose *much* more time in a corner if you have poor drive out of it, than you can gain by being fast mid-corner at the apex. Going in too fast means you sacrifice your ability to choose your line, either by having apexed too early and so being pointed at the weeds instead of the open road as you leave your apex; or if you got the right apex, by having too much speed to take the right line from it to the exit. In the former case, you can’t power out of the turn but have to go slowly through the exit watching others drive away from you. In the latter case, you’re off to discover the local botany (if you’re lucky – if unlucky, you get to inspect the quality of the local stonework).

        Focus on braking hard before the corner (as you learn a corner, you can adjust things to brake later), so that you turn into being confident that the speed you take in will let you hit a late apex that leaves a perfect exit. Turn in smoothly. As you see the apex, get ready to drive out on the pedals through the exit. Simple :)

  • echidna_sg

    Some good tips in there…
    nothing about getting a knee out or leading with your shoulder while pushing down on the outside pedal to corner?
    scary fact – my wife regularly has a bruise on her chin from smacking it against the stem while descending…

    • By far the biggest descending tip that I learned far too late in life was to “steer with your bum”. What that means is to rotate your pelvis into the turn (which also brings the knee out, as you say). It makes an incredible difference in how the bike tracks around corners. It’s very subtle though and you can’t see someone doing it when watching, which is probably why it’s such an unknown tidbit of advice.

      • Dale Smith

        Thanks Wade. I was sceptical about the tilting be hips thing. Been doing it the last couple of days on some familiar descents and it’s added another level of confidence and security – and speed. Not sure why it works but it does. Helps you to focus through the corner too rather than what’s directly in front of you. Thanks for that little gem Wade.

  • Hamish Moffatt

    “Pedal as long as you can” – on a longer ride this is actually a good time to recover instead. Pedalling downhill is mostly a waste of energy unless you’re racing.

    • Adam Fuller

      I find the low power pedalling on a decent is better recovery than stopping. Keeps the blood flowing and means the legs are ready when you need them again.

      • lauren o’keefe

        I agree with you Adam. I’m fan of rolling the legs over on a long descent just to keep the blood flowing. It’s not really pedaling if you’re moving quickly enough but it definitely helps keep the legs warm. I have great memories of my first proper descent on Kinglake with my brother. Him sitting behind me shouting out bits of advice, including “roll the legs!!” Must have looked and sounded ridiculous – but it was all good advice.

        My only quibble with the advice in the article is about descending in the drops. Personally I don’t and never have. I simply can’t get comfortable in the drops so for me it’s easier to leave my hands on the hoods and flatten myself down as low as I can get (which is pretty low thanks to a lot of clinical pilates). Means I can use my wrists and part of my arms on the bars to help keep things stable as well. Everyone is different so I guess we all do what works for us.

        • Aaron Heaysman

          Notice the picture agrees with you.
          I’m always on the hoods, just so much more comfortable for me.

          • winkybiker

            I’m different. I find being in the drops on a descent much more relaxing. I can have my arms straighter, and reduce the load on my triceps. Might not be quite as aero as horizontal forearms, but the comfort trumps that for me.

        • winkybiker

          Rolling the legs on a descent doesn’t make any difference to me. If I’ve not been pedalling hard for a while, the next 10 hard pedal strokes always suck, regardless of whether I’ve been making easy circles. On long rides, if I’m not tucking to keep up, I use the descent is to stretch, drink, eat, whatever.

  • Holby City

    You always have to turn the bars to some degree to turn the bike. You can’t just lean.

    • winkybiker

      Yes, but in actuality, you turn the bars in the opposite direction of the turn to get the bike leaning. Don’t believe me? Go to an empty car park, get rolling at above 15km/hr, then, with a light touch, gently push the right hand side of you bars forward I.e turn the bars left. Your bike will lean and turn to the right. See my other comment. Consciously using this “counter-steering” is a key to confident cornering, knowing exactly one easy thing that will tighten your line if required.

  • Simon

    And….. always have good tyres fitted with plenty of life left in them. To corner fast on descents you need to trust your tyres completely. Have tyre pressures suitable for the weather and surface. Make sure your brakes are in good working order, plenty of pad life and lubed, strong cables.
    Finally if not confident descending because of the steepness or surface conditions eg gravel in corners, damp patches or shade obscuring the road, back off!

    • Paul Jakma

      And note that “tyre pressures suitable for the weather and surface” does *not* mean “pumped up rock hard”. :)

  • tnessah

    About those “crazy aero tuck positions” Why don’t the pro’s just use dropper posts?

    • Dave

      Bike setup for a five hour race stage has to involve some compromises, and the few seconds at a time spent in that position simply doesn’t justify them when being well connected to the bike for the corners is way more important.

  • winkybiker

    Look well ahead, and push on the inside bar to tighten the turn if required. This is often counter-intuitive, and many people, when finding they have entered the corner too fast will freeze and straighten up. You are likely not going anywhere near fast enough to truly test the limits of traction (rain, oil and gravel notwithstanding) so tightening the turn will always be preferable to running wide into traffic or off the road. Practice this skill. As you corner, think about gently pushing the inside bar forward. You will be amazed at how the bike responds. Much clearer and sharper than any “pushing on the outside pedal” or “steering with your hips” techniques. Just push the inside bar forward to carve the turn. Trust me.

    Consciously pushing the inside bar forward is also by far the fastest way to get the bike turning in the first place. It’s how racing motorcyclists get their machines from upright to full lean in a tenth of a second or so. They punch the inside bar forward as they come off the brakes and drop their body to the inside. Again, practice. When riding straight at any speed above walking speed try VERY gently pushing forward on one bar. You will see how easily and quickly the bike responds, turning towards the side you have pushed forward. This counter-steering is actually how we all get bikes to turn (very low speed is a bit different), but to be conscious of it, and to practice it, really helps with fast, controlled cornering.

    • Dave

      The key is using it consciously – everyone uses it unconsciously because it’s the only way to lean a bike, but they would sure know about it if they tried to corner a rigid bike with the front wheel welded into a straight ahead position.

      Even track racers need to steer, despite having the velodrome banking doing some of the work for them.

    • Paul Jakma

      I’m not sure about the “conscious” part. It’s good to have a conscious understanding of how bicycles work. It may also be good to consciously think about those factors as you practice them.

      However, I would say mark of having assimilated some skill is to be able to practice it without conscious thought. Leaning, shifting weight on the bike and bars should just become automatic and without thought. This frees up your conscious brain to think about bigger things, like reading the road, looking for obstacles, assessing the line into a corner, etc. The better you get at this stuff, the more it all just “flows” without conscious thought.

      • Dave

        In the case of counter-steering, consciously knowing how it works allows the rider to exploit it more effectively.

        Over time, that superior use of the technique should also then progress to the point of doing so more instinctively.

  • Derek Maher

    Excellent article and discussion.
    One other thing keep a watch out for pot holes and try to avoid puddles which may be hiding a road hole.

  • ChoateAlum

    “…use both brakes. Never just the front brake.”

    I had not heard this before. What’s the reasoning?

    • Anne-Marije Rook

      Hitting the front brake at speed can easily result into you going over the handlebars.

    • Dave

      The reasoning would be that the author is either a nervous bike handler (and should have either titled the article ‘descending for nervous novices’ or handed it over to an experienced pro racer) or has had to make compromises to how she rides due to not spending enough time in the gym working on her upper body. The same applies to the tip about shifting weight back on the bike.

      If you’re ready for the braking and you have the upper body strength to transfer the weight to the front wheel (instead of flying over the handlebars), the front brake only is the most powerful way to stop a bike. The rear wheel will be almost completely unloaded, and the slightest touch of the rear brake will lock up the wheel and send you fishtailing out of control.

      This is why some grand tour climbers like Chris Froome look so awkward when descending, they minimise ‘unnecessary’ muscle mass which doesn’t contribute to uphill pedalling and so they don’t have the strength to handle the bike well in any circumstances other than big climbs.

  • juzb

    Great tips. A couple of people have commented that they feel much more comfortable descending on the hoods.
    Maybe I’m being obsessive, but I don’t think you have your fit right unless you can use tops, hoods and drops all comfortably. Handlebar shape, reach and drop are important, and what came with you bike may not be the best for you. Whilst descending on the hoods may be most comfortable for you, your bike is most stable and braking modulation best in the drops- don’t just be satisfied with less!

  • Paul Jakma

    “Lean your bike not your body.”, not sure I can agree with that. Firstly, in the most literal sense you want to lean both – though given the rationale, I suspect that’s what you meant, and it was more about not leaning your body /more/ than the bike. However, even that I have to disagree with a little.

    Generally, you do want to lean the bike and body more or less as one (on road bicycles, you’re usually limited in having to pretty much do so by being clipped or strapped into the pedals). However, there are times where you may want to bias your weight.

    Firstly, initiating a turn you often need to start with moving your body into the turn, ahead of the bike’s lean. This does 2 things simultaneously: 1. it helps you put a little weight on the inside bar, which will give a little deflection of the front wheel away from the turn which initiates the lean into the turn – the counter-steering in other comments; 2. it lets you use the combination of weight through the outer pedal, and hips on the saddle, and your weight, to pull the bike into the turn and the line you want. Similarly, leaving a turn is generally initiated by shifting weight, to initiate counter-steering and exert force on the frame relative to the front wheel.

    Secondly, while in a turn, you can use changes in lean relative to change your line. Indeed, you can even make the line your body and bike take diverge – while leaving the line your CoG takes unchanged – useful to quickly avoid a small obstacle like a stone. You do this by pushing the bike up, away from your body, and leaning your body down and out slightly more. During this the bike wheels should briefly take a slightly different line, hopefully enough to avoid the small obstacle, and immediately after you bring the two back together. Done correctly, your combined CoG stays on the same line through the corner even while the bicycle wheels shift line briefly.

    The dynamics of changing your weight distribution on the bike are key to initiating turns, leaving turns, and making micro-adjustments to your line while in a longer turn. These changes in weight distribution need often only be small, however they are achieved by changing the orientation of your shoulders, body and hips on the bike – often leaning in or out of turns ahead of the bike.

    The amount of weight you need to shift, to overcome inertial and precession forces, increases with speed. At higher speeds you will need to be more forceful with shifting your weight than at lower speeds, to get the bike to adjust to a turn at the same rate.

    I know some ProTour riders have gone and done car trackdays to try become better at cornering. However, to anyone thinking of the same, I’d suggest this is probably a waste of time. The dynamics of car cornering are quite different to bikes. Much better would be go to ride a motorcycle around a track.

    • Dave

      “I know some ProTour riders have gone and done car trackdays to try become better at cornering. However, to anyone thinking of the same, I’d suggest this is probably a waste of time. The dynamics of car cornering are quite different to bikes. Much better would be go to ride a motorcycle around a track.”

      Where WorldTour teams have sent their riders (most notably Thibaut Pinot) off to a racing school it has been about psychology, not vehicle dynamics or technique. Thibaut Pinot’s problem is that he has PTSD from a cycling crash as a teenager which causes him to freeze up, not his bike handling technique which is not great but not too bad either. The time on track with a racing instructor was about using a semi-controlled environment to deal with that fear of going fast, and it did seem to work as he went much better the following year – but now he’s back to freezing up again for some reason.

      • Paul Jakma

        I’ve ridden motorcycles at speed around a track, and I think there’s lots of similarities. Indeed, the principles of the dynamics are *identical* (unsurprisingly). It’s just some of the variables have different numbers – e.g. the bike is heavier, faster, and almost certainly has a higher co-efficient of static friction at the tyres (certainly with warmed up performance tyres). The motorcycle needs more force to get it to change direction, but it can probably go through a corner at higher lean angles (so higher speed) than a bicycle.

        One thing a motorbike has available that a bicycle does not is the ability to make (no more than very fine) adjustments to the power being applied mid-corner. On a motorbike and a long corner you can apply a tiny bit of drive mid-corner to adjust the balance of forces between the front and rear. On a bicycle, you can’t pedal mid-corner. However, it’s rare in cycling to have sufficiently long and tight corners where this could make a difference I think, so it doesn’t matter.

        Experience on a motorbike helps with braking, picking lines, getting used to the forces of cornering (completely different to a car – but very similar with bicycles). Also, learning to throw a cycle around in order to be able to corner at speed, is good.

        I’ve found my motorcycling experience applies to descending on a bicycle anyway. :)

        That said, I’ll concede motorcycles probably aren’t a very practical way for people to learn to improve their bicycling descending. To get to the point you could comfortably take a motorbike around a track at sufficient speed to learn would require a lot of commitment, with risks that most wouldn’t be happy with. Going pillion on a motorbike around a track could still be useful to acclimatise your brain and inner ear to speed and the dynamics of cornering forces (which are quite different between cars and cycles, motor or pedal) – but that’s probably not easy to arrange for most.

      • Paul Jakma

        Oh Pinot’s technique on descents is pretty bad actually. E.g. his crash this year in the descent – he actually looked away from the road mid-corner, to the side and back (to see who was following I guess). That is just guaranteed to upset the bike at least a little as you look forward again and instinctively adjust. And indeed, as he did so he also started to pedal, and bang down he went.

        “Look to where you want to go” is classic cornering advice – both in the motorcycle and bicycle worlds – and not doing so was, it seemed to me, a contributory factor to his crash in the TdF.

        • Dave

          I saw that one, and to me it looked like he got startled by a noise behind him and that triggered his normal PTSD response of freezing up.

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