8 essential road cycling tips to descend like a pro
A lot is made of going uphill fast, but it’s thinking about your downhill where you can pick up the most advantage. We chatted to a pro cycling coach about how to crack descending once and for all.
When it comes to going fast on a road bike, a lot of articles are devoted to climbing. As soon as the terrain starts to tilt upwards, the riding gets tougher and people are desperate to find little adjustments or find training drills they can do to make the experience of going uphill that bit more bearable. But what about once you’ve reached the top of the hill and there’s a steep, twisting descent to tackle?
“There are a lot of people who don’t actually mind going uphill, but they don’t like going down the other side,” says Ian Jenner, owner of British cycle coaching company Rule 5 Cycle Coaching. “One of the biggest things that people always worry about is the feeling of the bike running away from them – especially if you go abroad and you’re on long, fast roads.”
So now you’ve mastered the hills, how do you crack the descents? We got Jenner to provide some tips on how to do it quickly, confidently and safely.
1. Get some confidence
“If you’re not very good at descending, the first thing you need to focus on is getting some confidence on the bike. You see a lot of people riding on the hoods because that’s fairly comfortable, but riding on in the drops makes the bike faster and gives you better control – both over braking and the fact that you’ve got a lower centre of gravity, which gives you better control on the bike.
“Before you look at something like cornering, get comfortable in perfecting the technique of riding on the drops. If you’re able to nail the technique, everything else follows.”
2. Don't be afraid of the speed
“Modern bikes are designed to be very quick and go fast downhill and they will go in a straight line. Most people worry that they’re going to get bike wobble – you won’t get that on a good, top-end road bike. If you’re comfortable and relaxed, you can just let the bike do the work and it’ll be much easier for you too.
“It’s also important to go on feel, rather than looking down at your Garmin and saying, ‘oh god, I’m going 50-60kph’. It’s better not to look at how fast you’re going and just go at a speed that’s comfortable for you."
3. Learn when (and when not) to brake
“One of the worst things you can do is go down a mountain or descent with your brakes on the whole time. Your rims can get very hot, which can soften the glue in a recently repaired inner tube and the tyre can even blow or come off the rim in a worst case scenario. But if you feather your brakes – just a tap at a time – and keep at a speed you’re comfortable with, you’ll find it a lot easier than going fast, slow, fast, slow.
“The other thing is you need to brake before the corner. As your bike is going around a hairpin, it's going through a lot of work to try and keep the tyres stuck onto the road. If you’ve got your inside leg up, your outside leg down and you’re pushing on the outside, as you go around that corner, your bike will hold. If you start to add braking into the equation, you can lose the front wheel, as it’s too much for your bike to deal with. What you should do is knock off the speed – however slow you want to go around the corner – before the corner, let go of the brakes, coast round it and then start pedalling again if you want.”
4. Focus on the corner exit
“The biggest tip with cornering is to look at where you’re going to come out, as most people look straight in front of them. As you’re going into the hairpin, if you look across at where you’re going to exit, you'll find that the bike will follow.
“Also, it’s about taking a good line – the straightest line you possibly can. You need to be careful because safety comes first, but if you’re on a good hairpin that doubles back, you can look down the road and see if there are any cars coming. If there aren’t, move out a little bit and take a straighter, racing line into the hairpin.”
5. Relax to stay comfortable
“One issue that inexperienced people have on really long descents is that they get to the bottom and they say they’ve got pain – either between their shoulder blades, or in their hands or arms. Most of this is down to being very tense on the descent. You’re going to be in the same position for 20 minutes, but you need to be able to relax on the bike as much as you can.
“Most descents don’t just go down the whole way – there are flat bits and bits where the gradient eases up. Try to move a little bit where you can if the road starts to flatten out – even just dropping up onto the hoods for a second to give yourself a break. Those small, few millimetres of movement will really help you getting to the bottom without aches and pains."
6. To pedal or not to pedal?
“I would try to pedal as much as you can or where you can. The problem is, if you’re doing a sportive or gran fondo, it’s likely that you’ll have one climb that’s followed by another. If you descend after the first for 20 minutes without moving the legs, you’ll only have a short flat section once you reach the valley before you start going up again.
"The issue here is that your legs will get very stiff because they’re not moving and warm. If you can, try to move them on the descent – even if you’re just pedalling with not a great deal of force. It’s going to help when you’ve got another climb the other side."
7. Start small and build yourself up
“It’s best to try and work on your technique on a shallower descent if you can. Focus on cornering, riding in the drops and looking at your exit. If you can nail the technique on a shallower descent and you get confident in that, then you can start moving up a little bit.
"In the end, you’ll find yourself descending fairly well because once you’ve perfected your technique, everything else will follow. Generally, people want to go fast, or they’re worried about going fast. Either way, if you work on the technique – even if you’re going really slowly – it’s going to make you go a bit more comfortably."
8. Be aware of cars on the road
“Everyone wants to nail going down a mountain, but you’ve got to focus on safety. Not only are there cars coming up the mountain, but there'll be cars overtaking you as you descend, too. It’s bad enough as cyclists when you’re riding on the flat and a car passes very close.
"When you put that onto a descent, that can be quite unnerving. Just because you’re going down a mountain very quickly, doesn’t mean cars are going to give you a lot of space, and when you’re doing 50, 60, 70kph and a car comes down only half a metre away from you, that can be quite scary. Ultimately, being aware of what is coming behind you in regard to traffic is a really good thing to be thinking about.”