Descending on a Bike

Open up the suitcase of courage (Beloved commentator Paul
Sherwen’s metaphor for being bold)

Prepping the Head and the Bike

Deal with the fear. Descending is the easy part of cycling, the fun part. You do the climb so you can whizz back down. So experienced riders will tell you. But if you’re new to cycling, descending can be terrifying. You feel like you’re going to fall on your face, the bike is almost unstoppable, and you’re tormented by the question, “What happens if the wheel falls off/the handlebar breaks/the frame snaps?”

The bad news is, there is nothing much that can be done about this except to keep descending. The good news is, that’s all that has to be done. Experience will make descending feel normal. You don’t find answers to those terrifying questions, you just stop asking them.

And you never need to descend faster than you want to. Going slow is OK. I mention this because I talk to a lot of riders who feel guilty about not relishing the 50-mph descent. “I just don’t feel comfortable going faster than 30 mph,” they say, as if they’re confessing to a secret sin, to which I respond, “Then go 30 mph.” The cycling community makes this hard, because it makes a fetish out of downhill speed. Riders are always humble-bragging how they were doing 55 mph the other day, no doubt while flossing their teeth. I once was sharing a meal with a 70+-year-old rider who mock-confessed, “I just don’t feel OK about going over 50 downhill any more.” Ignore such people. Life’s too short to spend it having pissing contests with macho narcissists.

You will get comfortable descending in time, I promise, but if you want to help the process along there are things you can do to make your bike more descent-friendly. They’re all discussed in more detail in the Your First Ride and the Components chapters:

Get more upright. Make sure your bike’s geometry isn’t too fly—that is, your handlebar isn’t too far below your seat. About one inch below is plenty.

Make sure you can reach your brakes. Make sure your brakes are low enough on the handlebar that you can reach them easily from the drops, and make sure the brake reach itself is small enough for your hands.

Get bigger tires. The bigger the tire, the more traction. Additionally, if you get bigger tires, you can lower your tire pressure, thus further increasing your traction. The only penalties with bigger tires are that they’re heavier, and they’re harder to push when the descent is over. I have friends who ride long and hard and always ride on 35- or 38-mm tires, just for the safety factor.

Get a quick-release seat post clamp. Mountain bikers lower their saddles for descents as a matter of routine, and gravel riders are beginning to imitate them, because it makes them more upright and thus more in control. If history teaches us anything, it’s that road riding will follow suit soon. To do this, you need either a dropper seat post, which costs a few hundred dollars, or a quick-release clamp, with is about $20 (see the Components chapter for details on either).

Descending Technique

Prep your clothing. Assuming you’ve just been climbing, the coming descent is going to be a lot colder. So zip up your jersey, put on your windbreaker, put on your skullcap.

Descend in the drops. This is not an option—it’s a requirement. It might seem logical to descend with your hands on the top of the bar or the hoods, because it will help you sit up straighter, but in fact descending that way leaves you unable to steer or brake. Be in the drops for any descent that feels noticeably “down” (anything steeper than a degree or two). If you’re uncomfortable in the drops even after you’ve been riding for a while, the bike doesn’t fit you and you need to fix that—go back to “Get more upright” above.

Brake early, but not in corners. Look far ahead, anticipate the need to slow down, and start braking before you need to be slowed. Don’t brake in the corner. Of course if you’re railing the corner and suddenly realize it’s a tighter turn than you anticipated, you’ll have to brake, but do it cautiously, because braking during the turn usually forces you to lose your lean and go in a straight line, i.e. off the road.

Hard braking for long periods of time can overheat your brakes. Overheated brakes tend to stop working, which can leave you brakeless in the middle of a 40-mph descent. If your brakes do get too hot, you may have to stop to let them cool. You can squirt them with your water bottle in a pinch.

Don’t ride lightly pressing your brake levers. It’s comforting, because it means your brakes are always at the ready, but it’s dangerous, because if you hit an unexpected pothole or other jarring obstacle, you’ll reflexively clench your fists, thus squeezing the brakes and catapulting you over the handlebar. It may also overheat your rotors or rims.

Take it easy on unknown descents. I never go over about 30 mph on a descent I’ve never done before—slower if I have blind corners. I was once doing a first-time descent, came around a corner, and met up with a deep construction ditch running across the road, with no previous warning signage. I was glad I wasn’t bombing the hill at that moment.

Trust your tires. Road tires look slippery, but they have more traction than you believe. You can only prove this to yourself by leaning the bike over more than you think is safe in turns and noticing that your tires don’t slip. Try this slowly on the flats—like when you’re doing our slaloming exercise below—so you don’t pay a big price when you go too far. But you must learn to trust your tires, or you will repeatedly go fast into a corner, decide your tires are going to fail you, slam on the brakes, and fly off the road.

Ignore this advice in the rain or on paint, leaves, or loose gravel over pavement.

Move back on the saddle. When you go downhill, your weight is thrown forward. If this makes you feel at risk, you can compensate by moving your butt back on the saddle. Don’t overdo it, because it impairs your balance, your bike handling, and your braking.

Move to the center of the lane. On a fast descent, being passed by cars is dangerous. And you can’t risk the surface uncertainties of the shoulder or run the risk of running off the road. So move out to the center of the lane, where you have room to recover from slight wobbles and the cars can’t pass you (or the determined driver will have to pull out into the other lane, where they’re of no danger to you). Most of the drivers will understand. Those who don’t, well, you have too much on your plate to worry about them. And you’ll be going fast enough that you won’t be holding them up all that much. On a nice, winding descent you’ll often be going faster than the car traffic, as it works out.

Weight is your friend. On a descent, the more you weigh the faster you go. So fill your water bottles at the summit. Offer to carry your buddy’s gear. And accept the fact that the clydesdale you just beat up the hill is about to leave you in the dust.

Pedal downhill. It seems obvious that you should coast downhill—it’s your chance to rest after the climb, right?—but you should pedal, even if you don’t want to go faster, for 2 reasons: 1) muscles recover best under light use, so spinning downhill will hasten your legs’ recovery; and 2) pedaling improves your balance and your control of the bike, because it gives you five balance points instead of three. This works only as long as you can keep some pressure on the pedals. Once you’re spun out—when you can no longer spin fast enough to apply pressure to your pedals, and your legs are flailing—pedaling impairs your balance instead of improving it. So, once you’re spun out, stop pedaling and coast.

Level your pedals when coasting. It feels more comfortable when coasting to have one foot down and one foot up, but in that position your body’s natural suspension system is locked out, so if you hit an unexpected bump, instead of absorbing the shock in your flexed knees, you fly up into the air. Mountain bikers level their pedals as a matter of course, because in mountain biking bike handling is everything. If you don’t like the feel of it, you can do it as an emergency measure, to be deployed only when road surfaces become sketchy—when you’re getting bounced around, assume the level pedal position. But the problem with that is, you don’t always know the big jolt is coming until you’ve been jolted.

Pick a line. Always scan the road ahead of you for danger, and map out a mental path you want the bike to travel. Pick a route through and around the road imperfections (traffic permitting). Descents aren’t times for appreciating the scenery. At 40 mph, any imperfection in the road is dangerous and a single loose rock can be fatal if it rolls your front wheel. Practice picking a line even when you don’t have to—when the road surface is unbroken—so you’re good at the skill when it’s needed.

To pick a line, you have to look down the road. Don’t stare at the road just ahead of your front wheel—any information you glean will be history before you can react to it. Look 20-40 feet ahead of you.

Stretch your hands. Long periods in the drops, especially combined with a lot of braking, can cause your hands to cramp or go numb. This can be fatal, since it can prevent you from braking. Learn to flex your hands while on the bar—bend yours hands back hard at the wrists and spread your fingers out wide, make fists and release. If you can’t ride with one hand, you’ll have to stop to let your hands recover.

Beware the shimmy. I don’t want to scare you, but some bikes have a nasty habit of shimmying—wobbling well nigh uncontrollably side to side—when they get up above 40 or 50 mph. It’s terrifying. You didn’t do anything wrong—it’s a design flaw in the bike. Once it’s starts, it doesn’t stop until your speed drops substantially. All you can do is clamp the top tube between your thighs, brake until it stops, and sell the bike as soon as you get home.

Prepare for oncoming cars. Descending on a winding road is the only time you stand a good chance of meeting a car head-on. Obviously, this can be fatal. So, unless you can clearly see there is no car approaching, do the following:

  • Stay in your lane.
  • Half-expect a car to be in your lane when you’re on an inside corner.
  • Ride under control—assume you may have to alter your line through a corner at the last minute when a car appears.
  • Follow another rider down the hill—they’ll let you know if a car is coming. Don’t be on their wheel—give them plenty of room, but keep them in earshot. Take turns riding point.

Back off in ice, rain, gravel, leaves, and wind. There are times when the beginner’s fear of losing control on a descent is well-founded: in the rain, on gravel, on ice, over broken pavement, in wind, on road paint, on leaf-strewn pavement. In such conditions, listen to your voice of caution. I’ve discussed each of these situations in the chapter on Riding in Special Conditions.

Lower your saddle (maybe). As I said above, mountain bikers do this routinely, and it gives you a much stabler, more secure riding position.

The Art of Cornering

There is some thrill in streaking down a straight descent at high speed, but it has little art, because you aren’t doing much beyond sitting there and holding on. The true art of descending is in cornering, and it is perhaps the single most elegant and rewarding skill in the cyclist’s repertoire.

We have an image of cornering in our minds: a person tearing through a tight turn, crouched low to get the center of gravity down, leaning hard into the turn to counteract the centrifugal force, and steering the bike by turning the handlebar. As Luke Skywalker says, “Every word in that sentence is wrong.”

There are four principles to good cornering:

Turn the bike by leaning, not by turning the front wheel. The more a bike leans, the more it will turn. You lean a bike by pushing down on the inside end of the handlebar and pulling up on the outside end. The harder you push and pull, the more you turn.

This is the only force that makes a bike turn at speed. You don’t add to the turning force by leaning your body, shifting your weight, turning the handlebar, getting low, or anything else.

How hard you have to push and pull depends on the bike’s engineering. With some bikes, they seem to turn if you think about turning; with others, you have to horse the bike around.

Counter-steer. You can help initiate a turn by turning the handlebar away from the turn. That’s right—if you want to turn left, turn the handlebar to the right. This completely counterintuitive move is called counter-steering, and it works because when a bike’s front wheel is turned the bike compensates by diving in the other direction. The pay-off is enormous—instead of fighting your bike through a corner, you’ll find yourself dropping effortlessly into it. The faster you’re going, the more counter-steering pays off.

Since we are now pushing down on the inside handlebar end (to lean the bike) and pushing forward on the same end (to counter-steer), the cumulative move is to shove the inside bar end at a 45% angle between straight down and straight forward. It’s not difficult, but it’s almost impossible to do while applying the brakes, which is why we said earlier to try to have your braking completed before entering the corner.

Maximize traction. When the bike leans over, your center of gravity moves inboard, toward the apex of the turn, so your weight is no longer directly over your tire’s contact patch. Thus your weight, which was driving your tires down into the ground when the bike was upright, is now pushing your tires sideways and encouraging them to slide out from under you. Your job is to minimize this effect. Do this by remaining as much over the contact patch as you can. In other words, keep your body as upright as possible. Let the bike lean under you, but don’t lean with it. Usually you want to “be one with your bike,” but in a turn, be two with your bike—it goes one way, you go another. Ideally, you would hold your body directly over your contact patch, but it turns out to be physically impossible, because you’re attached to the pedals, so straight over the pedals is the best you can manage. Separate your butt from the saddle or it will shove you toward the apex where you don’t want to go. Because it feels odd to not lean in, force it by imagining you’re leaning away from the turn a little. In reality it’s impossible to lean out more than a little.

Stand hard on your outside pedal, to help you keep your weight as far outboard as possible. Exaggerate the effort—think heavy. This is only possible if the outside pedal is at 6 o’clock, so have it there.

Many cyclists believe in pointing their inside knee toward the apex of the turn while cornering. It looks cool—sort of motorcycle-y—but science tells us it has no beneficial effect, and it can easily seduce you into leaning into the turn, so I wouldn’t.

This new way of cornering feels so intuitively wrong that it’s a good idea to practice it and prove to yourself it works by doing slow, exaggerated out-of-the-saddle slaloming—carving constant, small back and forth turns through an endless series of esses—on a flat road. I like riding back and forth around centerline dots (on a traffic-free road, of course). Do it until you really grasp the idea that the bike is leaning dramatically left and right under you as you rock the handlebar and stand serene and vertical above the fray.

Once you grasp the concept, it’s not yours for keeps. It will desert you if you haven’t used it for a while, so I like to practice turning—countersteering, pushing on the handlebar, staying vertical, weighting the outside pedal—to recover the rhythm before starting a descent. Carve a couple of esses just before you drop over the summit.

Don’t get low. For some reason, we have this image of crouching low in a turn, for speed. But if you watch motorcyclists turn, they don’t do this, and neither should you. Everything that happens when you get low is bad: you tend to lean into the turn, which reduces your traction and (worse) your ability to control the bike— you’re locked into one body position, so you can’t use body English and bike handling to make the minor adjustments that are usually necessary in the midst of the turn. Once you’re low, you have to live with the decisions you made as you entered the corner, and that’s not good. You can in fact take corners standing fully upright. It’s surprisingly effective. If you find yourself wanting to lean with the bike, think of shoving the bike out from under you when you lean it—focus on separating yourself from the machine.

Look where you want to go. “The bike goes where the eyes go,” as The Art of Racing in the Rain would say. This is the first thing a mountain biker learns, because mountain biking is all about avoiding obstacles—rocks, trees—and a mountain biker must learn quickly that “if you stare at it, you will hit it.” The same principle can help us through a corner. When you reach the center of the turn, ostentatiously turn your head and stare down the path you’ll be on when the turn is over. Your bike will magically follow your eyes and head there. You can get though a corner comfortably without doing this, but the faster you get at descending the more this sweet secret will come to your aid.

Maximize your turning circle. All things being equal, the fastest line through a turn is the straightest possible one—that is, the one that starts out on the outside of the turn, crosses over the inside at the turn’s apex, then returns to the outside of the turn for the exit. This is the exact opposite of the easiest climbing route through turns we talked about in the Climbing chapter. It effectively makes the turning circle bigger, thus less susceptible to centrifugal forces. The tighter a turn, the more you are forced to slow down, which is why your speed in a car drops from 70 mph on the highway to 25 mph on windy roads. Needless to say, only do this to the extent to which the oncoming traffic allows it.