NOTE: Good technique equals confidence that will increase your downhill speed. High speed without good technique could lead to disaster.
Some people like climbing, some people just love to climb, and there are those who see climbing as a means to an end. I am of the latter group. I climb hills for two reasons, first the hill is in my way of where I want to get and second is my love for the reward of descending. To quote John Swanda “a good descent is where I can reach 50 mph or more.” As I grow older my need to streak down a hill at 50 mph has lost some of its appeal but I still love the thrill of a fast technical descent. So, let me delve into what it takes to descend with utter confidence and skill.
Where to Look: The first thing, and perhaps one of the more important techniques, is where to look while descending. Many new riders have a propensity to look about 5 feet in front of them which is just about the worse place you should look. The reason is, at just about any speed, if you see any hazard just 5 feet ahead you will almost certainly hit it. We know “You Steer Where You Look,” therefore, it would be best to focus your gaze at least 20 feet ahead and further when possible. Doing this gives you time to react to any hazard you see and avoid it with time to spare. Once I see a hazard and have chosen a path around it I no longer look at it but keep my focus forward and allow my peripheral vision to keep me safe from the hazard. One phrase comes to mind and that is “Keep Your Chin Level with the Ground.” In other words always look way ahead.
Body Position: Body position is another technique to practice. If possible keep your hands in the drops with one finger on each brake lever. The one finger near the bottom of the brake lever will give you plenty of leverage to apply as much braking as should be necessary. You will have more leverage for braking as opposed to having your hands on the brake hoods where your fingers rest near the top of the brake lever. Scooting back on the saddle about an inch not only lowers your center of gravity but it makes reaching the brake levers easier. Always look up the road keeping your chin level with the ground.
Another very important element regarding body position is where we have our feet/legs for each turn. Always have the outside leg down and apply pressure on that leg. If you are making a left hand turn the right leg becomes the outside leg, for a right hand turn the left leg becomes the outside leg. Make this move before you reach any given turn. Applying pressure helps to lower your center of gravity and really stabilizes the bike during the turn. When doing this correctly I have about 80% of my weight on the outside pedal and if I hit a bump I can feel the saddle bump against my rump. As for what to do with the inside leg (the one that is up) some like to point the knee towards the turn and others like to keep the knee against the top tube. Try both and see which you like. I prefer to have my knee against the top tube but it took a while to get comfortable with that position.
Choosing A Line: The term “Outside-Inside-Outside” refers to the technique that uses the entire lane for a safe descent. For a right hand turn you should start your turn near the center line (outside), then drop the bike towards the apex of the turn or fog line if there is one (inside), then exit the turn allowing your bike to drift back near the center line (outside). A left hand turn starts near the fog line or right side of the lane and uses the center line as the apex of the turn. What you are doing is using the whole lane while you essentially straighten out the turn. Also, taking the lane allows you more options in case of an emergency. If you hug the right side of the road and are faced with a hazard you only have one direction of escape; not a comforting thought in my opinion. An old friend of mine used to say we are “Dancing with the Bike.” Riding down a technical descent is a beautiful dance with just you and your bike and you get to lead!
Braking: If you must always try to brake before you start your turn to scrub off enough speed to make the turn safely. If you happen to go into a turn faster than is comfortable your first focus should be to look where you want to go. The tendency is to look at the cliff, which you are trying your best to avoid, but we steer where we look. Don’t look that way! You can feather your brakes (lightly applied pressure) in a turn to help slow the bike down but don’t hit the brakes hard, disastrous things can happen. Hitting the front brake hard will straighten your bike up and hitting the rear brake hard will cause the rear of the bike to want to come to the front which will make your bike go sideways. This sideways maneuver usually pretzels the rear wheel and down you go.
Auto Traffic: On any descent we must share the road with auto traffic. When traffic is going faster than I am I prefer to move to the right side of the road, slow down and wave the car past. Then I can go back to using the entire lane for my own safety.
Passing and Being Passed: Try to always pass on the left but if someone is hugging the center line you may have to pass on the right. Call out “Passing on your Left/Right” before you reach them, use a bell if you have one. If someone is passing you don’t change your line, keep whatever position in the lane you are in and let them pass.
Miscellaneous Techniques: On a technical descent, as soon as I select the apex of each turn and aim for that, I look ahead to see what I have to do next. I no longer have to look at the turn I am in because I know I have made it and want to know what I have to do next to set up the next turn. On a straight descent I stay just to the left of the fog line (the white line on the right side of the road). This gives me room both to my left and right to maneuver if a need arises. I also keep my feet parallel (3 and 9 o’clock) so I can “post up” if I have to absorb a pot hole or whatever. If I keep one foot down then my weight is shifted and if I need to get my rump off the saddle (post up) then the bike becomes less stable.
On your next descent don’t try to do all these things at once. It will only frustrate you and slow you down. Instead take one technique and focus on it all the way to the bottom. When you have that technique dialed in then move to the next one. The order I teach is first learn to keep the outside leg down (this should be done on the flats as well as a descent). When that becomes second nature then focus on looking as far ahead as you can while using your peripheral vision to get you past an obstacle. Followed by adjusting your body position for optimal safety and comfort (this may take some time). Then start working on the best line through a turn (outside-inside-outside). Remember to practice on every descent and stay focused. Descending is probably the one place in my life that I am totally focused. All my thought is directed to a fun and safe descent. And if you get nervous Smile! It’s hard to be nervous when you are smiling.
Have fun and remember to say “On Your Left” as you pass me.