Over many years of teaching cycling skills, I’ve found that going downhill is one of the hardest things for new cyclists to get used to. Why? The reason is simple: Speed scares people. There are even some pros who don’t descend correctly, because they’re either nervous or don’t practice it enough. Personally, I live for carving turns on a descent.
To start, familiarize yourself with the condition of the road surface by riding up the hill. Look for loose gravel on the shoulders, potholes or cracks on the pavement. I recently took a group on the descent in the Pyrenees where Italian rider Fabio Casartelli died after crashing in the 1995 Tour de France. After gazing at his memorial, I pointed out the shaded areas where slick, green patches of moss sprouted from gaps in the pavement. Reduced traction, plus the quick changes in light from brilliant sunshine to heavy shade, no doubt contributed to his accident.
Look also at the radius of the turns–do they follow a continuous arc, or do they become sharper during the middle of the turn? Are there sections that suddenly become steeper? As you gain experience, you will be able to analyze on the fly, at speed. When you’re ready to head down, follow these simple rules:
Ride in the drops
With your hands on the lower part of the handlebar, your center of gravity is closer to the ground, like a racecar. Also, your weight will be more evenly distributed between the front and rear wheels, which helps maintain traction, especially during braking and turning.
Look for danger signs so you have time to react. In turns, keep your eyes on the exit, which will help you carve a smooth, steady line all the way through.
Start at the top of your body and let go of tension. Keep breathing, open your mouth to unclench your jaw, drop your shoulders, bend your elbows, release your death grip on the bar, uncurl your toes and let your feet lie flat on the bottoms of your shoes.
Use subtlety to slow
Always anticipate what you’ll need to do next. This will help you avoid sudden braking. For controlled slowing, gently squeeze both levers equally with two- to three-second pulses. Constantly riding the brakes on big descents can make rims overheat–and possibly cause a blowout.
The biggest mistake people make descending: They wait until they’re in the middle of a turn to brake. Instead, scrub speed before the turn. If you have to brake in the turn, you didn’t slow enough to begin with. Then, push your outside pedal down (right turn, left foot down) with pressure on that foot. To initiate the turn, lean the bike–not your body–into the turn (right turn, lean bike right). The faster and sharper the turn, the more you’ll lean the bike. This action is similar to downhill skiing: The lower body angulates into the turn while the upper body remains upright. To exit the turn, gently straighten the bike.
The Short of It
Some of my clients spend months agonizing over saddle choice but put little thought into cycling shorts. Really, the two things work as a unit to keep your backside comfortable. Generally, higher-end shorts have a more advanced pad, or chamois, and can be worth the added expense–and, just like saddles, they’re gender specific. My rule of thumb: Once I find a chamois I like, I make sure all my shorts have the same version.
Article originally published on Bicycling by Alex Stieda
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