Descend like a Pro
Exhilarating descents are cycling’s way of saying a big thank you for the climbs. And they can be more fun than scary if you follow our top tips, says Andy Cook.
Consciously relax your death grip on the bars and release the tension from your arms and shoulders. A stiff body will move with the bicycle as it reacts to bumps, and correcting all that unwanted movement – you weigh far more than the bike, and have considerable inertia – is tiring. It can also make things feel sketchy. Keep plenty of weight on the pedals and allow the bike to float and shimmy beneath you if it needs to, soaking up bigger ridges by using your legs as suspension. Keep your pedals level on the straights to help with that.
Most long descents come after a hard climb, so suddenly relaxing your legs and then stopping pedalling – especially in a racing tuck – will make them stiffen up. To avoid this, make sure you do some pedalling on the way down, even if it isn’t to make you go significantly faster. That way when you get to the next rise in the road your legs won’t let you down.
Keep your distance
Remember that neither you nor the rider in front has brake lights, so you might get no warning if they have to suddenly brake or swerve. For this reason, make sure you look well ahead down the road – not just at the wheel of the bike in front – and always leave enough room for your reaction time. How far is enough? ‘Only a fool breaks the two-second rule.’ Why not apply the Highway Code technique to the gap? If they really are too slow, wait for clear place and pass them quickly, leaving as much space as possible.
Read the road
Correctly anticipating dangers – corners that tighten, changes in surface, wet patches, manholes, riders behind or in front of you and cars in side roads – comes from constant observation.
Signs warn of junctions, pedestrians and other moving hazards, treelines and phone poles hint at the road around blind corners, overhanging trees warn of damp patches, worn white lines mean cars regularly cut the corner, rough Tarmac means heavy-braking traffic and perhaps a surprisingly tight corner, tight corners can mean manholes (it’s where the pipes underneath tend to clog) and crossroads mean drivers can’t look all four ways at once. And might not even look in two.
Focus well ahead and leave your peripheral vision to do what it’s fastest at: picking up movement in black and white and quickly processing it to the brain. Covering your brakes at all times, even with a forefinger of each hand, will help you react quickly.
Tuck in for speed
The lower you crouch, and the more you tuck in your elbows, the lower your frontal area and wind resistance – and the faster gravity will be able to propel you. If you’re flexible enough you’ll be able to keep your head up and look where you’re going too – which is important.
To get extra pace, ride with your hands on the lower handlebar drops and dip your torso down towards the top-tube. Choose an appropriately big gear so you don’t spin out if you suddenly want to put the power down. Keeping the chain on the big ring on the front will keep a decent amount of tension in your chain, and avoid the likelihood of it jumping off onto the bottom bracket if you hit a bump.
Sit up to slow down
Just as going aero will make you descend faster, if you want to wipe some speed off a descent without having to resort to protracted, rim-wearing braking, then sit upright and catch some wind. Switching your hands to the hoods or tops helps add drag too, as does sticking out your elbows and knees.
Using your body as a natural brake also helps add control, as it’s a much more stable position should you lock a wheel, and an easier position in which to support your body weight while braking hard.
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