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Mastering Descents: 7 Tips to Improve Your Skills

By Martin Atanasov

Everyone loves descending. It’s your reward for climbing that God-awful peak, col or whatever you want to call it. When spending an hour climbing a 5-10% gradient, you certainly deserve the exhilaration, thrill and adrenaline that comes on the way down. 

Still, descending is anything but safe. While riders can crash almost anywhere, no accidents are more dangerous than those happening at a steep, fast descent. So, to make sure you can enjoy top speeds without risking your health, we’ve prepared 7 tips to help you improve your descending skills.

1. Practice

Behind every skill in your life, there is a lot of practice. You learned to walk, run and ride a bike by practising, and while descending comes somewhat naturally, you still need a lot of practice to make it fluent and danger free. Especially if you want to accelerate your speed.

Practising will give you a lot of opportunities to notice your mistakes. Still, you need to be mindful of the changes you make during your ride and assess whether they help. For example, try to adjust your position on the saddle to find the perfect aerodynamic stand. Moreover, finding the perfect lines comes only through practice. Yes, you can see how the professionals do it but until you do it yourself, you will always hit the brakes one too many times.

Finally, practice will give you more confidence. Once you reach terminal velocity, the bike seems as if flying, and if you are not used to that sensation and lack the confidence to ride the bike, in the best-case scenario, you will slow down. At worst, you will panic and… Well, let’s not talk about what happens when you panic on a bike, flying at circa 90 kph.

So just go out there, ride to the top and go down as many times as you can. This will also immensely improve your stamina from the climbing, so it’s a win-win.

2. Control the brakes

Braking is pivotal in descending, as it’s generally what kills off your speed. This being said, slowing down is not bad or taboo. Quite the opposite. Braking is mandatory when descending, otherwise, you may fly off a steep corner, crash into a road barrier or simply hit someone on your way down. It’s the art of braking and controlling your speed that’s key to being faster.

There are several things you need to master when it comes to braking. First and foremost, learn how to squeeze your brakes gently and never ever hit the front brake with full force. This is a sure way to feel like Superman for a few seconds before you inevitably face the truth in the form of the tarmac. Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use your front brake at all. However, you need to learn how to squeeze it gently and teach your reflexes not to crush the brakes when you need to stop abruptly. Sliding will always be slower than just killing off the rotation.

Moreover, you must learn to operate the brakes only with one finger. This is quite essential in MTB riding but roadies should also listen closely. Having four fingers on your handlebars gives you a much better grip and control over your bike. On the other hand, one finger is quite enough to squeeze the lever and slow you down, even if you are using V brakes.

Finally, you need to learn when to use the brakes. It’s much better to slow down before a sharp turn and enter it with some degree of speed. This way, you will once again have maximum velocity on the exit. Of course, doing this properly and without any risks needs a lot of practice. Thus we get back to our first tip.

Almost all new riders subconsciously drag the brakes, which kills more speed than you need. Try to ride several times and concentrate only on when to brake. Then, analyze whether you needed to break and did you overdo it?

3. Pay attention

Descending is a well-deserved rest for your legs but not for your mind. When you are riding down at speeds more appropriate for a race car, you need to act as if in a race car. This means you must have your eyes everywhere. Don’t just follow the road. The road is there, and it probably won’t go anywhere. Make sure you register everything that’s happening on and near the road. This includes people on the side, movement through the bushes and forests, the traffic all around you and, of course, other riders as well.

When descending, you need to expect the unexpected. We won’t lie that hitting the ground at 90 kph or faster is good for your health and won’t lead to severe injuries. It will. So when going down a road, make sure to pay attention to your surroundings, so you can react on time if the unexpected happens.

4. Choose your lines and stick to them

This is another tip you might want to take from mountain bikers. Choosing the right lane is a cornerstone of faster descending. But, of course, the best lane is not always the safest. Most often, when we are descending on the road, we share it with all sorts of traffic, so cutting a blind corner is definitely not worth the risk, despite probably being the best line.

To choose the best line available, you need two things. First, a lot of experience, which once again brings us back to practising. Second, and more importantly, look at the road, not your front wheel. Looking at the road ahead will give you enough time to assess the corner, decide how much you need to brake and which line would be most efficient for your ride. Make sure to focus on the line and not on the hurdles along the way as instinctively, we follow our eyes. So if you focus on a hazard subconsciously, you will be drawn to it.

5. Descend on the drops

Descending on the drops will immensely increase your speed as you will get into a more aerodynamic position. Remember that your body is a windbreak, and the less air crashes onto your chest, the higher speed you will be able to reach. Moreover, descending on the drops will give you much-needed control, as slipping off the bars is practically impossible. So, you won’t lose control and crash if you have to go through a hole or a stone.

Most importantly, your centre of gravity will go lower, thus allowing you to carry more speed through sharp corners, giving a better grip on the tarmac and generally making you more stable on the road.

6. Move your body

Weight distribution is crucial when going down a downhill track, and MTB riders know far too well that a good body position can help you increase your speed and give you the stability you need to carry more momentum on sharp turns. When descending on a road bike, physics doesn’t change. Thus the concept is the same. Redistributing your body weight during a fast descent maximises your speed and helps you be more stable on the road. For example, when going through a sharp corner, change your pedal position from 3:9 o’clock to 6:12 o’clock. The outer leg should be stretched while, at the same time, you give an additional push with your inside hand to help the tyres get a much better grip on the road. Lying slightly is also a good idea but don’t overdo it, as you might lose grip and slide on the road at 40-50 kph. The sensation is definitely not something you’d want to try.

7. Give space to others

Finally, we have space. Well, that’s a bit counterintuitive but our point stands. Yes, when you are closer to another bike, car, bus or anything that can shelter you from the incoming wind, it will allow you to go faster. Still, as your speed is significantly higher than on flat terrain, you don’t need to be a wheel behind. Even if you give 5-6 bikes distance, you will still get the benefits of drafting while, at the same time, reducing the risk of crashing due to sudden braking of the person in front. Moreover, driving like a lunatic on the car’s bumper is highly stressful for the driver inside and increases the chance of them making a mistake.

Still, if speed is everything for you and you are not ready to compromise on that, regardless of the price, consider that descending a bit further back from the person in front will also give you a much better speed. True, your draft will be reduced but your visibility of the road ahead will increase significantly. This will give you enough information to brake at the right time and amount, and choose the best and fastest line. So, don’t be stubborn and just give everyone on the road some space.

Relax and have fun

Reading these tips may sound like we are sending you to school the next time you will be descending. We are not. The most important part of descending is to relax and enjoy the ride. Speed is not everything, and as long as you are having fun and keeping yourself and others safe, that’s quite enough. Now, let’s start climbing.