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The Art of Descending

Do you fear going fast downhill on your bike? Is 30 miles per hour on a downhill with nothing but your lycra and a lightweight foam helmet to protect you too fast? Would you like to learn the secrets of going faster downhills?  Because I started my racing career in Colorado where the big mountains are part of every good ride, I developed my downhill skills more than most Seattle riders. When I returned here I won races by being able to descend better than others, and since becoming a cycling coach full time in 1997 I have taught people with histories of crashing how to regain their confidence, new racers how to corner for criterium wins, and new riders descending fundamentals that make cycling fun and safe.

At Cycle University we teach the three basics of good descending.  First, learn to stop quickly so you have confidence that you can quickly bring your speed down if you need to. Second, in corners, place all your weight on your outside leg–really stand on it. Third, keep your head up and look where you want to go, not at obstacles. Since # 1 and 2 are a bit technical for this article, let’s start with #3, which really has nice meaning beyond cycling as well.

One of my favorite cycling metaphors is what I call the “Clear Path”. It is a proven fact that what we focus on grows in size and importance our minds. It is the same when we are riding a bicycle; where we look and whatever we focus on is where our tires will go. There are many obstacles that try and grab our attention, the little rocks, the big poles on trails, the sticks in the bike lanes, manhole covers, cracks in the pavement, cars. We need to identify these obstacles, but our focus must change from the obstacle (the problem) to the Clear Path through the obstacle (the solution). Many people get stuck looking at the rock. They see the rock, guardrail, car that pulled out and say “oh no!” and keep staring at it as they run into it. It goes against human nature, but now is the time to begin placing your focus on the CLEAR PATH leading you safely through any danger or fears on the roads.

A related challenge is in the high mountains where there is a large drop off at the edge of the trail or road. Obviously there are dangers from riding fast with exposure to big falls, but you will be safe if you put the blinders on and only focus your gaze on where you want your tires to go (with a little practice). Look more ahead, as far as your sight will allow, then alternate your gaze back to the ground in the next 10-20 feet ahead to check for small obstacles to maneuver through (further ahead if you are going faster) and back up. The specific way you want to do this is with your head UP, and your eyes moving up and down scanning the road for the Clear Path instead of your head bobbing up and down. Let me explain.

I learned this key piece of good descending as a pro mountain biker. In my first 24 hour race in Capitol Forest, Olympia Washington in 1994 I was on a 4 person team and we were battling to stay in first place, each riding about 1 hour before the next one went with only a 3 hr recovery. I had a headlamp for my night rides (24 hours means you see how far your team can ride in 24 hours non-stop) and the descent was slick and rutted with a slippery clay surface. I had come from road racing and was still crashing a lot and learning how to ride off road at race speed, and there was a section of slick switch backs. Because my single head light gave me only about 3 feet in diameter of vision and I was forced to keep my gaze ahead and up to anticipate the big turns, I was totally in the dark about what was going on right in underneath and in front of me. I had to FEEL the trail and learn to trust my ability to stay upright.  It was amazing! I rode this part of the trail faster than I had during the daylight, and at the time I thought it was because I was getting too tired from using the brakes (pre- V-brake days) and was in the “what the heck” kind of mood just letting the bike go a bit and not trying to micro manage my treads. I was only partially right.

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I later learned what a coach in California had discovered working with mountain bike students. When you look down, your inner ear cannot balance you. This coach has students ride over logs looking up the whole time with chin parallel to the ground and has had great success. Your inner ear will help keep you upright, so keep your chin up to let your body naturally help your balance and control. I still use this technique to this day, and teach it in our most popular road class, Road 201. Here are some other hot tips for better descending.

-Relax, breathe and stay loose. Elbows bent, butt slightly off the saddle. The bike responds better to a relaxed body.

-Start wide and turn in toward the apex of the corner, all the weight on the outside leg.

-Don’t go faster than you can safely brake in time to avoid what is out of sight.

-To stop fast lean way back behind the saddle and hit the brakes hard.

We recommend you join us for a class or private lesson to see these skills taught by a trained coach who can give you specific feedback to improve your technique.