Road Bike Skills 101: Descending
It doesn’t matter if you are new to road cycling or a seasoned pro, riding downhill on a road bike can be intimidating. With the help of gravity, riding at potentially higher speeds and relying on your brakes to slow down can be unnerving. But, if you start slow, build your confidence with your skills and follow the tips below, you’ll be looking forward to descents in no time!
- Look Ahead
Never look down at the ground underneath your wheels. As you descend, potential obstacles can come at you very quickly, so it is important to keep looking up and reading the road. If a pothole appears on your horizon, acknowledge it, move your position to avoid it, and look ahead to scan for the next obstacle. If you continue looking at an obstacle until you are right on top of it, you may not see whatever is coming next. Remember, where you look is where you will go!
Because you are moving at a higher rate of speed, it’s always a good idea to leave more distance between each rider while descending and still communicating obstacles if riding in a group.
- Pedaling vs Coasting
Start slow while getting used to descending on a road bike. If you do not want to speed up, try just coasting downhill at first. When coasting, your feet should be parallel to the ground with equal pressure in both pedals and heels slightly dropped. This position will help you make the most of your braking to slow down effectively when braking. In addition to braking, your body can act as an “air brake” while descending. Sitting more upright on your bike will block the wind and slow you down.
Want to go faster downhill? Use all of your gears, shifting into harder and harder gears as you pedal down the descent. Once you reach the “big ring, little ring” combination, pedal until you are “spun out,” or you are no longer accelerating with your pedal stroke. Then, tuck! When you can no longer go faster by pedaling, you can still increase your speed by bending your elbows aggressively and lowering your chest closer to your handlebars so your backside is higher than your shoulders. In this position, aerodynamics will continue to help you go faster as you descend. It is best to practice this body position on long, straight sections of road.
- Hands on Drops, Fingers on Brakes
Riding in the drops while descending is actually safer than riding on the hoods. Not only do you have a better grip on the handlebars, you also have a lower center of gravity which means more traction or grip on the road. Additionally, while in the drops you are in a better position for more powerful braking. It is important to use both brakes while descending. The rear brake is better for maintaining speed over less steep descents or into corners. The front brake is used to stop or slow down more effectively on steep terrain.
- Chin over Stem
Though your instinct may tell you to “get back’ while riding downhill on a road bike, being centered between the front and rear wheels will ensure you have weight on the front wheel, which is important for traction and cornering. Check to make sure your chin is over the stem to ensure you are riding in a balanced position.
When your muscles tense up while riding downhill, you tend to stiffen your arms which results in a rougher ride and less control over the bike. Bending your elbows and relaxing your shoulders, while bracing with your forearms will ensure you’re riding safer and with more control.
*A huge factor in improving your downhill road bike riding is cornering. Learning how to corner on a road bike on flat terrain before bombing down a mountain is the key to confidence and performance!