Descending is a skill which you need to learn thoroughly. Descending is fun, but can be dangerous.
One of the great delights of cycling is descending. Last weekend I did a long ride, 2 climbs of around 10 kilometres each followed by another of around 25 kilometres, about a 2 1/2 hour climb. In summer temperatures of 40 degrees C it was tough.
But the last descent was wonderful. 45 minutes downhill, hardly needing to turn a pedal, just pure joy.
Whilst there’s many aspects to cycling descending is probably one of the most enjoyable. However it can also be one of the most dangerous, one of my friends on that ride came off at 55 kilometres an hour and is now nursing a broken collarbone and various cuts, abrasions and stitches. He hit something on the road, on a corner, which threw him off the side.
So that got me to thinking about descending, and the sorts of skills you need when descending. Because like anything else descending well is a skill, and needs practice. Like everything there are some people who descend well and others who don’t. Personally I prefer to keep my speed down, and on rides like the one I’ve just done I get passed by plenty of people going much faster than I. But that’s my choice.
The first and obvious point to make is that descending safely is impossible if your bike isn’t up to scratch. If your brakes, for example, aren’t working properly then you’re in trouble. If your bike isn’t well maintained don’t even think about fast descending, or descending at all. Or for that matter even riding. Make sure your bike is in tiptop shape. And it’s not just your bike, make sure you’re wearing a quality helmet, securely attached with little slack in the straps.
But of course that’s not all there is to descending safely and well.
You need to recognise the limitations of your vehicle. Whilst a car can pull up quite quickly, even in the wet, a bike can be very different. Braking fast, particularly on corners and in the wet, can be quite a problem, and you must be aware at all times that your ability to brake quickly for unexpected hazards might not be as good as you would wish. There was a serious accident on this ride from someone descending too close to a car in front, and being unable to pull up fast enough when the car braked.
You also need to recognise the limitations of the surface on which you are descending. Whilst you might be travelling quickly and safely on a well-made smooth road, if you come round the corner and are presented with a large pothole, or a patch of gravel, you may be in deep trouble. Whilst a car might deal with potholes very well, a bike at the same speed may well come unstuck. So you need to know your road conditions.
Here’s a few tips that may help you coming to grips with safe fun descending.
- Learn as much as you can about descending and practice it. It’s a skill which improves with practice, and one which builds over time. Recognise that, like everything else, you should spend time on descending to learn as much as you can.
- Avoid the temptation to go faster than you are comfortable with. As already mentioned I tend to descend slower than many riders, because that’s what I’m comfortable with. Avoid the temptation, as someone whizzes past you, to feel that you’re going too slow and that you should try to maintain the pace that they are descending at. That’s a recipe for disaster. Ride within yourself.
- Anticipate. Don’t look down at your front wheel, look ahead and assess the road conditions as much as possible before you arrive. Try to anticipate a safe speed at which you can enter a corner, and enter at that speed. Whilst it is possible to brake in a corner it isn’t easy and it’s much safer to enter at a safe speed. And braking hard in the corner can be dangerous.
- Be aware of what other riders, and cars are or may be doing. It’s very difficult to hear a rider coming from behind, and you can get quite a shock when, halfway through a corner, a faster rider zooms past on the inside. Before you enter the corner have a little look back to see who’s around. And be aware of cars coming up the hill, not all car drivers stick perfectly to their side of the road. Anticipate taking evasive action.
- Remember you’re not in a race. Unless you are of course. However most of us cycle for pleasure and fitness, and so are not out to win. If you’re in a bunch, when approaching a corner, slow up and leave a gap.There is a particular corner where I always do that, no matter how many are in the bunch, after having seen a car come around the outside of the corner towards me partly on the wrong side of the road. I always leave a fair gap between myself and the other riders as a margin for error.
- Control your speed on the straight. It’s tempting, where there are no corners or obstacles, to get faster and faster, however you need to lose all that extra speed before the next corner. Trying to pull up hard before a corner can have its risks, including overheating the brake pads.
- Pick your line going into the corner. The best way to corner is to start from the outside of the curve (obviously on your side of the road), moved towards the inside of the curve at the apex and then slowly drift back out to the outside. This straightens out the corner.
- Always enter the corner with your outside foot down, and conversely with your inside foot up. If you corner with your inside foot down it’s possible for your pedal to hit the road surface which is highly likely to end in a crash. Don’t try and pedal through a fast corner, for the same reason.
- Avoid getting your wheels on the white line when it’s raining. White lines can be very slippery in the wet.