Descents are free speed. You spend almost every second of a bike ride pedaling and working to move forward, but the descents are your reward and your opportunity to make up time. For professional cyclists at the Tour de France, however, descents aren’t always free. Many times they are stressful and fraught with extreme risk. The Wall Street Journal did a nice job talking about the risks inherent in descending at high speed at the Tour de France, and in both the Pyrenees and Alps we’ve already seen several riders take extreme risks racing downhill. Back on Stage 8 to Bagnères-de-Luchon, Chris Froome attacked over the final climb of the day and showed an incredible display of descending skills which resulted in a solo stage victory and the yellow jersey. It was a daring attack that included some risky descending techniques most of us probably shouldn’t try unless you’re getting paid to race your bike. But we can still gain valuable insights on how to become better at descending by watching his impressive high-speed descent.
So, what makes the difference between a beautiful, fast, and smooth descent and a nervous, wobbly one? Courage accounts for a little of it, but skill is the foundation of great descending. Skill instills confidence and confidence builds courage, and the combination of skill, confidence, and courage gets you down the mountain fast.
If you’re not racing you don’t need to take big risks on descents, and it’s important to note that having great descending skills doesn’t mean you have to go insanely fast or take big risks. On the other hand, there is no downside to having the skills to be a great descender, because it will make you safer and more confident in all conditions.
Everyone has to slow down for the corners, but the best riders take great lines, position themselves over their bikes perfectly, brake late and slow down the least; and those skills can either move you off the front of the pack or help you catch back on. If you go back and watch the descents from stages in the Pyrenees and Alps, here are some skills to watch for – and emulate the next time you go downhill:
Traveling at 62mph you cover approximately the length of a football field (300 feet) every 3.3 seconds. With corners, rocks, potholes, etc. coming at you that quickly, you have to pick your lines early. Ideally, you want to set up wide as you enter a corner, cut through the apex, and exit wide. Choosing the wrong line on the entry makes it difficult – and sometimes impossible – to safely exit the turn and stay on the road.
You want to make dramatic changes in speed on the straightaway before you enter a corner, using both brakes so you are complete control of your speed. You may still be on the brakes in the turn, but if you were going 40mph in the previous straightaway, you want to bring the speed down to a safe speed for the corner – say 25-30mph – before the turn rather than trying to dramatically slow down and change direction at the same time. If you go into a corner too hot and grab a fistful of brakes, you’ll either lock up the wheels and slide or crash; or your momentum will carry you so far to the outside of the turn that you’ll miss the exit and end up in the trees. The more advanced way to do this is to brake late; that is, hold your speed until you’re closer to the corner and use more braking power to slow down quickly. The trouble is, if you get it wrong you’ll end up overshooting the corner.
Your bike goes where your eyes are pointed, so look through to the exit of the corner. Don’t focus on the potholes or the guardrail at the edge of the road unless that’s where you want your wheels to go.
To corner safely, you need your center of gravity to remain over your tires and your weight distributed appropriately across both wheels. With your body weight planted on the pedal facing the outside of the corner, you’re increasing the traction your tires have on the road. You can’t be tentative about this; press your weight onto the outside foot.
This is relative. When you ride into a corner, both your body and bike lean to the inside of the turn, but you should lean the bike more than you lean your body. To do this, plant your weight on your outside leg and extend the arm facing the inside of the corner. As you extend your inside arm, you’ll notice the bike drops into the corner and your body weight feels like it is primarily directed through your outside leg and your inside arm. This is a very stable position and it provides a lot of traction; you just have to remember to be agile on the saddle so you can move and position the bike underneath you.
These are the tricky bends. The hardest part about a reducing radius turn is that you often don’t know about it until you’re in it. At that point you have to be able to adjust your line through the turn because your original line will take you too wide. To tighten your line, focus more force on your inside arm to push it into the inside of the turn. With your weight pressed on your outside leg, pushing with the inside arm will cause the bike to lean more into the turn while keeping your center of mass near the wheels to maintain traction.