Learn to descend
Going downhill on a racing bike is perhaps even more fun than going uphill. Obviously, first and foremost should descending be safe, but also fast. And the two go well together.
You can and should learn to descend. Of course it is also a matter of natural talent. But unlike playing violin, almost every cyclist can reach a pretty decent level in descending. In the mountains you make a lot of hours going uphill and very little going downhill. It’s not easy to put in the necessary hours to learn to improve your descending skills.
You should be alert to seize any opportunity to learn to descend. Getting stuck behind a few cars can just ruin a good descent. Best wait a while, and let the cars get far enough ahead and give it all you got in the descent.
You will notice that if you have not descended in a long time, you just have to get your rhythm back when you’re back in the mountains. For example, how far before a turn you have to brake, and how hard to break. The same applies for a new bike, wheels or tires.
While practicing you take it to your limit, but you should not exceed that limit. If you feel it’s scary while others say that this is not necessary, make sure that you do take your time, do not rush it. Descending with sweaty palms is not a good idea. A few hours exercising in a more relaxed fashion does do the trick.
Cornering technique on the flat
The cornering technique that you practiced on the flat can also be used when descending on the road bike. The big difference is that in a descent acceleration can continue even if you do not peddle. If a curve continues for longer than you expected, it can get tricky. So, do anticipate.
See also: Practise cornering?
See also: Taking sharp turns
On dry roads, you will learn quickly how hard and how much you can bank your bike, wheels and tires. On wet roads, it is more difficult to master this skill. How wet is it, is the surface oily, how it differs per meter? The situation is often so different that you learn much less how hard and banked it can get. On wet roads you will have to build a lot more security than on dry pavement.
Attitude on the straights
Everyone knows: the deeper you are, the less air resistance, the faster you go.
When you sit on the top tube, the air resistance is even less.
That gives easily a few kilometers per hour speed advantage.
The drawings below show the aerodynamic differences between different postures, based on a wind tunnel research with scale models.
Take care of control and safety with these ‘off saddle’ positions. Be aware that as a recreational cyclist you descend on smaller and worse roads more often than the pros and can also have to deal with oncoming traffic. How do you get stability if you are not on the saddle? Knees against the slanting tubes? Can you handle a blow through a hole in the road in such a position? How quickly can you respond to something unexpected? Do not stick with your shirt or pants on a point of the saddle if you want to come back on the saddle. You will not be the first one to come across that just before a turn. Practice it and know when and how you can apply an ‘off saddle’ attitude.
Attitude during cornering
In fact, you use the same techniques as when cornering on the flat.
A recap: press the outside pedal down, body / bike c.o.g. in the contact area bike – road. Use the classic turn or ski turn?
See also: Taking sharp turns
As with a curve on the flat, look ahead in a curve during a descent. Only when the road is very bad also look at shorter distances in front of you to avoid pot holes and the like.
You look through the turn around in the direction you want to go. With a hairpin look if possible one level lower.
This is done to see how far the corner curves backand and whether there is oncoming traffic. If you can not see through a corner, it’s a blind corner, and you have to be more careful. If you go to the outside of the road you may see the road beyond if you look at the inside of the road.
With blind corners to the right, you can, space permitting, ride as much as you can on the left side of the road, even over the center line of the road. The further to the left you ride, the more early you can see if anything is oncoming. If there is something oncoming, you have return to your side of the road as fast as you can!
See also: taking sharp turns
Braking in a descent is done ahead of the curve, as you’re still riding in a straight line. Especially with the front brake. The front brake has about twice the stopping power as the rear brake. Furthermore, the front wheel hardly locks when braking, because that’s where the most of the pressure is on. The rear wheel locks more easily, but when this happens while riding in a straight line, it’s scary, but fairly easy to recover from.
Sometimes you do a little additional braking in a bend. Beware that you can brake but do it very gently. In a turn locking the front wheel and getting it into a slip is almost a guarantee to fall.
The rear brake can slip easily, but the effect is usually not so bad. If you immediately release the rear brake, the bike pulls itself right again, and you are sometimes even positioned more favorable in the corner :). The first time is scary. The tenth time too. But somewhat less.
In a downhill, you can try by late braking to get some kind of stored energy after the turn.
Be careful that you do not brake continuously in a descent. Thus, the wheels can become too hot, possibly resulting in a burst tire. Carbon rims can also deform by heat.
Make no mistake that we normal cyclists have to brake more often and harder than the professionals. We are dealing with other traffic, ride more often on smaller roads with worse tarmac.
In the mountains we do not know most of the corners very well. Not as good as a bend in a criterion that you take many times. That is, how well you enter such a curve, you almost always need to correct a bit. You do that by stabbing a knee to the corner to get some extra weight inside. You can also do this through the ski-turn position by veering in slightly and therefore veering back out afterwards. For example, if the last part of the curve is continuing on longer than you thought. If you enter the curve a bit too sharply, you can correct it by veering out from the ski-turn position a bit to make the turn less sharp.
These adjustments are done unconsciously, just because it’s going too fast. Such reactions should be an automatic reflex. That requires a lot of practice at higher speed and (simulated) stress.
If you ride in a group ride that gradually transitions from a false flat to, for example, 5% descend, it can be tricky. You drive on the false flat often in a compact group. When the road slightly goes down, the speed imperceptibly increases. You forget sometimes to increase the space between eachother.
You need more distance to absorb eventualities at a higher speed. Moreover, it is likely that if the road goes steeply down, it gets narrower with sharper twists and turns. So, allow for larger spaces in time.
Several riders sometimes have a different cornering or braking styles. You always should keep that in mind.
Usually the lesser performers are found in the back of a group. A long descent is useful if there is a good descender at the back of the group. Otherwise, if the last man hits the deck, or has a mechanical, it’s no fun to discover this down the mountain, and you have to ride back uphill.
Fromm, afdaling Peyresourde, TdF, 2017
The surprising attack by Chris Fromm in the descent. The man who was been seen as a bad descenter the year before. The commentators on the Belgian and Dutch TV spoke of ‘dangerous’, and ‘do not do this at home’. The English commentators, including Sean Kelly, spoke about their own fear and also and especially about their admiration.
Chris Fromm had probably explored the descent very well. He knows that the asphalt is super. He knows the curves. And he has greatly improved his downhill skills. See how each bend line fits, now and then with some extra ’emphases’. See how he shifted his body / bicycle center of gravity inward, but with his upper body slightly outward. How he works with the knee. How he has a difficult but aerodynamic position on the seat tube (‘what’s in a name? :)) and even paddles in this position.
Classic with beautiful music. Smooth not so difficult descent. Subtle use of the ski-technique. Note the minor corrections through the knee or by veering in with the ski-bend technique. Also note the time when he moves behind his saddle.
Cunego en Sagan, descent to Grindelwald, Tour de Suise 2011.
Technical descent, with much ‘help’ of the organization by having closed roads, straw bales and especially by signs with information about the course of the curves.
Wonderful technical descent. With knowledge of the track and with a strong descending technique Nibali wins the stage in the descent and not the ascent.
Watch the video also once without sound. The commotion of the commentators is understandable, but it distracts from the great technique.
Typically a course that you as a cycling tourist cannot descend this fast. The descent will have other traffic, people between the houses, on the roads etc.. Maybe you even might want to avoid this road as decent, loosing a lot of height meter for nothing.
Lovely controlled descent. Knowledge of the road is visible: he knows where to go wide on the exit. He uses the whole road. Nice to see small changes in his position. For example, on 2′.10 ” how he somewhat veers up to make the bend wider, moving more to the stones on the exit and enters the next bend exactly right. On 10:10 he has a slight rear wheel skid, which he recovered nicely.
It is important at such a relatively long descent to keep concentrated, 100% stay in the game on the road / curves / technique. A descent of a few minutes is in terms of retaining your attention much easier than a long one. In a long descent, there are times where your focus slips slightly. You’ll lose time.
Remember, there’s no other traffic, so he can go all out in the blind corners. The road is more or less checked for potholes, or gravel on the sides. For us normal cyclists, such a descent is a lot less fun, especially since you often have to be on the right for a blind curve, and thus cannot ride a nice line.
A nice example of a good decent under wet conditions is that of Gilbert in the tour of Lombardia of 2010, section 2.