On Descending Quickly

I’ve been riding motorcycles for 26 years and cycling for 12 years. I loves me some two wheeled fun and, like most things in life, the more you know about a skill the more fun it becomes. Descending skills are sorely lacking in most triathletes so the intent of this post is to bring you several years, and potential crashes, up the downhill learning curve. Enjoy!

Descending Quickly

Rule #1: Never descend faster than your ability to react (given your skill, equipment, road conditions, etc) to what you CAN’T see.

Rule #2: Look as far through the corner as you can and look where you want to go. Don’t look at where you don’t want to go. The bike will go where your eyes are looking. Think “look at the rock, hit the rock,” which is to say that if you need to suddenly avoid something, avoid it by NOT LOOKING AT IT. Instead, look for/at your escape path. Don’t fixate on the target.

By looking as far through the corner as you can, you give yourself many, many feet to make small corrections to solve a problem many, many feet away. If you’re looking 6-10ft in front of your wheel…you only have 6-10ft to make a BIG correction = not good!

Rule #3: See rule #1

Rule #4: choose the line through a corner that gives you the best visibility through the corner, giving more time and space to adjust to what you can’t yet see.

Notes within The Rules above:

Speed

Speed is relative. We all reach a speed at which our spidey senses start to go off, we reach for the brakes, begin to get skeered, etc. The only way to increase the speed at which this happens is to absorb my tips below and then, through exposure to greater and greater speeds with your increased skill set and confidence, just get used to going faster and faster. Before long your “oh shit!!” will become just another day.

Body Position

  • Butt off the saddle a bit, and weight shifted back a bit, maybe gripping the nose of your saddle with your thighs.
  • Arms and elbows loose.
  • Think of the above as giving the bike a suspension, of your legs, arms, and giving the bike some room to move round a bit under you and for you to move your weight around a bit on the bike.

Braking

  • Do your best to get your braking done before the turn, while the bike is upright. When the bike is upright you can apply 100% of the available traction of the tires to slowing the bike down…braking. As the bike leans over, a percentage of that available traction is now being claimed by lateral forces, keeping the bike from sliding sideways off the road, leaving less traction available to slow the bike down. Whenever possible, in all situations, do your best to separate the actions of turning the bike and slowing the bike down.
  • When braking with the bike upright, your braking should be about 70/30, front to rear: as you brake, your weight shifts forward, pressing the tire harder into the road, increasing the friction and traction (and don’t forget that you’re also pointed downhill which increases this effect). At the same time, the backend lightens up, reducing the traction available on the back wheel. If you do 70/30 back to front, you don’t have as much stopping power and you risk sliding the rear wheel.
  • If you are on the brakes in a corner, I recommend you reverse this 70/30 and use the back brake more. I’ll “trail” the back brake in a corner, maybe.
  • Sort of advanced: start braking the front with about 50% of your braking force, so to speak, then increase it to what you want. What you’re doing here is “loading the suspension,” giving your weight a fraction of a second to shift forward on the front wheel and build the amount of traction available to the front.

Why back vs front in a corner?

A rear wheel skid is recoverable, usually. But a front wheel skid, in a corner, will usually put you instantly on the deck.

But, again, you avoid all of this jazz by getting your braking done BEFORE the turn, while the bike is upright and with 100% of the traction available for braking.

Weight distribution and more body position stuff

  • Inside pedal up (ie, left pedal is up in a left turn, right in a right)
  • Weight on the outside pedal
  • Press on the inside handlebar (press on left hoods in a left turn, etc)

Kinda advanced stuff, within the above, bonus if you can do it:

  • Point your inside knee into the turn
  • Get lower on the bike, lowering your center of mass.

Notes on hoods, drops, aerobars, and the geometry of a tri bike

  • Aerobars: obviously, descending in the aerobars should ONLY be done if you are an extremely confident and skilled bike handler and even then only on a straight downhill with excellent visibility. It’s almost always better to just come out of the bars and put your hands on the hoods, while still keeping yourself low and aero.
  • Drops, for road bars: more aero than the hoods position, helps you lower your center of mass on the bike, but…your fingers are now placed at the far end of the brake lever/fulcrum, giving you you have MUCH more stopping power down there than in the hoods. This can be good or bad: good if you need to and know how to slow down quickly. But bad if you reflexively jerk the brakes at every little thing, increasing the likelihood of applying too much brake and losing traction. If you have an aggressive drops position on your bike you can really work your neck in a long descent as you crank your neck to look as far forward as you can.
  • Hoods: more comfortable, probably better visibility, less neck fatigue for long descents, but decreased stopping power…which can be good and bad per above.
  • Tri bike vs road bike geometry: while road bike geometry allows the bike to handle well in a variety of situations, a tri bike is generally very good at one thing, going very fast in a straight line, and less good at cornering and descending. That’s not to say it’s “bad” at these things, but the typically shorter wheelbase and different weight distribution of a tri bike combine to make it bit more twitchy then a road bike. In my experience, my road bike goes where I look and allows me to corner with confidence…on rails. I can descend nearly as quickly on my tri bike as on my road bike, but I just have to be paying attention a LOT more.

So…to put it all together, Coach Rich in a descent:

  • Butt off the saddle, weight shifting back, knees and elbows loose, gripping nose with my thighs, maybe top tube with knees. I prefer to be very loose on the bike and let it/me move separately most of the time. Then, coming up on a corner:
  • I get all of my braking done with the bike upright, 70/30 front to rear. If I still need to bleed some speed in the corner I come off the front brake and feather the back a bit.
  • Eyes as far through the corner as I can see, choosing the line that gives me the best visibility, not necessarily the fastest line.
  • Inside pedal up, outside down, weight on the outside pedal, pressing down on the inside handlebar.
  • Inside knee pointed through the corner, where I want to go.
  • Upper body very low, to reduce center of mass. When I’m really hanging it out, that inside knee will be about half way up my inside upper arm.

Finally, watch how the best in the business do it: Paolo Savoldeli’s 2005 Giro winning descent

 

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