Descents are nature’s way of rewarding you for those miles of climbs and the blood, sweat and tears you shed to beat them. They are also the most fun you can have with your clothes on!
Getting the most out of a descent makes that experience all the better, which is what this page is all about.
If you’re a recreational rider, learning how to descend like a pro elevates the fun and excitement by a factor or 10. If you’re a competitor, improving your technique ensures you never get dropped on a descent again.
Riding downhill on a straight is easy. Simply tuck yourself in and hang on. Cornering on a descent is much trickier, which is what we’re going to spend most of our time discussing here. Being able to corner at speed can seriously elevate the fun factor. If you’re competing, it can also seriously improve your placing!
We could write volumes on descending and how to do it, but we simply don’t have the space. Instead, we’re going to list our top tips for descending in easily digestible bites.
Bike setup is key
Before you even leave base, check your bike is ready for what’s ahead. You should do this before any ride, regardless of length or intensity. Five minutes checking at home can save hours of roadside repairs or that long walk home.
Check your tyres for debris, damage and wear. Make sure they are fully inflated and that the wheels spin evenly, you have no flat spots and that the valve is in good condition.
Check your brakes. Ensure both brake blocks hit the wheel at the same time and don’t pull the wheel one side or another. Off-centre braking is not only poor form, but doesn’t perform as well as centred brakes.
Check your cables for wear and damage. Check your headset is set right, that your gear work and that your chain is clean, in good condition and lubricated. Once done, you’re ready to go.
Relaxing on the bike is one of the first lessons you should learn. That means relaxed shoulders, neck and upper back with a loose but firm grip on the bars. If you’re stiff on the bike, the bike is stiff. If you’re already riding a super-stiff carbon fibre bike, you don’t need any more!
If you ride tense, your movements can be jerky and lack the smoothness you need to cope with speed and changing terrain.
Brake before the corner
If you have ever watched motor racing, you will notice that cars or motorcycles never brake on the corner, they brake in advance of it. You should do this on the road too as inertia and road surface conditions can cause you to lose control.
It’s the same on a bike. To descend like a pro, you have to brake like one. If you have to brake, do it while you’re heading in a straight line to shed speed before you lean. Brake smoothly, with both brakes and ease off when you hit the turn.
Apply the back brake smoothly so the blocks are rubbing the rim. Apply more front brake until it’s about 60/40 in favour of the front. As you brake more, 80/20. The back end may become a little skittish, so smooth braking is a must. If you become unstable, most your weight to the rear slightly until it settles.
As you approach the turn itself, ease off the brakes and return to your normal position. As soon as you see the exit of the corner and have enough space to brake if you have to, let go of the brakes and take the apex.
Look past the corner
Again, the same as motor racing, when you’re coming up on the first turn, you should already be looking past it to what’s ahead. Keep focusing on the corner while looking ahead so you can plan what to do next.
Your wheels follow your eyes, so look at the apex of the turn and the road ahead and only look at where you want to be in a few seconds’ time.
Balance your weight
To corner at speed, you want to be relaxed and stable on the bike and give the tyres as little to do as possible. That means finding position and staying there. Put the outside pedal down and plant your weight on that foot.
If your bike is set up correctly and is the right size, you should be equally balanced between your wheels. That load and the inertia involved will be shared between the tyres making you a much safer proposition going down.
Take the turn
Approach the turn wide, counter-steer to the apex in what looks like a sharp angle. As you approach the turn in point, have your head up and be looking at both the point and the road ahead. By the time you begin turning, you should already have your eyes firmly on where you’re straightening out.
Turn in, brakes off, weight on outside foot, inside knee turned slightly in and enjoy it!
Lean the bike not your body
Both you and your bike need to lean to corner effectively, but you should get into the habit of leaning the bike more than you. The shoulders of the tyre offer much more grip than the head, which increases grip. Done safely, leaning makes cornering safer, not more dangerous.
Counter-steer into the corner and plant your weight on the outside foot as above. Extend the arm on the inside of the turn while counter-steering through it.
Once you’re past the apex of the corner, begin looking ahead for the straight. Careful to look only where you want your wheels to go and plan for the next corner or acceleration.
As the corner ends, you can lift the bike back up into horizontal position and either prepare for the next one or hit the next gear to pick up some speed.
If you can get this right, you’re turning in early, choosing your exit point and getting back on the gas earlier than if you turned in later. Formula 1 has a phrase “slow in, fast out” and we use the same principle in cycling. Keep your eyes on the road and only ever look at the points on the road you want your tyres to hit. Nothing else. Ever!
To descend like a pro, you need to think like a pro. You need to be constantly alert and constantly aware of what’s going on around you and in front of you. Ignore what’s going on behind because it has no bearing on where you’re going.
Look ahead, plan ahead and only spent time looking at where you need to be. Maintain that concentration throughout the descent and you will rapidly build confidence in your ability to corner at speed as well as descend as a higher speed. Both of which make cycling the addictive sport it is!
Descending like a pro takes practice, so find somewhere safe and quiet and practice, practice, practice. Like many aspects of cycling technique, it’s part science and part art. However, it can all be learned and perfected if you’re prepared to put the time and effort into doing it.