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Here's how to get downhill safely and fast

It pays to spend time developing your descending skills, not just to ride faster but to stay safe and in control. Here are our tips for getting your downhill riding dialled.

1. Get your brakes sorted

It’s a given that your bike should be roadworthy at all times, and that goes double if you’re going to practise your descending. Poorly maintained brakes and high speeds… you’re asking for trouble. Check your tyres are the right pressure too. 

Descending 3 - 1.jpg

Descending 3 - 1.jpg

2. Look down the road 

As you’ll usually be going fast when descending, look further down the road than normal. You don’t want to swerve or brake at the last moment to avoid hazards – that could be dangerous and will at least disturb your flow. Reacting as far in advance as possible will allow you to retain the highest level of control, so scan the road in the distance for obstacles, junctions, traffic, and anything else that could require you to take action.

3. Pick the right line

The best line isn’t always a constant distance from the verge. We’re not suggesting you career from one side of the road to the other, but as long as it’s safe to do so you can straighten and smooth your line by varying you position from the edge. Naturally, you need to be aware of other road users in order to ride safely.

Bianchi Oltre - descending 3

Bianchi Oltre - descending 3

Here's a video showing a rider taking up the full width of the road while cornering on a descent in order to carry through as much speed as possible. This is only possible if the road is closed or you are 100% sure that there's nothing coming in the opposite direction. Seriously, don't take any chances.

4. Get down on the drops

Positioning your hands on the drops gives you a secure grip, provides the best access to your brake levers, and allows you to get your upper body low when you want to pick up speed. It makes you more aero and lowers your centre of gravity for higher stability. As ever, keep your elbows bent to help absorb shocks from the road.

Descending 2 - 1.jpg

Descending 2 - 1.jpg

5. Cover your brakes 

Have each of your index fingers (or your first two fingers, if that’s how you brake) poised over your brake levers, just in case you need to scrub off some speed in a hurry. That way you’re ready to react instantly to any hazards that come your way.

6. Don’t drag your brakes

Resist the temptation to come down a long descent with your brakes gently applied throughout. You’re better off laying off your brakes and then applying them firmly, but not jerkily, when you really need to decelerate. 

Check out our tips for better climbing here. 

7. Use your upper body as an air brake

You can use your upper body to help regulate speed. You might be surprised at just how much extra air resistance you can add by sitting more upright at 40mph. When you hit the straights and want to accelerate, lower your upper body parallel to the ground again. 

Rapha_Sky_Descending

Rapha_Sky_Descending

8. Sort your crank position

Keep your cranks in the 3 o’clock/ 9 o’clock position when you’re riding in a straight line and not pedalling. You might want to raise yourself very slightly out of the saddle too, using your knees to make sure that bumps in the road don’t send you skyward when you’re moving fast. Move your outer pedal to the 6 o’clock position and push your weight onto it when cornering. This gives you the maximum clearance and control.

9. Lean!

Leaning your bike into a turn while keeping your body upright will help you get around. You might be surprised at just how far you can lean without losing traction, although you need to be more careful on wet roads.

Shimano 9170 Specialized 2 - 2.jpg

10. Ride to the conditions

Descend more slowly in wet conditions when your braking distance will be greater and you’ll have less grip on the corners. You should also back off more on muddy or gravelly descents. Descending safely is always more important than descending fast.

11. Relax!

Try to stay calm and relaxed. Keep your upper body loose and think ahead. If riding downhill fast makes you nervous, take it at a comfortable speed and gradually get faster as your confidence increases. You don’t have to rag it on the descents just because other people do. 

HauteRoute Day6 BonetteDescending.jpg

HauteRoute Day6 BonetteDescending.jpg

12. Don’t panic

If you do encounter a hazard unexpectedly, don’t panic and grab a big handful of brake. Slamming on the brakes will throw your weight forward, and that’s often not helpful. If there’s a big patch of gravel that you didn’t seen in the road, for example, the chances are that you can ride through it by keeping the bike as straight and upright as possible. If a pothole appears in front of you, perhaps you can steer around it or bunnyhop it. The important thing is to think clearly to make the best decision.

13. Follow an expert

If you know someone who’s a good descender, try sitting behind them when riding downhill and copying what they do. Take notice of their body position, the line they take and when they brake. Give them a little space so that you get a good view and plenty of time to react.

Descending  - 1.jpg

Descending - 1.jpg

14. Practise!

Find a challenging descent and ride it several times. Think about how you could do things better each time you ride back up to the start. Perhaps you could pick a better line, lean more in a particular section or lay off the brakes a little longer. Put those improvements into practice when you ride it again. Carry on riding the same bit of road until you’ve got it nailed. 

 

Do you have descending tips of your own? Please share them with us below.

Mat has worked for loads of bike magazines over 20+ years, and been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. He's been road.cc technical editor for eight years, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a past winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer.

48 comments

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JackBuxton [39 posts] 1 year ago
3 likes

Put on 20kg's

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psling [289 posts] 1 year ago
8 likes

Is it true you should only really ride descents if you've got disc brakes...?

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RobD [618 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes
psling wrote:

Is it true you should only really ride descents if you've got disc brakes...?

No apparently quite the opposite, going downhill cooks your disc brakes and causes catastrophic crashing

Avatar
Bill H [80 posts] 1 year ago
4 likes

Riding on the drops is really important! If you hit a lump you're much less likely to lose your grip, and if you did there's a chance of grabbing another part of the bar and staying on the bike.

That's not going to happen if you're riding on the hoods of your brakes; which has replaced the Caradice saddle bag as an easy way of identifying English speaking riders in the Vercors.

 

 

 

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Duncann [1351 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

When doing tight corners, and in conjunction wth leaning, you should have your knee on the inside raised (pedal at 12 o'clock)and pointing out a bit and the same side elbow out too. Return pedals to 3/9 o'clock on exiting the bend (if not pedalling).

It probably comes quite naturally with leaning into the corner but worth saying anyway. Look how motorbike racers do it (but don't imitate such extreme angles!)

Avatar
Altimis [64 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
psling wrote:

Is it true you should only really ride descents if you've got disc brakes...?

If you can't do descents with rim brakes, you perhaps better not do it at all . . . disc or not, periods.

Avatar
PaulBox [681 posts] 1 year ago
4 likes

My top tip would be to not fall off the week before, I descended like an old woman this weekend, absolutely no confidence even though there was no ice about.

Avatar
PaulBox [681 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
Duncann wrote:

When doing tight corners, and in conjunction wth leaning, you should have your knee on the inside raised (pedal at 12 o'clock)and pointing out a bit and the same side elbow out too. Return pedals to 3/9 o'clock on exiting the bend (if not pedalling).

That's covered in point 8 - "Move your outer pedal to the 6 o’clock position and push your weight onto it when cornering."

Avatar
Liam Cahill [116 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

RobD wrote:

psling wrote:

Is it true you should only really ride descents if you've got disc brakes...?

No apparently quite the opposite, going downhill cooks your disc brakes and causes catastrophic crashing

That's only accurate if you drag your brakes the whole way down a long descent.

Avatar
davel [2390 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes
PaulBox wrote:

My top tip would be to not fall off the week before, I descended like an old woman this weekend, absolutely no confidence even though there was no ice about.

I know that feeling... you get it back, though.

Avatar
psling [289 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
Altimis wrote:
psling wrote:

Is it true you should only really ride descents if you've got disc brakes...?

If you can't do descents with rim brakes, you perhaps better not do it at all . . . disc or not, periods.

 

Liam Cahill wrote:
RobD wrote:
psling wrote:

Is it true you should only really ride descents if you've got disc brakes...?

No apparently quite the opposite, going downhill cooks your disc brakes and causes catastrophic crashing

That's only accurate if you drag your brakes the whole way down a long descent.

 

I can see this whole downhill malarky is too serious for me...

Avatar
Grahamd [956 posts] 1 year ago
6 likes

Tyres! Get the best you can afford. After nearly under steering into a house I replaced my stock tyres with Contintal GP4000, difference like night and day.

Avatar
rjfrussell [480 posts] 1 year ago
8 likes
psling wrote:

Is it true you should only really ride descents if you've got disc brakes...?

It has now been well established that disc brakes led to the election of Trump.

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sw600 [21 posts] 1 year ago
7 likes
psling wrote:

Is it true you should only really ride descents if you've got disc brakes...?

Absolutely, that's why anyone who ever rode a bike from the early 1900s up until a couple of years ago was stuck at the top of a hill, unable to come down. The red cross were very helpful, bringing food and blankets and stuff, but thank goodness the bike industry invented disc brakes.

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dottigirl [819 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
Grahamd wrote:

Tyres! Get the best you can afford. After nearly under steering into a house I replaced my stock tyres with Continental GP4000, difference like night and day.

Was just about to type something similar. The difference when I went from Gatorskins* to 4000s was absolutely massive. I swear by 4000s now and I wouldn't ride anything else now, especially in wet weather. 

Friends go on about winter tyres, but IMO, winter is when you need the better grip that a good tyre provides. You just have to check them more frequently.

 

*though it wasn't helping that I was probably riding the Gatorskins at too high a pressure - the article briefly mentions pressures, but this point cannot be overemphasised. I still come across 65kg riders with 100psi in their tyres who complain they have no grip. I seldom go over 90, even on the rear. In slippery conditions, I'll ride 70 front and 80 rear. And some say that's still too high.

 

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Duncann [1351 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes
PaulBox wrote:
Duncann wrote:

When doing tight corners, and in conjunction wth leaning, you should have your knee on the inside raised (pedal at 12 o'clock)and pointing out a bit and the same side elbow out too. Return pedals to 3/9 o'clock on exiting the bend (if not pedalling).

That's covered in point 8 - "Move your outer pedal to the 6 o’clock position and push your weight onto it when cornering."

I thought that was very confusing!

Avatar
Roadie_john [86 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes
Duncann wrote:

When doing tight corners, and in conjunction wth leaning, you should have your knee on the inside raised (pedal at 12 o'clock)and pointing out a bit and the same side elbow out too. Return pedals to 3/9 o'clock on exiting the bend (if not pedalling).

It probably comes quite naturally with leaning into the corner but worth saying anyway. Look how motorbike racers do it (but don't imitate such extreme angles!)

pointing your knee out does nothing. Everyone does it but there's no benefit. 

Motorbike racers actually do the opposite of cyclists. They lean more than their bike - to do with the weight and power of the bike tending to return it to the vertical and in a straight line. On a pedal bike you need to keep your body upright and lean the bike under you. They also point their knees out, but they're much closer to the road and usually have metal scratch plates to save grinding their patellas down.

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ianrobo [1215 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

All these good tips but I take the last one as vital, I used to be terrified of even small descents, so I knew when I was going to ride int he Alps, had to get over it.

Remeber the fun bit is coming down so just practice them. If you are anywhere close to Bwlch and Rhigos in Wales could not be more perfect, some hair pins, some long fast descents. 6 months later out of a group of 6 I Was by far the fastest with the best lines.

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cyclisto [393 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

Isn't #4 opposed to #7?? I use the #7 technique with good results.

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olic [77 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes
cyclisto wrote:

Isn't #4 opposed to #7?? I use the #7 technique with good results.

Not exactly - you want to be in the drops to brace yourself and lower your centre of gravity, improving stability. You should still be able to use your body to an extent by shifting around a bit as you need to.

I once ended up stuck behind a guy who descended hardknott entirely on his hoods - it was crazy. If you hit a bump on those kind of gradients you can easily just go over as there's nothing to brace yourself against

Avatar
Grahamd [956 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
ianrobo wrote:

All these good tips but I take the last one as vital, I used to be terrified of even small descents, so I knew when I was going to ride int he Alps, had to get over it.

Remeber the fun bit is coming down so just practice them. If you are anywhere close to Bwlch and Rhigos in Wales could not be more perfect, some hair pins, some long fast descents. 6 months later out of a group of 6 I Was by far the fastest with the best lines.

Done them both, so know what you mean. smiley

Even descending Llangynidr mountain is fun. Came down it last year, laughing like an idiot with my riding parter, sheer exhileration, I'm 47 but felt about 12 again.

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Grahamd [956 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

dupicate post.

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nadsta [192 posts] 1 year ago
4 likes

Can I add a tip?

LOOK WHERE YOU WANT TO GO/THE BIKE GOES WHERE YOU LOOK

Running wide? Don't look at the edge of the road, you'll ride onto the verge, instead look at the bit of tarmac where you want to put your bike.  It can be hard to do if you're panicking but it's saved me numerous times on bikes and motorcycles. 

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Leviathan [3057 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes
nadsta wrote:

Can I add a tip?

'Just the tip' - Cheryl Tunt.

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CXR94Di2 [2120 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

Get your bum off saddle, hook one foot under pedal, keep bike as upright as possible so you can power out of corner with fat part of tyreyes

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jollygoodvelo [1715 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
nadsta wrote:

Can I add a tip?

LOOK WHERE YOU WANT TO GO/THE BIKE GOES WHERE YOU LOOK

Running wide? Don't look at the edge of the road, you'll ride onto the verge, instead look at the bit of tarmac where you want to put your bike.  It can be hard to do if you're panicking but it's saved me numerous times on bikes and motorcycles. 

This is good advice.  

In the part about descending on the drops, I'd also add: don't just hold it, put weight on the outside bar.  It helps the front tyre grip, and ultimately there's no point having a nice light hold of the bars if the front wheel has lowsided and you're heading towards the outside wall.

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backflipbedlem [1201 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes

Now if I get on the drops, and hit around 55kmh then I get insane  death wobble!!!!

Not fun!!

On the hoods, doesn't happen.

I've read up about it, about keeping loose, having a knee on the top tube! Doesn't help!

I can tell you I nearly crapped my pants going down Westerham Hill the last time the death wobble kicked in, I don't know how I didnt crash!!

Anyone else get this? or no how to fix? Should I change wheelset etc? 

 3

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Mat Brett [665 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

backflipbedlem wrote:

Now if I get on the drops, and hit around 55kmh then I get insane  death wobble!!!!

 

We'll put it down on our list of subjects to cover. There are various suggested solutions. 

I've had it maybe 3 or 4 times and agree that it's terrifying. I found the solution you mention works for me: knee against the top tube, loosen grip on the handlebar. Sorry to hear it hasn't worked for you.

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beezus fufoon [972 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
backflipbedlem wrote:

Now if I get on the drops, and hit around 55kmh then I get insane  death wobble!!!!

Not fun!!

On the hoods, doesn't happen.

I've read up about it, about keeping loose, having a knee on the top tube! Doesn't help!

I can tell you I nearly crapped my pants going down Westerham Hill the last time the death wobble kicked in, I don't know how I didnt crash!!

Anyone else get this? or no how to fix? Should I change wheelset etc? 

 3

have you tried gripping the top tube with both knees?

also, and this will deffo work - just go faster!

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Simmo72 [699 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

Struggling so badly desending (lets just call it going down a hill) following an unexplained off which left me broken in several areas a cou0le of years ago.

Stuck in my head....hedgerow - suicidal badger/deer/rabbit, gravel-slide out, pot hole, car overtaking badly, guy in front coming off (which happened), front tyre blow out (which also happened)......I just lock up at speed and then corner like a donkey on roller skates.

I'm 95kg, 6ft5, I used to love going downhill to get revenge on the whippets going up hill....help.

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