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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 been in cycling media since 1996, on titles including BikeRadar, Total Bike, Total Mountain Bike, What Mountain Bike and Mountain Biking UK, and he has been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. Mat has been road.cc technical editor for over a decade, 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 winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer. Now pushing 50, he's riding road and gravel bikes most days for fun and fitness rather than training for competitions.