Road bikes are capable of hitting 40, 50 mph or more when descending. It’s like flying, and one of the most adrenaline pumping, heart stopping experiences of your life. But it’s one thrill ride to take seriously. Men are more likely than women to push the limits, mostly because of machismo that should be reeled in. But descending can be done safely if you use your head.
Your bike is the most important aspect of descending. Even the most insignificant issue can spell disaster at high speed. Everything should be checked before you cross the line and pick up serious speed. Most of the checkup can be done before you leave home, but if you’re going down a long, steep hill, it’s advisable to check things at the top, and hold on for dear life, with the knowledge that if something goes wrong, it won’t be because you didn’t check your bike first.
Checking your tires is a no-brainer. If you’re at the top of a hill, pick up the bike and give the wheels a spin. If there’s a wobble or bulge in the tire you’re already in trouble. If you have no other choice, and depending on the severity of the issue, ride it down, but slowly. In the event your tire fails you can stop in time.
Wheels are another thing that can disintegrate before your eyes. If they swerve back and forth your wheel is out-of-true. The severity of swerve in the wheel — it happens all the time to road bike wheels — is not that much of an issue, and will not necessarily cause you to go down, but should result in slowing down considerably on your descent.
Run you hand over the spokes. If any are loose, rattly or you might have noticed a “ping,” your wheel could be in danger of coming apart at high speed. Keep the speed down.
Always check the quick-release before descending. This one is so simple, that further explanation should not be necessary. Loose wheels cause accidents.
Handlebars, and Brake Levers
Do a quick check of your brake handles and handlebars. Place both hands on the brakes, squeeze them and twist the handlebars from side to side. If anything is loose, get out your tools and tighten it. Briefly check the position of your brake pads. If one of them is tilted, it can rub a hole in the tire.
Body and Hand Position
The jury is still out on the proper body and hand position for descending. Pro cyclists prefer to go downhill with their hands in the drops. The reasoning is that it makes you more aerodynamic, and it does, but if you’re uncomfortable down there, it’s a drawback to safety, and can make the bike feel twitchy at high speeds. It’s fine to descend with your hands on grips or hoods, hunched forward slightly to gain the aerodynamic approach. The best position is one that you’re most comfortable with personally. Try different positions before hitting high speeds, use the position that fits you, and then stick with it — it’s not a good idea to change hand positions at 40 mph.
The Aero Tuck
One thing you should avoid — at first anyway — when learning to descend, is the aero tuck. You’ve probably seen it many times if you’ve watched any pro cycling; experts with their hands close together, practically kissing the stem, head super-low in front. This position may win races, but makes the bike hard to control for beginners, and even the slightest problem causing you to brake is risky. The aero tuck is somewhat dangerous and not worth the risk.
Two Up Two Down
Never take your fingers off the brake levers. Most cyclists prefer to have two fingers on the bars, and two fingers on the levers, or “two up and two down.” Get used to riding this way all the time, and you’ll be prepared for any downhill.
Braking at 90-Degrees
It’s natural to see a curve and brake for it, but there are right and wrong ways to go about it. Apply brakes before the turn. Try not to brake after you enter the turn, if you’ve carried too much speed into the curve, you’re already in trouble. Brakes are most effective when your bike is upright, at 90-degrees. Braking in a curve means the bike is tilted at an angle, you have less traction, and can throw the bike into a skid. If you’ve misjudged your speed and need to brake, apply them only gently, feathering them if possible, to avoid washing out your front end, skidding and crashing.
Speeds above about 10 mph is where you begin to lean instead of steer. The faster you go, the less you steer. Focus on leaning into curves instead of turning the handlebars. When leaning into curves, the pedal on the low side of the bike should always be in the 12-oclock position. If you’re swerving into tight corners in both directions, alternate the pedal to keep the inside pedal up, away from the pavement.
Don’t Tense Up
Many riders tense up when descending, but it compromises your control. If you feel yourself getting intimidated by a hill, stop at the top. Try shaking out your arms and shrugging your shoulders to loosen your arm, shoulder and neck muscles. Touch your toes and reach for the sky to loosen your back and legs. Breath deep to get some fresh air in your lungs and calm yourself.
When you’re ready, roll off the summit and begin the descent. If you feel yourself getting tense again try to control it. Bend your elbows, relax your neck and shoulders, keep breathing and hold the bars firmly but not too tightly. Keep your eyes focused 20 to 30 feet down the road so you can anticipate your next move.
Things to Watch For
Several factors can influence speed on a descent. Among the most dangerous is debris, sand or gravel. Stay away from the side, riding nearer the center of the road, traffic permitting. Cross-wind can also be tricky. A sudden blast of cross-wind at 40 mph can spell disaster, be aware of it, and always be ready for the unexpected, things happen fast at 40 or 50 mph. Bikes are quiet. Riders have crashed because birds or wildlife have been scared up, right in front of them.
It takes time to become confident, to relax and make descending fun. Practice your technique by riding down familiar hills a few times to get the feel for it, it’s a great way to improve your downhill skills and build confidence. Always ride within your limits, wear a helmet, and keep it fun and safe.