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Descending on a Road Bike

By Laurel-Lea Shannon

Descending on a road bike
After struggling up a steep, quad-busting hill, flying down the other side is a welcome reward. Descents are payback for all the effort you’ve made getting to the top. Cycling downhill may appear to be effortless, but doing it safely takes a lot of different bike handling skills.

The pros hit speeds of 90 km/hr (55 mph) on descents. You probably won’t be going that fast but it’s still important to be able to anticipate what’s on the road ahead, and to learn how to keep control of your bike as you descend a steep hill.

Be aware of your environment. Riding safely downhill depends on keeping your movements smooth and making adjustments on time. To do that you have to be able to anticipate what’s happening down the road and to be aware of your environment. Are there cars parked on the side of the road? If so, you’ll need to slow down and be prepared to take action if someone opens a car door or a person or a dog steps out into your path. Are there potholes or broken pavement ahead? How much motor traffic is there? You’ll also need to assess whether it’s safe to take the lane so you can skirt around road obstacles.

Learn how to control your speed. There are different ways to control your speed without having to rely completely on the brakes. Heavy braking on descents will over-heat the tire rims and could cause the inner tube to explode. Try this instead:

  • Air braking. Just by changing your body position and sitting up on the bike creates resistance and slows you down. Need more resistance? Stick out your elbows and your knees.
  • Feather the brakes. On any descent, ride with your hands close to the brake levers so you can easily access them when you need to. If you need to brake before heading into a corner, for example, lightly feather both the front and the back brake simultaneously. Don’t brake while in the corner. [Read more about cornering here.]

Stay relaxed. Don’t ride with a death grip on the handlebars. Stay relaxed and you’ll enjoy the ride more and be more responsive to any adjustments you have to make. Rest your hands on the handlebars and keep your body relaxed. A stiff body reacts more to bumps in the road, making your bike less stable.

Stay in your comfort zone. Only go as fast as you feel you can safely handle the bike. Don’t try to keep up with more advanced riders. If you’re unfamiliar with the terrain, ride with extra caution.

Pedal. If you want to go even faster, shift up until you are in the highest gear and pedal. Pedal only as fast as feels comfortable. If you’re not gaining any speed by pedaling, then freewheel.

Pedal position. If you are freewheeling downhill, keep the cranks parallel. That way you can easily lift yourself off the saddle to absorb bumps in the road.

Increase your speed. If you’ve mastered all the preceding skills, you may feel confident enough to increase your speed. To do that, lower your body and tuck it into the bike. That reduces the drag created by your upper body. The tighter the tuck, the faster you’ll go.

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5 comments to Descending on a Road Bike

  • Kathi

    All info about descents are greedily absorbed; snails beat me downhill, I’m terrified. I have crashed in the past but not because of a downhill so not sure where this fear comes from. Maybe childhood revisited :) :)

  • Maria

    As you said what a reward the downhill is!!!! One thing I don’t hesistate to do when zipping down is to take the lane, if I feel that the cars pose a risk to me while trying to pass me.

  • Thanks for the great article – it is really helpful, especially for beginners. While I agree that riders ought to be in the drops with their fingers feathering the brakes new riders seem to be better off with their hands on the hoods – they might not have the flexibility to get lower and move their butts further back – but certainly their end goal is low and in the drops enjoying the combined benefit of gravity and confidence!

  • Syringa

    OMG! “Ride with your hands on the brake hoods, so you can easily access them when you need to.”

    NEVER, EVER RIDE DOWN STEEP DESCENTS WITH YOUR HANDS ON THE HOODS!!! You need to be in the drops so you can control the bike if you hit something or have a flat. Get in the drops and push your butt to the back of the saddle for stability.

    The bike will buck you off if you have your hands on the hoods. If you can’t reach your brakes to feather them while in the drops, go see your bike mechanic and get things adjusted. I’ve seen some nasty accidents out there due to bad descending.

    • LS

      That was an editorial error which has been corrected to: “On any descent ride with your hands close to the brake levers, so you can easily access them when you need to.” Thanks for bringing that to my attention.

      Also, different techniques apply to short, shallow descents when you should keep your hands on the brake hoods.

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