Cornering & Descending Without Anxiety – Slowing It Down to Speed It Up

Fear as it relates to cycling can be categorized into three main types:

1. Fear that one experiences when danger is present

2. Fear of the unknown or loss of control

3. Phobia – an extreme or irrational fear

When it comes to cornering and descending, we’ll deal with the first two categories of fear. We will leave phobias about going fast downhill on a bike for the therapists.

Fear elicits the fight or flight response: senses are heightened; and adrenaline floods the blood stream. When speeding down a hill toward a corner, you can choose to do one of two things in response to this: slow your bicycle down; or allow it to heighten your senses and become super aware of everything around you that has meaning in the given situation. You can become aware of the edges of the road, scan down the road to note oncoming traffic, look for debris and potholes in the road, or try to note the degree of banking or lack thereof.

Conquer Your Fear of Descending

Professional bicycle riders can descend at speeds up to 50 to 60 mph during the Tour de France and other races. However, even among the ranks of professional bicycle riders there are some who are faster than the rest and some who are notably slower than most. What can create that kind of difference, even at the top level of the sport? For most it’s a mastery of basic skills practiced countless times in training rides and races and a learned confidence gained from the experience of that practice.

Mastering Cornering Basics

You can employ certain skills that aid in a feeling of increased control. The basics of cornering fast on a bicycle are simple: your leg weight should be on the outside pedal; pedal down and foot down with more pressure than normal on the pedal; hands in the drops with the inside hand pressing down a little harder than the outside hand; head vertical rather than leaning with the bike; shoulders low enough that elbows can be bent (you can’t steer with straight arms); and choosing a line through the corner that is as straight and smooth as possible. The way to choose the straightest line is to enter the corner as wide as possible, cut to the apex and exit wide. In a right hand corner for instance, enter from the center line of the road (or farther left on a closed road), cutting to the curb on the right and then exit the corner going all the way back to the center line of the road (or farther out on a closed road and if your speed requires it). This line through the turn allows the bike to have the least amount of G-force on it and produces the fastest speed through the corner possible with the least chance of losing traction. No matter how good your form, choose a speed at which you feel safe and confident so you can practice feeling self-assurance rather than fear.

Two things often keep riders from employing the above skills: 1)  being unfamiliar with the skills and 2) a general fear of impending doom. Some riders are afraid that something bad will happen to make them crash while going fast and hurt them. Many riders who fear fast descending maintain that fear by viewing and reviewing an imaginary crash video or maintaining a negative internal dialogue. One of the main aims or practice for these riders is to replace the internal dialogue or the potential doom pictures in the mind with exact tasks to accomplish during a descent or corner, accompanied by a mental video in the mind in which positive actions and outcomes are shown.wet-descent-bike

In a recent basic skills clinic, I had a rider that was very uncomfortable going fast downhill and going through corners while descending quickly. We slowed things down dramatically and I had the rider practice the cornering skills while going slowly. The rider was able to go faster than before even while we were practicing at a slow speed. What the rider said to me was enlightening: “That is a very different experience going through a corner like that…” as compared to the way he was going through corners previously. For this rider’s homework, he was asked to practice his cornering skills on every ride from that point on, even while going slowly. The homework was to practice constantly going downhill and cornering with ease until it feels like habit. The more the skills are practiced, the more routine they become and the less fear of impending doom the individual experiences.

Mastering Descending Basics

When descending the front of the bike is tipped downward and more weight naturally goes toward the front wheel. At high speed this means more of a commitment to the turns of the front wheel, so that any kind of turn of the handlebars is amplified. To negate this, you’ll need to shift your weight farther back to balance out the weight distribution between the front and rear wheels. Next, shock from bumps or debris needs to be soaked up as smoothly as possible. Staying loose with knees and elbows bent and handlebar grip firm but not locked stiff takes in that shock and lets the bike continue to follow its line or curve rather than bouncing around too much. Unless your are going so fast that you would be spun out in your highest gear range, the legs should continually spin other than when you are actually cornering. This serves to check for a gear that can respond immediately in case there is an opportunity to increase speed.

Conquer Your Fear of Descending

When coasting, other than when going through corners, the feet should be even on the pedals with the cranks horizontal to the ground. This puts one foot forward and ready to respond to any immediate need to pedal as well as keeps both knees bent for shock absorption. As the speed rises, the hands should be in the drops to keep the center of gravity low. When the terrain is particularly steep or bumpy the rear should hover just above the saddle. The index finger should hover lightly ahead of the brake while the rest of the fingers hold the bar. Meanwhile, the head and eyes remain upright, scanning the road ahead for a clear line down the hill. Like playing a musical instrument, worrying about making a mistake is more likely to lead to that mistake. Instead, the mind should focus on the the music — that is, the clear path, instead of keying on the obstacles to be avoided.

Employing these skills, practice adding just a bit more speed each time down a hill. Eventually add riders ahead, next to and behind you, never forgetting to keep your focus ahead of the riders in front of you. You should continually scan for a path utilizing the straightest line, the clearest terrain, the driest terrain, and the highest visibility to the next turn in the road.

Tying the Skills and Thought Process Together

The mind can process information very quickly and you can use it to help you employ the appropriate skill at the appropriate time, given, that you have become familiar with the skills you need. This means practice. Practicing these skills may not make you an entirely daring descender, especially on unfamiliar descents, but it should ease your fears and make descending more comfortable for you, increasing your descending speed. Use your best position and choice of pace and line even if you don’t feel you need to. Practice corners over-and-over until it becomes second nature. If you notice negative self-talk or imagery, replace it with positive stuff. In time, your subconscious mind will take over and you’ll be bombing downhill wondering how you got so far ahead of your friends and teammates.

Coach Steve Long works with all levels of road racers and cyclists looking to improve their skills and performance.

Conquer Your Fear of Descending
One comment on “Cornering & Descending Without Anxiety – Slowing It Down to Speed It Up
  1. Taralea says:

    Wow Steve! Someday you will have to teach me to do all of this!