Overcoming Fear of Descending on the Bike
Road riding and racing season is here, and with this may come some anxiety. Many riders, already nervous descending on the road bike, are really frightened by the prospect of descending in a peloton or group. Use these tips to help you to gain confidence in your ability to descend.
If you are nervous descending, it is best to start practicing with people that you trust and who are confident in their own descending ability. Often times, you can learn by simply watching them and following their lines through turns.
When you start down a hill, make sure that your hands are in the drops, your elbows are bent, and your weight if shifted farther back over the seat. This lowers your center of mass and gives you more maneuverability. You can’t extend an arm to steer the bike if that arm is already straight. Keeping weight back keeps from over-weighting and over-committing to the steering of the front wheel.
Make a mental check of your body; are you tense? Relax your arms and torso. When you do this, you will be accomplishing two things. The first is to give yourself better control of your bike. If you are stiff, then you will not be able to absorb road bumps. By relaxing your body, you will also lower your heart rate and save energy. The less your muscles have to work, the less your heart has to pump! Try thinking about lowering your heart rate if you find yourself really tense.
Keep hands wrapped around the bars only as securely as necessary so that a solid bump will not dislodge them. Keep wrists relaxed. At the same time, keep each index finger loose and at the ready if necessary to trigger the brake, but keep it resting only against the outside of the lever. Keeping from having it already wrapped around the lever will help you avoid squeezing the brake too early.
Start with letting off the brakes more often on straight descents, then work on getting more comfortable in turns. Slow to a speed that will be comfortable for the corner you are approaching before you reach it, even if that is very slow. Practice riding with confidence at whatever speed. Avoid practicing being scared.
To make a bike stable in a turn, you have to let it lean into the turn, so put your weight on the pedal that is on the outside of the turn and use your inside arm to lean the bike but hold the front wheel close straight ahead as you enter the turn.
If you are riding down a really twisty hill, consistently look ahead to your next turn. When you are aware of changes in the road ahead, you will be more confident once you reach them. Your eyes should be on the apex of the turn until you can see past it, and then shift to your exit line. The idea is to “straighten” out the road as much as possible within the lane area safely available to you.
In descending as on flat roads, enter and exit each turn in a rounded way, starting wide and staying wide about a second longer than you think you should. Don’t start your turn too soon.
Once you start to feel more confident, you will notice a natural increase in your descending speed. Again, it is important to be at the speed at which you are comfortable. Once you are feeling more confident descending on your own and with a few friends, start visualizing and practicing how you would like to descend in races. When you are racing, except when you are in a hard corner, keep soft-pedaling even when going downhill. This keeps your legs from locking up on you when you start putting out power again.
Since this is all a lot to consider, here is a convenient summary:
- Practice descending in group rides with people who are already confident in their descending ability.
- Descend in your drops with your elbows bent.
- Relax your arms and your torso.
- Learn to speed up on straight descents before increasing speed on turns.
- Look ahead to your next turn.
- Slow to a speed at which you will be comfortable cornering before you start the turn.
- Remember to keep pedaling.
It is okay to be cautious about descending. Having a bit of caution will help to keep you safe. It is the unnecessary nervousness that practicing these tips can assist with.
Coach Leia Tyrrell works with all levels of athletes, specializing in collegiate cyclists and those making the transition from cycling to multi-sport.