Colconquerors

How to Become an Accomplished Descender

Descending is an essential part of any road cycling holiday or event. Being an accomplished descender will enhance your enjoyment of any ride and especially a trip to the mountains.

Descending the Col du Galibier
2020-01-06 10:00:00

Training to improve technique is often overlooked as we favor the physiological side of training which improves our power output which is easy to measure. Although harder to quantify there are significant gains to be made by spending time improving your descending technique and becoming an accomplished, safe descender not to mention the fact that it feels great too.

Before a holiday much emphasis is placed on having the required fitness levels to be able to climb mountains, preferably as fast as possible. Over the years we have found that much to peoples surprise, descending is actually the activity that presents the biggest challenge.

Not everyone takes to descending instantaneously. For some it happens naturally, but for a fairly high percentage of others there can be nervousness, or even fear of descending a mountain even at a relatively low speed. Often this can be as a result of a previous experience, perhaps there has been a crash when younger, or stories about what has happened to others has added to levels of nervousness, as a result you’ve ended up with a mental block that is reducing your enjoyment. You’ve worked hard to get to the top of every climb so you deserve to enjoy the descent.

There is good news. In nearly every case I have come across descending with 100’s of cyclists over the past decade there is always a reason why descending is not enjoyable, once this is discovered there is normally a solution to making the descent as enjoyable as other parts of the ride. As you will soon discover descending is actually made up of several key techniques and having a good understanding of each will usually lead to a significant improvement in your descending ability, which in turn will mean you have more fun and become a better all round cyclist.

Becoming more knowledgeable about each technique will give you things to think about and work on whilst out on rides. Each may seem quite basic and common sense however if things are amiss in one or more of the following areas it can contribute significantly to a loss of confidence and generate that feeling of “I’m not a descender”. 

Before we go further we need first to talk about your position on the bike whilst descending.

Descending Position

Having a good position on the bike is essential to allow you to improve and be confident when descending. If you find yourself not maintaining the position described I can’t recommend strongly enough finding the time to practice this position because it really is the platform for everything that follows.

Take a look at the image below. What do you see?

Descending the Izoard

The rider is seated with their weight towards the back of the bike and is also riding on the drops. Shifting your weight slightly towards the rear of the bike whilst riding on the drops ensures that your weight is evenly distributed across the bike when you are descending.

The centre of gravity for us as a human being when cycling is the boney section beneath our shoulder blades called the Inferior Angle of the Scapular and we are looking to place this roughly directly above the centre of gravity of our bike which for an endurance type road bike is the bottom bracket. Once you have achieved this position you will be balanced optimally and this alone will lead to an increased feeling of stability.

Thomas descending in Gran Canaria
Inferior Angle of the Scapular

Riding on the drops also provides another advantage. It will help you become proficient at the techniques required to become a confident descender. Braking is much more powerful when in this position as you have that ability to apply more force when pulling the levers, there is more modulation than when attempting to brake whilst descending on the hoods. Knowing that you have this extra braking power available to you is great for building your confidence.

There can be some initial challenges when riding on the drops, especially if you’re not accustomed to it. If you have small hands and or shorter fingers it can be difficult for your fingers to extend to reach the brake levers. This is easily remedied with virtually all modern group sets offering the possibility of adjusting the brake lever in towards the bars, making them easier to reach. There is usually a small adjustment screw beneath the hoods that when turned brings the lever closer. A little research on YouTube for your specific set-up will nearly always provide a solution.

In some rare cases the adjustment isn’t enough or available with a particular group set, however you can usually ask your local bike shop (a great reason to visit them!) to install some shims which will achieve the same result. This small change can make a huge difference to your confidence. Now you know you can stop at will, it’s possible to concentrate on other things.

You may have found that descending on the drops has caused you discomfort in the lower back, neck or shoulders this could very well be related to your current bike fit. With good quality bike fitters being available in most areas these days it's well worth taking the time and spending a little cash to ensure your underlying position is set up correctly so you are able to ride for sustained periods on the drops. You might find that with some relatively small changes such as installing stem spacers, flipping your stem, adjusting saddle height or fore/aft position and in some cases purchasing narrower handlebars a modified position makes riding on the drops achievable. It’s all worth while to become a more confident descender.

Over the course of a season you might be surprised to know how many times we install spacers and flip stems to improve a riders experience and in some cases save their holiday. A change of only 5 to 10 mm may seem small but really can make a huge difference to comfort, enjoyment and performance.

Stem Flipped with Spacers

If you're not used to riding on the drops there’s also the speed issue! It’s reported at times that riding on the drops provides a greater sensation of speed and if you are not used to this it can be disconcerting at to start with. As with anything new you have to give it time, be patient and descending on the drops is no exception to this rule. In the following technique sections I’ll provide some things for you to work on that will help you progress.

Things you can do right now to get used to riding on the drops:

  • Use the drops during winter training on the turbo trainer. This is a safe environment where you can spend a few minutes during each interval on the drops. If you are doing longer threshold intervals then why not do one of the set on the drops? (This will also help identify any bike fit issues that you can address before your holiday)
  • When out on the road consciously make the effort to spend part of the time you are riding on the drops especially when you come to a short descent. If you are riding alone or with a group and the pace is comfortable spend more time on the drops than you would usually. Set yourself a target that every 20 minutes you’re going to spend at least 5 of them on the drops so over time your mind and body becomes accustomed to it, gradually increase the time you spend in this position as you become more comfortable.

Controlling Speed & Braking

Having the ability to control your speed whilst descending is not only essential for your safety but is also important to allow development of the other techniques that will see you become a smooth and more confident descender. Technique mastery comes from being able to perform tasks initially at a lower speed as this allows us time to think about what we are doing and be able to feel what’s happening beneath us on the bike. If everything is done at warp speed it might feel great but in many cases can lead to poor habits being formed which can be hard to break.

On a mountainous descent you should look to complete all of your braking before you arrive at the hairpin bend, this ensures that whilst you are travelling through the bend the bike is stable. If you apply the brakes mid way through the bend this can very easily unsettle the bike, break momentum and feel twitchy, which in turn can lead to you feeling not as confident as you would like.

Braking Zone

Remembering that you should be descending on the drops as you approach the bend, first you should sit up and look ahead (whilst remaining on the drops) as this will allow air resistance to slow you down somewhat before braking is applied. Once the initial speed is reduced and the bend is closer you should smoothly apply both brakes in equal measure so that you arrive at the entrance to the bend at a speed that you are happy to carry around the bend. This speed may be slower than you would like however it’s important to have a lower speed to begin with ahead of the act of cornering. Once you have entered the bend your goal is to not use the brakes as this will unsettle the bike.

The key point is that all braking should be complete by the time you enter the bend. If you’re not a natural descender this can be quite a leap of faith but so long as you reduce your speed enough on your approach it will contribute to you becoming a more competent descender and make cornering smoother and more pleasurable. If you do find yourself needing to apply the brakes during the bend apply the rear brake only, gently and avoid snatching or sudden movements as this can lead to loss of control or skidding.

Things you can do right now to improve your braking:

  • Find a quiet, straight section of road with a descent or preferably a mountain. Whilst looking up and ahead and covering your brakes, with your feet horizontal on the pedals let your bike roll and build momentum whilst counting to 5. When you arrive at the count of 5 gently ease on the brakes and smoothly bring yourself to a near standstill. Release the brakes just before your come to a stop and repeat the process gradually increasing the rolling time from 5 to 10 and 20 seconds. This will help you gradually get used to the sensation of speed building up and give you confidence in your ability to slow down in a controlled way.
Lesley-Anne-Descending

Gear Selection

Gear selection might seem a strange inclusion but it’s an important and often overlooked part of being able to descend smoothly and efficiently. If you are descending at a fair speed and enter a hairpin bend on the 11 tooth sprocket you will have to make some rather rushed gear changes as you exit the bend to once again build up momentum. Alternatively attempting to power out of the bend in this high, hard to push gear will place unnecessary load on your muscles which when repeated over the duration of a 20km descent will add up to a considerable amount of extra fatigue not to mention the fact that those you’re riding with keep disappearing into the distance down every straight. Selecting the correct gear when descending will also help prevent against injuries, especially on the cooler days in the mountains.

As you approach every bend you should be thinking about shifting into a gear on the rear cassette that is going to allow you to build cadence and pedal relatively easily and smoothly as you exit the bend.  All the time you are changing gears whilst entering and exiting a bend you should be looking up and ahead and not at the gears.

Things you can do right now to help select the correct gear:

  • Enter  bends and junctions slowly being sure to change to an appropriate gear whilst still pedalling towards the junctions. As you pull away from the junction and start to build cadence gently shift through the gears one at a time, avoid snatching.
  • If you’re not confident or find yourself rushed with gear changing during descents try slowing everything down so you have the time to concentrate on making the correct gear changes. There’s nothing wrong with taking the pace back a few notches to practice things.
Gear Selection

Cornering & Line

The line that you take into a bend, around the bend and as you exit can have a dramatic effect on how smoothly, efficiently and therefore confidently you will descend. Get the line wrong and any type of bend can feel rushed, as if it’s just happening to you without you have the necessary input or control. This is never more true than when descending in the mountains. I’ve taken the opportunity to break bends down into 3 sections: approach, during and exit.

Approach to Bend

There’s quite a lot to think about on the approach and perfecting this phase is key to making a smooth descent. Here are 5 points to think about the next time you’re faced with a good descent:

1. On approach to the bend you should have controlled your speed and have selected a gear that will allow you to pedal smoothly out at the other side of the bend.

2. You should look to approach the bend wide. If you are coming up on a left hand hairpin you should be wide to the right hand side of the road (we are riding in mainland Europe here) as per the diagram below. Taking this wide entry allows the severity of the bend to be reduced and therefore reduce the amount of braking required. 

Line to take around a hairpin bend

It’s very common to see riders start to turn into the bend too soon and this makes the bend very tight and difficult to ride around smoothly. Take the opportunity whilst you are out wide to delay making the turn and think about how you can make the angles around the bend as shallow as possible, allowing you to maintain momentum.

3. On your approach and just before you start to make the turn you should make sure your head is up and look firmly across at the exit of the bend. Initially it really helps to make this an exaggerated lifting and turning of the head (imagine someone has attached a string to the top of your helmet and has given it a tug upwards) as this will ensure you are conscious of actually doing it. You should be looking at the exit all the way around the bend from this point onwards, until you exit the bend. Looking at the exit in conjunction with the next step will give you a very smooth sensation and feel like the bike is on rails going around the bend.

The correct head position is a very important step in becoming a smooth, confident descender. It is very common to observe a rider making lots of small movements whilst riding around a bend and then having to make a series of small corrections. The movements are often caused by the rider initially looking ahead in the bend, then as the bike goes around the bend the rider moves his or her head in small steps rather than fixating on the exit at all times. Each of these small head movements causes the bike to move a little under the rider leading to an unsettled feeling. Only when you are able to control your speed entering a bend, select a wide line on approach and then lock your gaze on the exit of the bend will this start to feel smooth and controlled. 

4. There is one final thing that can make all the difference to how you feel when cornering. Once the bend is nearly upon you your outside leg (right leg assuming we are going around a left hand bend) should be in the 6 o’clock position right at the bottom of the pedal stroke. At the same time you start to look over at the exit you should push firmly down on this outside leg (right in this example) which then forces the bike tyres firmly into the road. We all pay a lot of money for our tyres and there’s a lot of technology in there, so it’s about time we put this expensive rubber to work! Maintaining pressure on the outside pedal throughout the bend ensures the bike will take a smooth line and importantly means that any cracks, lumps or bumps encountered mid bend will not bounce you around. With the leg pushed firmly down and you fixated on the exit of the bend, the bike will continue to follow a perfect arc around the bend. 

5. If the gradient is especially steep on approach into a bend, think about shifting your weight slightly further back on the saddle as this will help you maintain balance and control. Be sure to remain on the drops even when things are steeper.

Ian entering a bend wide

During the Bend

1. You have entered the bend nice and wide and it’s now important to make the bend as shallow as possible so it’s smooth. You should aim for the apex of the bend as per the diagram below. It takes some practice and all bends are different in shape but once you’ve got the hang of entering a bend wide and aiming for the apex your line will be well on the way to allowing you to take bends with confidence at a higher speed.

2. At all times during the bend keep your head up and consciously make an effort to look at the exit no matter how unnatural it feels to start off with.

3. Be sure to keep your outside leg actively pushed down forcing the rubber into the road.

4. As confidence increases think about dropping your inside shoulder into the bend as you approach. 

Kevin demonstrates excellent technique around a bend at high speed
Exit the bend wide

Exit of the Bend

1. Just as you entered the bend wide you should also be looking to exit the bend as wide as possible. Once the bike has crossed the apex of the road you should allow the bike to drift wide once again as you exit making the smooth arc complete.

2. Once you’ve arrived at the exit of the bend start pedalling smoothly to power out of the bend. If you have made a good gear selection on approach you should be able to accelerate smoothly without placing any undue force on your muscles and joints that could lead to early fatigue if repeated over and over.

You’ll know when things are going well. The sensation you get from taking a bend for the first time with it feeling like you’re on rails is one that you’ll want to repeat.

Cornering for different bend types:

We’ve been focussing mainly on hairpin bends up until this point but it’s well worth spending a few moments on “S” bends as they seem to cause hesitancy at times and this is something remedied by applying the above principles in a slightly different way.

With a hairpin bend you have one major obstacle in front of you to deal with and once it’s over you usually repeat it time and time again.  A series of “S” bends are not as technical or difficult to navigate but quite often riders will loose lots of momentum by repeatedly braking whilst approaching and riding through a series of S bends.

The key to maintaining momentum in this situation is to once again have your head lifted high and to look ahead this time not only at the first bend in front of you but further down the road at as many of the S shape bends you can see in the distance. Looking ahead, or through the entire series of bends, will allow you to see that the bends are not as severe as a hairpin meaning that you can maintain momentum through them safely without repeatedly braking as each bend in the series approaches. Remember that unnecessary braking or head and body movements lead to the bike being fidgety. Think about making a smooth S shape through a series of bends such as this by safely taking a line that makes the arc around the bends as smooth as possible. You’ll find that with practice you’ll soon be sweeping though “S” bends with control, speed & confidence.

S Bends are a lot of fun at speed

Things you can do right now to improve your cornering technique:

  • Initially reduce your speed whilst practicing to allow yourself time to think about the steps required to make each bend smooth.
  • Make a conscious effort to look up and fix your gaze at the exit of every single bend during a long descent.
  • Practice pushing your outside leg down on every bend.
  • Set up some cones or obstacles in a quiet off road area and practice rounding them as if they were bends. This is especially helpful for getting used to looking at the exit of a bend without the complication of speed on a mountain. 
  • Pick one hairpin bend on a quiet road and practice everything we’ve discussed above repeatedly. If you have someone to help get them to video you on the bend as this can be reviewed each time to see improvements to highlight things you could improve further.

Descending with Power

You may well be wondering what value a power meter can offer during a descent however it can be useful for several reasons especially if you are riding in a long mountain based event.

If you’ve been training and riding with power for a while you’ll be more than familiar with the fact that there’s a direct correlation between the power you put out on the bike and the energy (kj) cost associated with it.

Having trained for many months to ride an event like the Maratona in the Dolomites it’s important to know how you can be as efficient as possible with your finite resources. In an event that has multiple long descents it’s possible to use an awful lot of fuel during the descents when you should really be saving your fuel stores and muscles for what’s to come next (in a multi day event this is also important to aid recovery). Have a think about this for a moment. If you put the hammer down and accelerate hard coming out of every hairpin bend during a 15km long descent like the Col d’Izoard there’s going to be a power spike and with that spike is going to be the associated energy cost. If you extrapolate that out over three or four long descents that energy cost could add up to many 100’s of kilojoules, which could be the difference to how you feel and perform on the final climb of the day.

It’s not always obvious that you’re using energy on a descent because there’s the feeling that down equates to easy so you have to be disciplined. If you have an old ride file in Training Peaks or Strava that includes your power data from a previous mountainous event take a look and see how many kilojoules you burnt on the descents. Would you rather have had the extra resources later in the day?

Descent profile from WKO showing spikes.

Something to try with power when descending:

At the top of the descent either alone or with another rider(s) set up a little competition, the winner of which will be the rider who arrives at the bottom of the descent with the lowest normalised power. This is a great way not only of being efficient but it also encourages you to take the correct line and maintain momentum throughout the duration of the descent without having to revert to pedalling. Remember to reset your lap counter before you start!

Coaching Before your Trip

The techniques used in descending do not need a long mountain descent to be perfected, you can enhance all of them in advance of your holiday or event at home. If you are a nervous descender and have come to think that you are just not a descender, it’s highly likely that you have the ability to become a competent descender but are just lacking confidence as a result of not having mastered one or more of the techniques.

Working with a cycling coach, you are easily able to practice every technique discussed here in a safe environment. A coach will work with you on all of the techniques and will organise activities and courses that will allow you to progress and develop your level of expertise. You’ll be amazed at what can be achieved with a qualified coach, tennis court, some cones and a focus on just one thing without distraction.

A British Cycling Level 2 or Level 3 road and time trial coach will be able to help you. There’s a network of coaches across the UK (or other countries and associations) that will enjoy helping you. You can find a directory of all British Cycling Road & Time Trial Coaches here.

Descending on your bike should be fun, safe and thrilling! I hope this article in some small way will help you on your way to becoming a more accomplished descender and more rounded rider. If you ever find yourself on one of our road cycling holidays and would like help improving your descending just let us know, we always love to help.

Comments (2)

  1. Ian Bond
    18 Jan 2020 08:37:00

    Very helpful. Reminds me of all the things I’m doing wrong, even though I know what I should be doing!

  2. Rob @ Colconquerors
    18 Jan 2020 08:51:34

    Glad you found the post helpful Ian. You’ve become an accomplished, safe descender yourself.

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