Unless you live in the flatlands, descending is a crucial cycling skill, and not just because it helps you catch your mountain goat of a riding buddy on the way down an escarpment. Having good descending skills is crucial for staying safe when things get steep or sketchy. Here’s everything you need to know about how to ride descents on a bike—whether you’re riding dirt, pavement, or any surface in between.
How to Descend on a Bike
Adjust Your Position
If you’re on a road bike (or gravel bike with drop bars), you’ll want to place your hands in the drops. With your hands on the lower part of the handlebar, your center of gravity is closer to the ground, like a race car. Also, your weight will be more evenly distributed between the front and rear wheels, which helps maintain traction, especially during braking and turning.
“The biggest mistake I see people making is not being in an athletic position or being completely tense and rigid. You can’t get a bike to do cool things if you’re rigid,” says Lee McCormack, author of Mastering Mountain Bike Skills and several other books on bike handling.
For trail riding, McCormack says it’s important to get into an athletic stance versus treating your seat like a cushy recliner and cruising all the way down.
“Push your butt back and hold your torso level,” McCormack says, comparing the position to that of a deadlift. Hinge at your hips and use your glutes to hold you up—not your quads. “All of the weight should be in your feet and your hands should be completely weightless,” he says, adding that this stance will allow your gravel or mountain bike to essentially float underneath you while you make tiny adjustments.
Look to Where You Want to Go
Regardless of riding surface, you want your eyes to scan ahead and look for any possible danger signs, so you have time to react.
If you’re riding right, trail and road obstacles will never surprise you. “If you come up on an obstacle on the trail without realizing it, that’s your mistake; that’s on you,” says McCormack, who has raced downhill and knows a thing or two about riding too quickly. “You have to ride at a speed that’s within your vision,” he says, meaning that if your brain and body can’t process what’s coming up on the trail before you’re on top of it, you need to slow your roll.
In turns, keep your eyes on the exit, which will help you carve a smooth, steady line all the way through. And if you want to get faster, don’t pedal harder; instead, practice looking farther ahead. “The farther you can look out in front of you, the faster you can ride,” McCormack says.
Stop Stressing Out
It’s good to be alert and aware of the dangers of going downhill—but letting them rule your mind is a problem, says California-based coach and exercise physiologist Jesse Moore. “I’m not sure if ‘ironic’ is the right word, but it is exactly that tension and focusing on all the things that might go wrong that will draw a rider towards the scenarios they are afraid of,” he says.
Case in point: You tend to steer toward whatever you’re looking at, so if you’re fixated on that pothole, you may just end up bouncing across it.
The solution: Take a deep breath before the descent, ride well within your comfort zone (more on this in a bit) and remember, this is supposed to be fun! “If you wanted to be stressed out, you might as well go to the office,” says McCormack.
To help yourself stay relaxed, start at the top of your body and let go of tension. Keep breathing, open your mouth to unclench your jaw, drop your shoulders, bend your elbows, release your death grip on the bar, uncurl your toes, and let your feet lie flat on the bottoms of your shoes.
Still find yourself struggling with bike anxiety? Avoid big downhills while you practice on easy grades, or find a local bike-handling clinician or coach to help you, says McCormack. If that doesn’t help, consider enlisting the expertise of a sports psychologist.
Brake Early (But Not Often)
The biggest mistake people make descending: They wait until they’re in the middle of a turn to brake. Instead, scrub speed before the turn. If you have to brake in the turn, you didn’t slow enough to begin with.
“When you do brake, brake emphatically and with intention,” says McCormack. Then let go and allow your bike to travel unencumbered through the tricky spots like rock gardens or rutted sections.
Always anticipate what you’ll need to do next—this will help you avoid sudden braking. For controlled slowing, gently squeeze both levers equally with two- to three-second pulses. Not only is braking the whole way down hard on your arms and hands, it’s not great for your brake pads or your bike’s handling, because it changes the way force is exerted on your wheels. Constantly riding the brakes on big descents can also make rims or rotors overheat.
“Setting the speed before the turn is the best practice,” says Moore. If you do end up in a turn with too much get-up-and-go, tap your back brake softly (this is also known as “feathering”), but don’t grab it, as that can cause a skid. “For emergency braking situations, it is better to stand the bike up more [so come slightly out of the turn] and use both brakes to scrub a lot of speed and then lean back into the turn,” he adds.
Lean Into the Turn to Corner
As you prepare to corner, push your outside pedal down (right turn, left foot down) with pressure on that foot. To initiate the turn, lean the bike—not your body—into the turn (right turn, lean bike right). The faster and sharper the turn, the more you’ll lean the bike. This action is similar to downhill skiing: The lower body angulates into the turn while the upper body remains upright. To exit the turn, gently straighten the bike.
Speaking of leaning, to get a feel for how your bike really turns, McCormack suggests grabbing it by the seat and pushing it down the road. As you walk, push the seat slightly to the right. Though you’re not touching the handlebar, the whole bike will turn right. The same thing happens when you ride. McCormack says this is the best way to get through a tight turn—by shifting your weight, not wrestling your handlebar. “Use your hips,” he says. He personally thinks “the pointing-your-knee thing is BS,” though some riders do find that cue to be helpful.
If you’re scared of leaning your road bike too far and losing traction (at least on a dry surface), know this: “You’d have to lean way beyond what the average person is going to do to have an issue,” says McCormack—and he’s taught more than 5,000 riders how to descend. However, to ensure your inside pedal doesn’t meet the pavement, bring it up to the 12-o’clock position.
Follow The Leader
No one says you have to go downhill at rip-roaring speed. But if you do want to fly, Moore says that—as with climbing—riding with fast friends is the way to go. “Watch the lines they take and visualize their body position as they take the turns, making it your own,” he says. “It is amazing how well we can copy the rider in front of us, and seeing someone else do it is a great way to have confidence that we can do it, too.”
How to Descend in Wet Weather
Descending is one of the trickiest skills to learn on the bike, and it gets even trickier in wet weather. Rainy days can make for scary bike rides, but there are a few things you can do to make your rides safer and a lot more fun. Embrace riding in the rain with help from three road experts who have ridden in every kind of environment and know the best tricks to stay upright, no matter where the descent takes you.
Prep Your Bike
If it’s raining, take advantage of rain gear like fenders to keep your kit clean, and lower your tire pressure, especially for technical terrain. That’s the first piece of advice that Brandon Davis, the head coach at Wattage Cottage, and Sean Kelly, the head coach for the Ontario Cycling Association, offer when it comes to rainy descents. That’s because the lower your pressure, the bigger your tire’s contact patch is with the ground, which means better traction.
As for tire pressure, go as low as you can. For a standard 700x25 tire, Davis suggests running your weight in kilograms plus 10 psi, so if you’re 70 kilograms (about 154 pounds), run no fewer than 80 psi.
Scrub Speed Even Earlier
A wet descent is not the time to try new things or take risks on your bike; you want to take it easy and stay in control of your bike, even if it doesn’t feel as badass. If there’s a corner coming up, start scrubbing your speed earlier than you normally would. “It takes a second or two longer [on wet descents] for your brake pads to start to engage and slow you down,” says Kelly. And even though disc brakes engage better in wet conditions, you should still brake early.
Davis adds that you absolutely want to be finished with your braking before you enter the turn: You might feel like you’re going too slowly, but it’s better to glide safely through the corner than hit the ground.
Don’t Brake in the Corner
If you scrubbed your speed right, this cycling tip is a no-brainer, but all three coaches emphasize that on wet rides, the biggest no-no is braking in corners. “On dry roads, you can feather the brakes a little, but in the wet, that can cause your wheels to lose traction,” says Heath Dotson of HD Coaching. “And definitely don’t be on the front brake in the turn. That can cause the front wheel to push out and, for most people, that is going to be unrecoverable.”
Pay Even More Attention to Conditions
Kelly recommends avoiding the paint lines on the road, especially in wet conditions—they get slick when wet. (And that’s an easy one to avoid being taken out by!) Davis rides in the rain pretty frequently in North Carolina, and in that warm climate, reading the road can get even trickier. “Be wary if it’s been hot prior to the rain showers as the oils in the pavement can surface and make it really slick,” he warns. If you know a certain road gets ultra-oily, plan an alternate route that sticks to more gravel roads and dirt instead. “Fresh tarmac is awesome in the dry but a nightmare in the wet,” Dotson adds.
Change Your Riding Style
Your normal practices of tight turns and late braking are for dry days—when it rains, ease up from your standard riding style and take wider turns when possible, Kelly recommends. He also advocates focusing more pressure on the outside of the bike while descending, specifically on your outer pedal. This helps you avoid the dreaded “speed wobble,” which becomes even more wobbly in the rain. You want to keep tension throughout your body and your bike when it’s raining to stay in tighter control.
More Steering, Less Leaning
Normally, road riding is about body language—you shouldn’t be steering so much as using the bike to act as an extension of your body. But in the rain, especially in corners on descents, plan to lean less and steer a bit more in the corners. Kelly and Dotson both recommend avoiding those hard leans that make cyclists look so darn cool in favor of a slower, steadier corner that will end with you still upright.
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