Bike-Handling Basics #2: How to Descend

Marc Lindsay
by Marc Lindsay
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Bike-handling is integral to riding outdoors, and this series will cover the basics — starting with cornering and now descending. Climbing is a major part of cycling. It goes without saying that once you climb that steep mountain pass, you will have to go back down. Knowing how to descend correctly is a crucial skill for any cyclist to stay safe and have fun.

These descending tips help refine your technique and build your confidence at high speeds:

Descending correctly requires you to maintain a body position that can be held for an extended period of time while also being ready to quickly adjust to hazards on the road. When riding at high speeds, less reaction time is a reality, and you’ll want to be as prepared as possible to handle potential obstacles headed your way.

Here’s the basic body position for descending on a road bike:

  • Head: Keep your head up at all times and scan further down the road than you normally would, always keeping an eye out for that pothole or rock in your path. Remember you go where you look so avoid looking down or at your wheels.
  • Torso: Your torso should remain level, but don’t sit too far forward. The key is to be balanced between the front and rear wheel to ensure adequate tire traction. Scooting slightly back on the saddle and keeping your chin over the stem is recommended.
  • Hands: Riding in the drops improves your balance and allows you easy access to the brake levers to control your speed when more powerful braking is needed. Avoid gripping the handlebars too tight, as it makes your body tense and can cause you to overcorrect.
  • Feet: Pedaling can actually help you balance at high speeds, but it also might make you descend a little faster than you want to. Until you get comfortable descending, a better practice is to keep the pedals level and coast. This allows you to place weight through the pedals for better traction. You can also take some of your weight off the seat, and lift your rear over any bumps or rough patches on the road. When you approach a corner, you can rotate the pedals easily from this position so that the outside leg is straight and the inside foot is in the 12 o’clock position, allowing you to lean safely into the bend.

Ironically, being nervous about crashing or worrying too much about bad things that could happen can make an accident more likely. The tighter you hold the handlebars and lift your shoulders toward your ears, the more likely you are to overcorrect or brake too hard when only a small adjustment is necessary, creating a more dangerous situation.

The safer way to descend is to relax as much as possible and be confident in your bike-handling skills. Here are a few things you can do:

  • Steering: Whether you’re riding a bike or driving a car, you tend to steer toward whatever you’re looking at. So don’t fixate on that pothole in the road too much. Know where it is and focus on where you want to go instead.
  • Breathe: Anxiety and nerves can play a big role in how you descend. Remember cycling is fun and meant to relieve stress instead of cause it. Taking a few deep breaths before you begin a descent and reminding yourself to relax can go a long way.
  • Lighten your grip: The death grip on your handlebars creates tension all the way up through your body. Not only will this cause fatigue on a long descent, your corners won’t be as smooth and overcorrections more likely. Instead, lightly grip the handlebars and keep a slight bend in your elbows to relax your arms and shoulders.
  • Relax your face: Tension in the body can often be controlled with the muscles in the face. If your lips and cheeks are tense, your body probably is, too. Relax these muscles in the face and your body will follow. Maybe even try to smile.

When traveling at higher speeds, you’ll need to be aware of obstacles that could potentially cause an accident. In addition to traffic and other cyclists, avoid painted white lines (which may be slick), drain covers, speed bumps, rocks, gravel, leaves and sand. Riding over these obstacles can make it easy to lose traction and send you sliding.

Also keep an eye out for vehicles pulling out into the road that may not recognize how fast you’re traveling or pedestrians who might not be expecting you zooming down a hill. If you’re riding in a group with other cyclists, leave room behind their rear wheel. Four bike lengths is usually recommended, which gives you enough time to react and move around them should something happen.

Keep in mind, road conditions affect the safety of your descent, too, so be extra cautious when roads are wet. Ride at a slower speed, brake by feathering the front and back brake levers often, and leave even more space between you and other cyclists.

About the Author

Marc Lindsay
Marc Lindsay

Marc is a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Portland State University and is a certified physical therapy assistant. An avid cyclist and runner of over 20 years, Marc contributes to LAVA, Competitor and Phoenix Outdoor magazines. He is the former cycling editor for Active.com.

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