Going downhill on a bicycle is one of the greatest experiences one can have — that is, it’s great if you are confident with descending on a bike …
When athletes come to me for help with a skill like descending, climbing or log hops, the first question I ask is how often they do that skill during their regular training. Often, if we don’t excel at something, it’s because we haven’t done a lot of it. Of course, it is possible you may not be riding as many downhills as you should because there are no major downhills in your area.
If you live in the flatlands, don’t fret, there are still many ways you can prepare to shred long downhills at your next race or trip to a hilly area. Even if you live in flat areas, you still probably have access to some kind of downhill, whether it’s local river valleys, sand-pits, shorelines, skate park ramps or even just drops down from roads that are built up. While repeats — doing these sections over and over again — can be boring, you can make huge headway by doing multiple repetitions of a short downhill.
Here are a few technique-driven suggestions to build the essential confidence necessary to descend safely:
If you aren’t great at cornering, you can practice that on flat terrain and on many different types of bikes — and it will help you improve going downhill. Not being comfortable in corners is a huge limitation for many riders and is something you can practice even in a grassy field, just by setting up a few cones. If you get used to the forces and feelings of acceleration you feel in a corner, you will find your comfort level on a descent gets better.
Even though you may not have a lot of local downhills, you may very well have technical terrain you can use to maximize your skill. This could mean a technical criterium course, cyclocross course, gravel descent, BMX jump park or mountain bike trail. Try to gradually increase the speed and smoothness you can carry over these obstacles, corners and courses. Aim for shorter durations with higher speed (relative to your ability).
While corners help you feel the acceleration forces as you change direction or whip around a berm, you can also get used to going quickly in a straight line and through more technical terrain. Whether you do some motor-pacing or group riding on the road, jump into a criterium race or race through the local technical mountain bike loop, the feeling of speed will be very helpful when you get to descents.
A really effective tool for learning to feel speed over varied terrain — that also requires you to work with the terrain by applying pressure to your feet and/or hands — is a pump track. Pump tracks offer a series of off-road bumps and bermed corners made of dirt or wood that let you go around in circles without necessarily needing to pedal. The feeling of going quickly over humps, bumps and through corners is one of the best ways to develop flow — or the ability to work with and be smooth over variable terrain.
If you are looking for ways to go fast but not have to do all the work, then a motorcycle might be a way to get a similar feeling of speed and acceleration. Many of the best riders I have ridden with have experience with some sort of motorized vehicle. If you have a local dirt-bike park or even a weekend course for motorcycle riding, the experience of speed, acceleration and a heavier bike may very well help you be more comfortable on a bicycle. Understanding things like traction, braking, cornering and position relates to cycling.
Watching video of yourself and others riding downhills can be quite powerful. If you have the ability to video yourself riding (using a GoPro or even having a friend film from the bottom of a hill), take some video so you can really see what you look like — it will probably be pretty surprising! Some people do better seeing video of themselves doing a skill or riding a section, especially if you can do it successfully, while others can model other riders. You can also pull up a YouTube video of a skilled rider. A combination of watching others and seeing yourself is a great way to improve.
Most cyclists are not able to disappear from work and family to go to the mountains, but you can certainly plan a trip to help boost your exposure to descents. On these weekends, prioritize and plan your rides around doing more descending. Using downhill resorts, shuttling, chair lifts and other methods to add a few descents to your weekend helps you maximize these trips. This mini-block focused on something you can’t usually do can be quite effective at improving and maintaining any gains you have made.
Finally, while you may consider yourself limited in descending skills, it is likely your flat-land residency has made you great at riding in the wind, riding technical courses or putting out tremendous power on the flats. While you should train your weaknesses, make sure you have a few chances each year to race your strengths. There are so many disciplines of cycling that do not need hills including time-trial, track cycling, BMX, criteriums and cyclocross, so don’t be afraid to embrace any one of these disciplines as your main racing style.