There are very few things as exhilarating as flying down an alpine descent on a bike, carving each of the turns, relaxed yet in full control. Aware that every minute input you throw through the bike results in the finest adjustment of your direction. You know where the limit is as for zooming down the thin ribbon of rich black tarmac which lies ahead of you, focused on going as fast as you can.
Adversely there is nothing more terrifying for a novice rider than an alpine descent. Tense and nervous, you are unable to flow with the bike as your mind is consumed with the thought of falling, the smashing impact followed by the tearing sensation of soft skin on rough tarmac.
Descending is a skill which many have to work at to master. Only a few people are naturally gifted at this. Though through some training and knowing about what to do when going downhill, you will soon be changing your grimace of fear into a smile of pleasure. There are two key tips which will improve your descending: 1; where to look and 2; relax.
Where to look:
Naturally the key to downhilling safely is being able to see where you are going. If you can see where to go and what hazards are coming up you can greatly increase your fun when descending. Like driving a car, the faster you go the further you have to look ahead. You would not expect to drive down a motorway looking a metre in front of the end of your bonnet. If you look further ahead, tens of metres in front, you have more time to register what is coming up. Try it the next time you are a passenger in a car, look right in front of the bonnet and see how quickly things approach, the road and all its dangers become a blur. But if you look 50 to 100 metres in front it seems like the speed is lower, your brain has more time to analysis and process what is coming up, making it safer.
The same applies on a bike. When possible, corners and road permitting, you should look as far as possible up the road. This allows you time to register what is coming up and before you know it 50 kilometres per hour will not seem terrifyingly fast, but a speed which you can ride at safely and comfortably.
Many people then comment; “But what about the road surface, if I look too far ahead I will not spot stones, pot holes etc?” By rapidly scanning back and forth you can see everything ahead of you. Fighter pilots have a good saying; “look where you want to go, not where you do not.” If you look ahead and see a road imperfection, spot the line which you want to take, your bike will be on that course. So even if you are looking far ahead you will still take the line which you looked at earlier.
No, this is not a throwback to a song in the 80’s by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, but the second key tip on how to get down those hills having more fun and faster. This is possibly the harder of the two tips to actually achieve whilst on the bike. A natural reaction to doing something which you are not comfortable with or to the extreme, scared of, is to tense up.
Physics is a cyclist’s friend. The Gyroscopic effect is the process. A spinning wheel wants to stay upright. If you try to fight this motion physics will fight back. This means that a bike in motion has a natural direction which it wants to take. If you are tense you are constantly fighting with this force, making your bike feel skittish and nervous. If you relax and allow the bike to take its natural path the ride is much smoother on the straights.
The same is true for cornering. If you relax and move in a gentle motion when picking your line, the bike will take corners much more smoothly. The bike will carve the turn as opposed to being wrestled around by your forceful inputs.
Watch a peloton of top professionals going downhill – they seem to all carve gracefully down the mountainside. They are all relaxed, not fighting with the physics of their bikes and thus go downhill a lot faster than us “normal” riders.
The only way to improve a weakness is to work at it. Being able to descend quickly takes time and experience. By using the above two tips you will be progressing down the road to enjoying descending. Naturally PBK does not recommend that you go out and find your limits, because crashing will put your confidence back. PBK also recommends that your bike is in safe working order and that you are properly fitted before working on your descending. If not then a simple thing like your bike being too long for you, or not being able to put your hands fully onto the brakes (a common occurrence with ladies) will mean that even using Brave Star’s “Eyes of the Hawk” to look up the road and being as relaxed as a Zen master will not help!
Going downhill on a bike is fun, the speed, the thrill and the recovery from the hard work of the climb should put a smile on your face. So work at it, look ahead and relax, then before you know it you will be flowing down the sinuous roads like a skier, rather than wrestling with your bike like Hulk Hogan himself!
Written by: Phil Gale