Everyone has a speed limit in his or her head. At a certain velocity you’re having the time of your life, but 3 or 5 miles per hour faster and the winds of panic start blowing in your ears.
Some cyclists freak out at 30 mph. Others can be reasonably comfortable at 45. One of Davis Phinney’s favorite racing stories: About the time the 7-Eleven Team began racing in Europe, bike computers became able to hold maximum speed in memory. The team loved the new technology because they could have an informal competition to see who could register the fastest speed in the day’s race. The gold standard was to hit triple figures – 100 kilometers per hour (62 mph).
That’s way too fast for most of us, and it takes an extremely steep descent to reach that velocity. But everyone can learn the psychological coping mechanisms to make descending at prudent speeds both safe and fun.
Psychological Coping Mechanisms
Analyze your fear. Why do fast descents make you nervous? If you tense up when going downhill quickly, you can’t solve the problem without knowing the reason. So conduct a self-analysis to find out. Have you fallen in the past? Do you feel comfortable on the straights but panic in corners? Are you more nervous when the pavement is wet? Is being buffeted by crosswinds a big concern? Answering these questions can help reveal why you fear fast descending – and suggest ways to conquer your fears.
Improve your technical skills. Good cornering on descents is just a matter of practice. And the confidence that comes from knowing you have the basic skills will make you feel better about flying down hills. So use every opportunity to practice and hone downhill techniques. For example, find a local descent that has several moderate bends. Gradually increase your speed each time you go down. Your skill and confidence will grow. Don’t take chances, but gently push the envelope each time you ride. Soon the speed that formerly frightened you will seem mundane.
Don’t get in over your head. Psychologically, it’s best to never descend faster than your comfort level. If you do, you’ll be afraid all the time you’re going downhill. You’ll get nervous even before descents begin. So keep a margin of safety. You won’t lose that much time in group rides or competitive events, you’ll have a lot more fun, and you’ll find that your skill level increases much faster than if you were flying around corners on the ragged edge of control.
There is another component to “Coping With Descending When You Don’t Like It”, and, if I may add: Even When You Do Like It.
As the article notes, confidence based on well exercised skills is fundamentally important,
However, there is another important and equally fundamental type of confidence. Confidence in the rider’s equipment. Quality equipment, suited to the task, and properly maintained, is critical to confidence. It is hard to over-emphasize this, and when combined with appropriate skills, it is especially effective in reducing rider apprehension.
Lack of confidence in equipment is particularly corrosive, and routinely results in apprehension, whether or not the rider is aware of the basis of their fearfulness (sometimes, ironically, the apprehension might be well founded). I am reminded of cases, where a reasonably skilled and fit rider, that would routinely express pride in using marginally suitable equipment, or getting extended mileage out of parts, such as tires or other consumables, could be found almost inching down inclines – due to lack of confidence. In more than one case, the rider in question would be able to pass me riding up the hill.
Having good skills and appropriate, reliable equipment, can expand the rider’s horizons, and pay exceptional dividends.
All my best to everyone.
R Groves says
Another consideration I would to add to those given by Richard, is to keep in mind the fact that you are not alone on the road. Pay extra attention to what’s ahead and behind you as the faster you go the less time you have to react to any changing situation. Of course it goes without saying that you NEVER attempt a decent at speed that you have not first carefully and slowly climbed observing every detail of the road surface to be descend upon and how those particular conditions might effect your decent. If you can’t reconnoiter first, use common sense.
David Stihler says
I have routinely descended down Glenwood with smooth pavement and sweeping curves (they are blind curves) for years. The history of my rides shows 300+ attempts. I regularly hit 35mph on the curves and slightly higher when the road straightens out. One thing which I’ve worked on is the ability to not freak out if there is someone coming the other way around a curve. I once saw two or three police cars approaching from the other lane. The sudden appearance of an oncoming car or truck can frighten me causing sudden movements/twitches on the grips. One tip I have is never look at the approaching vehicle. Instead concentrate on your line knowing that you are much safer even if the vehicle comes into your lane you will pick them up in your peripheral vision but stay focused and concentrate on the line, adjusting it slightly if you pick up traffic. This is your safest bet even if a car actually passes on that blind curve you have the best chance of survival by adjusting your line right into the apex of the curve. Remember it has taken me over 300 runs and a few years to get comfortable with safe descending. In addition, practice counter steering on your attempts. You will be amazed how smooth your bike handles even in the tightest corner.
Dave Minden says
I find practicing swooping turns on slower, even straight downhills is also good practice for making turns at speed.
Of course it’s a good thing for riders to improve their descending skills, but current road conditions must also be respected. For many years I’ve ridden a certain large (non-competitive) cycling event which includes many steep hills. Unfortunately every year some riders ignore Rule #3 and pay the price (very sadly including a few critical injuries). The same controllable 45+ mph descent in past years might be dangerous at just 30-35mph due to worse road conditions. Never wrong to err on the side of caution.
Timothy Rueger says
The very first time I descended on a road bike I got into a speed wobble. It freaked me out. I locked up my brakes and skidded thru to the cords on my rear tire to stop at the bottom of the hill.
I’ve since learned a bit about how to prevent wobble, but even so, I’ve not been able to go faster than about 30-35mph on a downhill under any conditions. I’m just too scared.
Nataniel Novod says
One simple thing that I’ve found can help a lot. Don’t look directly ahead, certainly not right in front of your front tire. Instead look further down the road so that you go into turns smoothly, not making last second panicky turns with your front wheel.
Moneti Filippo says
The maximum speed recorded on my bike computer was going down Hogpen hitting 52.7 mph. I didn’t mean to go that fast: it just happened. I am not proud of going that fast. I do not challenge myself to go faster. I go as fast as I feel comfortable going at the moment. Then I may look and see how fast I went. I do not make it a personal challenge nor do I challenge my friends to descent fast. Challenging yourself to beat your fastest speed is stupid. Don’t do it.