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.