Your fast friends go downhill in strange postures. One tucks low over the top tube and holds the handlebars close to the stem, his nose nestled between his knuckles. Another puts his hips behind the saddle, resting his stomach on the seat. And you’ve seen pictures of pros sitting on the top tube in front of the saddle, chin almost touching the front wheel — although no one in your group has quite jacked up his courage to try it. What’s the best compromise of speed and safety?
Once you are going so fast that you’re spun out in your largest gear, superior aerodynamics can add substantially to descending speed. So pros try to get as low and narrow on the bike as possible, even risking stability. But hey, they’re pros. They’re great bike handlers or they wouldn’t try such dangerous gimmicks. And they get paid to go fast so they’re willing to take the risk. The rest of us can afford to descend a bit slower in order to be a lot safer.
Some Safe Descending Tips
Be balanced. With the crankarms horizontal, rest about one-third of your weight on the pedals, one-third on your hands and the rest on the saddle. Don’t sit heavily on the saddle but rise up slightly — just enough to take some weight off the part of the saddle where you normally sit. Pin the nose between your thighs for greater stability.
Touch the top tube. As you coast down a fast hill, press the top tube between your knees or upper calves, depending on the frame design. Doing so helps avoid bike shimmy because your legs damp vibrations in the frame that might make the whole bike shake. Even just resting one leg against the top tube can be enough to prevent shimmy.
Keep hands wide. Grip the brake lever hoods or put your hands in the handlebar hooks within easy reach of the brakes. Forget holding the bar on top next to the stem. Sure, this position is slightly more aerodynamic, but it’s less stable due to the narrower grip and it puts your hands far from the brake levers. An experienced descender desperately in need of another mile per hour can use it on a straight road with good visibility. But it’s best left to the pros.
Look ahead. Keep your back flat and your head up. A flat back is best for aerodynamics and stability, too, because it gives you a low profile from the side. There’s less area for crosswinds to catch and push you off line. With your head up you can see down the road. You’re going fast, so problems come at you much quicker, too. Looking well ahead helps you anticipate and react.
Feel like a cat. Mountain bike racers need superior descending skills because the surface they’re zooming down is rough, narrow, curvy and lined with rocks. Laurie Brandt, a multi-time winner of the Leadville 100 off-road race, coaches riders to imagine they’re a cat, emphasizing suppleness, relaxation and a “pounce” position on the pedals. Think about it next time you have the opportunity to observe a cat stalking a bird or playing with a toy. Cats are both loose and coiled at the same time, always ready for action. They jump from scary heights but land lightly. Feel like a feline on descents, weight balanced on your hands, feet and the saddle.
Relax. The biggest descending error for most riders is unnecessary tension in the hands and upper body. Bikes are meant to be piloted with a light touch on the handlebar so the front wheel can move slightly back and forth for balance. But it can’t happen if you have a death grip on the bar and an advanced case of rigor mortis in the shoulders. Tension starts in the face, so consciously relax your jaw muscles before you start downhill. Then let that relaxation flow down through your shoulders, arms, and hands. Be loose. Be a cat.