Even the best pros can sometimes get the fear of descending. Most famously in recent times was Thibaut Pinot who despite finishing 10th in the 2012 Tour de France, lost around 30 minutes in the 2013 edition because of the descents. In his case, it stems from a crash in his younger years that left him with a fear of the speeds reached. But anyone can have the fear, even without the crash beforehand.
The theory goes that we never see the best descenders in the pro peloton because it’s the guys in the grupetto struggling to make the time cut-off who have honed their craft to perfection. The sprinters and domestiques therefore aren’t credited in the same way as the likes of Vincenzo Nibali near the front of the race.
For us amateurs, there’s a few ways to get past the fear or to make it something manageable at least. Even if it’s just because we’re losing time by not being able to stay with a group on a sportive or our club mates are making us look bad on the Sunday ride!
Riding in the drops
This is something I had taught to me whilst doing some race training on a circuit. It shifts your centre of gravity forward to a more even position over the bike which helps maintain traction. The other advantage is in the steering where you’ve got a full grip on the bars and the brake levers are still within reach . Cornering on the hoods isn’t the end of the world. But only if you’re not rushing as it doesn’t quite give you the same ‘feel’ when you are.
It’s almost counter-intuitive but most of your steering isn’t done by the handlebars. Your body positioning and even your feet actually do the bulk of the work. It’s good technique to lean rather than turn where possible, applying some pressure on the hand in the direction you’re heading and bracing on the opposite leg. The bike will respond and make the necessary adjustments.
Like everything practice makes perfect. Personally I’m much more confident on descents I know, as you learn the ideal lines and where hazards are as well. You can push a little bit closer to your limits as well once you know how the bike reacts to the different road surfaces and cambers. All these little things sub-consciously raise your confidence and you’ll find you’ll be thinking less and riding more on instinct.
Increase speed gradually
Similar to practice, getting used to how your bike goes through the corner at speed is important to know. If you go straight into a corner too fast, you’ll be closer to your limit and more likely to crash. You need to commit to a cornering speed as well. Braking in a corner is a big no-no, working up to a faster speed is the best way to go. Get your entry speed correct and choose the line you want. Then let go of the brake levers and go through the corner. Get used to increasing the entry speed in small gradients so you’re confident with the different reactions.
It’s an old rule in cycling that the bike always goes in the direction you’re looking at. Looking through the corner as you take it will allow your bike to gracefully head in that direction. A quick look down to assess some hazards isn’t a bad idea but as a rule you should be looking down the road to give you the most opportunity to anticipate any changes. That could be an oncoming car, a big pot hole or even some wildlife crossing the road!
Learn from the pros
There are some famed elite descenders in the pro peloton. Matej Mohoric for one and Vincenzo Nibali has traditionally been the best descender in the GC battles. Watching riders descend the Poggio at the end of Milan San Remo shows who has the best technique and who’s struggling to keep up. Riders can gain valuable seconds just by cornering quicker than the riders behind. Maybe don’t try sitting on your top tube though, that could lead to a very painful accident.
Normally linked to a lack of confidence in descending, being rigid can harm attempts to reach the bottom of the hill safely. Keeping relaxed helps the bike do what it needs to do. Plus you’ll be in a much better place to react to anything that does happen. Thinking about the worst-case scenario will stop you enjoying your ride, an avoidable punishment!