Bicycle Race Techniques: The Basic Principles of Descending
Learning to descend properly and confidently is a crucial skill in bicycle racing. The principles of descending in both mountain and road cycling have similar qualities but are different. In this article I’m going to focus on road descending. Whether you are a casual weekend rider, or a competitive cyclist, knowing the basics to the descent will help you get faster and improve your quality of ride.
Brake Before You Enter the Corner
Cornering in cycling is very similar to cornering in auto racing. The most important aspect of cornering is traction. When you lean hard into a corner, your tires are under stress to keep traction. As you know, if you were to lean too hard, you would lose traction completely.
Similarly the same thing happens when you brake. Your tires are placed under stress to keep traction, and if you brake too hard you loose traction and skid. So the idea is to minimize your risk of losing traction which makes for faster cornering. If you brake while cornering, two forces are acting on your tires (the decelerating force from braking and the forces caused by cornering). You are stressing your tires more than you need to. The solution is to start braking well before you enter the corner. This way you are only placing one stressing force on your tires at a time.
Anticipate how much you need to slow down as the corner approaches; start braking well before the corner and before you start to turn. When it is nearly time to turn in, gradually reduce your braking force while beginning to lean; just before the middle of the turn you should not be braking at all. This will maximize your cornering traction throughout the turn allowing you to enter and exit the corner faster.
When descending, be sure to keep your weight balanced over your bike, it helps to move just slightly aft of your normal positioning for increased stability. When cornering, the crank arm on the inside of the corner should be at the 12 o’clock position (see the photo below). This guarantees that you have enough clearance to lean into the turn and also increases stability.
Apex the Corner
If you watch competitive cycling, they always enter the corner from the outside, move to the inside at the tightest part, and exit on the outside again. This is called apexing the corner, and it is the fastest way through a turn. The “Apex” is the tightest part of the corner. The idea again is maximizing your traction. Obviously you can’t utilize the whole road like the pros because there is traffic to worry about, but you can apex within your lane to keep up your turning efficiency. When applying this technique, go slower than you’d think until you are comfortable executing the turn properly. If correctly done, you will carry more speed through your turns, and consequently you will have to do less work to maintain your speed.
Take a look at this graphic that demonstrates the Outside – Inside – Outside principle.
This video shows a few good examples of proper cornering.
The faster you go, the more wind resistance you face, so get yourself down low and aerodynamic on descents. Just like with exotic cars, aerodynamics will maximize your efficiency. Watch the pros and imitate their positioning on descents. An especially good reference is any pro time trail race. Time trial riding is largely dependent on how efficient the cyclist’s aerodynamics are in addition to power output.
Becoming more aerodynamic means to reduce your profile relative to the oncoming wind. The idea is to slice through the air like an arrow, and not to ‘catch’ air a kite. To do this, position your hands on the drops and lower your chest, but not so much that it is causing discomfort. Compact yourself by keeping your knees close to the frame and moving in your elbows. Having your hands down on the drops typically gives you more braking power as an added bonus.
Keep in mind that descending can be a great time to rest as well. It is not important that you are fully aerodynamic if your goal is to recover. However, if you are trying to get a better personal time, beat your friends down the road, or do well in a race, utilizing aerodynamics can be very beneficial.
Like I mentioned earlier, descending can be a great time for recover and conserving energy. Utilize drafting, which if you are unfamiliar, is staying right behind another rider to decrease wind resistance. When drafting, you’ll be able to maintain a higher speed without doing as much work. At slow speeds you may not notice any difference, but as you go faster it becomes more effective. Try drafting a friend for a minute and then move out of the draft (also referred to as a slipstream) for a minute, and you’ll be able to notice the efficiency difference. Since you typically are at higher speeds on descents, you are likely facing higher wind resistances. This makes descending an important time to draft so that you are able to stay out of the wind and conserve energy.
A few extra precautions should be taken on wet roads. The first thing to note is that a wet road is going to be more slippery than a dry road in almost any case, and you will need to reduce your speed to compensate with the lack of traction. However sometimes a small amount of rain can be more dangerous than a downpour. This is because the road surface contains oils; when those oils mix with water the road becomes very slick. A small amount of rain will not be enough to wash away the oils while a heavy downpour can be slightly less dangerous.
Be very careful of any painted lines, potholes, metal grates, or anything that would be more slick with water. If you are racing, better to be more on the safe side and finish your season rather than crash out.
Cornering can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of cycling. Work to improve your descending and cornering for a faster and more fulfilling bike ride. Remember that the most important thing is to ride safely. Let me know what questions and comments you have.