Training for Gran Fondos, part 4: Descending
Editor’s Note: Today we are publishing the fourth in a series of training articles for riders preparing for Gran Fondos, mountainous centuries, multi-day tours and other ambitious long rides (notice how we didn’t use the word ‘epic’?) The series’ authors are pro road and cyclocross racer Chris Jones of Team Type 1, former pro racer and coach Kristin Eastin, and amateur racer and coach Curtis Eastin. More on the authors at the bottom of the page.
Getting down a mountain you have just climbed is half the fun of climbing it in the first place, and in a long Gran Fondo descending is more or less unavoidable. Are you white-knuckled after the first turn? Are you fearless, but find yourself leaving skin on the mountain a little too often? If so, then read on — carefully!
There are certain rules of descending that act in accord with the laws of physics, and are therefore best well respected. Follow these simple rules, and learn to employ them, cautiously at first, and you’ll increase your speed and fun factor considerably. Remember that in long hilly Gran Fondos you are going to spend a considerable amount of time having to descend, so it’s best to practice these skills as much as possible.
Rule 1: Look ahead
This sounds simple enough, but most people get into trouble by ignoring this obvious requirement. There are many things that can distract a cyclist on a descent: potholes, other riders, views, animals, a fast approaching concrete barrier, etc. The key is to look where you want to go. Of course, if something unanticipated arises, you may need to adjust where you want to go, but the rule holds and is worth restating: always, always look ahead and look where you want to go. In this way you will anticipate potential dangers like holes in the road and cars.
Rule 2: Hand positioning
When you begin a steep or twisty descent, it’s best to be on the hoods or the drops. You need your center of gravity lower and your back flatter than when climbing or riding the flats. In this way your steering will be more controlled. Probably the safest, most reliable position is in the drops. Some like to remain upright out of habit. It’s advisable to train to use the drops when going downhill. Some like to get super aero on the tops, nose skimming the front tire, but this is dangerous (for the practitioner and those around the cyclist). A good tuck on the drops allows for a lower center of gravity, and a wider hand purchase for greater leverage in crosswinds and through corners. It also allows better access to the brakes for speed control. Check out how most pros descend.
Rule 3: Braking
1) Where descending is concerned, brakes are meant to slow you, not stop. As such, your brakes should be adjusted to the size of your hands. If your brakes are set up to engage from the moment you pull the lever in, your hands will tire quickly, and the rest of the way down the mountain will be no fun. You should be able to “cover the brakes” keeping them partially engaged but with little or no pad/rim contact until your fingers are partially bent, thereby allowing greater use of hand strength.
2) Control your speed (note: this is a pre-emptive idea (see “Cornering” below).
3) Use the rear brake more than the front. Both should be used, but keep in mind the front has much more slowing power than the rear. When you slow quickly your weight is thrust forward, and your center of gravity changes unpredictably (especially on steep hills). So to avoid skidding and losing control, feather the front brake and don’t over brake on the rear wheel.
Rule 4: Cornering
1) See Rule 1 above: Look ahead! You must control your speed before entering the turn, to limit any emergency braking. Therefore, as you approach the turn (be it a sweeper or a switchback) you should slow to a speed with which you feel certain you can negotiate the corner. So look ahead, and control speed.
2) Be sure that your outside pedal is down, and that your weight is planted firmly on that pedal (more on this below).
3) Always look to the inside apex of the turn, whether it be the center-line, the shoulder, or some imaginary line. This is because the G forces will always pull you to the outside of the turn, so keeping your eye on the inside will help you stay on course.
4) Enter the turn a little wide, and then cut it in tight and hold it as tight as possible (tighter is usually better, as the Gs will pull you out anyway), and then exit the turn as tightly as you can given your speed.
5) Once you have entered the turn, you should practice letting off the brakes. This is a tough skill to master, but it works wonders. If you do need to use your brakes, you should feather the front, and apply the rear with moderation. The rear wheel can skid and slide sideways with too much brake applied. The front brake deserves special attention. If you grab a fist full of front brake, the body continues to move forward as the bike slows, and this sudden change in weight distribution sets up all sorts of undesirable scenarios. Also, when the rotation of the steering i.e., the front wheel, slows suddenly, traction changes too, and unpredictably. So, just as in a car, you should brake before the turn, let the wheels roll through the turn, and then accelerate out of the turn, carrying speed until the next turn.
6) When in doubt, lean it more. A bicycle can lean much farther than an untrained rider will generally let it lean. If you find yourself in a little trouble (which you shouldn’t because you’ve been controlling your speed, right?!), it’s far better to lean it, rather than hitting the brakes and bailing out.
“Bailing” (refusing/failing to commit 100 percent) in a turn does a number of bad things. Most importantly, it can send you into oncoming traffic, and/or cause you to straighten up suddenly, thereby throwing your weight forward and off-center (think of yourself as though you’re a plumb-line on your bike, and your weight stays more or less anchored). When one’s weight is thrown off, the likelihood of “high-siding” is increased tenfold. To commit 100 percent to your turn you may have to employ “counter-steering” technique, which is accomplished by pushing on the inside of the handlebar as you simultaneously weight the outside pedal (see above), keeping the knees braced inward. This takes practice, and should be tried incrementally, not all at once at high speeds. Once this technique is mastered, however, it is very, very difficult to crash, because you’re using the laws of physics in your interests, not simply charging downhill and hoping for the best.
7) Finally, when it’s wet, respect the roads! Roads can be very slick when wet — so special care should be taken with your speed and braking.
8) Leave plenty of space between you and the rider in front. Watch the pros when they descend — they always have a few meters of space so they can evaluate and control the bike.
Follow these simple rules, be careful and enjoy your descents on your Gran Fondo event!
About the Authors:
Chris Jones: Chris is a third-year professional with Team Type 1. He is a two-time top-10 finisher in the US Professional Road Championships and has scored 10 professional wins and multiple podium appearances. Chris has been a USAC certified level 3 coach since 2006 and coaching clients since 2005.
Kristi Eastin: Kristi was a professional mountain bike and road racer from 1995-2000. Having won nearly all of NorCal’s challenging road races over her career, Kristi knows how to train for going up hills. She has extensive coaching experience ranging from elite racers to beginners.
Curtis Eastin: Curtis raced as a Category 1 during the early/mid-1980s through the early 90s before quitting cycling because of an injury and starting college. Never too far from cycling, he now coaches riders and races with Sierra Pacific Racing Team, in Northern California.
Both Kristi and Curtis are expert ride leaders with Thomson Bike Tours, which leads performance bike tours to the Alps, Pyrenees and Dolomites. Thomson Bike Tours assisted in the preparation of this series.