When it comes to cycling training, most people are highly focused on improving their fitness.
Power numbers and impressive feats of endurance are often the topic of conversation when discussing an athlete’s ability to perform on the bicycle. Cardiovascular and muscular abilities are only part of the equation, though.
When we watch the best athletes perform their craft, we are often amazed by their ability to rail corners on the descent, tackle difficult terrain, and handle their bikes. Our ability to descend on the bike will not only make us all-around more capable riders, it will also make us faster.
Imagine being able to improve your time without having to improve your fitness at all!
Even if you are already setting the fastest times on descents, if you can maintain the same time on the descents while using less energy (mental or physical) then you will save energy for the climbs and still have an overall faster time. We should all be carving out time in our training to improve our descending skills.
Here are my top tips for how to improve your descending:
1. Parking lot drills
Before taking your bike to the trails, gravel, or road, practice the very basic skills in the parking lot or grass field. It can be challenging to find the proper body mechanics out in a real-world scenario, so first practice your skills in a completely controlled environment. This will also allow you to have the maximum number of repetitions possible to cement the proper technique. It’s also a safe place to practice new things such as trying to lean the bike a little bit further or shifting your weight further forward or back. Even though these skills will be done on a flat surface, the foundation will be extremely helpful when you take it to a trail or road pointing downwards.
2. Ride the same descent
One mistake I often see people making is that they ride so many different descents that they are never able to full master any one technique. They simply ‘make it through’ a lot of different styles of terrain without ever gaining the tools needed to understand how they are doing it.
For one day of skills, practice riding down the same descent over and over. Try different body positions and lines to see what feels best and fastest. Since you’re doing the same descent you’ll be able to know that it was your technique that made something better or worse and not trail or road conditions.
3. Ride new descents
After you’ve practiced riding one descent over and over, make sure that you are also challenging yourself by introducing yourself to new descents. It’s possible to become so accustomed to one descent that you complete it based on muscle memory rather than actually having the ability to see the best line or apex in a corner. Make sure that you are challenging yourself with new terrain every now and then. When it comes to race day you want to be fast on any course not just your favorite trail.
4. Time yourself
It’s very common practice to time yourself on a big climb to see improvement so why would it be any different on a descent? Make sure that you doing some timed training for descending as well. It’s all too easy to feel like you are going faster when you actually are not. Just looking at max speed is not enough, because if you are dragging brakes through the corners then you might actually be going slower overall.
5. Follow a wheel
It can be very helpful to follow a wheel down a descent. Not only will it help you learn how to ride in group or close to others, it will also open up your mind to new line possibilities. You can also feel the speed or momentum of the rider in front of you. If you find yourself getting gapped coming out of corners then that is a good indication that you should be working on carrying better momentum and re-evaluating your braking points.
6. Take a clinic
Even the best athletes can benefit from taking a clinic or having a skilled eye really look at their riding technique. It can be very helpful to have an objective observer watch your riding because they will likely notice something different than you feel. Hiring a one-on-one skills coach, taking a clinic, or even just working with friends are all good ways to get more eyes on your technique.
7. Video yourself
Lastly, consider filming yourself through a descent. This shouldn’t be POV footage. Instead you’ll need to set up a phone or camera to film you through the descent or corner. This is helpful because the sensations are always a little different than reality. You may feel like you are really leaning the bike into the corners, but when you watch the film back you may see a different story.
8. Practice makes progress
Don’t overthink it. Just by going out with the intention of improving your descending, you are already ahead of the curve. Keep putting in the time and the improvements will follow.