How to Descend Safely
Bike North rides attract people with a broad range of cycling abilities which should match up with the skills required on our broad range of rides. More difficult rides necessitate more advanced skills and riders with a “skill deficit” may find themselves in difficult situations. One of the most advanced skills required on our rides is the ability to descend steep (and perhaps bumpy) hills. Thus the focus of this article is deliberately upon how to descend safely, rather than on how to descend at the maximum possible speed.
Ride Your Bike
One of the most important things is to focus on what you are doing on your bike. Do not go faster than you would otherwise just to keep up with the other riders in your group. Ride within your own ability. Everybody is different and each bike is different. Ride at a speed that is comfortable for you and your bike, not someone else’s.
Take More Space
Things happen faster at higher speed; therefore, you need to leave more space in which to react to them. Spread out if you are riding in a group. This will allow each rider to take their preferred line through the corners. It also allows greater margin if a rider needs to brake for some reason. For these reasons Bike North does not recommend riding in a pace line on descents.
Taking more space also extends to your positioning on the road when descending. You should ride further to the right of the lane when descending. Don’t worry about slowing down cars; your own safety comes first. Riding further to the right gives you more room to manoeuvre if you run wide on a corner and allows you to swerve left if necessary to avoid potholes or other road surface imperfections. You should avoid potholes, bumps, lane line reflectors, etc. at speed as they can easily cause an accident.
Use Both Brakes Equally
For long descents you should use both your front and rear brakes equally. Braking generates considerable heat in the bike’s rims which, on a long descent, can result in the rims becoming very hot and potentially blowing a tyre off the rim. Using both brakes equally spreads this heat (to apply the rear brake equally with the front it is necessary to apply greater force on the rear brake lever due to cable friction).
Watch the Road Surface
On a bicycle it is important that you pay attention to the road surface. This is particularly so when descending. As mentioned earlier potholes, etc. can be a problem. You also need to watch for debris on the road and, if the road surface is wet, leaves can stick to the road becoming very slippery if you should ride over them. Loose gravel and wet patches on the road are other hazards to watch out for. On a bumpy road surface you should also reduce your speed.
Another thing to watch is the camber of the road surface on corners. In an off camber corner (one where the road surface slopes to the outside of the bend) you need to reduce your speed.
One important riding habit is to look far enough in front of you to match the speed at which you are riding. For example, if you are climbing at 10 km/h it is OK to watch the road only a few metres in front of the bike. If you are descending are 60 km/h you need to watch the road much further in front of the bike in order to have time to react to any hazards.
Descending in the Rain
The advice here can be summed up in two words, SLOW DOWN.
If it is raining, or the road is wet, then the coefficient of friction between your bikes tyres and the road surface is significantly reduced. For this reason you should approach corners at a lower speed than you would on a dry road for safety.
If it is raining, or the road is wet, then your bike’s brake blocks and rims will get wet. This reduces the coefficient of friction between the brake blocks and the rim surface. This significantly extends the distance required to slow down or stop. For this reason you should also reduce speed when riding in the wet. To improve your braking capability in the wet you should periodically lightly apply your brakes so as so drag the brake blocks across the rim surface. This will remove excess water from the rims and reduce your stopping distance should you need to apply your brakes.
If it is raining, your ability to see the road in front of you will be significantly reduced, both from water getting in your eyes and also from the overall reduction in visibility. It is also more difficult to identify potholes in the rain and for this reason it is best not to ride through puddles, which could conceal a pothole. In summary, it is best to slow down in the wet.
Descending hills in the urban environment or when approaching an intersection presents a further challenge for cyclists. Drivers often underestimate how fast you might be approaching and try to turn across or pull out in front of you. You should be ready for this.
Keep your speed down to a manageable level so that you can react if necessary.
Take more of the road. If you ride in the gutter, drivers will tend not to see you. Ride further out into the traffic and they will notice you as this is where they normally look for other vehicles. Also you should correctly position yourself for the intersection you are approaching. Do not ride to the left or in a left turn lane if you are intending to go straight through the intersection.
When taking corners at speed it is possible to clip your inside pedal on the road surface, especially if you are pedalling. This is at best unsettling and at worst can result in an accident. For this reason it is best to run through corners with your inside pedal raised. Place more weight on your outside pedal, which will be at its lowest point, to counter-balance.
Try to keep your body relaxed on the bike when descending. Keep your arms slightly bent. Slide back on the saddle. Whether riding a road bike or a mountain bike keep your hands near the brake levers in case you need to use them.
Try to brake in between corners, rather than in the corners. Your tyres only have a certain amount of grip on the road so it is best to attain the speed at which you wish to ride the corner prior to entering the corner. Braking in the corner also unbalances the bike.
Approach bends at the outside of the bend (the left hand side of the lane for a right hand corner or the right hand side of the lane for a left hand corner) and then swing towards the inside as you approach the apex of the bend, swing back towards the outside of the bend as you exit.
The exception to this is when you have a series of closely spaced bends in opposite directions. In this case on the exit from one bend you need to be positioned so as to enter the next bend. For example if you have a right hander followed by a left hander then you should enter the right hander wide (on the left hand side of the lane) and take a late apex (i.e. exit the left hander on theright hand side of the lane) so that you are ready to immediately enter the following right hand bend from the correct road position.
Descents are inevitably followed by climbs in cycling. If you are not pedalling much on the descent your muscles will cool by the bottom and you will not be ready for the following climb. Try to spin you pedals over the final stages of the descent so that your muscles will be warmed up for when you need them on the climb. Also ensure that you are in an appropriate gear for when your momentum reduces and you want to start climbing.