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This Week's Tip
Descending Safely

I consider climbing to be the price I have to pay for the thrill of the descent.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely appreciate the challenge of climbing. To me, there’s nothing in cycling that delivers more gratification and feeling of achievement than hauling myself to the tops of high hills and mountains. But my real enjoyment comes on the downhill side.

I also know that’s where the danger lurks.

A couple of incidents Jim Langley and I have had recently on descents have motivated us to share some thoughts and tips on descending safely, dealing with situations you might encounter on a high-speed descent, and checking your bike out post-crash -- if that’s your unfortunate result.

That was Jim’s result last week; he crashed on a mountain descent. I made a scary recovery on a steep, fast downhill after I hit an object in the road. See Jim’s Tech Talk for an array of great tips on evaluating your bike after a crash. Read on here for tips to help you avoid having to do that.

Jump to the Left

I’ve ridden down Stonewall Jackson hundreds of times. It’s the steepest pitch in Stone Mountain Park, a hill roughly 300 meters long, about 20% at its steepest, with about a 110-degree curve to the right nearing the bottom.

The curve adds an element of complexity to safely navigating the fast downhill, on which you can reach close to 40 mph (64 kph).

It was on this curve, while riding with a buddy a couple of weeks ago, that I hit a sweetgum ball with my front tire. (That’s the 1-inch, or 2.54 cm, in diameter fruit of the sweetgum tree, which looks sort of like a small, round, spiky pine cone. See the photo.). My tire lifted off the ground, and the centrifugal force carried the front of the bike to the left.

At the same time I hit the sweetgum ball, I became acutely aware of the car driving up the hill in the opposite lane. The speed of both vehicles put us side by side as my front tire again found the pavement. Any mistake at that moment likely would have carried me into the side of the approaching car.

Proper Descending Position

At the time I hit the object, I was riding in the drops, with my hands on the brake levers, pushed very slightly back in the saddle. This position on a descent gives you better control of the bike, both in terms of overall stability and your ability to apply power to the brakes, if needed.

In this position on long descents you can even rest one leg against the top tube to help prevent speed wobble if your bike is inclined to shimmy at high speed. And keeping at least a couple of fingers on the brake levers allows quick access.

The added element here was the sweeping curve near the bottom of the descent, and the accompanying centrifugal force. I entered the curve using my best counterweight steering technique: My weight was firmly pushing down on the outside pedal, at the 6 o’clock position, as I used my hands to push the handlebars down toward the inside of the curve to lean the bike into the curve. I kept my body fairly straight up and down (the body is the counter-weight). This technique adds stability on curves.

Don’t Panic, Don’t Overcorrect

When my front tire settled on the pavement again, the front of the bike had traveled several inches to the left. I stayed loose, let the bike drift a little more to the left to assume its new line, then I slightly corrected to the right to stay in my lane -- and clear of the car opposite me.

What I did NOT do is just as important as what I did do. I did not touch the brakes, which could have upset my stability and made it difficult if not impossible to quickly regain control. I didn’t panic; there was no time for indecisiveness. And I did not overcorrect, which could have thrown me to left into the car, or jackknifed the bike and vaulted me over the bars.

Proper descending form and bike handling skills go unnoticed on the 99 times you descend a hill or mountain without incident. It’s the one time you experience something even slightly amiss that is the reason you follow form all 100 times.

Front tire lift-off is an especially scary thing on a downhill curve. But if you’re in the proper descending position on the bike, don’t panic and follow good recovery skills, you can get through it just fine.