Cycling: how to ride downhill fast and safely

No matter how strong you are at riding uphill, if you’re descending skills aren’t up to scratch, you’re giving away free speed. Here’s how to get down safely at speed

Pro triathlete cycling at speed downhill

The only way to improve your downhill confidence and skills is to practise so, rather than treating descents just as a chance for recovery, focus on riding them as fast and safely as you can. Here’s how…

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How should you position yourself going downhill?

When riding downhill, a balanced position on the bike is vital. Essentially this simply means you feel comfortable and haven’t loaded your weight either front or rear. This should lead you into a sustainable position on your drops.

Once you’re nestled into the drops, your elbows should tuck in neatly, which should bring your chin toward the bar. And remain relaxed.

You want to get your body as low as possible. There’s no need for any sitting-on-your-top-tube-type antics but staying low is both stable and aero.

Where should I look when cycling downhill?

Aim to look around 50 to 100m in front of you when descending. Not only will you spot any potholes before they spot you, but your body has a habit of following your eyes.

Another streamlined option, though certainly not advised on open roads, is the advanced aero tuck. This sees your chin nestle a chamois-thickness away from the stem with chest almost leaning on the top tube. But this is more for the professionals – and no traffic.

How should I tackle corners when cycling downhill?

Where descents crank up the heebie-jeebies is when they flow into corners. Suddenly you tense up, lose stability and experience speed wobble. But it needn’t be so.

For starters, there’ll be pretty clear visual clues as to what lies ahead – signposts, chevrons and barriers. As before you should keep looking a fair distance in front of you.

Also, don’t enter the apex until you can see the exit. The most common mistake is turning into the bend too early, you exit with too much speed and you’re forced to brake far too hard. It’s better to go in slow and exit fast.

Where should my pedals sit going downhill?

On straight downhills, if you’re not pedalling, keep your pedals level and, for added stability, especially when braking, drop your heels. As you brake and, as the gradient increases, move your weight further back on your saddle.

How and when should I brake when going downhill?

Braking should be done positively and when necessary. Avoid continuously dragging your brakes on long descents.

This is a bad habit that not only reduces your overall descending speed but can cause excessive rim wear, overheating and, even with disc brakes, brake fade.

If you think you might be dragging your brakes, consciously point your fingers so you know you’re not.

When you do need to scrub some speed, apply front and rear brakes at roughly the same time. Your front brake provides the bulk of your stopping power but don’t forget you’ll need to shift your weight further backwards the more you’re using it.

Pulse your braking, rather than just grabbing and holding, as this makes locking up a wheel less likely. You can also adjust your speed by sitting up slightly and using your body as an ‘air-brake’.

What’s the best way to cycle safely downhill in the wet?

If it’s wet, the clichéd advice is to stay relaxed but obviously that’s easier said than done when the road’s slippier than an eel covered in Vaseline.

But if you keep in mind that everything should take at least two or three times the distance that it would in the dry and ride within your comfort zone, then you won’t feel as panicked to get down as quickly as humanly possible.

It’s wise to stay a touch more upright and don’t lean forward as much.

Always be ready to feather your brakes – and favour your rear brake slightly more. If you sense your wheels locking up, let the brakes go and then reapply.

And see those white markings on the road? Avoid them at all costs as they can swiftly turn into ice!

What can I wear to make cycling downhill faster?

Where once Alpine descents would see pros slip a newspaper beneath their tops, now we have gilets, lightweight jackets… to deflect bone-cutting windchills.

Keep clothing tight as flapping jackets simply add more resistance. When it comes to wheels, an aerodynamic number will come into its own.

Top tip for riding downhill

The best way to improve your descending is to follow riders who you know are confident downhill. Follow their lines, watch how they shift their body weight and try to copy them.

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Top image credit: Wagner Araujo