The Art and Science of Descending

There are many ways to ride faster uphill. The marginal gains industry supplies everything from lightweight helmets and shoes all the way to the frontier of eating disorders as cyclists, mindful of their power/weight ratio become dominated by the denominator of this crucial ratio.

But the search for every watt and gram seems one-sided, the effort to go uphill fast exceeds all thought about what to do once the mountain pass has been scaled and the descent awaits.

It would take too long to think of all the aids to climbing fast from lightweight helmets with extra cooling to ceramic ball bearings and more. Now tell me how many products you can buy to descend faster? Sure there’s aero equipment to help at high speed but this is often sold for riding on the flat. Where are the aftermarket brake pads for heat, the glue that promises not to get sticky, the high grip tires or more? I’m less interested in buying speed but the example shows how the market doesn’t supply this still vital area with many goods.

Thinking aloud
We’ve all seen the image of a rider tucking low on a descent. Apparently wind tunnel work says getting off the saddle and sitting on the top tube is the most aero way. You might even remember Matej Mohorič on his way to the U-23 world championship win pedalling whilst sat on the top tube. But try this and it’s uncomfortable, unstable. What if you could press a button or flick a lever and the seatpost could go down? This is what MTB riders used to do with quick-release cams for the seat tube collar. It’s a bit Rube Goldberg but imagine a spring inside the tube to return the seatpost to the correct height.

Practice makes perfect
But enough wallet-emptying consumerism. Descending is an art but like all arts, a skill most can acquire with work even if they won’t become mountain Mozarts and downhilling Da Vincis. The problem comes in practice, you can visit the mountains but even the longest descents are over quickly and then it takes time to climb back up a again. It’s the equivalent of trying to master a tricky movement in a Rachmaninoff piano concerto – only instead of doing the one movement again and again until it’s nailed, the cyclist must do a whole concert before being able to return to the part they struggled with. What’s needed is regular repetition, to repeat a corner again and again but this is impractical because it would mean cornering, stopping, riding back up and then repeating and by now the feeling of repetition is lost. Perhaps a rider needs some kind of test track on a wide slope so they can practice cornering the way a skier crosses a slope, turns and then repeats?

Practice makes perfect but easier said than done, probing the limits of tyre grip can easily mean leaning over one degree too far, getting scraped to bits and then becoming fearful of injury. Perhaps protective clothing is an idea but we quickly leave the realm of what riders currently do and start exploring a range of unusual ways.

Alternatively something like the image above from Michelin’s tests could be of use. It might look strange but learning just how far the bike can be leaned over can help. After all you might think you know your cornering limits but how many times have you done a “save” or seen it on TV: You go into a corner and it’s tighter than expected or there’s something on the road itself, maybe even a cat runs out in front of you and the bike can be made to take a much tighter line than feels comfortable. Is this the actual limit of rubber rather than what passes for edgy on a hairpin bend?

Often the limits are mental rather than adhesive. Frenchman Thibaut Pinot has struggled this year with descending and it wasn’t because his tyres are any less grippy. He’s at Alpe D’Huez this week… but not for riding uphill. Instead he’s been racing a car on ice in the Trophée Andros. The idea is to get used to speed. Each rider has their thing, some fear injury, for some it’s the fear of failure itself.

Some will always struggle. A light and lanky rider has a higher centre of gravity because their torso is higher off the road meaning the body because a large lever and the G-forces of cornering are increased the longer the lever. Plus this lever is not rigid so the more a taller rider tries to crank it over, the more they risk wobbling.

But all the more reason to work at it. A long descent means sitting uncomfortably for long periods broken by hard sprints out of corners. Just being able to carry 2-3km/h more out of a bend means a big saving on the sprints. Nobody would think of sprinting out of a hairpin bend on the way up a mountain but it becomes essential for some on the way down. And it’s not just for the Alps, take two seconds per bend on the Poggio and Milan-Sanremo can be yours.

Of course descending can be neglected because it’s not always fatal to the chances of winning. It’s the “summit finish” that’s crucial and there’s often time to regroup after a descent. But that still means wasted watts out of every hairpin bend or, worse, a longer chase on the valley roads which ultimately has a price to be paid on the final climb.

Col de la Rochette

Ex-MTB riders
Do mountain bikers make good descenders? It’s often said but there’s little real evidence, in fact many MTB riders are very good uphill too. Where I think we see the difference is when things go wrong. An experienced off-road rider will not panic when the rear wheel locks up and the back end comes around.

Being able to go up a mountain fast is essential to winning many races. But less attention, whether sports science or consumer products, gets paid to the descent.

Science and shopping can be skipped as cornering at speed is an art, a skill to be worked. But often descending woes come from somewhere else, including the mind. A prior crash, a memory of a lost race or the fear of failure makes some nervous and this prevents rational, technical abilities.

So for now most get by with a mountain training camp, a key stage reconnaissance… and a prayer.

71 thoughts on “The Art and Science of Descending”

  1. Interesting take on descending. I doubt any advancement in equipment will help the truly poor descenders. Confidence, a natural understanding of limits, technique and ability to make quick judgement calls are essential.
    Prayer should not come into it if you have certainty in the four parameters above !

    All the best for the New Year too Inrng and all readers.

  2. The best descenders are rarely seen on TV coverage of the Grand Tours, because they are way off the pace of the lead group. If, like me, you seldom climbed very well, you had to descend very fast to get back in the game, look at the skills of “Spartacus”, for example. Position on the bike is very important, many tall, skinny climbers (Augustyn, Gesink, Feillu) have their Bars too high, which results in a loss of control of the bike’s front end. At 6ft 2in, 69yrs and far too many pounds, I still get a kick out of flying down a mountain…

  3. I never used to really rate the “art” of descending among the pros but now absolutely love watching the good guys on a fast technical descent – Chavanel, Cancellara, Hushovd, S Sanchez spring to mind. Pinot and Wiggins (in the wet) are obviously at the other end of the spectrum. Interesting that you used pictures of Froome – he actually doesn’t seem too bad at it. And, I think Nibali might be a bit over-rated: he has dropped the bike on a number of races: perhaps more of a pure risk-taker than a great exponent of the discipline? It is a shame we don’t often get to see the grupetto descending the mountains as, apparently, some of the sprinters are the best descenders. For example, I can imagine McEwen with his BMX background being quite awesome at it.

      • This is a great topic. I think it’s a combination of practiced skill, the mental confidence that comes with the experience and perhaps fearlessness determines the final, small percentage differences.

        Breaking just enough at the last millisecond, hitting a corner’s apex perfectly and then pedaling at the first moment possible is an art like surgery. Calmly knowing the absolute limits of your tires is an expert’s skill. But, the mental edge, being so confident that every corner is in slow motion mentally, has got to be a factor as well.

        Pinot’s exercise makes sense for him and makes good PR, and I’m sure there’s not a pro cyclist contract that let’s them ride a motorcycle, but every team should hire a professional motorcycle road racer for two days each spring. Casey Stoner, Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo have all expertly answered the questions you’ve posed, albeit with gasoline.

      • Definitely skill and nerves combined with willingness / anxiety / urgency. like all arts (any professional occupation) it requires many facets to ‘fire’ for the best outcome.

    • Disagree re Nibali. Refer to the Giro a few years back. There are a few descents he did in the Dolomites in the wet that allowed him to catch back on to the lead group that will forever stick in my mind. Absolute virtuosity. Maybe he hasn’t needed to push things as much in the past few seasons as he is now rarely out of the front group in the high mountains?

      • 2011 / stage 15.
        Descent from Passo Fedaia towards Canazei was perhaps his best performance in a few years. It saved him 3nd overall (2nd after AC was DSQ).

  4. Disc brakes will eventually become the norm and then descending will be a little different – guaranteed braking so no need to cover the brake levers, no chance of rims overheating and rims will go wider (disc specific) so more grip.

      • It’s a real thing. Maybe not that common among the pros who are expert descenders and feather the brakes as little as possible, and not that common on the kinds of descents done in races, but there’s a brute of a climb I’ve done a couple of times that averages 13% for 6km; and it’s the only way up and down the mountain.

        There have been a number of reported cases of tyre blowouts on the way down. There’s one brief level spot about half-way down where I’ve stopped and checked my own rims; they have been far too hot to touch.

        • Disc brakes overheat way easier than rim brakes (which are a disc with more metal/surface area).

          Warped/glazed rotors galore. Discs were adapted to bicycles for modulation at speeds of 11-15 mph and taking the braking surface away from roots/rocks where it would get bent/scraped), not 50+ on glass-smooth roads.

          Shimano is working on it with their Ice-Tech (aluminum core) and Freeza (cooling fins) rotors, but for the road discs are a solution looking for a problem.

          • The Cyclist magazine did a great comparative article on this looking at fors and against. Discs can apply more force more smoothly and therefore work better at stopping the average cyclists in all conditions. However but the smaller surface are of a disc verus a rim means less are to disapate the heat causing overheating this hasn’t been a problem for MTB as their breaking needs are very different, the varius component manufacturers are working hard at solving this problem for the road market. For most people long alpine descents aren’t day to day but i’d imagine going down the back of the ventoux (20km of hard descent) would superheat a disc in no time, blocks and rims get hot enough on that as it is!

  5. Good piece. It’s true that descending tends to become more important than decades ago, because it has become more difficult to create considerable gaps uphill. This is due to increased speed uphill (because of lighter and more efficient bikes, of effort-regulating electronic devices, and chiefly, of reduced overall race distances), which all contribute to make drafting uphill more advantageous, and thus contribute to increase the importance of teamwork and conservative tactics, and to deter adventurous attacks. The response has been to multiply double-digit uphill summit finishes, but that has tended to make tactics even more speculative, and to multiply last kilometer attacks à la Rodriguez. Nowadays it seems more possible to split the field descending the Tourmalet or the Joux-Plane than climbing them. Which is a great problem.

    • it has become more difficult to create considerable gaps uphill.

      I don’t know about that. Top-20 riders are still finishing minutes back from the winners on hilly parcours. And, BTW, equipment hasn’t improved that much.

      Races have gotten shorter and that tends to contribute to a bigger final group.

      • Your bottom line is quite my bottom line.
        On the historic trend, without going into lots of figures, the average gap between winner and 10th place in the TdF in the Hinault years was usually over 20 minutes, and it could go easily beyond half an hour. Nowadays it struggles to go over 10 minutes. (True, there was more TT way back then, but TT created less gaps, again because of today’s higher TT speeds and air resistance).

        • “This is due to increased speed uphill (because of lighter and more efficient bikes, of effort-regulating electronic devices, and chiefly, of reduced overall race distances)”

          You forgot probably the most important factor…

    • Writer Daniel Friebe’s made an interesting observation, some riders can’t go to a doctor anymore to help with climbing faster to they/teams are now faced with finding other improvements and descending’s been a neglected area.

  6. I think a part of it is that we take descending well for granted. Hence with Wiggins in the Giro, he’s ridiculed for not doing something as well as we expect him to.

    I also think its because the climb is seen as heroic but the descent rarely so. I suspect that’s due in part to the mythology people like Desgrange created: that suffering is heroic. To the point we can idolise Bahamontes without ever asking how much more he could have won if he had just worked on his downhill skills.

    • BTW, I realise these are both paradoxical. Though it’s rare for anyone my age to be told critical info about the great historical riders. E.g. any article about The Eagle would focus on how good he was uphill, not how bad he was downhill.

  7. I would love to have the descending ability of Wiggins(and the climbing ability of Cavendish for that matter).

    The TV pictures tend to nullify the speed at which these guys are travelling, but I feel it is more of a mental thing than anything else.

    Some of us are just more cautious than others

  8. FWIW, cyclocross will teach you cornering if one refuses to practice figure-eights in a suburban parking lot. The most recent world cup in Namur is an extreme example of tough cornering tests. A local events will teach plenty!

  9. I have seen moving ramps which skiers use to practice when there is no snow. Maybe something like this but on a large scale. The slope and speed could be changed to make for different conditions.

  10. INRNG has written plenty of articles making reference to the fact that pro equipment now has to be stuff that consumers will want and be able to use, even to the extent that they no longer have individually sized bikes anymore. I wonder if the lack of development in gear that would help descending speeds has anything to do with the difference between pros descending on closed roads with race doctors in close attendance should anything go wrong, and amateurs descending with motor traffic for whom 80+ kph is probably regarded as too fast already. Perhaps the worry of litigation for a product specifically marketed as helping you break the speed limit is off-putting.

  11. Descending is a funny thing. I think most of it is mental, not gear. I don’t really think of myself as “crazy”, but I typically descend much faster than the guys I ride with, guys who will put themselves at risk in crits (which I won’t do- too old). I never feel like I am really, really pushing it, but clearly my “in control” is faster than theirs. And I remember descending mountain roads in the PNW with a guy who raced motocross- I couldn’t believe how fast he descended, and he clearly was in control the whole time. So I think it’s all in our head….

    • Agreed. One man’s comfort-zone at speed may scare another to death. I’ve often wondered why so many spend so much time, money and effort on saving a few seconds racing uphill only to lose them (and more) going down? “Free speed” I call it….skill it all it takes. I was fortunate to take up cycling in a place with plenty of twisty descents which served as an incentive to climb – otherwise I might have been content to stay on the flats! I have a fantasy about what would make a great descending machine: hydro disc brakes (once they’re proven?) some extra fat tires and a resilient (probably steel?) frame that would help those fat tires stay in contact with the road instead of bouncing around as lightweight carbon bikes seem to do. The challenge would be to end up with something that wouldn’t be a big handicap going uphill.

      • Because I have a cycling buddy who weighs 20 kg more than me that blitzes it on the downhills. In my mind he descends far too fast, but he has the right mental attitude and skills to pull it off. The best bit though is on the subsequent climb where I am able to sit in my saddle and spin past him with what he thinks is no effort at all, and can flog him on the uphills. The gap in the climb is far greater than the gap in the descent (at least at my amateur level. 🙂

  12. Maybe my favorite descending memory: summer of ’92 a friend and I rode fully loaded MTB with slicks, front and rear panniers, from Seattle to Minneapolis. Somewhere in the Rockies we had a 38 mile downhill- we were just pushing it as hard as we physically could, taking the draft off the guy in front and then “slingshotting” in front, back and forth, back and forth. We easily must have been doing 60mph at times, and I remember thinking to myself, “Well, I really hope there aren’t any pebbles on this road…”

  13. I think it’s even parts skill and daring, meaning that one without the other results in a simile loss. Skill with no daring? The rider will not find the edge of ability. Daring without skill? The rider frequently crashes or find the limits of their own ability before they ind the maximum speed. At 100kph, for instance, it’s trust in luck/odds that nothing bad will happen and a willingness to find out that makes a great descender.

  14. A steep and twisty descent is one of the very few situations in cycling where closely following another rider is disadvantageous, as one must ride the brakes more due to less aerodynamic braking.

  15. On the “buying speed” part I´d call dual-compound tires and wide-rim wheelsets as the best and perhaps cheaper choices. Whether on 25 or even 23mm, a good alu rim with 21 to 23mm wide with about 100psi (for me) does make a difference. I for myself prefer alu rims over carbon, braking is much better and reliable on all conditions and that counts a lot. One could also use Jean Robic´s “lead waterbottles” tactics to gain a help from gravity and lower the CoG some too.

    But IMHO what really makes a difference is ability and courage, when those two come together in large doses (which is rare) the rider drops like a bomb on every kind of descent. Skills can be developed and even fearlessness improved a bit, but there´s a limit. Good descenders are usually borderline crazy, cold-blooded zen riders and possess some really sharp handling and focus. Relaxation is a must too.

  16. Descending is one reason I love the Giro. Due to topography the skill of descending and bike handling plays a large role in an individual stage and an eventual podium finish. “Il Falco” won two Giros and we saw Wiggo get exposed for his lack of bike handling skills. We even heaerd his DS and trainer say he was hitting and exceeding his power numbers. I believe it. He was expending loads of energy trying to catch back on.

    With the Vuelta favoring uphill finishes, and the TdF generally being an event for power riders and strong teams, the Giro is the only race that tests a rider in all areas of bike racing.

  17. Descending is all mental. Modest gains are possible but for the most part you either have it or you don’t. I feel for Pinot but driving fast in a car won’t help him.
    I use a dropper post for MTB and see it as the biggest inovasion since suspension. In the summer I ride a lot at the local ski area and then bomb the 15 k descent back home. Being able to get really low with the seat out of the way creates a huge increase in speed but does change the handling characteristics. While doing this I often think othe advantages it would offer for a road bike.

    • I’ll argue that it might help. My experience as a pro motorcycle racer makes the slower speeds one can attain on a mere “push-bike” seem pretty tame compared to 200 kph on a motorcycle. That was one of the reasons cycling became more and more my focus as my moto career wound down – I could enjoy that sensation of speed with far less risk and get some exercise in the process! I’m certain the moto experience explains why I find it rare to come across another cyclist who can stay with me on a twisty descent – except for my wife, who has ZERO moto experience (but raced a bicycle at the highest levels back-in-the-day) so perhaps the “certainty” is not so certain?

  18. I have just finished reading William Fotheringham’s excellent book “Half man, half bike”, and it was striking how many races Eddy Merckx won descending mountains rather than climbing them. A 1 or even 2 minute advantage gained on the descent often turned into a stage or race winning margin.

  19. Practise, practise, practise, the reward of hill repeats is practising your descending skills on the way down, move your body around see how it changes your cornering, move your bike beneath your body note the effect that has, if you work on it you can improve, remember the Pro’s ride closed roads so their corners are only half as sharp as the same roads for us law abiding mortals which allows them to carry far greater speeds through each bend.

  20. I think the reason why the focus is on the climbing is because it affects the race so much more.
    Riding on the flat there is a clear advantage to the following rider (via drafting)
    Riding downhill there is a clear advantage to the following rider (observe the speed and trajectory of the rider in front, and ‘chase’ accordingly)
    Riding uphill is a the purest contest and the only one where a rider can pull away without giving his/her rivals an advantage.

    (only slightly over-simplifying)

  21. I’ve had two front tire blowouts on steep descents-the first one happened as I was slowing down, no probs. The second happened on a bike who’s brakes had stopped working on a 14% slope in the rain at about 55 kph. That didn’t end well. Needless to say, I have problems descending. I reckon most of the problem is mental, though technique also comes into it. Familiarity with the road is a big help.

  22. Good topic and as you rightly point out, one that can’t really be dealt with by credit cards or pharmaceuticals.
    My personal issue is speed wobbles. Having had half a dozen high-speed CODE BROWN moments over the last year or two, on a variety of bikes, wheelsets and setups I’m very wary during descents. I think it may be mostly that I’m large, heavy and not particularly expert…..but I have found that keeping weight on the pedals (and off the saddle/bars) seems to help. I’ve tried pretty much every other Google-able technique I can find along the way. Light has appeared at the end of the tunnel as I recently did a 20 km/ 30 min descent down Mt Buffalo and although my average speed was a only 45kmh, no wobbles were had.

    As a friend reminded me – experts/pros don’t get speed wobbles. Its just me.

    • That is not true. Experts & pros can get the speed wobbles, although it does not happen often as it does seem to affect people who are on the larger side and are a bit “top heavy”. But it does happen – just take a deep breath and squeeze your knees against the top tube and it should go away. Try not to tense up (easier said than done of course). Good luck.

      • Sorry didn’t mean to post as anonymous.

        PS. @RooBay – agree that when Nibali gets it right it is spectacular. But ask pros in the peloton and they will say he is not necessarily a good wheel to follow on the descents – a bit more reckless than the guys I mentioned above. How many times have you seen Cancellara or Hushovd crash on a descent? Nibali does it too often.

        • Tricky – I’m not sure you can compare Nibali to Spartacus and The Mighty Thor. First, those guys are much bigger so they start with some advantage when it comes to going down and second, they are rarely (unlike Nibali) at the front end of the race when they’re descending – it’s usually racing down like mad to catch up after being dropped by the climbers. Certainly Enzo loses it now and then, but crashing doesn’t often slow him down on the next technical descent and I think most of the time his efforts are worth it – and even when they aren’t, it’s great fun to watch.

  23. Is this true?
    i have found speed wobbles to be as much due to the road surface as anything else, so pros are as likely to suffer as us mere mortals.

  24. Thanks for the comments. I’ve tried the knee-squeeze…doesn’t seem to help much. Intermittent braking seems to be the only thing which really helps. Mind you, I’m something of a special case: I’ve even had the wobbles while going uphill (fast mind you) – a rarely seen feat.

  25. Somebody mentioned “Il Falco”. He was truly fearless…

    2012 Giro, Stage 17. Scarponi falls back with about 1km on the final climb only to latch back to the front by descending like a maniac.

    I personally find descending in groups to be terrifying. Lots of times, due to everyone’s lack of experience, I just have to roll out to the left and let the group pass through.

    I find I get uncomfortably close to the dude in front of me because he’s scared, because the guy in front of him is scared, because the guy in front of him is scared, etc… and the domino effect of soft braking, when there isn’t a need to, begins. That’s okay. We aren’t racers and don’t need to take risks on weekend rides. Just my observation…

    • I tend to hit the front if their is any feeling of not being able to trust the other guys im riding with.Sometimes i’ve been labled crazy but with a clear sight of road in front of you it’s easy to wack on another 5-10kmh onto your speed.

  26. glad someone gave some recognition to Paolo Salvodelli, if memory serves he saved his second pink jersey on the penultimate stage by catching up on the descents, more or less.

    one note on “speed wobbles”, this can be a factor of steering geometry with stem length playing a part. If your frame is a bit too big and you use a shortish stem it can contribute to the instability.

  27. The comments are making it much more complicated than it is. Going downhill fast mostly requires one skill. A HUGE set of stones.

  28. Confidence in your ability and a fair bit of bravery and i believe you are either born to go downhill fast or you were’nt.Anyway what would us plebs know,how often have you ever descended a closed mountain road? I unfortunately have never,that would be sporting utopia!

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