How to Descend Safely on a Road Bike
By Michelle Valenti
Going fast is fun, until you find yourself flying down a steep grade going faster than you’ve ever gone before. Your handlebars get a little wobbly, and all of a sudden you start to think about how thin that tire is, how fast it’s spinning, and how easily that quick-release could give out.
If anyone knows how it feels to watch the pavement peel away beneath them at high speeds, it’s John Howard. In 1985, he broke the bicycle speed record, clocking just over 152 miles per hour.
What does he prescribe for more comfort and control at high speeds? Practice.
“No one ever takes to the time to practice bike handling skills,” Howard says. “And it’s such a fundamental part of riding.”
Howard compares cycling to downhill skiing, and suggests cyclists learn safe descending skills by doing slalom drills down the side of a mountain. “The aerodynamics are very similar in both sports,” he says. Think of how a skier keeps their center of gravity low and leans into turns; then mimic that movement on a bike.
Howard also stresses the importance of safety. Cyclists don’t have access to traffic-free mountains like skiers do, so it takes a little research to find quiet roads.
If you don’t want to head straight for the hills, start in a parking lot or on a quiet neighborhood street. Set up cones (or water bottles) similar to a slalom course and practice carving around them. Gradually increase your speed and the incline, and then start tightening up the cones.
For optimal control, ride with your hands in the drops and your elbows bent. “Straight arms disconnect the core muscles and prevent them from engaging,” Howard says. A strong, engaged core is where a lot of your control comes from. “Stay seated and get as low as you can without compromising efficiency or safety.”
To improve your cornering skills, Howard recommends watching video of motorcycle riders turning at high speeds. “Keep your center of gravity as low as possible and stick out your inside knee in the direction of the turn.” This helps create a stable platform.
Practice: Set up a cone or water bottle in a parking lot and ride around it. Look ahead in the direction of the turn, stick out your knee, and lean into it. As you become more comfortable, increase the speed at which you enter the turn.
You can also use two ropes to set up a mock turn. Lay the ropes down, side by side, both curving in the same direction. Play with the distance between the two ropes, the angle of the turn, and your speed going into it.
If you need to reduce your speed, apply your brakes gently before the turn. As you head into the curve, let go of the brakes so your speed can carry you around the bend. Start pedaling as soon as you come around the corner.
Be sure to practice turning in both directions.
Ride With Other Cyclists
Whether you convince your friends to practice bike handling drills at the local church lot, or you’re just meeting up for a casual spin, you can learn a lot from watching others ride.
“You become so much more efficient when you are [riding] in the company of others,” Howard says.
Not only can you learn from their movements, but competition on the road can really push you to become a better cyclist. When you’re out there, “You’ll see someone make an error and think ‘I’m gonna drop that person’,” Howard says.
He quickly adds, “I mean…do it with spirit.”
Michelle Valenti is the cycling and triathlon editor at Active.com.