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Descending Downhill Tips

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For those adrenaline junkies out there, here are some tips to help you get down the hill—not only intact, but also with style and grace.

Mountain Bike

It's rocky, rutted and crazy steep. It looks like a killer slope. But if you can manage to hike down that slope, you can certainly ride down it. Might be crazy, but still true.

Tires

If you can think of your bike's wheels as you would a shoe, then you can begin to understand the concept of descending on a bike. As your foot goes through its motion while walking normally on a flat surface, your heel hits the ground, absorbing shock. The rest of your foot follows. Walking is essentially a controlled fall. Going downhill on a bike is much the same—a controlled fall.

As you hike down a slope, the dynamics of your footfall stay much the same. The part of your leg doing most of the work is your quads. As your knee bends, your quads perform an action called eccentric controlled lowering. Basically, they are your brakes. The wheel, like the foot, keeps rolling along unless you choose to slow it down. Your brakes control the rate at which they roll. And, unless you allow your tires to skid (which can ruin your control), your wheel will cause no more damage to the trail than your shoes.

Brakes

Excellent braking skills contribute to a fluid descent. It's true the front brake has more stopping power, and because of that fact, it can also throw you over the handlebars if applied too firmly. And of course, nobody wants that! As long as you are in the correct body position, you will be able to apply both brakes evenly.

Balancing Act

Since a bike tends toward forward motion on a decline (hello gravity!), it naturally wants to take you along with it. It is important, then, give a light resistance. You don’t want to fly over those handlebars, but we also want you making excellent progress down the hill.

Weight Back, Move Forward: As you move down the slope, keep your rear end as far back on the saddle as seems wise without losing control of the bike. But of course, don’t lean too far back, that can cause the front to become wobbly.

Stay Low: Hold your body as close to the bike as possible. Suspension systems may take the jolt out of many rough descents, but your legs and arms also work as your shock absorbers. Keep your elbows bent at an angle slightly greater than 90 degrees and avoid gripping the handlebars too tightly. Relaxing your muscles is the key to movement.

Feet Placement: Your feet should be at 3 and 9 o'clock position.

Easy Descending: Your balancing act isn't the only thing you can do to keep your bike moving down those steep slopes smoothly. The route you choose and your brake control contribute to an easy descent as well.

Where you want to go: A beginner's mistake is looking at spots you want to avoid. Pick a path and stick to it. Fix your eyes on your chosen path. Scan ahead for future hazards, but look for where you want to go.

Speed Control: Of course you want to blaze down the trail, feel the wind on your face, get that adrenaline rush. But chances are you are not alone on the trail or road. Look out for others. In no way does this mean you always have to slow down, but learn to control your speed when necessary.

A Trick for the Experienced Rider

Descending over boulders or sheer drop-offs is an advanced technique and should be attempted only by experienced riders. If you're experienced and feeling confident, the same rules apply, except with greater emphasis:

  • Lean way back. Brace your belly near to or against the back of the saddle.
  • Keep your elbows bent and body low.
  • Rely on both brakes, but mostly on your rear brake, as you may need to release the front to provide more momentum.

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