6 Ways to Descend Like A Tour de France Cyclist (And Not Die)

Share This Article

Descents are free speed. You spend almost every second of a bike ride pedaling and working to move forward, but the descents are your reward and your opportunity to make up time. For professional cyclists at the Tour de France, however, descents aren’t always free. Many times they are stressful and fraught with extreme risk. The Wall Street Journal did a nice job talking about the risks inherent in descending at high speed at the Tour de France, and in both the Pyrenees and Alps we’ve already seen several riders take extreme risks racing downhill. Back on Stage 8 to Bagnères-de-Luchon, Chris Froome attacked over the final climb of the day and showed an incredible display of descending skills which resulted in a solo stage victory and the yellow jersey. It was a daring attack that included some risky descending techniques most of us probably shouldn’t try unless you’re getting paid to race your bike. But we can still gain valuable insights on how to become better at descending by watching his impressive high-speed descent.

So, what makes the difference between a beautiful, fast, and smooth descent and a nervous, wobbly one? Courage accounts for a little of it, but skill is the foundation of great descending. Skill instills confidence and confidence builds courage, and the combination of skill, confidence, and courage gets you down the mountain fast.

If you’re not racing you don’t need to take big risks on descents, and it’s important to note that having great descending skills doesn’t mean you have to go insanely fast or take big risks. On the other hand, there is no downside to having the skills to be a great descender, because it will make you safer and more confident in all conditions.

Descending Skills Clinic

Everyone has to slow down for the corners, but the best riders take great lines, position themselves over their bikes perfectly, brake late and slow down the least; and those skills can either move you off the front of the pack or help you catch back on. If you go back and watch the descents from stages in the Pyrenees and Alps, here are some skills to watch for – and emulate the next time you go downhill:

1. Think and look far ahead.

Traveling at 62mph you cover approximately the length of a football field (300 feet) every 3.3 seconds. With corners, rocks, potholes, etc. coming at you that quickly, you have to pick your lines early. Ideally, you want to set up wide as you enter a corner, cut through the apex, and exit wide. Choosing the wrong line on the entry makes it difficult – and sometimes impossible – to safely exit the turn and stay on the road.

2. Brake late, but before the corners.

You want to make dramatic changes in speed on the straightaway before you enter a corner, using both brakes so you are complete control of your speed. You may still be on the brakes in the turn, but if you were going 40mph in the previous straightaway, you want to bring the speed down to a safe speed for the corner – say 25-30mph – before the turn rather than trying to dramatically slow down and change direction at the same time. If you go into a corner too hot and grab a fistful of brakes, you’ll either lock up the wheels and slide or crash; or your momentum will carry you so far to the outside of the turn that you’ll miss the exit and end up in the trees. The more advanced way to do this is to brake late; that is, hold your speed until you’re closer to the corner and use more braking power to slow down quickly. The trouble is, if you get it wrong you’ll end up overshooting the corner.

3. Look through the corner.

Your bike goes where your eyes are pointed, so look through to the exit of the corner. Don’t focus on the potholes or the guardrail at the edge of the road unless that’s where you want your wheels to go.

4. Plant your weight on your outside foot.

To corner safely, you need your center of gravity to remain over your tires and your weight distributed appropriately across both wheels. With your body weight planted on the pedal facing the outside of the corner, you’re increasing the traction your tires have on the road. You can’t be tentative about this; press your weight onto the outside foot.

5. Lean your bike more than your body.

This is relative. When you ride into a corner, both your body and bike lean to the inside of the turn, but you should lean the bike more than you lean your body. To do this, plant your weight on your outside leg and extend the arm facing the inside of the corner. As you extend your inside arm, you’ll notice the bike drops into the corner and your body weight feels like it is primarily directed through your outside leg and your inside arm. This is a very stable position and it provides a lot of traction; you just have to remember to be agile on the saddle so you can move and position the bike underneath you.

6. Prepare for reducing radius turns.

These are the tricky bends. The hardest part about a reducing radius turn is that you often don’t know about it until you’re in it. At that point you have to be able to adjust your line through the turn because your original line will take you too wide. To tighten your line, focus more force on your inside arm to push it into the inside of the turn. With your weight pressed on your outside leg, pushing with the inside arm will cause the bike to lean more into the turn while keeping your center of mass near the wheels to maintain traction.


Share This Article

Comments 34

  1. Pingback: 9 Essential Cycling Skills All Riders Need to Master – FitandFunNow.com

  2. Pingback: 9 Essential Cycling Skills All Riders Need to Master - Chris Carmichael

  3. hi!
    While it is critical that you remain calm, that doesn’t mean you’re helpless. When you’re on the road and you encounter a bad driver or someone who is clearly distracted while driving the best thing you can do is just give them some space. Don’t let their bad habits get you involved in a wreck.

  4. Pingback: Happy Weekend | Eat And Run This

    1. This article caught my eye as the only thing I seem to be competent at cycling is going extremely fast down a steep technical descent. I offer the following comments/recommendations:

      1) Don’t ever get outside your comfort zone. If you focus on being smooth and comfortable while practicing good technique, you will get faster and faster as your understanding and confidence builds. Smooth and comfortable always beats “bleeding edge” shaky. Don’t try some kind of crazy body position that you saw on TV … you will go faster by being comfortable and smooth … only gradually get lower on the bike as you feel comfortable doing so. As an experiment … I can beat all the “2nd fastest” descent times on Strava coming off the Blue Ridge Parkway here while maintaining an upright, head high body position with my hands on the hoods. Any loss of straight line speed is made up for in smoothness going in/out of turns. I frequently blow past people using who are mimicing some crazy tuck position they saw on TV … but they are getting hard on the brakes going into turns because they simply aren’t comfortable riding like that.

      2) Using body position first to bleed speed and gain better vision – particularly if you don’t really know the descent, it makes sense to gain more of an upright position as you approach a turn. This sheds some speed, but also allows you to see and process visual information must quicker than if you’re in any kind of a low profile position.

      3) If you are not familar with a descent, a good technique is to track and hold the radius of the turn (i.e. for left trending turn, track 3 ft off centerline; for right trending turn, track 3 ft off roadside or white line) as opposed to swinging wide going in and then carving across the apex of the turn. Tracking the radius allows you to safely make a turn even if it ends up being a full 180 degree bend. The very concept of swinging wide/clipping apex/swinging wide on exit is based on maintaining a higher velocity and overlaying a wider radius than what the centerline of the road is doing. If nothing else, tracking the radius gives you immediate feedback on whether you calculated/calibrated the velocity correctly and rapidly builds up mental database and judgment to read turns.

      4. Think of descending on a bike as analogous to driving a car at night with vision limited by your headlights. Just as you don’t want to “over drive” the maximum sight distance provided by your headlights at night, you want to modulate your speed based on your sight distance as your approach a curve. What happens if there is a vehicle stopped, tree across your lane, gravel spilled or group of very slow overweight motorcycle riders (real hazard up here in Brevard) just beyond your sight distance?

      5. Prepare for the unexpected. You must consider the potential for a mechanical malfunction or the cyclist in front of you to do something unexpected. Think through ahead of time what you’re going to do if you get speed wobbles, tire goes flat, or that guy swerves in front of you.

      Just sharing some thoughts that I have based on the one and only thing I’m good at on a bicycle.

  5. Some great technically accurate comments on here to strengthen a good article. Thanks everyone for sharing. Good reminders and s good primer.

  6. Hairpin turns, blind turns, blind hairpin turns scare the you know what out of me and I seem to brake more than most on those. Any recommendations on how to safely get around those at speed?

  7. Any tips on getting more comfortable in the drops? I have the hardest time being comfortable riding in the drops while descending. I feel as though I have more control on the hoods, therefore, I am a much slower descender. You are the experts, so I’d appreciate your advice.

    1. Spend more time in your drops. If you’re out on the flats say to yourself “I’m going to spend the next 5 min in my drops”. Then do 10 then 15 etc. The more time you spend in the drops, even if you aren’t descending, the more comfy you will be. Also, check the position of your hoods. A lot of people have there hoods up high so they have a more upright riding position. That’s all fine and good, but you’ll have trouble reaching your brake levers in the drops. Get your hoods in a position where you don’t have to tweak your wrist to reach the levers. You can also play with the reach adjust (if your shifters have them) in order to play around with your hood position a bit more. Hope that helps!

  8. Another factor shared by better bike and motorcycle handlers is that while the body and machine lean, the rider’s head is kept more level, or upright relative to the road. This is observed but not well understood; other balance activities like slacklining or even track-stands suggest focusing on a more distant horizon reference helps the body maintain its equilibrium. Whatever the relationship, the worst thing is to keep your body rigidly in line when leaning into a corner, such that your head is tilted strongly off the level plane. As a rider becomes more comfortable with turns this adaptation may be more automatic, but novices may fail to make the adjustment at first.

  9. As stated in the article, fear is inversely proportional to confidence. Positive experiences build confidence. Practicing cornering on dirt or gravel at much lower speeds can help build skills and experience without the level of danger that exists at high speeds. Also, much like the bike will follow the eyes, the results of your descent, or any particular corner will follow your mind. If you commit fully, or “sell out” to what you are doing, and do not permit doubt to creep in, you will have much better results than if you allow your brain to go to “oh no, this is too scary, what if this, or what if that”. Positive visualization!

  10. Any tips on overcoming the fear of going fast on the descent? It seems I can’t keep my fingers off the brakes once I hit about 35 mph, while others are comfortable at 50+ mph.
    Thanks.

    1. Assuming your problem relates to cornering at speed, not to bombing a straight descent, IMHO the absolute requirement is to nail the technique. Having done that, no doubt after you touch the brakes you discover you didn’t need to. So repeat the same descent, scaring yourself a little with an incremental increase. Repeat. My $0.02 worth.

  11. You’ve published something like this years ago, and I should say it transformed my descending, especially rule 5. Having raced cars I knew about the racing line, but having ridden motor bikes I didn’t know about 5.

    And I note that you did not say anything about lowering the centre of gravity, but others do, including Robbie McEwen. They never explain why they believe it’s a good idea, I suspect because it’s nonsense. Any comment?

    Thanks for transforming my descending a few years ago.

    1. I was wondering about this advice as well. Having taken classes on riding motorcycles from Lee Parks, he explains that the more you lean your body to the inside of a turn, the less you have to lean the motorcycle. I really wonder why the advice on a bicycle is the polar opposite. Shifting your center of gravity to the inside should also allow the bike to lean less, putting less stress on the tires.

      1. It is the polar opposite because the weight distribution is the opposite. From what I understand from the complex mathematics and physics involved (admittedly not much) on a motorcycle, the machine is heavier than the rider so in order to countersteer, the machine needs to stay more upright. In cycling, the rider (should) be heavier than the bike and needs to stay more upright to countersteer. There is an in depth Wikipedia article about this, and if you dive into tips about cornering on google you can find many others comparing the two. I’m sorry I can’t explain more than that, it is certainly beyond my realm of expertise!

  12. I’d like to comment on the two crashes mentioned in the article. I clicked through both of them frame by frame and observed the following:
    1. Barguil on Stage 16 did not swing wide to the outside before the turn. He was too far inside and could not “cut the apex” because that’s where he started. So he could only go straight into Thomas.
    2. Pinot on Stage 17 goes into the corner well but just before his rear wheel pops out, you will note he starts to pedal. Thus, he is no longer able to keep his weight on his right (outside) foot. Also, the rear wheel jumps just as the left pedal reaches the bottom of the pedal stroke. Could his pedal have hit the pavement? That would lift the rear wheel off the road and initiate the skid that led to the crash. I saw the following sequence of events: a) starts to pedal, b) inside pedal reaches the bottom of the stroke, c) back wheel jumps, d) crash.

    1. I saw that when Pinot did it at the time and it looked like a pedal strike to me. He was pedaling far too early in all the corners down that mountain because he was over braking and then trying to compensate, while Phil and Paul were talking about how he learned to corner on a racetrack in the off season.

  13. This is all about Sagan. The best ball a rounder there is. An explanation of his descending prowess only needed be said here. Any other rider needn’t be mentioned. There was no other in sight. This guy is a phenom! Great segment.

  14. I’m a bit confused about leaning your bike more than your body. I see many/most of the pros throwing their inside knee inwards during tight cornering. As I see it this effectively moves the rider’s center of gravity inwards in relation to the lean of the bike – thus the bike stays more upright (see Sagan and the IAM rider at about 44 seconds in the video clip above). To me leaning your bike more than your body and throwing your knee in seem to do opposite things. Can you clarify how this works? Thanks, John

    1. Post
      Author

      John,
      Go up and read Luis’s comment from earlier today, it’s a very good explanation of body placement. Throwing the inside knee may change weight distribution a bit, but the bigger impact may be the increased freedom to move the saddle and bike under you. The amount of lean is also impacted by traction, and whenever a rider thinks traction may be a problem they will keep the bike more upright. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Pro Coach

  15. This is an excellent article. I’m usually shocked about how many recreational riders are strangers to these basic concepts, or even simpler ones like, you know, hands on the drops, to name one. I’m tempted to translate this and hand it over to some of my Saturday riding club mates, who always wonder why some of us can go down so fast (compared to them at least).

    Thank you

  16. I’d like to weigh in here on braking. It’s hard to over emphasize the importance of braking before the corners. It’s essentially a matter of physics. The tires, or specifically the contact patch, can do X amount of work based on available traction. It can slow you down, it can turn you and the vast majority of the time it can do both. At the limit of traction it can’t. If you are at the limit, or close to it, of the tires traction going around a corner and you hit the brakes, sometimes even touch them, ESPECIALLY if it’s a little bumpy or the road surface is dusty, damp, or otherwise traction “challenged,” look out.
    I spend about the same amount of time on a mountain bike as i do the road. I’ve gotten used to the bike moving under me, the traction on both tires changing constantly, adjusting everything as the conditions change from one second to the other. As has been said before, look ahead, you go where you look. THE CORNER CHANGES! You and the bike have to do the same. I can’t believe the number of people i see in the TdF peloton, the top 200 guys in the world, who look like they are frozen going around the corners. Maybe it’s the television perspective. My best advice, if you can, get a bike in the dirt or the gravel. Your cornering skill set will sky rocket. My two cents…

  17. #4 – planting your foot on the outside pedal does absolutely nothing to center of mass, except maybe raise it a little as you lift your butt off the saddle. When will this old fallacy, especially the one about “plant your foot on the outside pedal to lower your center of gravity” ever go away?
    What weighting the outside pedal does is allow the bike to conform more to the undulations/bumps in the road by:
    1. reducing the bike/rider unsprung weight to just the bike, rather than bike + rider. The legs are better shock absorbers than the spine.
    2. allows the bike to pivot around that pedal with your weight on it.
    The combination of the two allows the bike to react very quickly to bumps, creating more sustained tire contact with the ground, and increasing the tires’ adhesion. The alternative, having your weight on the saddle, causes the bike to move with your body, which tends to maintain its intertia. So when you hit a bump, you go up, but so does the bike. Center of mass has nothing to do with what you think is being weighted. Center of mass does have a part in your body’s attitude in relation to the bike, but that’s a skill that would take longer to explain. Leaning the bike more than the body is a good first step in understanding how to countersteer.

    1. Post
      Author

      Agreed, weighting the outside foot doesn’t lower center of mass, which is why we didn’t say that in the article. And your second reason for weighting the outside pedal is a nice explanation as well. Thanks.

  18. Good info Chris, (as always),
    I noticed a couple things from the last couple stages on TDF.
    Sagan was obviously doing as much late braking as possible, and with the potential of melting tar, he would stand up slightly, put his weight back of the saddle to keep the bike straight, but also keep more weight off the front tire, (which is where most load is under heavy braking, (mt bikers use this a lot).

    Also, some riders make a common error of turning in too early, (easy to do when going fast & not wanting to over-shoot a turn). But, this will throw the rider out of the exit too early, causing the rider to make last minute adjustments & loosing speed. It’s tough to wait to turn-in, but is especially helpful on decreasing radius turns, (this may have been a one reason Pinot went down), as you mentioned.

    Your comment of looking past the turn can help avoid this, (towards the exit, if one can see that far), is a powerful tool that racecar drivers learn early, (since the car / bike goes where your focusing, not where you “want” the bike to go).

    I would like to hear from some of the riders on how much the tar / pvmt. is actually softening, which has to be scary & unpredictable, ( remember when Lance carried / ran his bike across a corner that many has fallen in).

    It’s also interesting that cyclists adjust their bodies different than pro motorcyclists; they hang their bodies way off to the inside of a turn, (since they have lots of power & tire to work with), where, as you mentioned, cyclist lean the bike more than the body.

    Looking forward to the next couple stages, (bummer about TJ).

    ss

    1. Well, Sagan and Nibali corner more like motorbike racers, and so do a few more. I do it myself, I feel I have more control, and the bike’s more upright: less chance of having a wheel skidding over some gravel.

    1. Post
      Author

      All true, but you would have to know that the corner is a decreasing radius turn ahead of time. Some riders have reconned descents or raced them in previous races, but many times the riders at the Tour (and other races) have no idea what the next corner looks like.

      1. The point is if you make a habit of picking a line with late apex, you’ll buy yourself some margin for error. If you know the descent well, go for the perfect line. If you don’t know it well, stay safe and go for late apex. You’ll have to sacrifice some entry speed, but you’re chances of staying on the road will increase. 🙂

  19. And not to be forgotten is that pros are racing on closed roads, so they have both lanes to use with no worry about opposing traffic. Most of us do not have that luxury, but I’ve been on too many group rides where some ride blind turns on narrow roads partially in the opposing lane, trusting in who knows what, that a car is not approaching. You are not being paid to take risks on descents – so don’t!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *