How I improved at descending
It was bad. No, I'm serious, it was really, really bad. I used to hate descending, not only because I was scared of it, but because I knew, I really sucked at descending. And partly that was the reason why I was scared. Or was it the other way around?
Well, it's certainly easy to just say, repeated practice will show progress, no matter how little talent you bring along.
But that's just the very basic guideline and at least to me it never was such an intriguing advice that would make me want to go outside and practice.
When I signed up for my first unsupported bikepacking race, the Three Peaks Bike Race 2020, I had already crossed the alps on a way too heavy bike, so it's fair to say I had at least an idea of what would await me. In reality I sucked at descending on a heavy bike and I still sucked all the way to Nice, 2000km and 28000 meter of ascends – or should I better point out the descends, which seemed to be the most horrific thing of it all. I remember at one particular gradient, I think it was in Switzerland, the country with probably the most absurd steepness and missing road marks on tiny streets ever, when I felt deeply sorry for the motorcyclist stuck behind me, descending with an average speed of 30km/h.
I'd still not describe myself as the best descender ever lived, but compared to what I have seen with others, it's safe to say I'm pretty okay at it. And, what's more important: I enjoy it nowadays. So what I can offer you is advice from a perspective of progress, not superiority and in case you think you suck at descending, let me assure you: talent is not required. You can learn it and you can learn to enjoy it.
So what helped me?
It may sound a bit paradox first, but cycling at night has helped hugely to improve my descending skills. At evening or night most roads are more quiet, there's less traffic, less other cyclists or general road users who could be a potential source for pressure or stress, even anxiety. I felt very scared when descending on high traffic roads and from time to time I still do. So picking a quiet time (early morning, evening or night) helps you not only to be more relaxed, but also enables to stay focused on whats important.
So here's my step by step guide for a good practice of descending
Pick a quiet road, absence of daylight is recommended
The gradient shouldn't be too steep, turns are mandatory (otherwise there's nothing to practice) and the tarmac should be of good quality.
Most importantly: Pick a road with very good road marking: a middle-line, and in best case sidelines with reflective elements in the turns.
Obviously good lights are a requirement, picking a front light that has a well balanced field of light will help a lot. I personally use the BBB cycling StrikeDuo 2000, which has an optimal illumination also to the side - crucial for taking turns with speed
When descending, focus on the road marking, especially the middle-line, just follow it, it will lead you down in a perfectly smooth way. It's a bit like learning to draw, you usually start as a kid to paint in paint-books, just following the outlines of a pony, sun or bird. After a while this gets boring and you pick your own lines, which is a process that applies to painting ponies as well as descending on a bike.
Concentrating on the road marking has also the great advantage of lifting your view to the point which is important: ahead. I used to be so slow and blocked from anxiety that I stared into the wrong direction, which is the direction I was heading. Again, this sounds paradox but in a turn of nearly 90 degree it's not recommended to look where you are going at that very moment, but rather where you will be going. Looking ahead, out of the turn, not into the direction of the abyss, will ensure you can release the brake levers and pedal out of any corner smoothly. That is one thing you will discover as soon as you start getting a feeling for riding down hills: It has a lot to do with trust, confidence and the optimism of looking at the good sides (aka:the road), not concentrating on what you're scared of (falling down the cliff or shattering into a solid stonewall).
That's another reason why descending in the dark is much easier: you can concentrate on the road, the road marks or potential potholes, without getting distracted by anything else, like the view, the height et cetera.
As soon as you get a feeling for it, you can shift it into daylight excursions .
A shorter crank
It has been a game changer for me to go for a shorter crank. Not only for descending, but I will focus on this aspect for now. Depending on your height and the length of your legs compared to your upper body, going for a shorter crank length can have several benefits, especially for ultra-distance cycling. I went down from 170mm to 160mm but the appropriate length for you may vary and not everyone will benefit from riding with a shorter crank in the same way I did. Especially when you suffer from knee or hip injuries please talk to your doctor or health care professional before making any changes to your set-up.
One aspect of riding a shorter crank is being able to go down into the drops with more ease, even when you don't have the lean physique of the pros. Obviously the ability to still raise your head is another story, but for people with normal organs in the belly area it's a huge relive to not have your own knee up to the chin when pedaling or going for the super-tuck. Apart from this it will enable you to pedal through any corner without fear of touching the ground. This may not seem so important when you're still in the state of breaking as much as possible, but trust me, it will become a thing once you stop torturing your brake pads.
The right braking technique
This is highly individual and apart from the obvious, to NOT go for the full power of your braking system in the middle of a turn, I have not much advice here. As I learned to descend with rim brakes, I got used to brake as little as possible. To me, the best descenders are the ones with the longest serving brake pads. I'm referring to road cycling here, as off-road style descending has different conditions of course. But when you want to roll down tarmac highlights like the Tourmalet, breaking shouldn't be used as matter of stopping, rather slowing down before a turn or behind drivers. Get used to your braking system in all conditions and be aware, not every braking technique applies to all sorts of brakes. To me, the braking system includes the tires, as they often have as much impact on the quality of your braking as the brakes itself. I like to ride with lower pressure for example, at least for the Vittoria Corsa Control I noticed a better handling in turns with less skidding in the back.
Stating the obvious, repetition is key. For me it helped a lot to do fun activities like Everesting or hill repetitions (I hated it), but I know, this is not for everyone. Nevertheless, especially for those who live in flat areas like I do, it's often the only way to get enough practice. I have learned more in a single Everesting about descending than during a 2000km trip through the alps. Riding the same gradient down again and again in short periods of time will shift your focus more to the essential: your body, your braking and shifting, picking your line, rather then looking out for potential dangers or spectacular views. Trust me, after 10x riding the same hill up and down you'll know every pothole without even looking. And the view, well, even that gets boring after a while...
Training to descend with a loaded bike is really helpful if you want to improve your skills for bikepacking. A packed bike with bags behaves very differently than a pure road bike with just a 500ml bidon. Getting used to braking with a loaded bike will ensure you don't feel unsafe during your trip or race. Riding into potholes is a whole different story for your wheels when you carry 10-20kg of luggage, so riding loaded bikes usually comes with a better eye for details (or broken wheels).
All in all, descending is now one of my favourite things about cycling, even though I was hella scared of it a long time. The beauty of riding down hills probably lies in the metaphor itself: Trusting in your capabilities and your way, even though sometimes you can't see the end of the road that lies ahead.