By: Jane LeMasurier
A few years ago I went riding with a friend who was a much better technical rider, but someone of about the same fitness level. I’d stick with him no problem on the climbs and flats. However, within ten feet of starting into a descent, he would pull away from me. It felt like in a single pedal stroke he’d be gone, bounding off over rocks and through tight trees like a deer in the woods. Naturally I would start to pedal harder. But no matter how much physical effort I put into going faster, I couldn’t catch him. On a particularly long and rocky descent, I came barreling to the bottom of the trail, my forearms on fire, my tires smashing into rocks, huffing and puffing, only to see my friend sitting and resting on his bike, as if he’d been waiting for hours. He said something to me at that moment that I will always keep in mind. He told me that I needed to realize that going fast downhill isn’t like going fast uphill. He told me to loosen up and let it roll.
So, here are a few simple tips to loosen up before you descend:
Start with the Hands: You obviously want a good grip on the bike and a quick trigger for the brakes, but if you’re clamping down for dear life, that sends a fear signal to your brain, which can tense your entire body. The same is true for how you position your body over your bike. Stay rooted to the bike but give it space. The more you try to control the bike, the rougher your ride will be. Open your knees and let the bike move underneath you. Give the bike some room to perform! If you give the bike space to maneuver as it’s been built to maneuver, you’ll ride happier with more finesse. Certainly staying loose and relaxed is just as much a frame of mind as it is a body position.
Follow A Better Rider (and ride their line): I’m a visual learner, so following better riders down more and more technical lines has improved my riding significantly. Ask a faster friend to slow down so you can stay on his or her wheel. Just as important as it is to watch someone pick tougher lines, it’s important to learn how to see your own line. This means scanning the trail both directly in front of your tire and off in the distance. Scanning between the two visual points will help you prepare for what’s immediately underneath you as well as what’s coming up. And don’t be afraid to take a moment on your ride to turn around a try something again — a bridge, a rock garden, or a rolldown, for example. Getting out and riding technical terrain is the first step to improving, but slowing down and looking at the terrain, or having a friend encourage you to ride it (and be there in case you fall!), will help you relax and improve your descending.
Go Faster: Really. The slower you go downhill, the harder the technical features become. At slower speeds these features require more balance and more skill to ride them. I’m not encouraging reckless abandon, but a little confidence to let it roll faster than your comfort zone will actually help you ride downhill with more success!