How to Safely Descend Long, Straight Hills
As a cyclist, it’s the moment you’ve been waiting for the whole ride — or it’s the one you’ve been dreading. You’re cresting that last big climb and looking down on one long, steady and straight downhill drop to finish off your big Sunday ride.
If you’re prepared, then this is your chance to relax and enjoy the thrill of a swift descent. You can rest your legs, lean in, and feel the wind. But if you’re not ready, it might feel like your life is about to spin right off its axle.
The difference between these two cyclists isn’t that one is just scared of speed or heights and the other has nerves of steel. It comes down to technique. The fact is, many cyclists don’t know how to safely descend long, straight hills. When they pick up speed, the shaking starts, so they panic and just white-knuckle their brakes all the way down.
The good news is that these trail and road cycling techniques, while not necessarily intuitive, are easy to learn and implement with very little practice. They come courtesy of our good friend and cycling guru Coach Darryl MacKenzie. Keep in mind, these recommendations only apply on how to descend long, straight hills. In a future post, we’ll address how to handle curvy downhills.
The Dangers of Descending Without Proper Technique
If you don’t know what you’re doing on a long, straight hill, you put yourself and other cyclists in serious danger.
Naturally, when cycling downhill, it’s incredibly easy to pick up quite a bit of speed. Consider this: For every mile per hour of speed, a cyclist is moving 1.5 feet per second. At 35–40 miles per hour (a common speed on a moderately steep hill), that means they’re moving between 52 and 60 feet every second. And they’re doing it on two narrow wheels. At that rate, if you hit anything or brake too hard, the results could be disastrous.
And if you overreact and simply grind your brakes, that’s not necessarily a safer choice. A lot of friction makes a lot of heat, and hot brakes and hot tires don’t work as well. It can even cause you to blow out a tire (as Darryl has seen personally).
So the question is: How can you safely pick up speed while maintaining tight control over your bike on that long, straight downhill?
When you’re descending a steep hill on your bike, speed has nothing to do with pedaling. In fact, pedaling is a useless waste of energy and likely to throw off your balance. It’s all about aerodynamics. When you position your body right, you can cut the surface area of your torso that’s hitting the wind by 75%. The better you cut through the wind, the faster you will go. You can even speed up and slow down on a hill by simply lowering or raising your body.
Aerodynamics have a huge impact on your control as well. When the wind doesn’t have a smooth path around your body, it creates turbulence, making it that much harder to stay steady and straight.
Tweak Your Body Positioning
To safely descend a long, straight hill, you need to consider speed and control. In order to maximize your speed and control, you need to focus on a few key parts of your body. Let’s work from the ground up.
1. Keep Your Feet Parallel
When it comes to control, this is the number one issue. If either foot is lower than the other, your weight will favor that side. Where your weight goes, so goes the bike. Instead, keep your feet parallel, at the same level. If your pedals were on a compass, your feet should be at the east and west positions (or three and nine on a clock).
2. Tuck Your Knees In
When your legs are open, your body becomes a parachute in the wind. Instead of smoothly cutting through it, you’re catching the breeze and allowing it to buffet you around. Tuck both knees inward so they touch the top tube on your bike, making a ‘V’ to slice the air.
3. Shift Your Butt Back
This is the key road cycling trick to get your whole body positioned correctly. When you slide your butt toward the back of the saddle so that your upper thighs are on the seat, your torso will naturally lean forward. This improves aerodynamics and lowers your center of gravity. It also shifts your weight back so that, if you have to stop quickly, you slide farther onto the saddle rather than forward onto your top tube.
4. Drop Your Hands
This is your top safety concern. Never descend long, straight hills with your hands on the top of your handlebars — always use the drops. If your hands are on top while you’re flying at top speed, one bump is all it takes to knock one of them off the bars and send you reeling out of control. Coach Darryl rode with someone who did this, and that rider spent 60 days in the hospital. Keep your hands in the drops so that, when you hit a bump, they just dig further into the handlebars.
5. Scan Ahead With Your Eyes
In his decades coaching, Darryl has seen many cyclists lose their fear of long descents simply by learning where to look on the road. Hint: It’s farther ahead than you might think. Generally, Darryl recommends the “Rule of Two-Thirds.” Spend two-thirds of your time looking ahead 100 to 200 feet, and the other third scanning from there up to the front of your bike.
Scan quickly, in three- or four-second increments, and look for potholes or any slight changes in the color or look of the pavement. If you see something, don’t stare at it to make out what it is, just assume it’s a hazard and slowly turn so that you ease away from it. The bike tends to go where you look, so looking at the path around the hazard will help guide you around it.
Practice Safe Braking
A final technique isn’t about your body positioning, but it’s critically important for safely descending long, straight hills on your bike. You have to use your brakes carefully. It’s extremely dangerous to slam on your brakes when you’re going 35 miles an hour (or faster) on two wheels. Do it wrong and you’re flying over the handlebars or crashing into an object or another cyclist.
Give yourself plenty of space — the faster you’re going, the more bike lengths you should leave between you and the cyclist in front of you. That way you have plenty of time to brake. When it does come time to stop, always pump the rear brake first to avoid going over the handlebars. Don’t “panic brake” either, or you may skid out of control. Brake as gradually as possible and, as you slow down, you can apply more force to the front brakes.
Many cyclists choose the sport because it’s easier on the body than others are. But a crash on a speedy descent is anything but easy on your body. Practice these techniques for descending steep declines while cycling until they are second nature, and you’ll be safely coasting those long hills with ease.
Check out our tips on how to handle winding downhills, which require a different mindset and technique.
You can find more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website.