Bike Shorts: Proper Pedal Position When Cycling Straight Downhill

October 19, 2022 0 Comments

Two cyclists coasting down a hill at sunset

Riding a bike downhill seems straightforward enough. You get your bike to the top of the hill, and gravity will do the rest, right?

To a degree, yes. Simply coasting downhill doesn’t take a lot of cycling experience or forethought. But there is a way to do it with safety in mind — and all it takes is one simple adjustment. 

Coach Darryl MacKenzie has been cycling for over 35 years, so he’s seen a few downhills in his day. Read on to learn his biggest secret for proper pedal position when cycling straight downhill.

A Look at 2 Cyclists

Imagine two cyclists coasting down a hill side by side. You’re coasting along behind them, sitting comfortably and observing.

The cyclist on the right is descending the hill smoothly. She glides freely, keeping a perfectly straight line as she goes. The cyclist on the left, however, seems off balance. He constantly sways back and forth, never seeming to settle into a steady, straight line.

At a glance, it may not seem like much of a difference. But in reality, the cyclist on the right is in a much safer position. Without all that side-to-side motion, she’s free to focus on the road ahead, and her bike isn’t vulnerable to any subtle imbalances. 

The rider on the left, on the other hand, just looks like one bump could throw him to the ground. Watching him makes you uneasy, so you hold back and veer to the right side, closer to the more stable rider.

It’s understandable why he makes you nervous. A cyclist going 30 miles an hour downhill covers about four car lengths every second. One mistake at that speed could be disastrous for that rider and everyone around him.

It’s All About Where You Put Your Pedals

The rider on the right is in a much safer position, but the actual difference between them is subtle.

Every cyclist knows that balance is important to safe cycling,” says Coach Darryl. “And balance is more than simply being able to keep the bike upright. Balance is also the ability to have the bicycle smoothly go forward.”

On a straight downhill (not one with any turns), the secret of that balance lies in how you position your pedals. The rider on the left is riding “squirrelly,” as cyclists would say, because he has his pedals positioned at 12 and six on the clock, perpendicular to the ground. 

The smoother cyclist on the right, though? She has her pedals at nine and three on the clock, making her feet parallel to the ground and her weight evenly distributed on both sides of the bike.

When the feet are together like this, each foot has the same amount of pressure on the pedals,” Darryl explains.

When the pedals are uneven, however, you end up with more pressure on the pedal that’s closer to the ground. Like the cyclist on the right, you’ll have to sway from side to side to maintain your balance and keep a straight line. 

Don’t Be a Squirrelly Rider

In the cycling community, no one wants to be labeled as a squirrelly rider. “Keep your line” is one of the most sacred rules of cycling — and it’s a good rule of thumb for safety. The good news is that, when you’re coasting straight downhill, it’s an easy rule to follow.

If he’s not pedaling down a straight hill, the experienced rider is going to have the feet at nine and three,” says Darryl. 

It’s a simple fix, but it could make all the difference in the world. 

The pedal positioning rule is the most important one for safely descending straight hills on your bike. But there are some other ways you can make your descent even safer. To learn more, read our post, “How To Safely Descend Long, Straight Hills.”


Look for more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website.

Photo by Óscar Aguilar Elías on Unsplash