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descending technique road cycling -how to improve

-By: Tomas Swift-Metcalfe

Last modified: November 25, 2013

suggestions to improve your descending technique for road cycling

This past Tour de France we saw the hopes of the Thibaut Pinot come to and end due to a fear of descending read about it on cycling news. We also saw Bradley Wiggins have trouble descending in the Giro, read about it on the Telegraph. Anyone who says they don’t get scared at some time racing a road bike is lying. The sport is fraught with very real danger and only only keeping a cool head, and having experience can one actually avoid incident.

One key point though: A bicycle, is as safe as you ‘drive’ it. Racing bikes have good stopping power (when you know how) and can corner excellently, so much so that in races the support cars can’t really keep up on the descents. You need to trust the bike and keep in good order

descending technique road cycling
even the best get scared

It’s possible with of course to minimize risks on descents to such an extent that crashes become only freak incidents.

I started cycling at 19 while at Loughborough University. I used to do Duathlon and had a lot of success (big engine) and zero bike skills. In Duathlon it was easy to get away with having minimal cycling skills, but in road racing you need to be excellent at riding a bike.

The first training camp -link camps I did with my first cycling team was in January 2006. It was my one and only year as an under-23 and the training camp was joint with the professional team of the same club.


Something no one had told me till that day was to favour the front brake over the rear. I used to brake with the rear brake, because I was scared of ‘going of the handle bars’. That, in and of itself was one of the most useful bits of advice anyone ever told me. If you look at a car or motorbike, you’ll see the front brakes are bigger than the rear. In cycling the front brake produces 70% of the braking force and is key to controlling the bike.

braking in corners

Braking into corners is quite important, it momentarily shifts the centre of mass over the front wheel while you turn, increasing stability.

There a myth that ‘you can’t brake mid corner’ this isn’t quite true, you can, you just have to alter your line (trajectory) through the corner as you change velocity. This allows you to ‘scrub’ speed off where necessary. In the wet, be careful with this trick…

Caring as much speed as possible is important.


Trajectories in cycling follow pretty much the same logic as in motor sport. diagram however When riding in a peloton it’s not possible to take an optimal line and so getting accustomed to going round corners wide, or cutting in is essential. Reading other peoples trajectories is important too. Generally covering one side of the road or another is important, so that you don’t have to deal with riders unexpectedly cutting your line. These edge can also provide opportunities to move forward as you can carry more speed than people towards the middle and outside of the curve.

cornering trajectories
good/bad trajectories -lack braking points (I’ll try and cover this later; subscribe)

centre of mass

Keep balanced on the bike with everything aligned, don’t try and hang of the side (bicycles aren’t motorbikes), or keep the bike straight, lean in with the bike.

center of mass
keep your centre of mass in line with the bike

the limits of grip

In normal dry conditions, it’s very, very hard to over come the grip provided by the tires. However, water, oil, dusk significantly reduce the friction between the tire and the road. In normal conditions it’s not something you need to think about much.

eyes up the road

‘The body follows the eyes’, look ahead, read the road as far as possible. This is hard for beginners who focus on what’s around them.


Your reflexes can take can of what’s happening right around you, like avoid pot holes and other cyclists. Conscious thought will throw a spanner in the work though and as soon as higher consciousness gets involved, mistakes get made. Just avoid, don’t think how to avoid. This is very hard to learn and as far as I’m aware, only possible to learn with practice.

don’t be stupid

Of course bravado and plain stupidity are a sure way to find yourself in trouble on a descent. Even on closed road in a road race, margin of error must be given when entering a corner. The only time you can take it straight to the limit is when you know the road and know there is no traffic, or you’ve seen a bike/car go round the corner okay just before you.

Never ‘race’ down descents on open roads, keep safe.

keep you’re equipment in excellent condition


  • tire pressure
  • brakes (make sure they contact the braking surface correctly)
  • tires (look for cuts, wear, etc)
  • check handle bars, saddle and cleats are all correctly aligned

fear and expectation

I’m no psychologist, but in cycling keeping a cool head and calm seems to be the solution to not crash. Simples ;-).

final note

If you’re looking to get started improving descending, get mountain biking, learn to ‘bunny hop’, play with your bike and try to find a club with a cycling school, set up little obstacle courses, round cones, pick things of the ground, all while cycling… You’ll get a lot better.

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