Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Almost dying on descents - feeling alive while training for the Etape

Mmmmmm. Descendy....
Out on a ride with Pez, Paul and David this weekend I almost died. Well, maybe not died, but come off at a really fast speed (50+kmph).

Pez was ahead of me coming into a tight turn on a wet road. He hit the brakes earlier than I would have.  I wasn't expecting it and hit mine too hard. Both wheels locked and I lost grip - each of them going sideways at different speeds and directions (the back moving faster and further sideways).

I stayed up. I loved it.

It's not the first time I've almost come off at speed, but I've never changed my descending style. I adapt to wet roads, of course. You'd be an idiot not to. A wider, steadier, slower line.

But the same philosophy: Don't ride faster than you can see. Look as far ahead as you can. As fast as you can go and still brake in time to stop if you see something you don't expect the next second. So the further you can see round a bend, the faster you can go.

Brake in a straight line until you can see it's clear - ie see corner, start braking, getting progressively harder until you see the exit, then the brakes come off and the power comes on until the next corner.

Get on the drops - it means you can have your hands on the brakes the whole time and get more power through them - I like to brake progressively (start early, start light) which means I sometimes need to brake really rather hard at the end as I realise the corner is a fair bit sharper than I thought. Also, you look cooler. Especially if you nail your chin to the handlebars on the straight bits.

I also ride the racing line. The one Grand Prix cars ride. Really wide on the approach, clip the apex, use all the road on the way out (adapt this for roads that aren't closed so the 'apex' becomes the half-way line on the road). Call it the result of a mis-spent youth spent watching Senna, Schumacher and Hakkinen.

On a hairpin that means almost stopping, on a small curve on a wide road you don't brake at all if you can see the road ahead. Oh, and outside foot down with weight through it while cornering*.

Why do I ride like this? Because letting the bike run under you with your hands off the brakes as the speed builds is thrilling. But only as long as you know you can stop. And I'm terrible at climbing. Awful.

I am easily the worst at climbing (rest of Team Underprepared ahead of me).
It's incredibly depressing - I can ride on the flat at 30kph more or less indefinitely without sweating. In fact, I've dropped far better climbers than me on the flat. Several times.

But as the road goes up I just can't seem to do it - despite the hours, miles, metres, kilos lost and intervals on the turbo. So being able to go fast when it heads back down again really helps.

Also, I really love the speed.

For proper tips, watch this:

Best video I've seen on how to descend

[I'd love to embed this clip, but ITV Player is too canny for me, so you'll have to follow the link instead]

*People say doing this gives you more grip, but that's a logical impossibility - it can't change the total weight or the amount of rubber on the road. I mean, it might move your centre of mass further to the outside, which would reduce the horizontal force going through the contact point between the tyre and the tarmac and effectively mean that - all else being equal - you could maintain a greate....Ok, fine, it means you have more "grip".


  1. I also locked up on a downhill. My rear went at about 55kp/h !!!

    You can either climb or you can't, I can't, but all I do is just get into a zone and turn off. This weekend, there are no hills, just cruising along on a flat for tea and cake, which is the real reason why we all cycle !!!

  2. Testing testing......

  3. Hmm, managed to post my test comment, but not my real comment - I will get there finally, when you have already ridden the Etape!

    Anyway, I was going to say, great description of descending - I can see you are really passionate about it! I'm getting that way now but has taken a lot of practice and some leaps of faith in the laws of physics.

    You are going to adore the descents in the Etape !!

  4. My 2ct: having cycled all my youth where there is real ice and snow in winter and not just for a couple of days :) if at all, I can tell you its much more fun=adrenaline to slide a wheel :) In the end you get to slide a wheel and you need to know how to get it back on track or to fall without injuring yourself.

    Agree with what Chris Boardman says in the vid above. Break hard with both front/back while still in a sort of straight line - till you are leaning to the side only a bit. Try to estimate the speed you want to turn in, or rather your gut feeling of how hard you can lean into the side going in the corner.

    Practice somewhere relatively safe and push that speed slowly till you will deliberately get the wheel to slide a bit :) if you dare :)

    As soon as u intend to turn in the apex release the front to half the breaking power, release back slightly. I personally duck down till I'm about to turn, then I quickly straighten up my back and arms so that more of my weight goes to the back-wheel. Turn. The front wheel in this case will (almost) never slide (if you can recover or control a front wheel slide you are not reading this for sure)
    This allows you to control your direction whatever happens, and if the back slides, all you need to do is to take a sligtly wider exit turn while releasing the rear brakes more. This is what the guy in vid at 2mins does not do. That slide is beautyfull, but he has no idea how to recover. No need to put your feet down at all or to go off the road.

    Only practice will teach you when to keep your line straight or wider, or to turn even sharper at the moment your wheel slides to keep your balance.

    Even if you go into the turn with a speed higher and not able to turn, pls watch F1 or other motorsport(or play it hehe) and take the racing line at all cost, which will leave you space to break harder/longer and to take a wider line at the same time. The main aim is to keep balance to steer and break at whatever cost, even if you head to a drop, to slow you down as much as possible.

    I know its long. Sry.


    1. Cheers Kris - really useful. I don't have the guts to try and drift a bike.

      Don't get me wrong - drifting is one of life's great pleasures, especially on a track.

      The problem is that even on a track with four wheels I'm more than capable of skidding and doing that without a metal box and airbags protecting me is proportionately more scary.

      Maybe I'll work up to it....