I found myself at the top of a climb, staring down a long and steep descent. I was out riding with a friend and he said, “Ok, let’s go and no touching your brakes on the way down.” “No brakes!” I thought, “I don’t think I can do that,” but I said “ok” anyway and agreed to give it a shot. We quickly picked up speed and I quickly moved my hands to squeeze my brakes and slow myself down. It was 2009 and I was definitely still a novice cyclist, deathly afraid of going downhill swiftly.
Climbing, descending, sprinting, drafting, just some of the skills used in cycling. Some of us can fly downhill with no fear, but struggle to climb to the top of those same hills. Others are strong consistent riders, but have trouble keeping up their speed through a sharp corner or lose their nerve when riding close to other cyclists in a group.
I was watching the women’s Olympic road race this past weekend, which included a long and technical descent toward the finish. Mara Abbott from team USA stormed up the final climb with Annemiek van Vlueten from the Netherlands, seeming to be equally as strong of a climber, however on the descent she was quickly dropped (unfortunately van Vlueten suffered a horrific crash on that same descent in spite of her skill). The commentators discussed Mara’s weakness in descending all throughout her ascent to the top of the climb and sure enough the descent is where she was left behind. For me, descending has always been one of my biggest weaknesses. I have gotten better at it and am faster going downhill than I once was, but I am still lacking confidence when I start approaching speeds of forty miles per hour.
I raced this past weekend in the relatively hilly New Jersey state road race where we did several laps of a course that contained a steep climb and then a long and fast descent. On most of the laps of the race I was able to get a gap between myself and the field on the steep uphill section, but every time we hit the descent I saw my weakness as clear as daylight. The group flew down the hill much faster than I was willing to and negated any advantage I might have gained on the climb.
This is a skill I definitely need to work on, but how will I gain the confidence to pick up more speed on these descents? I just need to keep going downhill. I have been trying to follow faster and more experienced cyclists on the descents, watching how they handle their bikes, following the lines they take, drawing strength from their confidence when speeding downhill. Some small things I have learned are:
- Relax my body and not tense up while descending, allowing the bike to move more smoothly and quickly through any twists or turns.
- Don’t look down at how fast I’m actually going. Sometimes seeing the actual speed alone just makes it a bit scarier, plus when I look down toward the ground I can feel the speed more.
- Focus on a point in the distance. It makes me feel the intensity of the speed less and also allows me to focus on getting to that point, rather than thinking about how rapidly I am actually moving.
My maximum speed on the downhills has definitely increased over the years, but it’s still not fast enough. I need to keep pushing my limits and showing myself that it’s ok to allow myself to go faster and faster.
It may seem obvious, but it’s always good to spend a decent amount of time focusing on your weakest points, whether it be an aspect of cycling or if you are a multisport athlete, your weakest leg of the race. If you are a triathlete who is a weak swimmer, for example, start studying swimming technique and asking those around you who are stronger in that discipline for advice. Spend more time in the lake or in the pool and don’t let yourself quit. It’s fun to keep doing what you are best at, but if you want to continue your growth as an athlete, then your weaknesses are where you should start devoting your time.
Don’t be afraid to look to others for help and advice. Everyone had to start somewhere and most people are willing to share things that they have learned along the way. Descending is definitely not the only weakness I have as a cyclist and athlete, but it is one of several that I continue to focus on. I endeavor to learn more about handling my bike at high speeds, so someday I will be able to fly just as fast as the road will allow.