This article was originally written for competitors in the Haute Route, but applies equally well to preparing almost any major event in the mountains. Read also: Descending: gaining an advantage
When cyclists talk about the challenge of the Haute Route they tend to mention the distance and especially the amount of climbing. However, 20,000 m of climbing means there will also be 20,000 m of descending!
There are two excellent reasons to focus on descending:
- Safety. Descending well will help keep you safe during the week: it is a skill you can’t afford not to master.
- Performance. You can gain or lose a lot of time on the descents, and this can easily make the difference between you and other cyclists that climb as well as you do.
Your real objective on the Haute Route
Not only do accidents happen much more often on the descents than on the climbs, they also have much more serious consequences. Your N° 1 objective on the Haute Route must be to finish in good health and with no accidents. At the end of the day, what difference does it make if you finish 164th or 175th? If you are not in the first ten it makes little difference.
The first piece of advice is to stay within your limits, with a sufficient safety margin. There is always a risk of riding round a blind corner into gravel or a dropped water bottle or, worse, a car in the middle of the road.
The second piece of advice is that the Haute Route is not the place to learn how to descend quickly and safely. It is too late. Work on this now!
Five rules for descending safely
1. Look far ahead and only where you want to go
This is the best way to ensure you take the right line. Your bike will always go in the direction you are looking, so look as far round the corner as possible. NEVER look at the ravine, the stone wall or the oncoming traffic…
Common mistakes: looking at your front wheel or just in front of it; looking at the landscape.
2. Adopt the right position on your bike
It is best to put your hands in the drops: your centre of gravity is lower, you can brake harder and you have a better grip. The lower your upper body, the better: bend your elbows as much as you can. This also helps to absorb shocks.
As you approach the corner, shift your weight back, extend your outside leg and drop your inside shoulder even more.
Many people extend their inside knee (like a motorcyclist), but this is not essential.
Common mistakes: Sitting up; hands on the hoods; pedals in the wrong position.
3. The right line
Enter the corner as wide as possible, clip the apex and exit as wide as possible, depending on the visibility and the traffic. Remember to look right round the corner!
Common mistakes: following the natural curve.
Your upper body should be relaxed and supple. Your elbows should be bent, both to help reduce your centre of gravity and to absorb any shocks.
Common mistakes: tensing up; shoulders stiff and arms straight.
You should brake before the turn and mostly with the front brake (ratio 60/40 or even 70/30 front/back). The harder you squeeze the front brake, the quicker you will slow down, whereas squeezing hard with the back brake will only result in locking the wheel. Don’t worry about going over the handlebars, as long as you brake at least 30% with the back this will not happen!
Put more of your weight over the back wheel: move back in the saddle just before braking.
As soon as you begin the turn, release the brakes. If you must brake in the corner, feather the back brake as lightly as possible.
In an emergency, straighten up first, then brake as hard as you can 70/30 front/back.
Common mistakes: braking in the corner; weight too far forward; using the back brake too much.
Next article: Descending: gaining an advantage