As we saw in Part 1 (Descending: the fundamentals), descending is a crucial skill for the Haute Route, both for safety reasons and for a better performance. In this article we show you how to take advantage of superior descending skills to gain time and conserve energy.
Possible gains while descending
1. Gain in safety
Good descending technique keeps you safer. Paradoxically, the higher speeds linked to better technique and more confidence actually increase your stability.
2. Gain time
You can gain a lot of time, without taking excessive risk, simply by optimising your braking and taking the right line through the corners. Fail to master these skills and you will be overtaken by large numbers of other riders.
3. Gain energy
The descents are the perfect time to recover: there is little or no effort, your heart rate drops and you can both eat and drink more easily. If you are not comfortable, however, you are likely to be tense, the stress will prevent your heart rate reducing and it will be hard for you to eat and drink.
4. Gain position
The groups formed during the climbs tend to break up on the descents. If you descend well you may succeed in joining a new group with hardly any physical effort; if on the other hand you lose your group you will be forced either to continue alone or to wait for the next one.
If you live in a flat area, the best you can do is to practice cornering. Try taking sharper and sharper bends at higher and higher speeds, always with an eye to safety and to other road users. The only way to get comfortable approaching corners at 60-70 km/h however is to practice in the mountains: this is one of the principle advantages of a training camp in June or July.
If on the other hand you are lucky enough to live in a region with plenty of hills it is easy to work on your descending skills. Here’s how:
1. Vary your routes
It is important to vary your routes and to include as many different descents as possible: it is not because you are expert at descending a particular local hill where you know every inch of the road that you have become expert at descending!
2. Practice descending when fatigued
Descending is very different when you are fresh or when you are exhausted after 5 or 6 hours in the saddle and at the top of yet another lengthy climb. You need to get used to managing a fast descent in a fatigued condition, where the biggest risk is mental tiredness and loss of concentration.
It is therefore important to train on the longest climbs/descents possible: climb at your lactic threshold (the highest pace you can sustain for one hour) before practicing the descent.
3. Practice putting on/taking off your jacket while riding
This is not specifically a descending skill, but nevertheless a real time-saver during a mountain cyclosportive. Obviously the start of a steep descent is not the place to try it for the first time. Practice riding hands-free and putting on/taking off your jacket in a safe environment such as a large traffic-free open space until you are completely comfortable.
Additional tips to avoid losing time in the descents
- Pedal during the descents. Whether or not you are good at descending, it is important to keep pedalling. The reason is that your muscles will have generated a considerable amount of lactic acid during the climb, and the descent is the best opportunity to eliminate a good part of it. If you don’t, you will find your muscles protest vigorously at the bottom and you may even experience cramps at the foot of the next climb. Pedal at a high cadence to help the process, and don’t forget to fuel up by eating and drinking.
- Take advantage of the rider in front of you. The angle this person adopts at the start of the corner gives you a good idea of what the bend is like, and will also give you advance warning of any unexpected dangers such as gravel, traffic or anything else in the road.
Above all, stay within your limits and stay safe!