The Descent

Posted 04 Jun 2017

By Adam Naguib

tags: road, racing, training

Descending is an inextricable part of bicycle racing. In NorCal the menu of road races offers a variety of events- some flat, some windy, and many with lots of climbing. As a result, for those who like to flex their climbing muscles, the necessity to be able to descend exists.

When I lived in New York, descending wasn't really important. Why? Simply put, there were not that many races with significant climbing and descending. Of course, there were times when one had to go down a hill, but very rarely did any sort of downhill riding exceed a handful of minutes in duration. In California, that's definitely not the case. Descents can be 10 minutes, or even more, meaning that going down hill is s serious skill that's integral to a bike racer in these parts. Imagine descending for 10 minutes and hitting a switchback every 30 seconds, which is easily possible in many places, especially California. If your skills are meek and you lose 2 seconds to the wheel in front due to poor descending at every turn, but the bottom you've lost 40 seconds. That's game over in a race, as heaven knows that the guys in front who do know how to go down hill are not going to just sit up and wait at the bottom.

When I moved to California at the beginning of 2015 I had to start descending- properly. That was a massive surprise. At that time it'd be fair to say that I had a 'descender's rating' of something like 3/10. I was woeful. In my defence, I hadn't had much practice. I'm happy to say that in the intervening 2 years, descending has gone from being a total weakness to a part of the race that I can take things from now. I no longer fear being dusted by better riders. I'm confident in my ability so have no real concerns about safety and at times, I've even been known to extend my gap from those behind, or even catch riders up ahead. I wouldn't say that I am Peter Sagan-esque, an unstoppable meteor down the mountains, but maybe a decent 7/10. A really pleasing improvement over just ~30 months.

There are boatloads of articles and forums online giving hints on how to descend. I wanted to mention two things that were paramount to me. As with everything else you read on the internet, take it or leave it. First, to improve one's descending ability, one has to want to. What I mean by that is that it has to be a desire. You can't just get to the top of a mountain, point your front wheel downwards and think to yourself “I hope I do OK”. It needs to be more than that. You need to focus on the effort, just like you would on an interval at a set power or heart rate. To get better you need to want to. Let's be honest here, there's nothing normal about buzzing down a mountain at 30-50 mph, wearing nothing but 1 mm of stretchy lycra to protect you if you fall. It won't come naturally, you have to want it. If you don't concentrate, you'll naturally take it easy, which, after all, is what any sane person would do.

Second, now I know this one may disappoint, but I can't escape its veracity…one needs to simply practice. Reading about descending on the drops, weight outside, look where you are going, break before turning etc. etc. These tips are great, but simply, descending on your bike and learning every way it can feel as you bomb down a mountain is simply irreplaceable in one's quest for descending perfection. Not much in terms of advice, but here's a little data to illustrate my point.

I'm lucky enough to live near some of NorCal's most famous climbs, and within just a few miles of me is Kings Mountain Road, a famous and beautiful climb. Having had the privilege to be so close to such a cycling treasure, it goes without saying that I have ridden up, and down, this road many times. In the displayed graphs, the upper one depicts the times of my descents down Kings Mountain Road, every effort since moving to this locale. Of course, sometimes I took it easy, sometimes fast. Sometimes it was raining, sometimes there was traffic slowing my progress, sometimes there was a clear run all the way down. The data is 'raw' in that no descent has been removed from the graph over an entire 2½-year period. What's clear from the data in their entirety is that the descent times are trending lower (in the graph, the higher the data point on the y-axis, the less time the descent took). One might thing that there are some caveats here. Surely my local knowledge has improved maybe more so than my descending in that time; by simply knowing the road so well I have made big improvements. Which is undoubtedly true. But if such improvements can also be seen on other climbs, ones not local to me and ridden only sparsely, then it would seem that the improvement is genuine, and not based on simply knowing one particular stretch of road.

The lower graph depicts the descents I have made over that exact same period down Mount Hamilton. Mount Hamilton is the hors categorie start to the famous Mount Hamilton Road Race held every Summer, starting in San Jose and ending in Livermore. The race is held at the same time each year (usually the first weekend of June) so the conditions for the descent are almost identical (dry, temperatures usually 60-70 degrees). As the graph depicts, I have only ever descended this road 3 times, each time was in the road race of that year. In each race I was riding the same bike (must admit, had different wheels in 2017 compared to 2015 and 2016). My position on the bike and general race attire hasn't changed much in that time. Also, for the most part I was pretty much descending each time alone, or more aptly not in a group from which I was obtaining significant draft or from whom I was selecting my line. The data clearly show improvements over each edition. Although a rather unscientific comparison, the differences in time are large (~30 seconds year on year) which are probably not entirely ascribable to marginal gains from other means (shaved legs versus hairy). It seems that descending well known roads like Kings Mountain, getting confidence, and practicing, directly translates to racing faster, which, after all, is the goal of training, am'I-riiiiiite?!

It's not a magic bullet, and for those not wanting to spend years working at it: sucks. For anyone heading to California from a flatland, these words might provide a little food for thought. For those who have lived and raced in mountainous regions their whole life, this might seem a bit abstract, but for those who are new to this downhill business, this is what helped me.