When you’re out on the trail, flying down a steep descent, dodging trees, hopping rocks, and hanging on for dear life, it can be difficult to think about the technique you are using to survive the descent.
The truth is, every descent will require slightly different techniques. You might ride a loose and sandy descent differently than you would ride a rocky or wet descent, but there are some basic descending practices that can be applied to almost any terrain. Learning and practicing these techniques will be the foundation in which you can build most of your descending skills on.
1. Eyes Up
This first tip, is first for a reason. This will never change. It can be a difficult skill to learn, but if you can get your eyes up and looking down the trail you will notice an immediate improvement in your descending ability.
Try to look down the trail (about 20 feet). When you look straight down at what is in front of you, you don’t have enough time to react to the obstacles since you are already on top of them when you see them. When you look down the trail, your mind and body have the opportunity to make adjustments and anticipate the obstacle. Remember that you go where you look so keep looking forward, at the best and fastest line ahead.
2. Elbows Up
This is a simple cue to remind yourself when descending. Bend your elbows, and don’t allow them to droop. Think about being in a push up position. As you descend, your elbows will act as extra suspension so as your arms bend and straighten to take the addition shocks and bumps in the trail you want the elbows up so that your body is in the position that it has the most strength.
3. Weight Back
This is a relative rule. The degree to which your weight is back is dependent on how steep the trail is. You want some weight over your front wheel, because a little bit of weight will help the tire to gain traction, however, when the trail becomes very steep, you’ll need to match the steepness with body position and get your weight back behind the saddle. This will help to prevent the classic over the bars (OTB) crash.
4. Get Low/Bend Your Knees
If you are descending you should NOT be sitting on the saddle! Stand up and then bend your knees. If the saddle is in the way, then you will need to get behind the saddle so that you can lower yourself down.
When in doubt, get low! Bend the knees and lower your center of gravity. You will find more balance, more weight and traction through the tires, and an overall sense of confidence. Additionally, if you are low and your knees and elbows are bent and the bike suddenly gets pulled out from underneath you, it will be much easier to react. When your knees are bent and the bike is pulled away, the knees can straighten with the movement. If your knees are already straight then you won’t be able to move with the bike and you will crash.
5. Heels Down
As you go down gnarly descents, and you feel like you are the ball in a game of pinball, you’ll want to feel grounded on your bike. Focus on pointing your heels downward and dig them toward the ground.
When your ankles are in this position they are in the ‘closed, locked’ position which will offer the most stability and result in less injury. If you point your toes, the ankle will be more prone to movement which will not only result in instability, but also risks a sprained ankle if something goes differently than planned.
6. Feather Your Brakes
Use the brakes lightly. Control your speed before obstacles and then roll through them. Learning how to use your brakes to go faster is a skill that takes a long time to learn. The most important thing to think about when braking is that when your wheels are completely locked up you will lose traction, slide, and you won’t be able to control the situation. If you lightly use the brakes to help slow down the bike, without bringing it to a complete stop you will maintain much better control over your speed.
7. Dropper Post
Finally, I cannot stress it enough, a dropper post is a game changer! The dropper post will allow you to get lower and get back behind the saddle easier. It will help you get a better sense of body position and ultimately it will make you faster. I use the Rockshox Reverb AXS dropper post.
It can be very intimidating to think about all of these ideas at once. That is one reason why when I ride I like to pick one thing to focus on. Pick one thing to practice each time you ride and work on it until it becomes second nature. Once that becomes natural move on to the next cue. Before you know it, you’ll be looking for even harder descents to practice these skills on.