Fear of the Descent

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How to overcome the fear of downhill riding

Before I raced my first sprint triathlon in the summer of 2016, I hadn’t really done much biking since I was cruising my banana seat around the neighborhood back in the day. I remember feeling pretty cool taking descents no-handed (no-handed!) until a couple of jealous neighborhood kids challenged me while I was riding on by, “hey girl you think you’re so cool?!”, they yelled.  Well, yeah duh, I was cool. I mean look at me, I was going downhill, no-handed on a rainbow bike. It didn’t really get much cooler than that in 1990.

My background as a young adult was running track & field and Cross Country and then that turned into long distance running as an adult. So by the time I wanted to give triathlon a go, biking had become foreign to me, but how hard could it be? Get on the bike, pedal and go? Learning to ride a bike is one thing, but gaining the crucial bike skills to perform to your ability and stay safe is essential.

I am a recovering bike “descendophobe” meaning I feared the descent!  I could climb all day, but as soon as I crested any hill, the death grip on the brakes would begin, my shoulders would tighten and I would feel out of control as I attempted to roll downwards.

Descents on my morning commute to work would lurk in my mind and haunt me. I didn’t like the feeling of flying down a hill seemingly out of control. (Can you see how control is a theme?) I was afraid that something would jump out at me or I would fly off the bike. I did not feel safe and I wanted to feel safe.

My first 70.3 Half Ironman the following year in 2017 had some significant descents that I did not ride prior to race day. (helpful tip – try to ride the course prior to race day if at all possible!) As I did not practice descending at fast speeds in practice, I kept the death grip on my brakes while every rider seemingly passed me by. Fun times!

In training I found out that I must practice bike handling skills including descending and cornering. Otherwise precious time is lost.

You may think to yourself, “I don’t care if I am fast.”

Yeah, I get it, I didn’t care either, but the thing is if you don’t know how to handle your bike properly, it could be seriously dangerous and your experience might not be as good. You want to have fun, right?

Just as running can provide a sense of stress relief and peace of mind, biking can give you that sense of freewheeling freedom you perhaps felt as a kid cruising the neighborhood back in the day.

These are some things that have helped me (are helping me) get over the fear of descending and perhaps they can help you too:


Confidence


You know what I had back in 1990? I had a sweet ride, no front teeth and a whole lot of confidence in my riding. Confidence is crucial! First things first, I realized I had to be confident in the functioning of my brakes. Get your bike checked out by a professional and make sure it is safe.

Bike all good? Second, you have to learn to be confident in your bike skills. You have to know that you got this.

Biking experience will of course bring on confidence, however I have a few little mantras I like to repeat and focus on:


Endure through it

This helps when I am descending and need to have the courage not to brake, but to fly through over the bumps and uneven damaged sections of roads.


I am in control of this bike

"I am in my power, I own my piece of the pavement” – own your part of the road!! You’re not in the way. You belong there just as much as the obnoxious car behind you.


Get body position correct


Previously I mentioned that when I was freaked out, my body freaked out and initially I didn’t have any awareness of what I was doing. After suffering from chronic neck and shoulder pain, I am now conscious of my body posture on the bike, especially during descents.

First, when descending hands should be in the drops (lower part of handlebar) and body weight can gently move rearward. The steeper the hill, the more you will want to shift your weight backwards.

Relax your shoulders away from your ears and allow your hands to maintain a firm grip on the bars, but not a death grip as this can cause pain and waste energy. 


Avoid riding the brakes


I used to ride the brakes as I descended because I didn’t want to go too fast as that was scary and I felt out of control. This is not a good way to race or to maintain your bike.

For practice and peace of mind, try braking fully, gently and evenly on both wheels as you descend in a safe area. This will allow you to experience and know that your bike is capable of stopping right away if needed. You can rest assured that should you need those trusty brakes, they will be there.

I raced a sprint last weekend and part of the bike was long winding downhill and I flew. There was no braking to be had. The downhill section was my favorite part of the race! Compared to only a few months ago where I would sweat just looking at a descent, this is serious progress!


Know how to turn while descending


When going downhill start braking gently before you enter the turn. Keep your focus on the exit of the turn and not the ground in front of you.

Do not try to turn the bike. Place weight on both the inner handlebar drop  (the side you are turning into) and the outer pedal, lean a bit and the bike naturally turns itself. It’s a good point to note, that when turning, make sure that the inner pedal is up so that it does not hit the pavement.

In triathlon training, just as we focus on training each discipline, bike skills can be something we prioritize at the end of bike sessions. After a long ride, find a safe area where you can practice descending and taking turns, first slowly and then at speed.

Ok, now get out there and ride that bike!

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date: July 26, 2018

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