By Mike Newberry
De-scend (verb): To move from a higher to a lower place; come or go down.
That’s how Webster’s defines it, but how to do it is another thing entirely. For the novice mountain bike rider, going downhill fast can be intimidating to the point of freezing up—which is exactly what you don’t want to be doing. I, for one, am amazed at how the people I often ride with can do it so well, but following their tracks has taught me a few simple rules to make descending more user friendly.
The first thing should be obvious, but isn’t: look down the trail, not two feet in front of your front wheel at every little rock and pebble. This is a hard one to master, because all those rocks are ready and willing to help relieve your body of a little extra Lycra and skin.
Instead of looking at where you are, look at where you want to be. Don’t, I repeat, don’t stare at rocks, trees, ruts under your front tire or coming at you quickly because object fixation is real. Not to say that you should run over everything in your path, but I guarantee you if you stare at it, you’re gonna hit it, and go down.
Next: speed. It is your friend. Make nice with it. We’re risk takers, right? That’s what propels us (besides gravity) to try and go down fast in the first place. If you’re not carrying enough speed while crossing a felled tree or rolling through rocks, your front tire could get deflected off angle while you continue forward—which is, as they say, a mighty bad thing. Remember to keep it rolling, and give it just a bit more speed than you’re comfortable with at first. It will help you work your way up to a good, safe velocity. That said, too much of a good thing can be trouble, but as my friend Billy says, “So long as you’re still holding the handlebars, you’re in control.”
I am asked a lot about braking, when and when not to use them. Best I can tell, the front brake applies roughly 80% of your braking power, so use it wisely. Braking inhibits your ability to steer, which for obvious reasons you don’t want to do, yet that’s where most of your stopping ability is. What to do? Feather the front, and pump the rear, to both control speed and direction while turning.
There is a caveat to all this braking business. Apply too many foot pounds to the front at an inopportune moment, say the apex of a switchback or on a steep downhill, and you may find yourself exiting through the front of the cabin and holding a yard sale on the trail. Conversely, too much pressure on the rear brake at speed and it will wash out on you—I’ve had personal experience with this one and let me tell you it is unpleasant to be going backwards down a steep hill with 25 pounds of expensive metal following you down.
To stay seated, or not? Some like to get off and get behind the saddle at the slightest pitch, while others like to stay in their seats. Personal preference or no, on really steep descents you do need to get that center of gravity in the back seat, so if you have a quick release seat post go ahead and drop it out of the way, otherwise just hang back there (and gents mind those bumps).
Switchbacks are what seem to cause the most trouble for bikers. You have to put all of the above to work at once. For example, imagine you’re careening down City Creek single track from Ensign Peak and you encounter that first, nasty right hand switchback. Control your speed into the corner with the front brake (not too much!), get your weight back and off the saddle, look through the corner to your exit point trying to ignore that gaping chasm just to your left side, feather the rear brake to control your speed without washing out the tire and steer through the corner, coming back to sitting and speed to do it again a moment later. There, that wasn’t so bad, now was it?
Some of you might be thinking, “Huh, go fast, don’t look at what’s in front of me, stay off the brakes and get settled down behind the seat—that sounds dummer’n a sack of rocks, Mike.” Maybe, but from long painful experience, I can tell you that it works.
That said, a final word about coming down: remember there are likely people coming up the trail you’re ripping down. They have the right of way, and more than that you’re likely to save your life (and mine) if you maintain trail awareness and control at all times. Respect uphill climbers, which means stopping and getting off the trail to let them pass (a little encouragement always helps!). Happy riding!
We thought this timeless biking story was worth a second read so we reprinted it from our September 2002 issue of Sports Guide.