Bike skills charity bike ride training Women cycling

How to descend on a road bike

When I first started riding I thought the only thing you really needed to know about descending was to grip the brakes tight and pray it was over soon. As I’ve developed more riding skills I’ve learnt to enjoy descending and although I’m far from mastering it, I feel a lot more confident and am going a lot faster than before. My fastest speed I’ve ever clocked up on my trusty Garmin 500 is 61 km per hour which was in a recent charity ride which has some excellent downhill sections (and of course the matching uphills).

The following article is reproduced from a fantastic e-zine & website called Women’s It’s a free cycling resource for women that contains a heap of great articles just like this one. Thanks to  Laurel-Lea Shannon who is the founder of the site and the author of this article. Laurel-Lea resides in Ontario Canada and she tells me that one of her regular contributors Diane Stibbard is an Australian who now resides in Canada. Over to Laurel-Lea………

After struggling up a steep, quad-busting hill, flying down the other side is a welcome reward. Descents are payback for all the effort you’ve made getting to the top. Cycling downhill may appear to be effortless, doing it safely takes a lot of different bike handling skills.

The pros hit speeds of 90 km/hr (55 mph) on descents. You probably won’t be going that fast but it’s still important to be able to anticipate what’s on the road ahead, and to learn how to keep control of your bike as you descend a steep hill.

Be aware of your environment

Riding safely downhill depends on keeping your movements smooth and making adjustments on time. To do that you have to be able to anticipate what’s happening down the road and to be aware of your environment. Are there cars parked on the side of the road? If so, you’ll need to slow down and be prepared to take action if someone opens a car door or a person or a dog steps out into your path. Are there potholes or broken pavement ahead? How much motor traffic is there? You’ll also need to assess whether it’s safe to take the lane so you can skirt around road obstacles.

Learn how to control your speed

There are different ways to control your speed without having to rely completely on the brakes. Heavy braking on descents will over-heat the tire rims and could cause the inner tube to explode. Try this instead:

Air braking

Just by changing your body position and sitting up on the bike creates resistance and slows you down. Need more resistance? Stick out your elbows and your knees.

Feather the brakes

On any descent ride with your hands close to the brake levers, so you can easily access them when you need to. If you need to brake before heading into a corner, for example, lightly feather both the front and the back brake simultaneously. Don’t brake while in the corner. Don’t ride with a death grip on the handlebars. Stay relaxed and you’ll enjoy the ride more and be more responsive to any adjustments you have to make. Rest your hands on the handlebars and keep your body relaxed. A stiff body reacts more to bumps in the road, making your bike less stable.

Stay in your comfort zone

Only go as fast as you feel you can safely handle the bike. Don’t try to keep up with more advanced riders. If you’re unfamiliar with the terrain, ride with extra caution.


If you want to go even faster, shift up until you are in the highest gear and pedal. Pedal only as fast as feels comfortable. If you’re not gaining any speed by pedalling, then freewheel.

Pedal position

If you are freewheeling downhill, keep the cranks parallel. That way you can easily lift yourself off the saddle to absorb bumps in the road.

Increase your speed

If you’ve mastered all the preceding skills, you may feel confident enough to increase your speed. To do that, lower your body and tuck it into the bike. That reduces the drag created by your upper body. The tighter the tuck, the faster you’ll go.


Thanks Laurel-Lea for the great article.


  1. A few things that were left out: use the drops not the tops. It lowers your centre of gravity and gives you a stronger braking position. A lot of descents involve sweeping turns so use your cornering skills (inside foot up and outside foot down with lots of weight). Finally, on a fast straight downhill hang your bum back off the seat with your thighs squeezing the seat. It is a mtb technique and will prepare you for unexpected bumps
    Tanya Bosch
    Level 2 coach
    Sydney CC

  2. Sometimes it’s a good idea to keep the pedals in motion even if you’re not gaining speed by doing so. Pedaling helps keep the chain taunt and for some odd reason that helps with the stability of the bike. Plus, it has the added bonus of burning out all the lactic acid you’ve just built up while climbing (especially if you’re doing interval training on Yarra Boulevard in Kew. Melbournites will know where I mean!).

    When I descend, I always have my hands on the hoods with my fingers resting on the brakes. I only brake when necessary but I like the extra security of knowing I don’t have to move my hands to brake. Plus, it’s my comfortable descending position. Means I can hunch down over the bike or sit up whenever I like.

    Don’t forget that if you’re leaning into a corner to lift your inner foot and push down with your outer foot. This’ll help with bike stability, meaning you can corner at speed, which is awesome fun in the right corner. No leaning too far either. We’re not motorbikes!

    And watch how the pros do it. You can learn a lot about descending by simply watching them. Look at how they move their bodies, how they sit on the bike, where they shift their weight, what they do with their feet, when they accelerate, where they have their hands, the position of their head.

    Which reminds me… Always look where you want to be not where you are. If your focus is too short, too close to where you physically are, you’ll totally mess up your line and end up on the other side of the road. Where you look is where you’ll end up. The better you get at this, the more quickly you’ll be able to descend and cornering at speed will become second nature.

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