August 30, 2016
As she prepared for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, the United States triathlete Gwen Jorgensen knew that she faced one particularly daunting liability.
“I was afraid of going fast on a bicycle,” she says, “and I really did not like descending.” An accomplished runner and swimmer in college, Ms. Jorgensen had little experience with cycling before she became a triathlete in 2010.
So Red Bull, one of her sponsors, asked several longtime bike racers to work with Ms. Jorgensen on descending. Over the course of three intense days in California, these two-wheel tutors radically changed Ms. Jorgensen’s positioning on and attitude toward the bike.
The result, of course, was gold at Rio, where Ms. Jorgensen crushed the field, including during the bike leg of the race, previously her weakest event.
Because many of the rest of us likewise wonder how we can descend more safely and rapidly, whether we ride bicycles in races or to the grocery store, I spoke recently with one of Ms. Jorgensen’s coaches, Tim Johnson, a six-time national champion in cyclocross racing and expert bike handler, about what it takes to be an adept downhill racer.
What follows are his top 10 tips on going downhill fast.
■ Have your brakes checked, Mr. Johnson says. “It’s surprising how few people take their bikes in” to a shop for a general checkup each year, he says.
■ Tires matter, too. “Don’t overinflate them,” he says. For road tires, a pressure of 110 pounds per square inch is the maximum he recommends, since it leaves them very slightly squishy, so that they make better contact with the road, providing more stability. Mountain bike tires and hybrid tires, which are wider, require less pressure.
■ Sit correctly. Inexperienced riders frequently straighten and lock their elbows during descents, he says, moving backward on the seat and “practically levitating off of the bike” as they gain speed. This stiff, upright positioning makes you unstable, he says. Instead, “you should carry most of your body weight on your feet,” he says, with your shoes firmly pressing against the pedals and hindquarters centered on the seat. Keep your elbows bent and relax your shoulders.
■ Avoid tensely clutching the handlebars and brakes. It’s better, he says, to lightly rest your palms on the bars, with the brake hoods “nestled in the crook of your thumb,” and one finger on the brake lever itself. On a flat stretch of road, practice opening and closing your hands, he says, squeezing the bars for a moment and letting go, so that you become comfortable with having very little of your body weight on the handlebars and with operating the brakes with a single finger. Then practice the same maneuver on your next downhill ride.
■ Curve ahead? As you approach a bend in the road, position the pedal on the outside of the curve down, toward the pavement. “You really want your weight on that outside foot,” Mr. Johnson says. “I tell novice riders to exaggerate the motion, to stomp on the pedal, and turn their heel down.” The more weight situated on that outside pedal, “the better the bike will steer,” he says.
■ Look down the road. “This is the most important tool” for safe descending, he says, and for safe bike riding, period. “When we started working with Gwen, she was staring down at the ground right in front of her front tire.” He and the other riders encouraged her to lift her head and continuously scan the road far ahead of her. “You want to know that there is a pothole or a curve coming up,” he says. “Then you can respond somewhat gradually and not jerk your bike out of the way.”
■ But don’t stare. “If you fixate on something,” like a stone or bump in the road, he says, “you will steer right into it. The bike follows your vision.” Look instead where you wish to go, which would be around the obstacle. If you have been scanning the road, he points out, you will have had time to prepare and should be able to glide calmly past the obstruction.
■ Start smallish. To implement these tips, find a hill with which you already are familiar or that has a relatively gentle slope, he says. Descend at a comfortable speed, incorporating one tip at a time, and then attempt to ride a little faster with each descent. “As you build confidence, the speed will come,” he says.
■ Obey traffic laws. “Never cross the yellow line” while going around a curve, he says, since you may be unaware of cars climbing the hill. In general, “ride your bike like you would drive a car,” he says. “That keeps you and everyone around you safe.”
■ Seek advice. “It can help to watch and talk to good riders,” Mr. Johnson says. Ask your local bike shop if they offer rides or clinics catering to cyclists of different abilities and if you can, find a willing, experienced cyclist who is a little faster than you. Follow her down the next hill, imitating how she rides. Improvement can be rapid. “When we started with Gwen,” Mr. Johnson says, “she was really timid.” But after a few days of listening to and imitating the experts, “she became a beast on the bike,” he says.