Cycling adventures - Rawdons tips for descending...


The successful cyclist, like the good pilot, should have the same number of landings as take-offs. Descending is great fun but it's also hazardous when the descents are long and the bike heavily laden. Here are some tricks which have allowed me to stay in campsites rather than casualty departments. Rule number one is never to go so fast that you can't stop within the distance you can see. This means remembering to brake only when the bike is upright and travelling in a straight line; ie, before the corners not during. Before entering the corner, I select the best position both to see and to straighten out the bend. This means moving towards the outside which also increases the time available for braking. Don't forget to look back quickly to check for cars coming up on the outside. The quick look back signals your intention to pull out too. The safest line through the corner clips the apex and then returns to the outside of the bend again. The important thing is to be smooth and not apply the front brake at all whilst banked over. With multiple bends, I plan to sweep smoothly from one to the next without crossing the white line. Two reasons for this, other than common sense and legality, are that the white paint will be more slippery than the tarmac and that it may not be possible to get back when a car suddenly appears in front. I usually relax and freewheel downhill whilst touring. When travelling in a straight line, I keep the pedals horizontal and tuck my knees into the top-tube. I take my weight off the saddle by standing slightly and keeping the elbows well bent. This allows the bike to pitch slightly over rough surfaces and also allows me to move back in the saddle to increase stability. On long hills I cover the brake levers with both hands from the hooks to lower the chances of being shaken off. Alternatively, I ride on the hoods with finger and thumb touching lightly underneath.

As the corner approaches, the sequence is rear observation, select road position, reduce speed if necessary and move the pedals so that the outside foot is at bottom dead centre. I use this foot to fine-control the degree of banking. I prefer to lean the bike into the corner and try to keep my body upright. This has the advantage of keeping my eyes level and keeping the centre of gravity more nearly over the wheels. If things start to get a bit hairy, I can still usually push the bike over a tad further.

The upright body helps put gentle pressure on the inside end of the handlebars. If you practise this on a gentle hill away from traffic, you'll see that it tightens the cornering radius. Push down the other way and you'll drift slightly outwards. Be gentle or you'll high-side off into outside of the bend. All these tricks help me fine- tune my downhill cornering.

So, with position, speed and technique weighed off, what can go wrong? Ice, snow, gravel, strong winds, potholes, stones, etc are all static hazards. Keep scanning the road ahead and remember to look at the road beside the hazard unless you want to hit it full on. Cars, lorries, pedestrians and sheep are all mobile hazards so don't ride faster than you can see to brake safely. Look for the "vanishing point" where your side of the road crosses the horizon.

Personal problems include being hit in the face by insects. I wear an eyeshield and try to keep my mouth shut. Cold is a serious problem in the mountains, so I put on waterproofs and thick gloves at the top of the col. On cold days with a lot of braking my hands freeze and cramp into claws but there's no law against stopping to take photographs until the feeling comes back. Bike problems are usually bits dropping off but it's a really good idea in the mountains to check inside the brake hoods for cables fraying at the nipples as well as checking luggage and obscure rattles. The worst danger of all is "shimmy". At a given speed, the bars will start to wobble uncontrollably. Braking makes things worse - much worse. All you can do is hang on for grim death using sheer strength to keep the bars in line. Slide back off the saddle to push the centre of gravity back from over the front wheel. Hope and pray that you slow down sufficiently to regain control before a corner. Prevention is difficult as it's caused by the frame shaking. This may be because the frame's too big or too light for your weight. A loose headset can bring it on too. It's happened to me twice and I've never been more frightened.

End of horror story. With care, preparation and good technique, downhilling on tour is a fantastic experience. Without going into the mountains even, it's good to have confidence on the downhills as this is where a weaker rider may gain time against a stronger partner and reduce the need for continuous stopping.

© Rawdon O'Connor. 12/10/97. First British Serial RightsAC

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