Riding Steep Descents
Steep descents can draw fear into the hearts and minds of riders. There is, unfortunately, also a lot of misinformation out there. Many riders just try to get back on the bike. While you will end up behind your saddle, the bike should move in front of you instead of you moving behind it. What?
The old adage ‘get your butt back for a steep descent’ is a very dangerous one. When a rider approaches a steep descent behind the bike, their arms are already stretched out. I call this being ‘at the end of your rope’. When the bike tips into the descent, the rider will be pulled forward on the bike by their own extended arms, and their worst fears might be confirmed. When this happens, it can be scary – and that fear typically makes riders ride even further back AND tense up the next time. It’s a vicious cycle.
One of the topics we’ll touch on in this article has to do with the Fight or Flight Mechanism which we touched on above. When we feel fear, we either tense up, particularly in the upper body (fight), or we retreat (flight) – on a bike this means moving rearward. Both of these are potentially dangerous reactions when on steep terrain. We need to have space to let the arms extend into the descent. So, what do we need to do?
Move forward and relax. As I approach the edge of a steep descent, I should move forward to create bend in the arms and the possibility for extension of my arms. I do this at the knees. I tell riders to meet the edge of the descent with their knees over their toes. As the front wheel starts to roll down the descent, the rider should relax the arms, and allow the bike to roll forward under them. While it might look like they are way back on the bike at the steep point of the descent, if you look closely, you will notice the rider is actually staying over the bottom bracket. The bike has essentially tipped forward underneath them.
Let’s take a look at one of my students in action. We are going to look at three clips of him.
Fight Or Flight
In this first clip, he retreats rearward a little early (Flight Mechanism). The result is that his arms are too extended by the time he gets to the steepest bit of the descent. This pulls him forward and lifts the rear wheel off the ground. Notice as you watch this clip that the moment his rear wheel leaves the ground is the same moment his arms become fully extended. This is the Flight Mechanism in action. The same result can occur with the Fight Mechanism when a rider tenses the arms too much.
In the above shot, my student decides to take the bull by the horns and aggressively pushes the bike forward into the descent. This also puts him at the end of his arm extension too soon. Advanced riders might use this technique at high speeds, but for most descents, we just want to let the bike move forward under us, rather than pushing it forward. While this was a great way for him to get away from the Flight Mechanism by taking it to the hill, he got too much extension too soon, and ended up at the end of his rope, which again lifted the rear wheel.
In the clip above, my student nails the steep roll down. In the images below, let’s revisit a point I made earlier about riders needing to meet the edge of the descent with their knees over their toes. I’ve drawn an upside down T from the rear axle to the front axle and intersected this line with a vertical line at the bottom bracket. We can see how rearward the riders hips are. We can also see the space between the rider’s knee cap and the white line are. Since the white line is the rider’s bottom bracket the rider’s knees are behind the bottom bracket.
Body position Recap
Below is a freeze frame after working the rider and correcting the rearward bias exhibited earlier in the class. With the same white upside T overlaid we can now see the rider’s knees are slightly forward of the bottom bracket. This brings the hips forward allowing the rider to collect his arms toward the handlebars, giving him lots of room for arm extension at the moment it’s needed. The elbow bend at the handlebars allows the bike to tip forward and roll down into the steep descent without pulling the rider forward because the arms can now extend to allow the front wheel to roll down, and away.
How do we practice and prepare for this kind of descending? By practicing through undulating terrain. In this next video, you will see me explain what are actually the basics of this movement, but on less intimidating terrain.
In the above video, you might notice the bike returning to neutral under me after each roll in the ground. This is essentially how we deal with very long and steep descents, by letting the bike and terrain keep us neutrally centered over the bottom bracket. On a long descent, any undulation in the terrain will give us a bit of slack in our arms as the terrain pushes the bike back into our body. This will reset us to allow our arms to extend on the steeper bits.
Ready to rock? Once you have this technique dialed, you can crank it up a notch by making a turn at the bottom of the hill. Practice this where there is room before taking it to technical trail. Check out the above video for details.
We ALL feel intimidated at some point on our bikes. This is the point where Fight or Flight kicks in. The point at which this happens is really what separates riders in terms of trail speed. The moment we become defensive and move back out of fear is the moment where we either lose speed, or get ourselves into trouble. Learning to ‘move into the hill’ on increasingly steeper and steeper terrain will change your game.
Strong riding starts with a strong foundation. Check out our base building, rider transforming, Trail Essentials Class.
Already taken Trail Essentials or interested in diving into your trail skills with steep descents? Check out our Progressive Trail Skills Class to learn the skills above in person and further hone your steep descents!
Questions or comments? Drop us a line! We always want to hear what our students are thinking about and the challenges each of you come up against while furthering your riding.