Getting Over the Oh Sh*t Moments when Riding Your Gravel Bike Downhill
At one very brief period in my twenties, I rode mountain bikes. There were no clinics for women, no skills workshops, and really no Youtube videos at the time. I would just tag along with a group of guys from work and clutch my breaks cautiously on the descents while they whizzed by me. I would have been left alone in the woods had I not been able to breeze by them on the climbs. I never spent enough time on the mountain bike to really learn the skill of descending.
Later, when I began training for triathlon, we went to the North Georgia Mountains to ride “The Gaps”, an iconic ride that took you up and down 3 (or 6 mountains). The climbs were much easier than I anticipated but I found fingers frozen into a claw position from holding the breaks not he descents.
Going downhill was terrifying. After more years on the bike, I finally started to get the hang of it, learning the skills to navigate downhills then on a normal training ride, WHAM, a skateboarder veered into the street while I was going down a hill very fast.
It wasn’t long after that incident that I switched from triathlon to gravel cycling. I got my first gravel bike and headed out to a popular spot with my friend Lauren. All was going well until we hit the first downhill. At the top of the hill I looked down and all i could think was,
‘Oh sh*t, I have to go down that? ‘
I was back to my old brake-clutching self, terrified of the downhill. And now the downhill was filled with potholes and loose gravel, making it seemingly even more treacherous
So when women tell me that they are interested in off-road cycling but aren’t sure they can do the downhill, I understand. It took me a few rides to gain some confidence in the downhill and I’m still not as aggressive as people who have been doing it for years but here are a few of my tips for getting started.
Relax your body.
That may seem like the dumbest piece of advice on the planet when you’re nervous about riding downhill but the reality is when you hold a lot of tension in your body as you go downhill you’re stiff on the bike and you feel every bump. Rather than your body moving with the bumps along the way, you’ll fight them making the entire downhill experience unpleasant and more difficult. In addition, being tense will often lead to jerky movements which can cause you to lose control of your bike as you navigate an obstacle. To relax on the downhill, I focus on a light grip on my handlebars, relaxed shoulders, and deep breaths.
Hover slightly over the saddle.
This trick took me a little while to learn but has made a huge difference. I started watching people navigate the downhills and they would push into the pedals and come just over their saddle (not all the way to standing). It does two things. It shifts your center of gravity and gives you a bit more control but it also saves you a lot of pain when hitting potholes, ruts in the road, or debris. You’ll remember this trick the first time you descend in your saddle, hit a pothole at full speed and feel like you’ve done some permanent damage to your vagina.
Use your brakes sparingly.
This is one of the most challenging parts for fearful downhill cyclists. Some people will never even touch their brakes on the way downhill. I admire those brave souls but I’m not in that club just yet. I have graduated from the ‘death grip on the brakes club’ and learned that just slightly feathering your brakes when you feel like your speed is getting too high is the best way to go.
Keep your eyes on the road.
You want to be able to look about 5-10 feet ahead to navigate around any major potholes or debris in the road. This can be more challenging when you’re riding in the shadow of trees - potholes will sneak up at the last minute (hence the standing strategy)
Stop imaging the worst case scenario.
This is easier said than done. Since I had a pretty significant bike accident on a downhill, I will often have to say STOP IT out loud on the downhill. I’ll just repeat. ‘I’m in control, everything is fine’.
Finally, remember that it takes practice. You don’t have to be a downhill speed racer on the first day. The first few times I rode gravel, I just focused on relaxing my upper body when going down a hill. Then I focused on feathering the brakes. Eventually I started to put it all together. I’m still not the fastest and I get nervous when I am riding on unfamiliar terrain but I find myself gaining more confidence with every ride.
Do you have any other tips that have helped you navigate downhill riding? Please share!