The art of going downhill

I adjusted my bike so that I was in the infamous “granny gear” — the easiest gear on the bike. Spinning my legs I slowly made my way up the hill, passing by my new friend KP who was struggling to get up to the top. On the downhill, while I was gripped fear, feathering my breaks and making my upper body as broad as possible in an anti-aerodynamic pose, KP bombed passed me with a smile on her face. This is how the two of us became friends in our cycling group while we were on a Tuscan tour a number of years ago. I would granny gear all day and be terrified of the downhill. She would relish the speed of the descent and be terrified of the climb.

All these years later and I still haven’t mastered the art of going downhill.

But I’m getting better.

My next race, the Pain in the Alleganies 70.3, has a rather wicked bike course. (Hence the use of the word “Pain” in the event name.) Not one part of the course is flat. You climb. You descend. You climb. You descend. And then you repeat. I rode the course once and realized immediately I needed help. I wanted to get stronger on the hills. And I needed to find some confidence on the descent.

So through the magic of social media I contacted Kathryn Bertine — a professional cyclist and writer — with the off hope that she would agree to give me some tips. She gladly obliged, which is one of the reasons she totally rocks. I sent her the elevation profile of the course and she sent me these words of wisdom:

Looks like the best advice I can give here is to really keep pressure on the downhills. Many tend to coast/rest, but if you want to see an improvement in your time, really work hard downhill. Keep the cadence high and the speed constant. Don’t destroy yourself climbing then spend the whole downhill resting. That will just tire you out. Stay consistent in your effort. Looks like a fun course!

Upon my first reading of it, I gasped in fear at the phrase “really keep pressure on the downhills.” Because, as noted before, downhills are not my strength. But I read it more carefully. She was telling me to work the downhills, to keep my cadence high and speed constant. I never thought that coasting on the downhills would actually make me more tired. But it makes sense. My legs need to keep moving.

And so I went to work on my training rides, going to hills as often as possible. I didn’t worry about my speed. I didn’t worry about numbers at all, keeping track only of total time or total miles, depending on how my workout was structured. My mantra became consistent effort. I didn’t need to kill myself going uphill or be afraid going downhill. I needed to give a consistent effort on both.

I don’t know if I can explain exactly why, but thinking about a consistent effort made the downhills a little less scary. I wasn’t thinking about “bombing” the downhills. That thought scared the crap out of me. I thought about my effort. I concentrated on working the downhill, which to me meant putting my hands into the drops on my handlebars and keeping my legs moving in a fluid motion. And when I thought about those things, when I thought about what I could do instead of trying to ride this wave of speed and feeling of being out of control, I found myself more comfortable with the entire process.

I have not perfect the downhill. My cadence is not high, especially on stretches where I have no tension in my chain. But instead of coasting, I slowly, but consistently, circle the pedals, which keeps me moving and thinking about effort instead of recovery. It seems to help me relax a bit, too. And by relax I don’t mean coasting — I mean removing the death grip on the handlebars and the incredible tension in my entire upper body with the thought “oh jeez, oh jeez, oh jeez” going through my head. Confident descender? Not quite yet. But I’m a step closer. And for seeking out the knowledge, for attempting to implement changes and face what scares me most, I’ve already made all the improvements I really need to make. Everything else is just bonus points.

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