Your bike should feel like it is an extension of you. I was providing some tips to a rider and she said "oh, just like when I'm on a horse"; I love it when there are cross-overs between sports, when you can tap in to something familiar from another activity. Her comment got me thinking though that our bikes are just like animals, they react to how we're feeling, our body language, and our commands. If we're nervous or tense, then our bikes respond that way, just like a horse or a dog. If we're relaxed and comfortable, then again, our bikes are solid and stable. So this is a long winded way of saying, stay relaxed on your bike, trust your bike, trust yourself, and your machine will be solid and stable.
I believe that everyone should be comfortable riding with no hands, practice it, learn how your bike wants to ride in a straight line, how it reacts to your body movements to turn and weave. Get used to how it responds to the little signals that you give it, how it really is an extension of you. Riding with no hands on the handlebars helps provide trust, knowledge, and communication between you and your bike. Practice on quiet roads with good pavement. Once you're comfortable with no hands try turning some corners and taking arm warmers on and off, add a few more little skills to help your bike handling abilities.
Doing a descent at speed requires that you are comfortable with your bike and if it is steep enough you will gain more speed by coasting. Place your feet parallel to the ground with one foot at the 3, the other at the 9 (think of your pedal stroke like a clock, 12 at the top, 6 at the bottom). Weight your feet, so place all of your body weight on them and feel like you are heavy, pushing in to your feet for stability. Slide your butt back, way back; it can hang off the end of your saddle. Hands in your drops to get your body low, elbows in, hands relaxed. If you hold on to your handlebars too tight then it can result in speed warbles, you want your front wheel to be straight and stable - remember riding no hands and how straight your bike was? So relax your upper body, shoulders lower then your butt, weight your feet (which are parallel to the ground), look far ahead to anticipate everything that is coming up. This position should feel strong and stable, much like a football player anticipating a tackle. Here is a video showing some pros in the tuck position.
Now that you are comfortable going down a straight hill at speed in a good tuck, what do you do when there is a bend or turn? First tip is to brake before the turn. You want to start the turn at the speed you are comfortable at, so brake as you head towards the turn, when the turn starts you let off the brakes and go through the turn at speed. When you start to brake you also want to change your body position, so your inside foot will be up with all of your body weight on your outside foot; really push in to your outside foot. In order to maintain balance and to make the turn, you will push down with your inside hand. If you are running and your right leg is going forward, is it your right arm or left arm that goes forward at the same time? Take some time to think about this, get up and run if you need to, we'll wait .... hopefully you run normal and found that your opposite arm goes forward. Did you try it the other way, with your right leg and right arm going forward at the same time? Hard to balance right. It's the same on the bike. In order to maximize stability you want your weight on your outside foot and inside hand, body still low for a low centre of gravity.
In the video below, you'll see the rider changing his feet position so that his inside foot is up on all the turns, which is good. At about the 26 second mark you'll see that he doesn't have weight on his inside hand at first, but then when he does push down with his inside hand (left hand in this case), his bike will lean and carve in to the corner, he gains stability and speed around the bend. He wavers a bit as he isn't trusting himself completely yet, so when you do start the turns commit to them, stay weighted on your outside foot and inside hand and trust yourself and your bike, commit to the decision.
The next thing to think about is to use your shoulders as your steering wheel. As your bike is leaning around the turns, your body stays upright and the direction that your shoulders face and where your eyes are looking is where you will be headed. In the video above you'll see that the rider's shoulders were twisted at certain times so he didn't stay committed to the fastest line around the bends. Point your shoulders where you want to to, square them off and look where you want to go. So this leads to the question, what is the fastest way around the turns?
Go in to the corner or bend wide, all the way to the outside of the road. If you were to stop on the side of the road, you should mentally draw a straight line through the apex of the corner. Where this line hits the outside of the road is where you start to lean in to the corner, aim for the apex, then continue on the straight line out of the corner nice and wide. This video shows some visuals:
In the following video, Canadian pro rider Michael Barry talks about descending, and how it really is one of the greatest feelings on a bike. He also talks about the tuck that they go in to to maximize speed, where they sit on the top tube, but get comfortable with the stable position that we talked about at the start of this post before trying the tricks the pros do. Have fun on the downs, which are the rewards for the ups, stay upright, stay safe, stay confident, and enjoy. If you hear a "yippee" being yelled then you know that I'm somewhere nearby enjoying the speed of a descent, I encourage you to do the same!
If you want help working on these skills we'll be doing climbing and descending at our training session on Thursday, May 31 and cornering skills on Thursday, June 7. To find out more e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.