An admitted shoe geek waxes philosophical about running, triathlon, and life in general.
Comments welcome!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

What goes up, must come down.

"I must not fear. Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing....only I will remain."
 -- Litany Against Fear, from the book Dune, by Frank Herbert

"A coward dies a thousands deaths, but a brave person dies but once."
 -- Unknown

I spent part of last evening riding with a couple of the kids from the youth triathlon team that I help coach, taking them on some easy hills to help boost their confidence a bit.

Here's the deal -- one of them had a pretty nasty crash a few weeks ago, and since has had some fear issues on the bike. TOTALLY understandable -- the mental aspects of recovering from a crash are usually far more complex and take much longer to heal than the physical injuries.

Back in my road racing days, I had a back crash in a mountain bike race that ended with a broken collar bone and a season totally shot. I didn't get back on the road for a good 4 months.

But I also had problems mentally from that crash: I would lock up any time I had riders on both sides of me, soon finding myself in the back of the pack and having to work my way back up. It took me three years to completely overcome the anxiety in a group of riders.

She's doing great getting "back on the horse", but gets very nervous on any kind of downhill. Add in a corner, and it's a lock-up moment.

I talked her through a couple of the downhills, and even in the short amount of time we were riding together, she was showing good improvement. Mostly, though, she just needs to spend time on the bike and rebuild the trust in her machine and riding skill.

But that got me to thinking about a general audience and what tips might help some one descend "better" -- under more control, safely, smoothly, and maybe faster.

People who downhill ski tend to grasp the concepts pretty easily. Much of the mechanics of body position and weight shifts are similar.

So here are some of my tips on descending, in no particular order:

* Relax. RELAX! A death-grip on the bars really is a DEATH grip. The bike wants to go straight, or carve a bend according to your weight shift and lean. Let it! A tight grip on the bars or rigid arms just transmit any road bumps into your body, shifting your weight to somewhere it shouldn't be. Keeping the hands and arms loose allows the bike to make slight baubles and bumps and return to stability underneath you. Don't fight it.

* Use your body as an air brake before you resort to the bike's brakes. Aerodynamics is your friend on descents both in reducing drag and increasing it. Opening up the speed? Tuck down low, level the pedals, pull the knees in, maybe even put your hands next to the stem and get your nose between them... Need to slow down a bit? Sit up, hands on the hoods, flare out the elbows, maybe even flare out the knees. Use your body like a parachute.

* If you need more slowing power, feather the brakes on a bit, starting with the back brake. Apply the pressure slowly. There is no panic, so don't grab a handful of brake lever and expect everything to remain peachy.

* When the road goes somewhere other than straight ahead, set up early, get your speed under control to what you want to take through the corner, and then let 'er rip. Meaning stay off the brakes IN the corner. Applying the brakes in a corner makes the bike want to stand up and go straight. Kinda difficult to carve a turn that way, eh?

* Like on skis, the outside pedal goes down and stays down, and you should be putting all your weight on it. This is true for corners on the flat as well as downhill. Lean yourself and the bike together, keeping everything in essentially a straight line -- bike and rider. Keeping your body low will lower your center of gravity, making the bike more stable as well.

* If traffic allows, use the full lane to your advantage. The old outside-inside-outside line helps to increase the radius of the corner and maximize your speed.

* If you find yourself in a decreasing-radius corner (it gets sharper), or going into a corner too fast, there's a technique called "counter steering" that may well save your bacon. It amounts to leaning the bike more underneath you by pressing the inside hand down into the corner harder, while keeping your weight hard on the outside pedal. Avoid this on wet roads or on debris or sand (I'll say more about this in a bit). In 99.99% of cases, your pucker-factor will give up long before the traction of your tires. 

* When the road is wet, or has sand or other debris on it (like rocks), counter steering makes the bike want to slide out easier. In these cases, you do the opposite -- lean your body and keep the bike more upright. Still keep your weight on the outside pedal! This allows the tires to drift a little without the bike sliding out from under you.

* Fear... Hey, it's normal to be nervous. But only to a point. Nervousness that gives you a healthy respect for what you're doing and helps you be hyper-aware of what's happening is good. Fear that makes you tense is not. I find that most fear is based in thinking about what can go wrong rather than on what you need to do and how you need to react to your surroundings. Quite frankly, if you have time to think about those things, you're not going fast enough! Okay, not really. But practicing the skills, even on flat terrain, will help ingrain the body mechanics and reactions before they become a NEED IT NOW item.

My recommendation is to find a nice hill, one that can be part of a regularly ridden loop, maybe one that you can do multiple times on a single ride, and just practice. It should come to the point that you know where every pavement crack and divot resides. Aim to take the hill a little faster each time (assuming traffic and weather are conducive). Get comfortable with how small changes in your body position affect your speed, and how you can make small changes to your line through the corner to avoid things like glass in the road.

I really can't take any ride from my house without taking some significant hills. I relish the mornings when there is no traffic there to slow me down...

I'm one of those strange cats who likes uphills, and not just because I get to come back down.

Hope that helps. Happy flying.

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