Nothing beats seeing a sign like this. For skilled and experienced riders, descending a long, twisting mountain road can be one of the best things about riding a bike. For those who are new to cycling or new to mountainous areas, it can be intimidating or even frightening. After all, nobody likes the idea of falling off the side of a mountain or crashing at speeds of 30-50 miles per hour. The good news is that descending is a skill that can be improved with knowledge and practice. Here is a list of tips to help you descend faster and more comfortably.
Easier said than done, but staying both mentally and phsyically relaxed is critical. On the mental side, it takes a lot of concentration to do a good descent. There are upcoming corners to judge, bumps in the road to watch out for, gravel or other road debris to avoid, traffic and pedestrians to maneuver around, and so on. Any time fear or doubt enters your mind, it takes your focus away from these tasks and makes mistakes more likely.
On the physical side, a tense body is more than just a waste of energy- it is a detriment to bike handling. Descending is all about smooth, controlled motions. A tense body leads to a more herky-jerky style of cornering. Take a deep breath and aim for a lighter grip on the handlebars, slightly bent elbows (don't lock them out), and a relaxed neck. Your arms, neck, and back should not be sore when you make it to the end of the descent.
You may notice that a tense mind and body work together. For example, a tense mind might say "Brake now!" while a tense upper body grabs the brakes harder and more suddenly. Taken to an extreme, this could cause you to lock out your rear wheel and crash. On the positive side, you can use the body/mind team to your advantage by using one to manipulate the other. If you are good at focusing away from mental tension, you may notice that your body will relax as a result. Similarly, if you make a concerted effort to relax your body, you may find that your mind follows suit.
Find the best Line
The best line through a corner tends to be the straightest line. The straighter the line, the faster you can go. Two notes of caution: (1) Never cross into the opposite lane, even though doing so will often give you the best line. Pretend that the opposite lane doesn't exist and pick the best line through your lane. (2) Watch out for debris and/or potholes and adjust your line accordingly.
Here you can see 3 different lines through a right-hand corner. The yellow line with the late turn-in point is perfectly safe (let's assume that only one lane of traffic is shown), just not the fastest line. The green line is ideal and allows for maximum speed. The red line with the early turn-in point is the one you will most want to avoid. If you turn in too early you end up coming out of the corner wide, which can be very difficult to correct and may have dire consequences if you end up riding into oncoming traffic.
Practice cornering on flat roads. Start out at a comfortable speed and gradually increase your speed until you feel comfortable at higher speeds. Find an empty parking lot and intentionally try a few early turn-in points. Get a feel for what happens in this situation and why. Once you master cornering on flat roads, head to a big descent where the degree of difficulty increases due to increased speed and decreased visibility. Again, start out slow and gradually increase your speed as you become more comfortable.
Keep your Eyes on the Prize
The bike follows your eyes. This is a simple yet very powerful phenomenon. You may notice this on flat roads. If there is a dead animal in the middle of the road and you get curious and look straight at it, you will observe that your bike begins to travel towards the dead animal. The same thing happens while descending. If you look straight ahead at the guard rail, your bike will go towards the guard rail.
The trick is to focus your eyes on the line you want to take. This means it is necessary to look for obstacles in the road and choose the best line before you enter the corner. Once you have chosen your line, keep your eyes on that line at an appropriate distance ahead. This keeps you going in the right direction, and you may also notice that looking at the road ahead instead of things around you makes you feel like you are going slower and have more control.
Position your Body
Begin by putting your outside pedal down. (If you're making a right-hand turn, keep your left pedal down. If you're making a left-hand turn, keep your right pedal down.) This will prevent your pedal from hitting the ground when you turn. Apply downward pressure on the outside pedal. Next, apply downward pressure on your inside handlebar. Note that this is the opposite side of the downward-pointing leg. (If you're making a right-hand turn, apply downward pressure on your right handlebar. If you're making a left-hand turn, apply downward pressure on your left handlebar.) These two simple steps should make you feel much more stable in the corners.
The best way to become a better descender is to do a lot of descending. Eventually you will become comfortable at speed and you will find it easier to relax, which will make a huge difference in your descending ability. Start slow and focus on technique. Ride at a speed that you find comfortable, and slowly ramp it up from there. There is no shame in going slowly at first. After all, a high-speed crash has the potential to do irreperable damage to your body and/or your mind. Just keep both wheels on the ground, get some experience under your belt, and you'll be flying downhill in no time.