Blog Post by Emma
Firstly, I must point out that the aim of this post is to give a little insight and a few tips to any women who might be new to road cycling or riding mountain passes, who find descending a little unnerving, or possibly even terrifying! I’m not a hugely skilful or fast descender, and doubt I ever will be, but I am definitely an IMPROVED descender since my first Alpine cycling adventure back in 2004. So anybody wanting to earn Strava kudos on the downhills……this post may not be for you!
I don’t think I’m alone when it comes to finding descending on the bike a little challenging and if I’m being honest, occasionally a bit scary! The steepness of Honister Pass in the Lake District will always be unnerving for me, even though I’ve ridden down it so many times! It’s been comforting to read on social media, that other women cyclists sometimes find riding downhill tricky too, and at worse traumatising. For example, when riding down Col d’Aspin recently, Grant chatted with a young Australian woman, who commented she wasn’t a fan of the descents, her exact words are not really repeatable! I’m NOT saying women cannot descend well, of course they can. I know women who have no qualms about hitting 40+mph…..but that is something I’m not likely to achieve!! This is written purely from my own, personal perspective.
Back in 2004 I was very new to cycling, having only owned my road bike for a year, I headed to the French Alps with Grant, to take on Alpe d’Huez and a few other Cols. The ascents were incredibly hard, but I had (just) enough fitness and gearing to ride and enjoy them. The descents were a baptism of fire! I simply hadn’t a clue how to deal with those hairpin bends, but I made it to the bottom, clinging to the brakes, relieved once it was over! There was no real improvement in the few years that followed, I loved the challenge of the climbs, but often worried about the descents and simply “survived them”.
Classic switchbacks – Luz Ardiden, French Pyrenees
Eventually, I took a conscious decision that I had to try and improve. Although I’m still slower and more cautious compared to others, I have vastly improved this last three years, and I no longer fear the downhill parts of our European cycling adventures. Here are a few things that have helped me on my way to becoming an “improved descender” !
My first road bikes came with traditional shaped handlebars, riding on the drops just didn’t seem possible or comfortable, I could hardly reach the brakes or see where I was going! Thankfully, I discovered more ergonomic, compact bars, the Bontrager VR-S. These are a a women’s specific handlebar with a very shallow drop of 120mm, plus they have a shorter reach. Perfect if you’re short (I’m 5’2″) and have small hands like me. I could actually reach the drops and the brakes, plus see where I was going without crippling my neck…..result!! Riding on the drops is actually far better for descending, as it will allow you to brake more powerfully, and also lowers your centre of gravity, for a more stable feel on the bike. Since I got used to descending on the drops, it now feels strange to use the hoods. Width of the bars is important too, if they are too narrow the whole bike will feel twitchy, especially on the downhills. I use a 38cm bar.
Reach Adjustable Shifters/Levers
Combined with the compact bars, short-reach adjustable shifters bring brake levers closer for small hands. These are made by Shimano, who I think include the reach adjust feature in most of their groupsets. So this maybe something to ask about when changing your bike or groupset.
It’s hard to simulate the length of European mountain roads here in the UK. So when it comes to descending for 10 to 25 km, and you’re simply not used to it, your hands can take a pummelling, especially if you’re a little tense and need to brake more frequently. Choose good quality, padded gloves. The best I’ve found are the Rapha Classic mitts, that use military grade padding on the palm, for super shock absorption. These are well worth the money, I reminded myself of this when descending for over 10 miles down the Tourmalet recently!
Rapha Classic Mitts
Handlebar Tape and/or Gel Inserts
Currently, I have 3mm thick bar tape combined with gel inserts underneath. This is helpful in reducing the pressure and fatigue on my hands. Previously, I’ve used two layers of Deda cork bar tape, and found that this also reduced discomfort.
Bike Set Up
My current summer bike is a Pinarello Dogma F8 and I’ve found that the geometry and design gives a very solid feel, the bike does not feel twitchy at all when descending. I was sceptical when Grant said that I’d feel the difference, compared to my previous bike. However, he was spot on, and we’ve realised my old frame was a little too long; my new position has brought me further forward, improving my weight distribution on the bike, and how the bike handles. I felt instantly more stable when descending the Horquette d’Ancizan, one of our first rides on our recent Pyrenees trip. I recently had a bike fit, at Cyclefit in Manchester. I would recommend this and I’ll be writing a separate post on this soon. Go to http://www.cyclefit.co.uk for more info on their bike fitting services.
Having my bike fit and saddle pressure mapping with Jess at Cyclefit.
Good Quality Components
For me, Shimano Dura-Ace 9000 brakes are the one, as they provide strong, powerful braking. I can even do “one-finger” braking with them. However, like most things bike related it’s all down to individual preference. Grant actually moved away from this particular brake set as he found it a little too powerful, something I’ve heard other more experienced (male) riders comment. I guess larger hands will pull the brakes harder, but with my small hands, this isn’t a problem. For me, that’s what I love about them!
We are currently using Vittoria’s Corsa G tyre in 25mm width on our summer bikes. These tyres have graphene within them, which I believe is quite a new development in tyre technology. They have increased the grip of the tyre and the comfort of the bike. This has been noticeable on descents, such as Honister Pass and Newlands Pass in the Lake District. When descending them recently, I braced myself for the usual bumpiness they bring, to find it much reduced.
I can’t profess to have much skill when it comes to technique, but again I’ve improved and I focus on making sure I’ve got the correct leg bent, depending on the direction of the switchback, and I push down with the straight leg. Grant helps me with this, but more importantly he tells me to take my time, “I’d rather you make it down in one piece, than be attempting any descending heroics!” Having no pressure to be a speed demon helps me be more relaxed!
Descending in the Pyrenees
Unfortunately, I don’t practice what I’m preaching enough when it comes to arm strength! I do a few press-ups now and again, but every year I tell myself I need to work on this more! You will feel the strain on your arms when you take on a long, mountain descent. As with most sports, I guess overall strength is just a good thing to build on.
Seeking Improvement and Contentment
I’m not championing mediocrity; my point is that striving to improve is important to progress, but at the same time, being at ease with yourself and recognising your achievements is also vital. My personal goal was to improve, to not feel afraid of descending, to (hopefully) not look like a total idiot! If I’d set the bar too high eg. “Try to keep up with Grant on descents”, it wouldn’t have been achievable, and I know I would have become despondent. Grant himself is still working to improve his descending and frequently admires the skill of some of the local riders we meet on our travels.
I think I’ve attained my goal, but there are numerous things I could/should be doing to further improve: strength, work on bike handling, mountain biking, to name a few! Fitting all this in is a little tricky! I’m sure it’s the same for most avid cyclists, juggling the many facets of life alongside cycling/training. So I’m going with these goals for now: do more arm strength and core stability work.
Hopefully some of the points mentioned will be helpful for any cyclists currently getting to grips with the joys of switchbacks! If any readers have any tips / experiences to share, please get in touch, or leave a comment.
The summit of the Horquette d’Ancizan (French Pyrenees)