Descending Hills

by Bonnie McClun

Descending hills safely requires special consideration of bike-handling techniques:

Check Your Brakes
Before every ride, especially hilly rides, check your brakes. Your life may depend on them. Make certain that any quick-release device on your brakes is properly engaged for riding. Make sure the brake pads touch the rims only. Brake pads rubbing on tires can cause a blowout. Be certain you have a minimum one-inch clearance between the brake levers and handlebars when the levers are fully depressed.

Control Your Speed
This requires continuous attention and concentration. Pay attention to the roadway rather than the scenery. Just around the next corner there may be potholes, gravel, rock outcroppings jutting into the road-way, sharp curves, water on the roadway, pedestrians, other bicyclists, or cars. Maintaining a modest speed will enable you to avoid these hazards.

Ride Predictably
Remember to remain on the same relative portion of the lane when riding a curvy descent. Be very cautious of the centrifugal forces on tight curves.

Braking Technique Long descents require frequent braking. Apply uniform pressure to the front and rear brakes. Apply the brakes evenly and firmly. Slow your speed, and release the brakes. Do not ride the brakes! Constant application of the brakes will overheat the rims and may cause a tire blowout.

Brake before you get to a curve
Slow down so you don't have to brake during a curve. Braking during a curve may cause skidding and loss of control of the bike. Ride with your body in an upright position in the saddle. This will create additional air drag (resistance) and will help to slow your speed. Keep both hands on the handlebars.

Bike Shimmying
If your bike begins to shimmy during the descent, stay calm. The geometry of some bike frames and forks, wheels out of true, or loose components may cause your bike to shimmy at high speeds. If this occurs, continue to apply your brakes intermittently until you have slowed down. You might also press one leg against your top tube to steady the bike. The shimmy should subside at a much lower speed. Come to a complete stop and check your bike for mechanical worthiness. If you continue, ride slowly.

Wet Roads
Wet roads require heightened attention to the above techniques. You must control your speed even more. Slow down! Roads are slippery when wet and your brakes are much less effective. You may need to keep constant light pressure on the brakes to sweep the water off the rims so you'll have some braking power. Don't start on a hilly ride if it's raining. If you do get caught in the rain, always use extreme caution.

Before You Ride
Before you go on a ride in an unfamiliar area or with a new group of riders, ask the ride leader if the ride includes any long descents. If it does and you are not confident in your ability to handle the descents, choose another ride. Safety is an important part of all rides. Stay in control and have fun!

Reprinted from "Bicycle USA", magazine of the League of American Bicyclists, Jan/Feb 1996. Effective CyclingTM.
For more information about the League of American Bicyclists, visit their web site,, or e-mail them at

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