Meet Oscar Saiz, the mountain biker teaching WorldTour pros how to descend

Oscar Saiz is a world-class downhill mountain biker who’s spent the past decade teaching the world’s finest road cyclists how to descend faster and safer. We catch up with Spanish veteran to talk Pinot, cognitive dexterity and finding your limits…

Oscar Saiz is a pocket-rocket Spaniard who you’ve probably never heard of but has had an oversize impact on the road peloton.

The 49-year-old, who lives 40km outside Barcelona, made his name in downhill mountain biking, racing for Giant’s mountain-bike team. He was rarely out of the World Cup top-10. Now, he’s charged with transforming the world’s best road cyclists into descending experts, utilising his years of experience to fight fear and boost (controlled) speed.

We recently came across Oscar at Trek-Segafredo’s women’s training camp in Denia, Spain, but that’s just the tip of his palmarès with Israel-Premier Tech, Team DSM, UAE Women and Lotto-Dstny all using his services. In the past he’s also worked with Jumbo-Visma and Rabobank, while he’s worked on an individual basis with riders from Movistar Team, Ineos Grenadiers and many more. In short, he’s a downhill demon in demand. Who, it transpires, is a very interesting interviewee…

Oscar, thank you for your time. Please introduce yourself to the Rouleur community, please.

Well, when I was really young, I used to compete in trials and BMX racing, and raced that until around 18 years old. Then I went to university to study law with the intention of becoming a lawyer. Then I discovered mountain biking. That was the early 90s. Law took a backseat and I soon became a professional downhill mountain biker. I competed pro until 2008.

Read more: Why do professional cyclists train at altitude?

When I stopped racing, I thought I’d finish my degree in law, but the Spanish federation called and asked if I’d coach the national mountain-biking team. I did but moved on soon after as I didn’t love the way they approached things. I then ended up coaching the Giant Factory Team, who was the last brand I raced for. This went well and I ended up working with the cross-country team, too, refining the more technical aspects of racing. We were successful as Danny Hart won the UCI World Downhill Championships in 2011.

Oscar Saiz 2006

Saiz at the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships 2006 (Getty Images)

Come 2012, I started working specifically on technique and downhill riding with Rabobank [now Jumbo-Visma], the link being that they were using Giant bikes at the time. I remember working with [Robert] Gesink, [Bauke] Mollema and [Steven] Kruijswijk, who were all very young. Again, it went well but I went freelance soon after.

Who did you work with then?

Many riders but I guess the highest profile at that stage was Thibaut Pinot. His people called me, I think before the 2013 Vuelta a España. They happened to be in Andorra, where I was at the time, and asked about hooking up as Thibaut was having some problems. 

He’d pulled out of the Tour de France that year when in a good position and it became clear – and well-publicised – that he was having issues with descending. I spent time with him, worked with him, and you could see he was not just having problems with handling the bike but mentally, too. He was completely blocked. He was France’s big hope so it was a rather crazy time. That kick-started my work with many teams and riders.

Tell us about how you work with the riders.

It’s both in the classroom and on the road, albeit it can be restrictive as while you spend a good amount of time with riders between November and January, and a little less in February and March, that’s about it as the race season really kicks in. 

If it’s my first session with them, I’ll do a presentation about my work, what’s good technique and how it’ll benefit them. On a more individual basis, I’ll show the riders what I see from footage like that from GCN and other media, highlighting their technique and riders with exceptional technique.

After the briefing, we’ll do some work in a closed environment. For many this is new to them as you don’t see riders practising technique much on the road. They might have ridden around plastic cones positioned in a S-shape when they were eight but that was about it.

I like to see their capabilities on the descents and cornering, so I’ll choose a section of road that’s between one and three kilometres long, and I’ll ask them to ride over and over again. I’m watching to see how they read the road. Someone who could really read the road was [Vincenzo] Nibali. He always knew where he was on the road and was an excellent descender. Anyway, I like to work on one thing at a time. What are the braking distances? Where are we entering the corner? How are you going to exit this corner? I don’t mind repeating a small stretch of road many times as that develops skill. We’ll make a video of the rider and analyse it with them afterwards. 

You mention Nibali, renowned as silky smooth on the descents. Who from the modern-day peloton impresses downhill?

Tom Pidcock is, of course, superb, as he showed in winning the queen stage at last year’s Tour. He’s a great handler and passed a hell of a lot of good riders on that famous descent including [Chris] Froome. He has that little bit extra. [Matej] Mohorič, [Michał] Kwiatkowski, [Peter] Sagan and [Julian] Alaphilippe are all very fast too.

Vincenzo Nibali, Giro d'Italia

Vincenzo Nibali was one of cycling's great descenders (Getty Images)

But it’s not all about speed. They’re so good technically that they’re less stressed when descending. People think I’m only about saving watts and the legs, but that’s not true – it’s about saving the mind, too. Psychological control preserves energy.  

What makes a great descender?

To me there are two areas that make a good descender: the bike-handling side and the cognitive side. You have to be agile and effortless at moving your bike from left to right. But that’s no good if there’s ‘something’ missing. I’ll give you an example from mountain biking. You’ll have a trials rider who’s excellent at jumping and has wonderful technique but when you put them on the downhill, they don’t have the cognitive ability to see outside, to absorb and interpret the information ahead. They don’t have ‘visibility’. All the best descenders are gifted with that sense of ‘outside attention’, I call it. They manage the distances ahead, coming into the corner, out of the corner. How much should I slow down? Their computer processes this a lot better and faster than others.

When I talk to cyclists, I say it’s a little like VO2max. You were born with descending capabilities but you can train and develop them, though everyone will have their ceiling. It’s like your mitochondria, your genetics, it’s at the heart of what makes you a great endurance athlete.

To what extent does equipment influence descending speed and skills?

All I can say is thank god the riders now have disc brakes. I tell the riders to try caliper brakes again and see how it compares now that they’ve got used to disc brakes. They can see it’s a big advantage for braking though corners.

Wheels and tyres impact things, too. I’m a bit of a geek so when I started working with the Rabobank riders in 2012, I went into the mechanics’ truck and started squeezing the tyres. I noticed the pressure was super high. And they were all on tubulars back then, of course. ‘The tyres go up to 10-bar,’ they’d tell me. ‘That is crazy,’ I’d say. That’s not compliant on the road, it’ll bounce, you won’t get grip. But they were so convinced it was the right thing to do, I thought they must know. Of course, over the years, tyre pressure’s gone down, tyres and wheels have gotten wider, and they’re all on tubeless. 

What will be the next big ‘descending’ thing?

It’s got to be dropper posts but it’ll take time for them to be so common as road cycling’s very traditional. But I’ve seen how a dropper post has changed mountain biking. I remember dreaming about a dropper post maybe 25 years ago when riding my mountain bike. I thought it’d be great to have a bike that wouldn’t need you to lower your saddle manually, and then 10 to 15 years later it was designed and implemented. Press a button and your saddle’s in the perfect biomechanical position. It’s a great invention. I don’t know why they don’t use them more often on the road. 

Also, within the next how many years I think someone will make a full-suspension road bike. It makes sense. Road bikes and go-karts are the only things on wheels that don’t have suspension. 

Can you offer advice to Rouleur’s band of recreational riders?

Many riders have good engines but you have to look at road cycling holistically. Many riders just don’t descend and corner that well so end up focusing on their strengths – climbing, sprinting… – rather than their weaknesses. It’s human nature. But once it clicks that you must work on your weaknesses and not neglect them, you will progress. If it doesn’t click, you just won’t improve.

Once it clicks, see where you’re at. Pay attention to your position first and then work on the skill of being able to develop reading the road. I’ve seen riders before driving a car and I can already see their skill of reading is poor. So, the best thing to practise on a quiet, local road you know well. At an approaching corner, establish different entry points, change your line and see how you respond. Experiment. See what feedback you get from different lines. And enjoy it. That helps, too.

I like riders to maximise their brakes. Take that local road, set a braking point, brake at ‘X’ and see where you finish (‘Y’). How long does it take you to slow down? To accelerate again? Reduce those braking distances coming closer to the corner and see how you manage.

When it comes to bike position, it’s hard to say as everyone’s different. But really focus on how you feel when you tilt your bike. If I’m working on a rider’s position, we might focus on just one or maybe two corners. If were working on reading the road, we might try a few to experience the subtle differences I like them to think how 40cm difference in entering a corner feels. It’s harder than it sounds. Okay, it’s not too bad if you’re riding at 25km/h but when descending at 60km/h, it’s a different matter. Learn to be precise about judging distances and entry points, where to hit the apex, how to exit and at what point.

What about if you’re descending in the rain?

Well, reducing tyre pressure would be a good start, though test this and see how you feel. Say we’re running tubeless 25 at normal pressure (around 90psi) for my weight (73kg), you’d drop that to 75psi in the wet. But don’t go too low or it’ll start jeopardising the roll. Around 10 to 15 psi is good. 

As for technique in the wet, that’s similar to the dry. Just ensure you’re super-efficient with your braking. Position changes slightly, too. In the dry, you can go deeper and tilt the bike more; when it’s wet, you’re limited. Ultimately, there’s no scientific way. It’s an art that you develop.

Practice makes perfect to become a great descender (Alex Broadway/SWpix)

You’ve spent years descending, both on- and off-road. How do they compare?

It’s far more dangerous on the road when you’re looking to find your limits. I can be riding 100 days of mountain biking and be close to crashing on 25 of them. But it’s easier to detect your limit off-road as the mud gives you so much feedback about what’s happening around you. On the road, it’s harder. Under the wheels, the tarmac doesn’t give you much information; you’re often given little feedback until you crash.  

It's interesting because when I first started with road cyclists it was because of injuries. You might not break a bone but you may have broken your confidence. It’s then about how quickly you can recover and rebuild confidence. Good technique helps that rebound. It’s funny because they would say to me, coming from downhill mountain biking, you guys are crazy. And I’d say we’re not. 

Of course, we have some accidents but nothing compared to you guys. And among the top-50 MTB downhillers, none of them are crazy because if they were, they wouldn’t last four weeks as you’d be injured all the time. They know what they’re doing. Sure, you downhill 100% because you need to be on the limit if you want to challenge for races but risks are so well-known and managed. 

Many road cyclists don’t have a controlled environment. They’re tired after riding day after day, and they don’t know the road. They’ve been riding for four hours and lose concentration. It doesn’t take long to hit the deck, whether it’s choosing the wrong line or braking late. There are many hazards on the road. 

Anyway, like I said first I started working with the riders because of injuries but then the teams realised they were losing races on the descents. Now, a lot of my work is about boosting performance rather than preventing injury. 

What’s the most exhilarating descent you’ve ever ridden?

All are special in their own way. You might like some more than others because of the type of tarmac or the surroundings. But I do prefer technical roads over a straight line, cornering at high speeds. Because of that I like the French Alps and especially the Dolomites. Technical, winding roads where you must focus and riding close to your limit.

Finally, how would you recommend the Rouleur rider locates their limits?

You will see your limit approaching when you start feeling at the maximum of your capabilities and skill. When corners start getting tight; the road becomes small; your braking is sharp but just enough before the corner; your level of tension is rising; and if you’re lucky, maybe you feel your tyres at their limit, which will hopefully be when you’re upright and not hitting the deck. 

Cover image by James Startt

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