How to become a demon descender

Descending is an art form that can make or break your ride, especially when faced with the 30km-plus downhills of the Alps. Thankfully, it’s an art form that can be learned pretty quickly.

Tom Pidcock’s 2022 descent of the Col du Galibier lives long in the memory, the Brit consuming one of the most exhilarating downhills in cycling with consummate ease. It was a masterclass of technique and fearlessness that saw Pidcock tip over 100km/hr. It was a similar tale in 2023 when Pidcock tackled the Tuna, one of the most infamous descents in California. Enjoy front-row seats here as each sway of the Yorkshireman’s body, each pedal stroke, is caught by bike messenger-turned-filmmaker Saffa Brian. “If only I could descend at such speed and safety,” you ponder, “especially as I’ve signed up to one of Rouleur’s upcoming Alpine adventures. But there’s simply no way I can downhill anywhere near as swiftly and safely as Pidcock. Or is there…?” Well, yes there is. 

Learn from the best

Marvin Faure is a British Cycling level-three coach who’s lived in France for the past 35 years, much of it guiding riders to conquer sportives through his company Alpine Cols ( They’re the coaching partner to the Marmotte and Tour du Mont Blanc, and enjoyed a similar collaboration with Haute Route between 2014 and 2017. In that time, Faure, his partner and fellow coaches have helped riders of all abilities to descend like Felix Baumgartner (without the passing-out aspect, of course).

“Without fail, everybody who attends our coaching camps wants to improve their descending,” says Faure. “That’s because the descents in the Alps are incomparable to anything in the UK. You might have a few long descents in Wales, but you really can’t replicate the distance. However, you can replicate the technique, which is especially important when it comes to descending corners.”

“There are three key areas to work on when it comes to descending,” Faure adds. “Firstly, you’ve got to nail your position on the bike. Then it’s about choosing the right line on the road. Finally, technique…”

Love your drops

Your descending position, says Faure, is heavily influenced by what happens upfront, namely what you do with your hands. “One of the biggest challenges we face is steering riders into descending on the drops. I reckon over a third of riders coming here from flattish countries like the UK, Netherlands and Denmark need encouraging to descend on the drops. Many are scared when they do so, as they feel horribly forward and over the handlebars, but they must persist because there are six big reasons why it’s important to descend on the drops.

“The first is that you lower your centre of gravity, so you’re more stable. The second is that by bending over, you’re more compact, which increases stability. If you’re sitting up then your centre of gravity is higher, making you less stable. The third advantage is that you have more weight on the front wheel, which you need when you’re descending fast. 

“The fourth is you’ve got a better grip on the handlebars. If you’re descending at high speeds and roll over a pothole or a bump in the road, do that on your hoods and you’ve a chance of losing control as your grip’s not that strong. Do so on the drops and you’ve naturally got a stronger grip and will remain upright.

“Then you’ve got a better pull on the brakes because you can easily have one or two fingers really pulling straight into your hand, so it’s a much stronger pull. And finally, of course, you endure less air resistance, so you’re faster, especially in a straight line.” 

So, a sextet of reasons to become at one with the drops. Which is great. But knowing the theory and acting on it are often absent bedfellows. So, how can you become comfortable, confident and classy on the drops? “It’s relatively simple but needs practice and repetition,” says Faure. “You should start off by spending an increasing amount of time on your drops on a flat road. Then throw in gentle descents in the same position. You’ll gradually build confidence in that position that you’ll take to longer, steeper, more technical descents.”

The perfect line

Next, it’s about choosing the best line when cornering on descents. Faure shows me a cracking pic from the Giro d’Italia of the world’s best entering a mountain corner wide, cutting sharply into the apex and then exiting wide. All at speed. “That’s great,” I say, “but what if you’re not riding a closed-road sportive and you can’t cut across two lanes? What’s the downhill deal then?”

“Broadly, do the same but in less-exaggerated fashion,” Faure replies, “so you still enter wide but remain on your side of the road. As you approach, say, the right-hand bend, look over your shoulder to ensure there’s no car or cyclist just about to overtake you. Then move to your left slightly and the middle of the road to maximise visibility of the line of sight. 

“As you begin to move into the middle of the road, that’s when you start braking, especially the front brake. Some contest that surely you end up flying over the handlebars. It’s an understandable fear but, as long as you brake progressively and never more than about 70% on the front brake, you’ll be fine. Too much on the back brake and you’ll simply skid.

“All the while you’re looking as far around the corner as possible. That’s for two reasons. One is for safety because you want to spot anything approaching. The other is that your bike goes where you’re looking. It’s why you turning is initiated by you leaning, not by turning the handlebars. All in all, you’re looking ahead, pushing down hard on the outside leg (about 40% of your weight), on the inside arm (30%) and on your saddle (205), and then by increasing the push down on the inside arm, you create the lean. Then when you’re through the apex, keep looking forward, pedal and drift back toward the outer edges of the road.”

Faure then cranks things up to a speedier level, unpicking a piece of research by Reijne, Bregman and Schwab – ‘Measuring and comparing descending in elite racing with a perspective on real-time feedback for improving performance’ if you’re interested – that shows not only do the fastest riders start braking later, but they end later, too. “They’re almost at the apex when they stop braking,” Faure explains. “This conflicts the claim that you should never brake in the corner; you can actually keep feathering your brakes around the first third of the corner.” 

Fight fatigue

You’ve now conquered the right-hand bend. That’s cool. But there are left-hand bends to master, too. Before then, a quick fatiguing interlude. I bore Faure with my own tales of descending the Galibier – politely, he does not yawn – and recall how fatigued my fingers and forearms felt at the end of it. He says that’s common and there’s a case for upper-body work – even just press-ups – to strengthen that area.

Then there’s the issue of maintaining concentration during high-speed descents after a long stint in the Alpine saddle. It’s mentally fatiguing, especially as the miles and days roll by. “We’ve coached many Haute Route riders and have ridden it many times,” Faure says. “It’s a seven-day sportive, and we noticed that the majority of accidents would happen in the last three days. Riders would start to tire from many hours riding over successive days. It’s why a good general and riding nutrition plan is a must.”

Faure also warns of complacency, that several days in you feel you’ve conquered descending and taken your foot off the proverbial mental gas. “Overconfidence can lead to crashes, so always focus on good technique.”

Which covers left-hand as well as right-hand bends. “On the continent, the problem with a downhill left-hand bend is the temptation to cut across roads,” says Faure. “But don’t. If a bus or truck’s coming the other way on a tight bend, despite the driver’s best intentions they could edge slightly onto your side of the road. Throw in the blind spot of riding around mountainous rock and literally cutting corners is an accident waiting to happen. That’s why I tell all my riders to take a wide path around a left-hand corner, even when it’s visible. It forges good habits that you take into more technical left-hand bends.” 

Descend to suit the situation

All of this will make each of you a faster, more confident and safer descender. You know where to put your hands, body and bike at speed. But please note that all of this is textbook, which arguably means textbook for the individual. When you’re smack bang in the middle of a descending peloton, never has it been more welcoming to be a sheep.

“If you’re in a group, don’t choose your own line, but follow the group,” says Faure. “You must be super-sensitive to those around you. Yes, you may not hit the perfect line but that’s perfectly acceptable if it avoids an accident.”

Of which the chances are heightened if it’s raining. That’s why you must lower your tyre pressure by around 10% for greater grip. Brake a little earlier into the descending corners, too, albeit this is less applicable now than days gone by thanks to the rise of disc brakes. “If you are still using rim brakes and there’s a lot of surface water, ensure you brake once before ‘proper’ braking’ to clear water off the rim,” says Faure. “This is especially true for carbon rims.” And remember that those white road markings resemble ice when raining so keep away. 

Emergency stop

“All of this gives you the best chance of staying safe. But you can only do so much, which is why we teach our riders what to do in case of an emergency,” Faure says. “One involves conscious counter-steering, which we all do when cornering but should be more pronounced in an emergency. Essentially, it’s the idea of tilting your handlebars to the left, which makes you turn to the right, which makes your bike turn to the right. And vice versa. To avoid said obstacle, you might have to turn sharply, which means an aggressive counter-steer. This is something you should practise at a quiet car park or bike park.

“The other emergency is what to do if you simply can’t avoid hitting the upcoming object. Here, your aim is to scrub as much speed as possible, so straighten up, push your weight back in the saddle, great force through your heels and brake as hard as you can with both hands. It might mean the difference of hitting something at 10km/hr instead of 40km/hr. Again, you should practise this stopping procedure somewhere quiet so it’s more automated if needed in an emergency situation.”

Descending in the mountains is an exhilarating experience and one you can’t quite appreciate until you’ve signed up to a camp like Rouleur’s French Alps and/or Swiss and Italian Alps adventures. Between now and then, get down on those drops, follow the path of least resistance and you’ll soon be leaving a certain Mr Pidcock in your wake. Maybe…

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