As someone who hosts many first time visiting cyclists coming up to enjoy our picturesque mountains, I have noticed many share a common apprehension about how to safely enjoy some of the steep, curvy descents that characterize some of the most beautiful roadways in the area. Relying on the experts over at the Pisgah Gravity Research Center, I have come up with the following recommendations for cyclists unfamiliar with our mountainous terrain:
•First and foremost, make sure your bike is in good mechanical condition. This obviously includes brakes and tires, but also frame imbalance issues which may not be obvious at lower speeds. Throttle down immediately if you detect any unusual vibration or shimmy.
•Be aware of weather conditions and road hazards, and water or even snow or ice on roadways. During the winter, it is not uncommon to be in warm “false spring” weather on one side of a ridge, only to cross over to the north side and encounter patches of snow or ice.
•Note there is a learning curve to descending mountain roads. Don’t overestimate your abilities. Be prudent and gain experience patiently before you decide to chase those STRAVA records.
•Look where you want to go. The bike instinctively follows your vision, so avoid getting visually fixed on a roadside obstacle. Focus well out in front of you, essentially out at the furthest extent of the visible road surface. In addition, watch the riders out in front of you and you can read their body movement/bike positioning to get an indication of what’s beyond your field of vision.
•Don’t “over run” your sight distance. Similar to driving a car at night where you need to limit your speed based on how far ahead you can see via your headlights, the number one rule descending a curvy road is to limit your speed to give you adequate stopping distance should there be an obstacle that is just outside your sight distance.
•Unless you’re consciously trying to “go fast,” I recommend cyclists who are being introduced to the mountain road cycling keep their head and chest high and even “sit up” on straight sections to bleed speed via body position. While there are clear advantages to keeping your center of gravity as low as possible when riding fast through turns, and there is a marginal increase in control by putting your hands in the drops, I have made many relaxed descents with my hands on the hoods to maximize “air braking.”
•Use body position as your first step in reducing speed, as opposed to locking down the brakes. I am always puzzled by the guy who maintains a low-profile, aerodynamic position with hands in the drops, while pulling hard on the brakes on the entire descent. As a very first step, just “sit up” (particularly on the straight-aways) to allow your torso to work like a “sail.” This saves your brake pads plus puts you in a better position to simply see the road in front of you.
•Generally speaking, brake when you’re going in a straight line as you are approaching a turn. Try to use both the front and back brakes, and brake in about two or three second pulls, then let off momentarily. When going in a straight line, the bulk of your stopping power will be with your front brake. Brake primarily on the straight-away’s and strive to ride fluidly and smoothly through the turn itself. If you must brake in a curve, I’ll rely more on the rear brake but you’ve got to be aware of the ease with which the rear tire will slide when/if you brake hard.
•Note that braking during a hard curve actually reduces the speed that you can safely take the curve. Once again, attempt to do 95% of your braking on the straight-aways before you enter a turn!
•Avoid “riding the brakes” all the way down the hill. Try to sit up and use body position to “air brake” as much as possible. When you start braking, brake in 2 or 3 second pulls, then let off momentarily. These techniques reduce brake pad wear, but perhaps more importantly, they also reduce the heat transfer to the rims, which very occasionally can over-heat and cause a catastrophic rim or tire failure.
•On a very hot day, if you have any concerns at all regarding “overheating the rims”, there is nothing at all wrong with just stopping half way down and taking a break. My experience is that it rarely gets hot enough for that to be a concern in Transylvania County, and if one uses the techniques described above, rim over-heating should never be an issue.
•When you do have to brake hard, push your hips/center of gravity as far back towards the rear tire as much as possible, which dramatically increases the effectiveness of the rear brake.
•Recognize that you steer a bike more by leaning as opposed to turning the front wheel. And frequently, you will lean the bike much more than you lean your body. In general terms, your center of gravity should stay as close to the point where the tires contact the road as possible. Thus, you frequently lean the bike hard while keeping your upper body relatively upright.
•When you’re curving a turn, transfer much of the weight through the cranks instead of just passively sitting on the seat. This lowers your center of gravity and helps the tires really bite into the road surface.
•Position in the road. Generally speaking, as you go faster, you need to gravitate towards the middle of the lane. You just need more room to deal with the unexpected, and typically speaking, you will be descending at a comparable speed to traffic, so there’s no reason to ride the white line. Most cyclists will drift out “wide” approaching a turn, then cut as close to the inside of the curve as possible at the apex of the curve, then drift out wide exiting the curve. This “dampens” the radius of the curve and allows a rider to preserve as much speed as possible through the curve.
•Be aware of the riders around you. Note that many cyclists will use practically the entire lane to “carve turns” as efficiently as possible – particularly if they are carrying speed through the turns. If you don’t know the cyclists around you, give them plenty of room. As you approach cyclists from behind, always shout “Passing” loudly, and give them a wide berth on the left in case they don’t hear you.
•If you detect a shimmy/wobble, you can press the top tube with your knees to dampen it out. Start braking immediately but not radically as this may be the first indication of a flat or mechanical problem.
• Watch out for gravel and debris in curves, particularly after heavy rains and when the road design results in the right-hand shoulder being higher than the pavement itself. Also watch out for those reflector plates that are in the center line of many of our roads.
The above-listed tips are for folks who are new to the mountains, and put more of an emphasis on safety and enjoying the descent, as opposed to racers and those chasing those elusive STRAVA records! Recommendations for some fun descents include U.S. 276 off the Blue Ridge Parkway right back down to coffee at Sycamore Cycles or beer at The Hub! South of town, dropping U.S. 276 from Caesars Head State Park into South Carolina offers a 6-mile rocket ride with very tight switchbacks. The fastest and steepest descent around is the N.C. 215 descent off the Blue Ridge Parkway towards Balsom Grove. This descent offers the smoothest pavement, least traffic, fastest speeds and some of the best views around.
Be kind to motorists and motorcycles – no matter how fast you pass them, they always catch you on the flats!