Any tips or tricks to get more comfortable on downhill gravel and not be grabbing a handful of break while watching my competition fly away from me in a race? I bought a Crux at the beginning of the year and the bike is lightning in a bottle, I love it. It’s tight handling and low speed stability and maneuverability are top notch, the one place I find it tough to get used to (coming from a 2022 Checkpoint SLR) is heading downhill, like >-10% just terrifies me.
Dropper post for starters.
It takes practice to get comfortable going fast on sketchy gravel descents. You may also want to consider a more aggressive front tire to give you more confidence to go faster.
If you are riding a course that is unfamiliar, I always keep my map screen displayed on my computer. That will let you know what is coming up on the descent. Is it a straight shot down, is there a hard turn at the bottom to prepare for, or if a turn on the descent, how sharp is it?
I think the main thing is to accept that life is finite and can end at any moment. Go get ‘em!
Can you explain more about what terrifies you?
Just straight shot downs, corners at speed and downhill or something else?
Is it the road pitch and your body position or speed and traction related?
Speed/Traction and a little self doubt in my bike handling capability. I didn’t notice it until a recent trip to Bentonville on a group gravel ride, coming out of town you leave pavement onto dirt into a -12% S turn, and they had just dumped fresh black gravel down to make it all the more sketch. I’m obviously here to tell the tale, but at points down that drop it just felt like the bike was skating over terrain and I’ve been nervous of downhills ever since. Unfortunately I just don’t have much opportunity to practice big downhills in the N. Texas area.
My biggest advice for people nervous on descents is to “Look Ahead”…similar to “looking through” a turn on the road.
When you look up the road, you’ll be able to process things better. When descending (especially in a group) we tend to focus on the wheels right in front of us. That makes us reactive vs proactive.
Look up the road and through any turns…you’ll pick better lines (less acute) and be able to better anticipate braking zones, allowing you to modulate your braking better.
You’ll get a lot of tips about how to weight pedals, pushing against your HB, etc but that is all too much to process when descending. Looking up and ahead is the best way to quickly improve your descending, IME.
+1 to this
There is something about looking at where you want to go vs. the road right beneath you that slows down the processing speed in your brain. I think it has something to do with the perceived stimulus coming at you too fast that causes a fight/flight reaction. Pick the furthest point up the road you can see and your bike will follow your eyes.
Mountain biking is really good at teaching this lesson. I’m always a more confident gravel bike handler if I’ve been mountain biking recently because you’re forced to look at where you want to be vs. where you are.
One other tip … if the geometry of your bike allows for it, if you can pinch your top tube with your knees it seems to have a stabilizing effect on the whole system, and thus calms down the stimulus.
Lots of good advice here already but will add a few things
Brake before the turn to slow speed and the try and get off the brakes of possible through the turns.
Lean the bike as you turn rather than try and steer it. This takes practice but makes a huge difference.
Get low. Think chin to stem. This, and looking through turn, helps a lot. It will also help you weight the front tire
Consider different bars. Not sure what you have but if you have narrow aero bars, you might be more comfortable with a wider flared bar.
On the outside foot, keep the pedal down and put you weight into it. This will help with traction and stability.
Yeah, I was gonna say that looking ahead actually slows things down….spot on.
It is amazing how many times I have been in what I thought was a dicey situation on a descent…feeling sketchy on my line, wondering if I could hold it when I realize I was looking right ahead of me. As soon as I looked ahead, I could not only easily hold my line, I could actually carve even deeper if I needed to and it felt easy.
This gets more into the technical side of things, but I don’t agree with this tip. Leaning the bike reduces contact area, shifts weight inside the contact area and reduces traction. I prefer keeping the bike as upright as possible, shifting my body inside the bike and slightly turning the front wheel. But this takes practice as it is somewhat counterintuitive.
That said, I also think this can be a personal preference. I think riders need to experiment with both techniques to find what works for them.
This is written for mountain biking but the principles apply to any bike. TR has some YouTube videos and multiple podcasts with Lee as well. He helped @Nate_Pearson a ton when he was struggling with his descending early in his MTB days.
Mastering Mountain Bike Skills Amazon.com
Totally normal to feel terrified going downhill on one of these bikes, haha. They are inherently sketchy and can run out of talent rather quickly on them.
Definitely look where you want to go, like @Power13 said.
I would add to @Kuttermax the list:
- Point with your belly button
My personal advice, based on the many miles and races I’ve done on a cross bike, is to first get really comfortable with the bike before trying to push your limits on a descent. Always make sure you’re in control, so if that means riding at a lower speed first and slowly progressing, then I say that’s the way. You’ll become less terrified the more you ride it.
Aside from that, wider/knobby tires and wide handlebars definitely help with stability going downhill and bring up the confidence level. Although not needed, if you can get a dropper post like @QuittingBikes mentioned, that can help move your weight around on the back of the bike as needed making it more stable and safer on the descents. I think most of us have experienced that Oh no! moment where you’re almost sitting on the back wheel and can’t quite get back to a normal riding position because the seat is too high
- General rule for going fast: Don’t go faster than you’re comfortable going.
There’s a reason you don’t feel comfortable going faster - either you don’t have enough information, your tires don’t have enough grip (either traction or they’re bouncing around), or you haven’t taken the incremental steps to build that confidence - too many variables around what you’re doing)
- On a short circuit, you can build this confidence by repeating and incrementally making adjustments.
- On an unknown trail, can’t build this knowledge. You’ve got to leave something on the table.
Practice on a short circuit.
Tip: Pretend your ‘fear gauge’ is a constant. Have the mentality that your gut doesn’t ever adjust.
You can then say “That corner is slow; gut -2 " (two notches slower than what you think you can go). “That sweeper is faster than it looks, you get way more grip when it tilts up +3”. Same with how you brake and use the corner- where your instincts tell you to do something vs what you adjust. Pretend your “I should brake now” alert is constant, pretend your “Turn in point” is constant”, etc. Now you’ve got a standard to measure against when taking incremental steps.
- The deformability and packabliity of the surface matters here.
** Dry Pavement - doesn’t deform, if you start skidding you’re losing 30% of your traction assuming your time isn’t skipping. *
** Moist Pavement - doesn’t deform, same traction as dry but oil/fluid become exposed and you lose more than 30% of your traction when you slide. *
**Snow - deforms and packs, but turns to ice when it does. *
**Dry dirt - deforms and you increase grip when you pack it. *
**Sand - deforms, doesn’t pack, lateral grip is a challenge. *
**Chunky gravel - deforms a little, but rocks roll over one another until they lock into place. May respond well to sliding. *
*fine gravel - acts similar to dirt, does not lock into place.
- Most gravel tires have side knobs or a cornering edge. Depending on the surface and tire, these may work. You’ve got to tilt the bike WAY over to use these https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8y6ocZHpLoE
Did a gravel race/fondo this past June and descended like I never have before. Rocky, sketchy stuff that I managed not to die on where in other situations I would have been riding the brakes hard. The thing that motivated me was not getting passed since I was afraid that would cause me more trouble than sending it since I wouldn’t be able to pick my own line, so there’s that. Once things got going and bouncy/frightening I started yelling at myself to relax because tension/stiffening in the body makes a sketchy descent waaay worse. Also refrained from fear braking as it was loose chunky stone over dry dirt so that would have only made matters worse. Last I’ll say the Lee McCormick hip hinging and getting back on the bike made a different. With no dropper it’s the whole “put the saddle in your belly” style but balancing your weight further back on the bike does make a difference. I’ve been tempted to buy his book even though I don’t have a MTB since it’s loaded with info on how to handle yourself and the bike. I’ve never been a fan of getting low since lower is more aero and as such faster which using my body as a sail to keep things a touch slower is my main thought. Brakes work the same regardless and even having a little less power means it’ll be harder to lock things up during a panic brake and causing more issues than just sending it. Likewise I’d rather not put my face nearer to what I’m worried about. All in all I leveled up that ride and it was mostly about having faith in myself and the bike in addition to relaxing into the descent. Some wide squishy tires hopefully wouldn’t hurt either.
That was my first thought. The 2022+ Checkpoint is longer WB, front-center, and chain stay than the Crux. Lower BB as well.
Somebody up thread recommended looking at the map. That’s terrible advice - the last thing you want to do is take your eyes off an unknown road of unknown surface quality at 30+mph. Sure, check the map as you enter the descent to see if there are tight switchbacks, but once you’re in the descent, you have to focus.
For me, the biggest thing that impacts my descending is relaxing. Try to stay loose. If you feel the bike skip/slide and you tense up, take a breath and relax. Wiggle your fingers a bit. Spin your legs around a bit. Breath.
Bike lean and body position make a difference, but mid-descent on a fast group ride isn’t the place to try changes. You need to play with that on your own. But, the same general concepts apply as anywhere else - just with less total lean and slower speeds on loose pavement vs pavement.
Oh … and I think this goes without saying … but if you’re hands on are on the hoods while descending, move them to the drops immediately. It lowers the center of gravity and makes everything feel more stable.
As obvious as this seems, when I first started riding I kept my hands on the hoods on all my descents and would legitimately bee terrified at anything over 35mph … putting my hands in the drops made all that instability go away.
I’m guessing you’re doing this, but thought it was worth mentioning.
I would say I’m a B+ / A- descender … and living in Chicago, I have no right to be. 1) Hand placement, 2) Eye discipline and, 3) body balance are really the fundamentals.
I will say this though, gravel descents are their own animal … in my favorite gravel race (The Barry Roubaix) there are a lot of fast descents, but they are almost all straight. And I’ll regularly hits speeds of 40+ mph, which is pretty high for gravel. But the roads are pretty consistent and not slushy with thick gravel.
I did a race last year further north in Michigan called The Divide which had winding descents on single lane dirt roads that had patches of sand and blind corners on roads that were NOT closed to car traffic. This was the first time I ever lost my nerve on was dropped on a descent in a race … and in my estimation, it had nothing to do with my skill as a descender. It had everything to do with my risk tolerance for unseen cars and also that I didn’t know the roads. Nothing about my bike setup or my downhill skills would have made a difference … I just was not willing to ‘send it’ blindly around a corner, I feathered the brakes and let the leaders ride away.
Point being, on gravel, it might not be your skill … it might be the roads, or the circumstance, or just familiarity with how the roads ride. If that’s the case, don’t beat yourself up. The #1 rule of riding is getting home safely.
Loose-over-hard is for sure sketchy - especially if you need to stop or turn because it takes a lot longer to do both than on solid pavement.
Like others have said - look ahead, and anticipate if you’ll need to turn or brake. If the road is straight with no obstacles, you can open it up a little.
When it comes to turning, look for features on the road that will help you with the turn - eg a modest wheel rut that can provide lateral support, taking advantage of the natural camber of the road, a section of the road with more hard packed dirt vs gravel, etc.
If you need to slow down quickly, point the bike in a direction with good runway, and don’t try steer when you’re braking. Use the front brake along with the rear as you’ll stop quicker, but be careful about not having the front wheel skid (OK if the rear skids a bit, but better to modulate so it doesn’t).
If you can, pick up mountain biking. That’s a great way to learn bike handling skills, and give yourself confidence on loose or sketchy terrain.
Also, run bigger tires at lower pressures on your bike. I think this is more important than running a tire with more aggressive tread. Eg I’m currently running 47mm pathfinder pros, and I love them.
Are you descending in the drops or on the hoods? Using the drops lowers your center of gravity and weights the front tire better providing better control.
I’m with you although last year I did a 12 minute gravel descent on my Tarmac SL7, and about to do it again in a month. Did a similar steep downhill this year on a rented Checkpoint and it was so much more confidence inspiring.