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Downhill Steeps

Goals: (1) control descent, (2) keep balance, (3) avoid an endo

Done by: (1) body behind seat, (2) feet level, (3) knees flexed, (4) weight off hands, (5) elbows slightly bent, (6) feather brakes

First, eyeball the slope, beginning to end. Pick your line from top to bottom. Where are the tire traps? Where will you unweight? Where will you need to lift the handlebars? Where are the spots that allow safe effective braking?

Make your decision about speed. How fast are you going to ride it? Will it be a go-in-slow and run-out-fast, or will you need to check your speed at the bottom for a turn or sand-pit? On most rough steep slopes, speed is your friend. It actually smooths out the line, allows you to bang through and over obstacles, and helps keep the bike upright. If you're creeping down a steep slope, even the tiniest bump is an invitation to endo. Riding a rough steep downhill slowly is really "trials riding" -- it requires much better bike control. For average-skill riders, the downhill philosophy is "you stop, you fall." Keep the bike moving, at a rate that smooths out the flow.

When descending a steep pitch, you need to move back off the saddle. The steeper the descent, the further back you need to move your body. The goal is to place your center of gravity directly above the spot of ground between your tires. For a really steep spot, you may even need to drag your butt on the rear tire, while your chest touches the back of your seat.

Almost: Body behind seat, feet 90 to gravity, knees flexed, eyes forward, rear brake hard on, front brake feathered. Problem? Look at the arms. The elbows are locked straight, so this rider isn't able to let the body stay upright to gravity (moving independent of the bike) when the bike rocks over obstacles, and isn't able to steer because both arms are locked straight.

Approach the steep spot with a little pressure on both front and rear brakes. As you reach the steep area, put the pedals level and begin to stand up. As you raise off the seat, push the handlebars forward with your hands as you arch your body. Feel the seat move forward between your thighs. As the slope gets steeper, bend your knees to bring your hiney down and back, closer to the rear tire. Keep your weight on your feet, and keep your feet "flat" relative to gravity -- as though you were standing on a flat surface.

If your position is right, you should be neither "hanging" by your hands (weight too far back), nor leaning on your hands (weight too far forward). You should have your weight equally on each foot.

Close, but not quite: Notice the feet -- they should be level. Extending one leg completely may feel more comfortable, but all your weight is on one side, messing up the balance. And when you reach the flat, you won't be able to get your crotch up over the back of the seat -- so you'll go down.

Grip the rear brake. Maintain a moderate breaking force as you enter the steep. Feather (lightly pump) the front brake to control the descent. If you put too much "grab" on the front brake, a small bump may make you endo. If the rear tire starts to skid, back off slightly on the rear brake and pull back a bit on the handlebars as you push the pedals forward slightly. (It's the same "feel" as if you were rowing a boat while standing in a crouch.) Don't brake hard on the tricky sections -- this is where you "roll it." Do most of your braking immediately before, and immediately after, a hairy spot.
Keep the bike moving -- slow enough that your momentum doesn't throw you out of control down the slope, but fast enough to keep your balance and bang through the rough stuff. It can be hard for newbies to get this concept, but on steeps the rule is: easy spot = brake; tricky spot = go faster!

Picture perfect: Feet level to gravity, knees flexed, body behind seat, arms relaxed with elbows slightly bent and angled out, eyes forward. Now we play with the brakes!

No matter how hairy the upcoming slope looks, you'll do better to "ride it out" than to try a dismount on a really steep spot. If you're losing your balance, let off the brakes while turning the front tire slightly towards the fall line. Regain your balance, then reapply the brakes.

As you're approaching the bottom of the slope, let off the front brake. As the bike picks up speed, get your body directly vertical (vertical to the earth, not 90 degrees to your bike). Make sure you're not "pulling back" on the handlebars. As the bike reaches the level ground, stay loose. Subtly help the handlebars rise towards you, and let the bike rotate under you. (If you keep your body back behind the seat as you transition from steep to flat, you won't be able to pull yourself up over the seat when the bike levels out.) Let the bike roll as you regain balance and control.

If the slope falls suddenly into a sand-pit or loose rubble transition, or has a sudden ledge before the flat area, you'll need to make an active move to level the bike. (If the front wheel hits the loose stuff with weight on it, it will dig in, and you'll endo.) About a bike-length above the transition, quickly brake a bit to check your speed. Then, as you let off the brakes (completely!), straighten up your body and pull the handlebars back with you. Your front wheel should leave the slope, and the bike will level as the rear wheel free-falls down the ramp. The goal is to have your body, and the bike, in a flat-earth riding position as you touch down in the slop.

Ride smart. But if you didn't...

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