Overcoming the Fear of Descending

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silentC
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Overcoming the Fear of Descending

Postby silentC » Wed Feb 22, 2017 2:39 pm

I'm posting this because recently I have started to turn a corner with the problem and I thought it might help someone, I don't really need any responses on it.

It's a bit difficult to talk about because the obvious response is "why don't you grow a pair" or HTFU. If anyone has ever suffered from this, they will know it is not so easy.

People hear about this and the first thing they want to try to do is give you tips on descending. This is because they do not understand what the problem is, they think it is a technical issue. It's hard for people to understand, because rolling downhill on a bicycle should be one of the most natural and fun things you can do.

Prior to the onset of this issue, I had no problem descending quite steep hills, down in the drops, nose to the stem, and pedalling hard. I could pull 80kph without even breathing hard. I wasn't the fastest but I could hold my own. Then one day I had a head shake incident. I forgot all about the advice I had heard on what to do in that situation and I fought the mongrel thing for about 200 metres before I got it back under control. I was fine for the rest of the ride, a bit hesitant on the descents on the way home, but otherwise business as usual.

Then the next day I got on the bike and rolling down the gentle hill from my house, the grips shook a bit in my hands with the bumps in the road and it hit me. From then on, I was a nervous wreck on any hill, even tiny little slopes that you would probably roll down with your eyes closed. As soon as I felt any movement in the bars from a cross wind or bump in the road I would think "here we go again". It got so bad I would be thinking about the descent on the lead up and by the time I got there, I would be so tense, I would have to drag the brakes all the way down. It was really messing up my enjoyment of riding.

I started talking to other guys about it and one guy I know had a similar problem. He became convinced it was his bike, and he spent money on new head set bearings, a longer stem, various other things. Another guy I knew bought a new bike because of it. I was becoming convinced that there was something wrong with my bike. I had people questioning the geometry of the frame, the wheels, I started looking at different things that might help. Long story short, it is not the bike. There is nothing wrong with the bike. It is in your head.

All along I knew this and I knew what I had to do, but that is very easy to say when you are at the top of a long descent and you can't see the bottom - that's the weird thing, if I can see the bottom I'm fine. This is part of the reason that I knew it was me and not the bike. I can hit 50 or 60 kph downhill no problem if I can see the bottom of the hill. It's like having a safety net under you.

It's all about relaxing. The first thing that happens when you get this anxiety (that's what it is) is your shoulders tense up and you grip the bars too tight. Your weight shifts forward onto the bars because you're probably riding the brakes with your elbows and shoulders locked, and this all just makes it worse.

What you have to do is relax and stay off the brakes. That is very hard to do I can assure you. But once you get past that, it actually becomes fun again. It's really only in the last couple of months, nearly a year later, that I think I have started to turn a corner with it. I had a good ride this morning and a couple of the descents that usually make me a bit gun-shy, I was able to take with very little or no braking. A couple of times I was consciously telling myself "don't you touch those brakes". Still a long way from where I was a year ago but getting better.

I don't know if that will help anyone, but I googled this myself some time ago, and whilst I found a couple of other people having the same issue, all the advice was about learning how to descend. The above probably doesn't help much, but for me, trying to restore my confidence in the bike was the first hurdle. It is not going to suddenly start thrashing around like a rodeo bull. Part of this was trying to understand what brought on the head shake in the first place - in my case, I sat up and shifted my weight backwards just before it started. The second was to focus on relaxing the shoulders and flexing the elbows. The last, and hardest, is to keep off the brakes. Once you remind your brain that rolling down hill is fun and that you can stop if you need to, braking becomes less predominant.
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Re: Overcoming the Fear of Descending

Postby Abby » Wed Feb 22, 2017 4:57 pm

Or you could take the front wheel out of th eequation entirely and learn to descend while popping a wheelie... :-)

Great post, really good advice... :thumbsup:

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Re: Overcoming the Fear of Descending

Postby silentC » Wed Feb 22, 2017 5:30 pm

Thanks!

Yeah popping a wheelie - it's funny you mention that because the thought has crossed my mind "what if the front wheel is falling off" and that's the only thing I can think of to do. I know it would only work in a movie though... :)
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Re: Overcoming the Fear of Descending

Postby RonK » Wed Feb 22, 2017 7:04 pm

Open the link I posted here, and read the recommended chapters, particularly about SR's and how to manage them - well read the book, it's the sportsbikes riders bible.

A bicycle does not have an engine or suspension so some parts are not particularly relevant, but there is much to be learned which does apply to bicycles and bicycle riders.
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Re: Overcoming the Fear of Descending

Postby Gerry.M » Thu Feb 23, 2017 9:16 am

Good post silentC - as soon as I started reading it I thought, Yes! Me too :)
When I first started cycling a few years back I was more than happy to push hard going down a hill, but i think a few scary moments made me overly cautious and I then tended to just roll down hills without trying to gain too much speed.

But in the last few months I've gone back to some of the methods I learnt when getting my motorbike licence 20 years ago being
: Look through the corner to where you want to go, not at the corner
: Don't touch the brakes during a corner

For the first point I now find I can push through most corners without worrying I might overshoot them, and the second point is the reason I used to have scary moments. Go into a corner, think "oh sh*t I'm going too fast", hit the brake and hey presto the bike stands up straight...

So now I try to relax my arms, shoulders, and mind and just stick to the points I've made above.
The result is during the Alpine Classic a month ago I got PR's on pretty much every segment descending Falls Creek.

*Ron - I do vaguely remember reading "A twist of the wrist" back when I was riding motorbikes, lot's of valuable info.

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Re: Overcoming the Fear of Descending

Postby silentC » Thu Feb 23, 2017 9:59 am

Thanks guys. Yes I like to think I was actually a pretty good descender. I was a little conservative, especially if I didn't know the track, but I was able to free flow down a descent and only brake when needed coming into corners etc. I might have had a couple of moments where the hair stood up on the back of the neck, but generally I was very comfortable with how I was riding.

After the head shake, the psychological issue dominated all that. You become hypersensitive to movements of the bars and a gust of wind or a corrugation in the road would set it off. I would think #### I'm going too fast, tense up, sit up, onto the brakes, and that all just makes it worse. It takes so much will power to loosen up.

As I say initially I thought it was an issue with the bike. Then I explored how I was positioned etc. All the while I was thinking "but nothing has changed". The only thing that had changed was my attitude.

Anyway it is really hard to let go, but that is what you have to do. And then of course knowing how to handle the bike is very important. Focusing on those points you make will help control the nerves. But you have to let go before any of that can come into play.

I guess I just wanted to say to people who might be struggling with it, that it's not the bike, trust the bike and trust yourself, and it will come good again.
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Re: Overcoming the Fear of Descending

Postby cancan64 » Thu Feb 23, 2017 10:26 am

I have a similar issue...on the road I am maybe overconfident and was trying my best to get over 100km/hr decending but a recent hicup on a corner which sent me off the edge of a downhill run has made me realise that there is not a lot of room for error so I have pulled back decending a little bit but my fear is fast downhill off road runs on the CX bike, I am fine on a mtb bike and am relaxed but on the cx where I am being shaken to bits and struggling ... and reading your post have come to the conclusion that i am locking the arms and shoulders so next mtb (cx) ride I need to focus more on being relaxed and see how I go
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Re: Overcoming the Fear of Descending

Postby madmacca » Thu Feb 23, 2017 10:50 am

It can happen even to the pros.

I think it was Thibauld Pinot who could blitz the field on the climbs, but lose minutes on the descent. They put him in a rally car in the off-season, and now he can at least stay with the bunch.

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Re: Overcoming the Fear of Descending

Postby silentC » Thu Feb 23, 2017 11:00 am

Yes that has been my issue. Not that I am blitzing anyone on the climbs. What tends to happen is that I try extra hard to stay with them or get in front if it's a small pinch, then they go past me on the descents and I have to hammer it in the bottom of the descent and along the flat to try and catch them again. Rinse and repeat.

Needless to say it often fails :(
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Re: Overcoming the Fear of Descending

Postby g-boaf » Thu Feb 23, 2017 11:41 am

This is an excellent post - kudos for writing it, a lot of people probably wouldn't. I have my own limits as well as far as going downhill really quick - I get to a point where I think, that's more than fast enough. That is somewhere around 80-90km/h.

I don't feel unsteady on the bike at all, just don't want to go any faster. I also don't really have the gravity assistance to go much faster than that anyway without taking risks (eg, getting down low on the top tube of the bike).

I also have a feeling that at least some of this also depends on your core strength/stability as well, because that helps with being stable on the bike a heck of a lot.

As with the pros, I've even heard Christian Van de Velde mentioning he had a small crash on a fast descent, and then after that he lost that edge and the rest of the descent, he lost even more time. And the other rider with him could have won the stage. So he freely admitted that everyone felt pretty dejected. Even those guys get that as well, and he's a very talented bike rider whichever way you look at it.
Last edited by g-boaf on Thu Feb 23, 2017 10:25 pm, edited 4 times in total.

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Re: Overcoming the Fear of Descending

Postby Calvin27 » Thu Feb 23, 2017 11:47 am

I find it's inevitable. Descending ability goes down with age. You get more risk adverse and especially after a crash where everything takes longer to heal and it's not always the same anymore, you just learn to go slower and appreciate the trade off is you get to stay on the bike.

My descents have been on the downhill (hehe) for the last 8 years.
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Re: Overcoming the Fear of Descending

Postby silentC » Thu Feb 23, 2017 12:24 pm

Yep there is that too, although I am 52 this year and it was only a year ago that I was fearless. I guess what I am really afraid of is another head shake, which is weird because I have survived two of them now (I'm not superstitious but just making that statement gives me the heebies somewhat). It's purely a mind thing for me. And it is very debilitating. I just can't even contemplate going on another gran fondo ride until I get this sorted out.

A suggestion made by a riding mate of mine was to ride hands free as much as possible. I've been doing that and it helps. It's all about getting comfortable on the bike again and not worrying about little shakes and wobbles, which are just normal. I can bunny hop at speed again (something I was way too nervous about a few months ago).

But those long steep descents are still messing with my mind...

Just on the risk adverse thing, I can actually remember the precise moment when that kicked in and I was quite young at 32. I was standing on a balcony inside the Duomo in Florence, it overhangs the central space and must be about 50 metres off the floor, and I started thinking about how old the building was and wondering how well it had been built! Then we had to walk over the internal dome to get to the roof and you know there is something like 80 metres of nothing below you. It was the first time I had ever had those kind of thoughts.

Your brain can be your worst enemy at times. It keeps reminding me of something I read once: the best athletes are a little bit dumb. It was referring to being dumb enough to push yourself so hard you want to puke, long after your brain and legs have been yelling at you to stop, but I also think you have to be dumb enough to barrel along on a skinny little bike with nothing between you and the road but a skimpy bit of cloth, and enjoy it!
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Re: Overcoming the Fear of Descending

Postby rodneycc » Thu Feb 23, 2017 1:14 pm

Not bike related but I'm exactly the same with ladders. After falling off a couple of times I can climb up no problems but have real mental issues trusting and swinging my legs over to get back on the ladder to get down. The fear actually makes it more likely to fall as well instead of blocking it out and just doing it. Hard to tell yourself that at the time though when the memory is triggered already.
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Re: Overcoming the Fear of Descending

Postby Calvin27 » Thu Feb 23, 2017 1:34 pm

I've fallen and crashed so many times on the bike (mostly mtb / track). Most of the time it hasn't stopped me long term from returning back to 'form' (loose term for me haha!). Where it has hit me hard was a hard fall binning a relatively easy small jump. I had no idea to this day about why or how but it's been in my mind ever since.

In terms of the psychological, my view is there is a little bit of 'just do it and hope you don't die'. The big difference is when you are young, you just do it without thinking and most times you survive. After that you basically have full confidence in being able to do it again. What hits us with age is we are less used to being out of our comfort zone. When young everything is new and exciting to try, but when you are old, it's foreign and scary. I tend to still go quite fast on descents and the speed has only changed a little. The bigger difference is that it seems more scary than ever.
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Re: Overcoming the Fear of Descending

Postby silentC » Thu Feb 23, 2017 1:50 pm

Yeah I don't know if I really want to go back to exactly how I was riding, that was only ever going to end one way. All it takes is a pothole or a kangaroo or a car turning in front of you, all of which I have experienced and narrowly avoided.

I'll be happy if I can roll down a reasonable hill without touching the brakes at all. It is getting better, which is why I posted this. For awhile there I was starting to question if I was ever going to be able to ride normally again.

The ladder thing, yes I know what you mean. I owner-built our house and I spent hours on the roof, hopping from truss to truss before the roof went on, then hanging gutters and roofing, then installing flues and all the rest of it. I was very comfortable getting up and down, but last time I had to get up there I was very cautious getting back onto the ladder from the roof. It's with good reason though because that is where a lot of accidents happen.
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Re: Overcoming the Fear of Descending

Postby bychosis » Thu Feb 23, 2017 2:50 pm

Need to show this thread to my riding buddy. He tends to cook his brakes on anything that would have you coasting more than about 35km/h.

I hear you on the age thing. I baulk at jumps on the MTB until I get 'in the zone' because it takes too long to heal, not because I can't do it. once in the zone it's all good until I have a moment and it's gone again. Just have to overcome that fear of crashing somehow.

I have also done a lot of renovation and perception of risk is a big thing. I spent a lot of time in the ceiling space stepping from rafter to rafter without a second though while the plasterboard was in, but as soon as it was gone there was a real fear of falling despite the plasterboard not being much better than air at stopping me from plummeting.
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Re: Overcoming the Fear of Descending

Postby Howzat » Thu Feb 23, 2017 7:13 pm

"Head shake" is nothing to be scared of. "Death wobbles", on the other hand... :shock:

But this is a good post, worth reading.

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Re: Overcoming the Fear of Descending

Postby CKinnard » Thu Feb 23, 2017 8:34 pm

I don't know how bad your 'head wobbles' got, but I had some serious trouble with death wobble on my previous bike. The worst instance lasted around 700 meters on a winding 13% gradient. It was so violent both water bottles were thrown from their cages. I honestly thought I was going to hospital. It was only by staying on the brakes and gripping the hoods that I was able to stop it from getting worse and navigate the winding bends....though not without using the full road width. If a car had been coming up the hill I was cactus. I owned 5 bikes before this one and never ever ever had a problem with death wobble. And I never had a problem with death wobble in the first two years of owning the culprit bike.

And incidentally, that bike some time later showed a significant crack at the bottom bracket. I got a replacement bike under warranty and have never ever had problems with death wobble with it.

NOTHING has changed about my riding style across all my bikes. In my case, the death wobble had something to do with the frame of one particular bike. In fact, I changed the wheels on that bike and the death wobble was not as noticeable. My view is that there was probably a crack developing at the bottom bracket which was compromising the lateral stiffness of the frame.

So in contrast to your experience SilentC, my experience is it can be the frame.

On my new frame, it took me several months of testing at ever higher speeds to gain confidence in the frame. I have also experimented (as I did with the problem frame) with center of gravity shift, which seems to be the variable that makes the biggest difference to stability. to date, my top speed on the new frame is over 85kph.

This is similar to advice for motorcyclists who get tank slapper (death wobble) to ly down on the petrol tank (bringing cog forwards and downwards).

For anyone getting death wobble on a frame they have not previously noticed it, I would suggest they get their frame and forks checked for cracks and their wheels for trueness and stiffness. The trouble is it's hard to find a LBS that knows how to thoroughly check a frame.

If you buy a new frame and notice death wobbles from the get go, then the frame may be too noodly for your weight and height.
I have worked with Team Sky and British Cycling, and one of the reasons for pros to go to smaller frames is for the extra stiffness...though the primary reason is so they can get their stem lower.

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Re: Overcoming the Fear of Descending

Postby silentC » Thu Feb 23, 2017 8:57 pm

I had it twice on two different bikes and both times I was on a long descent and I backed off for one reason or another, which saw me brake and sit up (bad). The first time I was coming into a sudden drop into a left hand bend on a bit of road I didn't know and I thought I was going too quick. That was definitely my fault. The second time, I was at the bottom of a steep descent which I had been hammering down, I came around a corner near the bottom and there was another cyclist in front of me. I had a choice of going around her on a right-hand bend, or backing off. I decided to back off, braked, sat up and away it went. I'm pretty confident both times it was my fault. Both bikes I had done heaps of fast descents on.

But yes I hear what you are saying. It could be the frame, I didn't rule it out, which is why I went down that path initially. I'm pretty confident now it's not the bike. Well, let's just say that at this stage, my issue is definitely in my head.
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Re: Overcoming the Fear of Descending

Postby CKinnard » Thu Feb 23, 2017 9:39 pm

So the reason for me posting is to not rule out anything.
Leave no stone unturned.
The motorcycling world is more experienced with dampening death wobble (tank slapping). They say that there is a resonant speed for every bike and rider combo, which is often unfortunately found out only on the last ride a motorcyclist has.
I think the same applies to cyclists and bikes.
You might be fine on a bike for years, then suddenly that resonant speed changes. Why? Maybe because of bodyweight gain, or sitting up higher because of a sore back or neck.

Anyway, appreciate your story.
Death wobble is a serious problem that is not recognized enough by manufacturers enough.
I know 2 riders who have been seriously injured because of it, two women who were novice riders who had no idea what to do when it occurred.

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Re: Overcoming the Fear of Descending

Postby silentC » Thu Feb 23, 2017 9:51 pm

Yeah I guess I was being bit flippant by saying it's not the bike. It could be the rider + bike combo that caused the initial incident. What I'm trying to convey is that the anxiety/fear that follows can be conquered mentally. But for sure eliminate issues with the bike and/or riding style too. You don't want it to happen again.
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Re: Overcoming the Fear of Descending

Postby eeksll » Fri Feb 24, 2017 10:01 am

silentC wrote:"don't you touch those brakes"


easier said than done :!:

I have been through (still going through?) some confidence issues, not sure what started it as I didn't have a crash. Although going through all this, I have learnt to descend better on windy roads, just still dont like the speed.

I still grab the brake on straight descent I can see the bottom of (Pennys hill road for those in SA).

I got the death wobbles once, windy day, had all my weight/arse behind the saddle and was braking, but not very hard, ended up on the opposite side of the road.

I also totally get the ladder thing too.

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Re: Overcoming the Fear of Descending

Postby silentC » Fri Feb 24, 2017 10:29 am

easier said than done

You don't need to tell me! It is very hard, and a few times I have started out OK, only to freak a bit and grab a handful of brake, which is the worst thing you can do.

If I can convince myself to stay off the brakes though, I really enjoy descending.

I just wish there was a pill you could take or something. Well there probably is, but it's probably illegal :)

You know in a way it's a bit like a mental illness, not wanting to diminish mental illness in any way, but I bet there are a lot of people who suffer from it to a greater or lesser degree but don't like to talk about it because they feel a bit of stigma about it. Whoever heard of a cyclist who doesn't like going fast down hills, that's what it's all about? I watch other people who are less competent than me fly past me down hill and it makes me feel embarrassed and envious. Why can't I do that, I used to be able to? Actually it really sucks :(

But there is light at the end of the tunnel...
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Re: Overcoming the Fear of Descending

Postby eeksll » Fri Feb 24, 2017 3:14 pm

silentC wrote:
easier said than done

You don't need to tell me! It is very hard, and a few times I have started out OK, only to freak a bit and grab a handful of brake, which is the worst thing you can do.

If I can convince myself to stay off the brakes though, I really enjoy descending.

I just wish there was a pill you could take or something. Well there probably is, but it's probably illegal :)

You know in a way it's a bit like a mental illness, not wanting to diminish mental illness in any way, but I bet there are a lot of people who suffer from it to a greater or lesser degree but don't like to talk about it because they feel a bit of stigma about it. Whoever heard of a cyclist who doesn't like going fast down hills, that's what it's all about? I watch other people who are less competent than me fly past me down hill and it makes me feel embarrassed and envious. Why can't I do that, I used to be able to? Actually it really sucks :(

But there is light at the end of the tunnel...


I enjoy descending just not the steep stuff and definitely not the new ones :?

I thought I had reached a happy medium, but been taking out some new cyclists recently and sheesh, I smoke them up the hills but they are gone down the hills.

Sometimes I can still get the "feeling" going, I think it has something to do with concentration on the descending as opposed to just rolling down and looking around, atleast for me anyway.

Also I don't drive much anymore, I do notice that in a car I was more than happy to zoom around a blind curve trusting any sign (or lack of sign) this carried over to my cycling. But now I have noticed I don't quite zoom around those same corners with quite the carefree/trust as before, car as well as bike).

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Re: Overcoming the Fear of Descending

Postby Thoglette » Fri Feb 24, 2017 4:11 pm

eeksll wrote: But now I have noticed I don't quite zoom around those same corners with quite the carefree/trust as before, car as well as bike).


It's called experience. Both having seen things go wrong and having a different view on the risk/reward trade off compared to the teens/twenties.

Then there's plain old memory issues. Who was it who said: "the older I get, the faster I was"?
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