5 Ways to Descend Faster

If you’re a red-blooded, fun-loving mountain biker, you climb so you can descend.

In other words, you work so you can play. If you’re riding a stock mountain bike, though, it’s probably not set up to maximize downhill playtime. Few are. So here’s the advice I give my students, five easy modifications to inspire downhill confidence and big, grit-encrusted grins.

1. Get a Shorter Stem

Most bikes come with stems that feel good in the parking lot and smooth roads, but that are too long for optimal shredding. A shorter stem brings the bars closer to you, which increases your arms’ potential range of motion. The more arm range you have, the tighter you can turn, the harder you can brake and the steeper you can roll. Period.

If you’re on the proper size bike, a short stem (35-60mm) almost always improves handling. If your bike comes with a 90mm stem, try a 50. If you have a 70mm stem, try a 35. Cheap stems work just as well as expensive ones, they just weigh a little more.

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This S-Works Stumpjumper hardtail is as XC as a bike can be. With a short stem, dropper post and 2.3 tires, it’s a shred rocket. Yes, this bike rallies the Valmont Bike Park slopestyle in the background.

2. Check Your Handlebar Width

Back in the day, our bars were way too narrow. Heck, Mountain Bike Action magazine articles told us how to make our mountain bikes fit like our road bikes! I raced the Kamikaze Downhill in 1993 on a 150mm negative rise stem with 20-inch (500mm) handlebars. In day glow pink, of course! That was the greatest day of my life, and that’s the moment I became a downhiller.

These days, bars tend to be too wide. Especially if you’re not a big person. Your optimal handlebar width provides lots of arm range and good strength, and it doesn’t ruin your shoulders. Here’s an easy way to check your handlebar width:

  1. Straddle your bike
  2. Close your eyes
  3. Put your hands on the bars (let them go wherever they want to go naturally)
  4. Open your eyes

Where are your hands? If they’re on your grips, great. If they’re hanging off the ends of your grips, try wider bars. If they’re on your controls, move your controls and grips inward and ride that position for a while. Don’t cut your bars until you’re sure you like the narrower setup.

Shameless plug: I have a dialed system for determining stem length and rise, as well as bar width. Reserve a remote coaching lesson, and I’ll show you how to set up your bike and how to plug that setup into your riding style. This will be money well spent. I promise.

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My bar-width calculator says I need a 752mm bar, and this 750 feels awfully good. Your ideal bar width lets you push and pull very hard while maintaining neutral elbows and shoulders — critical while rolling into the abyss.

3. Drop Your Seat

Even though more and more bikes are coming stock with dropper posts these days, some riders are stuck in their 1993 ways. Back then, it felt like there was an unspoken rule that required your stem and exposed seat post to be the same length. Throw that one in the garbage!

When you climb, leave your seat at whichever height works for pedaling. Quick tip: You want a 30-degree knee bend at the bottom of the stroke. When you descend, drop your seat! Why? Dropping your seat gives you more room to move, which is critical in making your bike do fun things while you remain balanced on your feet.

If you don’t have a dropper post, try dropping your seat a few inches or more on your next descent. If you’re a true XC nerd, you’ll still find yourself clenching the seat with your butt. Stop! Stand on your feet and let your bike rock and roll. If you enjoy the low-seat feel — and who doesn’t? — get a dropper post ASAP!

How much drop do you need? Some XC-specific posts drop 30-60mm for mellow terrain. That said, if you’re gonna get a dropper, go for as much drop as you can. The standard dropper post moves 120mm. Smaller riders can get away with 100mm. Taller and more aggressive shredders will want the full 150mm.

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This ain’t happenin’ with a high seat. LLB client and certified shredder Seanette Holler rolls a DH line on her XC bike. Low. Balanced. Looking into her bright future.

4. Put On Some Real Tires

Tires are the only connection you have with the trail. News flash: knees and elbows aren’t supposed to be contact points! Ride tires that give you confidence.

Get a fatter tire. Wide tires provide more cushion and grip than narrow ones. If you’re on a 2″ tire, try a 2.3″. If you’re on a 2.3,” try a 2.5″. If your frame and/or fork have enough room, you can go even bigger. A 2.7- to 3″ tire will change your world in a big way. See my other column about plus-sized bikes.

Get a knobbier tire. First, stop whining about rolling resistance. You’re riding for fun, right? Well, not being terrified is a good place to start. Ditch the tiny-knobbed, parking-lot-sales tire for a true beast. Classics include the Specialized Butcher (my fave) and the Maxxis Minion.

Make it tubeless. When you go tubeless, you can run lower pressure without worrying about pinch flatting. This improves cushion and grip. Most riders should start with air pressure in the mid-20s. Add a few pounds if you’re heavy and crushing; remove a few pounds if you’re light and floating.

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When I ride a double red (crazier than double black!) descent, I demand serious tires. Specialized 2.3 Butcher in front and 2.3 Purgatory in back.

5. Improve Yourself

This is, of course, the ultimate upgrade. Improved skills are infinitely scalable, they apply to all bikes and they never wear out. Your first tip: Look farther ahead. For more tips, watch this space and check out my books and in-person and online lessons at www.leelikesbikes.com.