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I've been riding seriously/regularly for about a year now, although like the majority of the worlds population I've been on a bike since I was a kid.

When I was first starting out I had no real trouble on the downhill parts of my rides ( I live in the San Francisco Bay area so the majority of my rides are hill rides), I was even getting comfortable going fast even on steeper downhills (25-30MPH according to my tripcomp, which might not be that fast, but it sure seems so now). Unfortunately the honeymoon didn't last as I was in a few near misses and an accident with a car (his fault not mine, I wasn't hurt but pretty shook up) on my downhill. Ever since then I've been very wary of any downhill parts, I'm always on the brakes and I don't feel comfortable at all getting any kind of speed.

Mainly I'm worried that I don't have enough stopping distance given my speed, and since I already know what happens to my bike when I slam the brakes, I don't want to experience tumbling down the road at 25MPH. I've essentially lost confidence in my ability to right safely on my road bike (even though its mechanically sound), I don't have this problem on my mountain bike (where the fat tires and disk brakes are very comforting).

I've practiced all the downhill techniques, so it isn't a matter of being inexperienced (although I'm certainly not an expert, before the crash I was attacking the downhills pretty aggressively), I'm just physically frightened of letting go and riding down.

I guess the good news is that my rides have gotten much more uphill-heavy, which has certainly helped my hill endurance.

Anyway, what can I do to make my downhills fun again?

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In another thread, someone who said they do 70 kph downhill in wet weather also said that they therefore use hydraulic disc brakes. –  ChrisW Feb 15 '11 at 16:34
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4 Answers

Easy answer....is to recover gradually. My experience has been in S.F., Seattle, and now Portland. All of which are hilly cities. Plus a lot of riding on mountain roads. So, I totally relate to your situation. ...and it's not always an easy answer.

After spooky near-misses, and a few crashes...here's what I do to get my mojo back.

  1. Find some significant, low-traffic hills where you can just have fun and enjoy the exhilaration on the downhills. You don't want this to be too steep and curvy, but you do want speed. The goal here is to comfortably enjoy the descent and ride it safely.
  2. After that, move up to a more congested and/or curvy hilly area and do the same thing.
  3. Once you're comfortable with fast, downhill riding, you can get into some traffic. But now you have "city riding" in the scenario. You must balance your downhill skills with your city skills.

That being said, I have watched some messengers scarily bomb down Nob Hill. Personally, I don't need to duplicate their endeavors; however, one can do those hills without riding the brakes.

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There are several issues at play here:

  • how to not repeat the previous accident, the cause of your current disquiet
  • how to 'get back on the horse'
  • how to potentially avoid the situation through new skills

So what could you learn from the previous accident? While it was their fault, could you have mitigated it - too many people don't predict the actions of those around them too well. Much of the skills of riding in traffic aren't in avoiding problems when you come across them, it's in the not being involved in a problem to begin with.

E.g. with a better road and riding position, might you have seen the car earlier and then avoided it? When I know I'm going to be going faster and a decent percentage of the speed limit then I'll deliberately move into the centre of the lane, perhaps in the very middle if it's a two-lane road. If you're going 25-27 mph in a 30 mph zone, then cars shouldn't mind you being there, 'in the way'. And sit up, don't go down on the drops, your eyes need to be scanning well ahead, not staring 5 feet in front of you.

Obviously there might be alternative routes, avoiding the hills, but while that could count as not putting yourself in the problem area to begin with, it's probably not a sustainable solution in many places.

When I was learning to ski, I had similar issues. You don't feel as though you can go faster than your perceived ability to stop at any given time. As you gained ability (and confidence) I realised that being able to carry speed through turns over bumps was as much about missing out on things to slow down for, as about getting down the mountain.

  • Be more visible and assertive, if you're sat up and look big, they might expect you to be travelling faster (or at least appreciate it sooner)
  • Make clear signals to others what you intend to do - so they can avoid you while you're avoiding them
  • Definitely avoid pot hole and bad road surface - they make for unpredictable movements
  • Ride the brakes if you feel you need to, it's not all about getting to the bottom as fast as possible, it is about using the right speed for the conditions
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+1 for suggestion to move toward the center of the traffic lane. In California at least, this is a perfectly legal and safe solution for cyclists travelling "with the normal flow of traffic" (CVC). And it does greatly improve one's visibility--especially bombing down Clipper into Noe Valley. –  DC_CARR Jan 5 '11 at 20:47
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Downhills that have the possibility of cars entering/exiting from the side carry a extra risk and can take away a lot of fun in your ride. Same goes for downhills with parked cars or traffic signals. You do have to be careful on these since stopping distance is a concern. You're also travelling faster than motorists expect, which can lead to more incidents.

I've had a nasty crash on a downhill (bad pavement) and another near miss with a car entering from the right. Both of these took some time to get over, but with enough time back on the bike it does get better. Plus you know what to watch for next time.

To rediscover your confidence on downhills, try finding quieter routes where you can let 'er rip without worrying about traffic so much. You might have to go further afield, but the mountains should offer you some quieter backroads?

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I've suffered the same "spooked by downhills" terror. The best thing I've read is to... ...stay in a near-seated position but don’t actually sit on the saddle. Weigh the balls of your feet for agility. I've been keeping my weight on the seat and sitting further back on my seat. Yesterday I kept the weight in my pedals - 80 to 90% of my weight I reckon - and it was soooo much better! I've still got a little bit of the spooks about changing road surfaces, etc. But the extra stability gained by this correct weighting is enough to let me see that I can now get over this. Good luck!

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