Descending is it just bravery or stupidity? A large part of it is certainly confidence but unless you know the techniques involved in safely going downhill it probably is just stupidity! In a race you will make up a lot of time by being fast downhill. It is a great tactic for time trialing. I save energy going uphill and then go hard downhill to keep the momentum up as much as possible, on some courses this may mean you lead onto a flat part with a lot more speed than you would have if you were cautious. So you can see just from this example that simply slowing down on a descent isn’t likely to happen. So the best thing to do is learn how to do it correctly, and maybe practice before an event!
There are a lot of other skills that come into descending. You need to know how to brake correctly, you will need to know how to corner, and you may also want to brush up on climbing and gear selection. All these skills play a part in correctly and safely going downhill. Other than these skills a couple of the most important techniques to master are observation and anticipation. Observation is important when you can see where you are going, you can see obstacles, potholes, other riders, animals, and the list is endless. Anticipation is where you cannot see what is in front of you, you need to imagine what could be around the next corner or just below your line of sight, past another rider, and again the list is endless.
Assess the situation. Are you likely to encounter loose gravel or a change in surface, how steep does the hill get, are there changes in direction, and will you lose visibility are all important things to question before attempting a descent. If you are in a race you will have to think fast. Getting yourself into an appropriate gear before the descent will help. As will keeping your hands covering the brakes. Just bear in mind that your brakes may be less effective going downhill.
Move your weight back to aid balance and traction and assume the ready position; feet flat and level and you can drop your heel to help maintain balance, head and eyes up, knees and arms slightly bent. This will give you the best chance to change direction should you have to make quick deviation from your path. Feather your brakes and remember that snatching at them can cause more problems than simply relaxing and avoiding obstacles.
If you aren’t confident at descending or you think you need more practice you should do exactly that; practice. Go to a nice long but flatter descent and build up from there. Please don’t start with a steep section and definitely don’t go straight into a race or time trial without some experience. You may not just be a danger to yourself but you may be a danger to others.
Communicating is also important when riding with others. Advise other riders you are slowing by either shouting or holding out your arm and raising and lowering your hand. Give each other enough space to move. Shout out any obstacles particularly potholes, animals and loose gravel. Your fellow riders will not appreciate it if you make a quick change in direction without informing the group and in reality you are just behaving dangerously.
Just try to remain relaxed. If you go tense you will struggle to manipulate your weight around your bike, this can be disastrous when trying to avoid obstacles and other riders. Once you have mastered the techniques involved in descending you will most likely start to really enjoy it. There’s even a cycling discipline dedicated to it.