Downhilling is a drug. Pure and simple. Some mountain bikers are so hooked that they restrict themselves to bikes that they are unable to ride uphill, and are forced into hitching rides to the top! Ernie and his mates have been known to shoulder their bikes for a few hours in pursuit of an hour or two of twisted downhill singletrack. Alas for many, negotiating a steep or tricky descent is more of a challenge than a thrill - there's so much going on and all at a slightly quicker rate than is comfortable. Let me share a few secrets to help discover that extra bit of confidence when plummeting downhill.
Your front brakes deliver 70% of the stopping power for your bike. When you toss out the anchor at speed, your weight and momentum is thrown forward onto your front wheel. That leaves your rear wheel unweighted and prone to skidding. Moving your body backwards as you brake, and using more front brake than rear, dramatically improves your ability to slow down in a hurry. Braking hard with your front brake does make it tricky to change direction though, so it's best to get your speed right as you enter a corner then ease off the front brake as you start going around. Use enough rear brake to maintain control but not actually skid. The acceleration you get from releasing you brakes going out of a corner gives you instant balance and control of your bike.
To avoid being tossed over your handlebars try easing your weight over the back of the saddle. If you're are heading straight down a steep pitch then you can hang right over the back wheel with your chest almost on the saddle. Just like in The Matrix, "this may feel a little strange at first" but you can conquer unbelievably steep sections using this technique - just keep up enough speed and therefore momentum to maintain your balance.
Switchbacks are cool, ride these, make 'em look easy and you'll be the envy of the chasing pack. Your rear wheel will cut a tighter line than the front, so give yourself space by running the front wheel on the outside edge of the bend or obstacle. If it's tight or littered with obstacles like steps you'll need to tackle it slowly so balance is the key. Practise by locating an easy slope and riding down it as slowly as possible. And then again, repeatedly stopping, balancing, then starting again all the way down. This handy exercise also helps teach you to brake in a controlled fashion without skidding.
Anticipation is everything. Look ahead - focusing on where you're going rather than your front wheel. As you gain confidence and travel faster you'll need to look even further ahead to be sure you find the right line. This all takes practice. Blindly following a more experienced rider can be a real hoot and is a great way to learn how to identify the good lines. A couple of clues to consider: