Descendeur

Photo Pedale.Forchetta
Photo Pedale.Forchetta

We close out the 6 Days of the Giro with our sixth and final installment.

A body at rest, stays at rest. A body in motion, stays in motion. Things get a bit more ambiguous when it comes to a body on a bicycle tearing down a twisty mountain descent at speed, particularly in the rain. But it is here, on the boundary between clarity and ambiguity, where things get interesting.

Cornering feels a bit like you’re stealing from Physics, as if you’re getting away with something. Momentum, as fundamental as it is, doesn’t know what’s good for us and stubbornly wants to carry us on its merry path. The faster we go, the bigger its influence becomes and the harder we push against it, balancing on the knife’s edge between our body’s lean and the bike’s pull. For those skilled in this craft, the bicycle and rider carve through the bend in perfect harmony.

I’m not particularly good at cornering, which is to say I’m not particularly good at descending. Its a shame, too, because given my size I’m not very good at climbing, either. The way to get better is to practice, and not to give Rule #64 too much thought. You will crash if you want to get better, but you mustn’t lose your nerve. A nervous descender is a bad descender and everyone knows where to find bad descenders.

The riders getting the most practice in this discipline must surely be les grimpeurs for it seems they would be riding down all those mountains they’re riding up. The surprising truth is that this does not always appear to be the case; one need look no farther than Andy Schleck to find evidence of that particular postulate. Furthermore, one would think that a professional, who by the very nature of their occupation is quite used to finding themselves on the tarmac, would be most able to come off and not lose their nerve. This, also, doest not always appear to be the case.

The Giro, known for its narrow mountain roads, is won as much on the descents as it is on the climbs. Who can forget the 1988 Giro, which was won on the descent of the Gavia, not its climb. Or the 2002 and 2005 editions when Il Falco used every millimeter of road as he swept through the hairpin bends to distance his rivals. This year, Brad Wiggins had already put himself on the back foot on GC when he came off on a slow bend and spent the rest of the stage riding like his tires were made of glass. On the same stage, Nibali attacked and came off on a high speed corner before jumping back on his machine and rejoining the leaders moments later. The difference is a question of not only skill, but fearlessness.

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168 Replies to “Descendeur”

  1. @Harminator

    You only need to counter-steer your motorbike to adjust for drift. Apparently its harder at 300kph. These guys survive on V.

    If I weren’t already full of red wine and good cheer, I’d dispute the first sentence. Instead, I’ll heartily endorse the third. And I’ll give you all this trailer. I’ve watched this film countless times over the last six years, and it never fails to drive me positively fucking mental.

  2. How this video hasn’t made it in yet is beyond me…Cunego & Sagan giving a descending masterclass in the 2011 TdS.

  3. @Mikael Liddy

    How this video hasn’t made it in yet is beyond me…Cunego & Sagan giving a descending masterclass in the 2011 TdS.

    That was memorable for sure!!!

  4. @Chris That sounds like a cool method.  I am not sure I totally grasp it but I will have to give it a shot.

    @frank

    I make a point, by the way, to descend in the drops – much safer.

    I hope you did not think I was trying to suggest otherwise, but I did want to point it out for those of our brotherhood who have the misfortune to live somewhere that they do not regularly get to exercise their descending skills.  I see so many people descending tentatively on their hoods with a look on their faces that I generally associate with bowel movements.  Aside from not being proper, it looks terrible, and I hope I can encourage others to avoid such mistakes.

  5. Senor Harminator – That was incredible! Thank you for sharing. One thing I really, really dig about this place is that it stokes my love of cycling, yet opens me to new sports. Hi-Speed Moto, mountaineering, rock climbing, skiing, et cetera. Seeing “that guy” (I’m sure he’s famous as fuck & a superhero to many) corner was really sweet as. Thanks.

    Jaysus, Nate. Are you taking the opportunity not only to encourage the lot of us to open our minds to a Descendeur lifestyle but…to pull it off Casually Deliberately?

    Go fast, downhill. Then, look C.D. doing it?  Strong my friend, strong.

  6. @Chris

    @Nate I’d say you’re probably right in that there is some countersteer but it’s minuscule.

    Round here it’s too flat to spend any time descending and when I do it tends to be a fairly subconscious process (a good thing too given the complete lack of spare oxygen kicking around in my blood stream).

    I tend to worry more about the approach to the corner than what goes on in the corner – if you get the former right the latter follows on smoothly, fuck it up and there’s little you can do once you’re in. When I was younger and braver (or dafter) I spent a summer holiday working as a MC courier in London, one of the lads lent me a police motorcycle instructors handbook that had a section on the converging or vanishing point that helps you judge your speed in relation to the approaching corner; if it’s coming towards you, you’re going too fast; stationary, you’ve got it just right and going away, you’re too slow. It’s great for improving your ability to read a corner. All the stuff about exiting corners is less applicable but it’s real worth to a cyclist is as an indicator of how tight a corner is in relation to your speed and giving you warnings of decreasing radius. If you think you’ve got your entry speed right and then find out that the radius decreases (corner gets tighter) when your already deep into it, you could be in trouble. With VP, you’ll get more warning.

    It’s one of the most useful things I’ve learnt in terms of riding and driving.

    Hmm, very nice here, Chris. I’ll work on this and try it out the next time I’m cyclin’, which will be tomorrow.

    I’ll test my legs, then my brain + eyes. Should be fun!

  7. My god, Frank. What a final statement. One guy jumps back on, one guy rides on tires of glass. I watched that live and was amazed at the crashes, the jump backs, and the reaction of Nibali v. Wiggins. That right there sums it up: why is one Descendeur better than the other?

    Fearlessness.

  8. @frank Mike Tyson had a quote about this…

    Was it:

    I love to hit people. I love to. Most celebrities are afraid someone’s going to attack them. I want someone to attack me. No weapons. Just me and him. I like to beat men and beat them bad.

  9. @G’rilla

    @frank Mike Tyson had a quote about this…

    Was it:

    I love to hit people. I love to. Most celebrities are afraid someone’s going to attack them. I want someone to attack me. No weapons. Just me and him. I like to beat men and beat them bad.

    I think it is “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

  10. @Ron

    Jaysus, Nate. Are you taking the opportunity not only to encourage the lot of us to open our minds to a Descendeur lifestyle but…to pull it off Casually Deliberately?

    Go fast, downhill. Then, look C.D. doing it? Strong my friend, strong.

    Casually Deliberate is crucial on the drop, you have to be relaxed on the bike so you can carve the turns and let the bike absurd the irregularities in the road.

    @Mikael Liddy That’s awesome.  I think that stage is when I first realized the breadth of Sagan’s talent.

  11. @Tobin

    I always find it amazing what goes through my mind as I descend at really high speeds. “Which portion of the ditch I should fly towards if I flat? Keep pedaling till your spun out! If Ihit the deck, how far I will slide before the pavement eats through my jersey? Can I break 100km’s per hour? How do I correct a speed wobble? 90 km’s an hour doesn’t seem this fast in a car!

    I find these thoughts go through my mind AFTER the descent – often that night when I go to bed, in a semi-sleep state I get these sort of images in my head.

    I’m a middling descender – not fearless or good enough to be with the fastest (being tall doesn’t help) but I won’t be the slowest either. I try not to think about it before or during, so I guess that’s why it bubbles up later.

  12. I used to be a fearless descendeur until I developed a propensity for speed wobbles. Not just a mild vibration either; massive tank-slappers where the frame feels like its made of rubber.  Has happened on different bikes under different conditions but always over 65kmh.  I’ve tried all the tricks I know and have even changed bikes a few times too. Hasn’t happened with the current steed (Pinarello FPQuattro) which is promising  However, I suspect its me and related to speed, not the descent. As I once read a pro-mechanic being quoted: elite bike riders don’t get the wobbles.

    Great topic and article.

  13. The good news is like anything you can get better, but you have to practise it, it’s all well and good burying yourself on the climb, but you need to ride hard over the summit, sur la plaque, zip up your jersey, get in your drops and Focus and Concentrate, done well this is a crushing blow to those left behind as you head for escape velocity they arrive just in time to watch you disappear. Worst thing about bunch rides is they generally regroup at the top of the climb, rather than after the descent, that never happens in a race and you tend to loose that vital focus, and then descend like Sagan above? Not gonna happen.

  14. @JohnB

    Cairn o’ Mount is my local climb. The photo records my highest speed (in mph – sorry for the rule violation!) descending the south side towards the Clatterin’ Brig one day in July 2012. It’s a tricky descent, because a couple of bends have adverse camber, and it’s easy to overcook things!

  15. @McTyke

    @JohnB

    Cairn o’ Mount is my local climb. The photo records my highest speed (in mph – sorry for the rule violation!) descending the south side towards the Clatterin’ Brig one day in July 2012. It’s a tricky descent, because a couple of bends have adverse camber, and it’s easy to overcook things!

    There appears to be something wrong with your Cateye, the units are all screwed up and in some weird format.

  16. And talking of overcooking things, this was the sad result of misjudging an S-bend while descending the Col du Pre in the Northern Alps last year. The accident report suggested I slid up to 50m, which I find hard to believe. I was only going about 40 kph at the time and still cannot understand what happened. Absolutely gutted about destroying my V-jersey.

  17. @McTyke exactement…. though to be fair I afterwards noticed you had already admitted your error. As CoM is your local climb you will be leading us all up, and down, on June 8th ?

  18. @Pedale.Forchetta

    She walks in beauty… But actually the photo in the title is mine, ah!

    ARE YOU FUCKING SERIOUS?? That photo has captivated me for weeks. That must surely be the best Cycling photo ever taken. I should have assumed it was you!

  19. @PT

    I used to be a fearless descendeur until I developed a propensity for speed wobbles. Not just a mild vibration either; massive tank-slappers where the frame feels like its made of rubber. Has happened on different bikes under different conditions but always over 65kmh. I’ve tried all the tricks I know and have even changed bikes a few times too. Hasn’t happened with the current steed (Pinarello FPQuattro) which is promising However, I suspect its me and related to speed, not the descent. As I once read a pro-mechanic being quoted: elite bike riders don’t get the wobbles.

    Great topic and article.

    Is it your wheels? On lightweight wheels the valve stem can throw the balance of the wheel off significantly. I’ve been considering adding a counter-weight to my Haleakalas for that reason; they’re so fucking light they wobble a bit at speed.

  20. Merckx was also an amazing descender; in fact, his geometry was tuned to being able to go downhill as fast as possible in order to catch the climbers back on the way down after presumably getting dropped by them on the way up.

    His bikes are wildly stable.

  21. @Nate

    This one bears study as well. If only the resolution were better.

    The commentary leaves a lot to be desired too.

  22. @razmaspaz

    @Lukas

    Coming down the Poggio with i4ti during training. This is what the pros see! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lH6sjpX-t5U

    I could never be a pro; having shitty jamiroquai tracks stuck in my head would drive me to an early grave.

    I was going to say something about that jab, but I don’t even know the song.  I listen to Synkrnized and older stuff.  Stu Zender is the man.

  23. @frank…Haleakalas – no idea how you pronounce that, but everytime I read it, it makes me think of Raul Alcala.

  24. @Patrick

    That’s pretty much how you pronounce it!

    Raul was a right stud, too. His win into Spa was one of my favorites.

    [dmalbum: path=”/velominati.com/wp-content/uploads/readers/frank/2013.05.16.23.17.07/1/”/]

    @G’rilla, there he is riding that Coors Classic jersey you like.

  25. @frank

    @PT

    I used to be a fearless descendeur until I developed a propensity for speed wobbles. Not just a mild vibration either; massive tank-slappers where the frame feels like its made of rubber. Has happened on different bikes under different conditions but always over 65kmh. I’ve tried all the tricks I know and have even changed bikes a few times too. Hasn’t happened with the current steed (Pinarello FPQuattro) which is promising However, I suspect its me and related to speed, not the descent. As I once read a pro-mechanic being quoted: elite bike riders don’t get the wobbles.

    Great topic and article.

    Is it your wheels? On lightweight wheels the valve stem can throw the balance of the wheel off significantly. I’ve been considering adding a counter-weight to my Haleakalas for that reason; they’re so fucking light they wobble a bit at speed.

    Thanks Frank; I’ve been thinking that too.

    My wheels are Campagnolo Eurus which are light for alloy but not crazy.  It also happened with my Shimano DA 24s that my last bike had – also light alloy but not super light.  The only thing I can think of is that until recently I had not one but two magnetic sensors (two different computers……don’t start..) on the spokes of the front wheel. Although placed opposite each other, I did notice (after my most recent Code Brown experience at 70kmh) that when I spun the wheel while holding it off the ground I could feel a pulse come through the bars & frame. I took them off and it disappeared.  Their now permanently off and the computers are gone too, you may be pleased  to hear.  Hopefully this has solved it.

    As an aside; my bike was a Cervelo S5 which I loved but found to be nervous handling and being a larger chap (187cm/100kg) I wondered if I was just too big to be on such a racey bike.  Thus, the change to the Pinarello which is great so far.

    @Patrick: I’m pretty sure its pronounced: Har-ley-ark-a-lar.

  26. I love descending, but I am not terribly good at. I raced motorbikes for a season a few years back and while this helps you understand some of the physics involved with cornering, It’s strangely different. With a motorbike your back wheel slides a lot and if it slides to much you can correct it by wacking the throttle, and o yah there is the full leather kit with armor and such  instead of basically your under ware.

  27. The biggest problem with descents in races is that the bikes go too fast to get good footage. The need to start using remote control mini-helicopters.

    Isle of Man TT: https://vimeo.com/46856767 just because. Pure V

  28. @frank

    @PT

    I used to be a fearless descendeur until I developed a propensity for speed wobbles. Not just a mild vibration either; massive tank-slappers where the frame feels like its made of rubber. Has happened on different bikes under different conditions but always over 65kmh. I’ve tried all the tricks I know and have even changed bikes a few times too. Hasn’t happened with the current steed (Pinarello FPQuattro) which is promising However, I suspect its me and related to speed, not the descent. As I once read a pro-mechanic being quoted: elite bike riders don’t get the wobbles.

    Great topic and article.

    Is it your wheels? On lightweight wheels the valve stem can throw the balance of the wheel off significantly. I’ve been considering adding a counter-weight to my Haleakalas for that reason; they’re so fucking light they wobble a bit at speed.

    Love the feeling I get descending on my Golden Tickets.  They are not the lightest, meaning more work getting up the hill, but the gyroscopic feeling is so stable going down.

  29. @Nate

    Word to that, the ‘Tickets seem to be perfectly balanced. Not to talk up a tire too much, but glue a handmade tire like an FMB to a pair and you have perfect balance, perfect suppleness, and perfect grip. My goodness my Guinness!

  30. There’s a great line from an interview with former Australian Superbike racer & now National Road Seriese racer Shannon Johnston:

    Are there skills from motorbike racing and cycling that transfer?

    Without a doubt, I guess the most noticeable one is my ability to take corners at speed. When you are use to racing a 200 horsepower Superbike near on 300kph, 50-60kph on a bicycle feels slow through a corner.

    http://nationalroadseries.subaru.com.au/news/qa-shannon-johnston/

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