The art of descending like a stone

Today’s stage eight at the Tour de France concludes with a 16km run, mostly downhill, to the finish in Porrentruy, a reminder that descending skills can be just as valuable as being a proficient climber. Here Panache brings us his personal insight into the art of descending like a stone.

Races can be won or lost depending on how adept a rider is. Descending is thrilling, yet scary and the only thing that can combat the fear is confident handling skills at very high speeds. But what does it actually feel like when you’re racing down a mountain at incredible speeds? And who in the peloton are masters of the descent?

If you’re the heaviest, you’ll fall the fastest

This spring I had the opportunity to attend my team’s four-day training camp in the mountains of West Virginia. Each day we rode between 90 and 120km over some of the most beautiful scenery in the eastern US. I was a little apprehensive because at 1.96 meters tall and 82kg, I’m not the greatest of climbers and we were going to be doing a lot of climbing.

Panache doing his best impersonation of Bernie Eisel – please note the facial hair …

On the first day, at about the 50km into the ride, we began to ascend a category 3 climb. I was pleased with my ride as I was the last of a select group to reach the summit. The rest of the team had been dropped and we would not be waiting for them. As I approached the top, my teammates were stuffing their short, lightweight bodies (yes, I’m jealous) with food and starting to hit the road again. I was just trying to catch my breath when one of them said to me, “Come on, Giraffe, you don’t want to get left behind here. It would be a long way back to camp if you were alone.” He was right and with those words, we began the descent.

The way up the climb had been on a long, open, steady, clean, wide road. The 11km descent was just the opposite. This road was narrow, twisted, and full of potholes, dirt and gravel. A kilometre into the descent we were reaching speeds over 80kph. A gap started to open up between me and two other teammates, and the rest of the group. The three of us were falling behind! Being the heaviest, I was told to move to the front and pick the lines. Supposedly, I could “fall the fastest”.

We needed to stay to the right-hand side of the road because there was oncoming traffic from time to time. I was doing all I could to catch the leaders but I was nervous. We were going so fast and I wasn’t confident in my ability to pick the correct lines. I was afraid. My heart rate was elevated. I had a death grip on my handlebars (a big no-no when descending) I felt like I was expending more energy going down the mountain then I had going up! And then it happened…

On one particularly hairy turn, I misjudged the line.

I was going too fast but was able to scrub some speed with my brakes before the corner. I shifted my weight to do the counter-steering technique I had been taught. Still, I had to use the entire road. I came within inches of going off the edge but somehow carved the turn and kept my bike upright. If an oncoming vehicle had been coming, I would have been toast. The two behind me recognised my error, slowed down, and picked a better line.

After that experience, I realised that I need much more practice.

The pro peloton descends

This fact is evident in the pro peloton where the speeds are 20-40kph faster than my meagre attempts. Stages 12-15 of last year’s Tour were a lesson in descending. In stage 12, the wet roads reminded Geraint Thomas how cautious and mentally acute a rider must always be while going downhill. He lost traction in a corner and had to bail off of his bike to avoid falling off a cliff. He then lost traction again moments later!

In stage 13, Thor Hushovd skillfully took time out of two French riders, David Moncoutie and Jeremy Roy on the descents. He then rode away from them both in the final kilometres to take the stage victory.

Finally, Cadel Evans and Alberto Contador schooled Andy Schleck on stage 15 during the final, rainy descent into the town of Gap, gaining over a minute. Andy would go on to complain that “a finish like this should not be allowed”. People were critical of the Schlecks but who can blame them for being cautious after Frank’s harrowing experience in the 2008 Tour de Suisse? Regardless, if the Schlecks had better descending skills, they would have had more courage.

There are plenty of current pro riders to watch and emulate when learning to descend – Fabian Cancellara, Vincenzo Nibali, Peter Sagan, David Arroyo, and Danilo Di Luca are all really good. But in my humble opinion (which means this is a fact), the greatest of all time is Paolo Savoldelli. Now retired, Paulo was known as Il Falco (the Falcon) because he could drop off of a mountain like a bird of prey. The world got a glimpse of his truly unique ability in the 14th stage of the Giro d’Italia in 1999. Flying though Italian villages, with no helmet, he would take the stage because no one would take the risks that he did. He would later use this courageous ability to win the Giro d’Italia in 2002 and 2005!

I’m no Il Falco yet, but I have been practicing a bit and my ability and my confidence have increased. We’ll see if the descents in this year’s Tour de France play such a critical role like they did in 2011. If they do, I hope Frank Schleck has been practicing as well.

3 thoughts on “The art of descending like a stone

  1. related – hushovd + close calls – see some excellent bike handling below:
    Thor avoids his “Schleck moment” in the 2009 tdf stage 17

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