Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Hairpins

Hair Pins
Only when reviewing the route months later did I realise that I must have climbed for 7 miles to the high point of Cushendall Road. Effortful as this must have been on a small wheel folding bike, it did not register as such in my memory. What I do remember: Ascending - almost like floating - through an expanse of short, scraggly pine trees, past a surreal lake with steam rising off it. After that, there were farmlands and more farmlands, with their scatterings of placidly grazing sheep. Before long, I was at the top, and now the foggy glens edged by the sea spread out in front of me. Looking down, it was hard to believe that soon I would be at sea level.

I was not, at that point, used to descents longer than a couple of miles. This one was around 6. It began slow, but the grade steepened as it continued. As I gained momentum, the surrounding grasses and the sea began to blur together with the fog, into one green foamy mess. I felt intermittently dizzy and sleepy. In the distance I glimpses another forest and welcomed the variation in landscape.

When I saw the sharp curve in the road ahead, it was a jolt to my system, even though I had seen the map and knew to expect it. From my vantage point, the hairpin turn looked like a giant version of an actual hairpin. Somehow I'd thought the distinct shape only emerged in aerial pictures, and could not be glimpsed as such in real life from a bike. But there it was in front of me, a hairpin sure as day. There was the flash of recognition of what was about to happen, and then it happened. I reduced speed, then reduced it again, and leaned, and still felt the violent yank of whatever force did not want me to make the turn. But I made it: Braking clumsily, drenched in sweat and on the verge of skidding, I made it. For the rest of the descent I was wide awake. 

Another time, back in Boston, I joined a friend on an unfamiliar route through some local hills. Having finished a climb we were about to descend a high traffic road, and she warned me not to pick up too much speed. The wind carried her voice away, but I could make out "Sharp turn! ...end up opposite traffic lane!" Gingerly I cycled around the bend, which I discovered to be another hairpin. Again it stunned me that even with the cars speeding past, even with the row of strip malls in the distance, even with all my energy focused on making the turn while keeping my line of travel, I could make out the shape of the mighty, beautiful hairpin. 

So that makes two so far, which is also the number of actual pins I usually wear in my hair. That connection bears no significance what so ever, but it pops into my mind when I use the pins - just one of those silly associations.

Some years ago, a Tyrolean friend told me - in great, descriptive detail - about the Stelvio Pass, with its 48 hairpin turns. A vintage Austrian picture book was produced, dramatic hand gestures were involved. When she said her uncle liked to ride his bike there, I thought she was joking. How could such a thing be possible, on a bike? I felt lightheaded just looking at photos of the bends, scattered through the mountain like pins in some mad woman's hair.

38 comments:

  1. Too many curves can spoil the day. I feel the same way in a fast descent, particularly on my Bike Friday Pocket Rocket. The little wheels aren't as stable as 700 series.

    It's too bad you simply can't keep going up . . . . .

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    1. There is no such thing as too many curves
      -- me.

      Wrong tool for the job.

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    2. Too many curves would be the fourth or sixth descent of the day was a really steep beast that threatened to melt the tire glue at the same time the overly pumped arms and shoulders start to cramp. You know, writing that reminds me of so much fun and good times I think I will agree with GRJ 100% instead of 99%. No such thing as too many curves.

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  2. Here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1jtJKw_S5w

    The good part (the descent) starts at about 2:20. If you're ever in San Jose with a bicycle, you need to do this, just so you can say you did this (I did this, 26 years ago). The average grade is just a little less than 9%.

    You might want non-rim brakes for the descent.

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  3. Sigh. People make mistakes, but to do from being very neurotic about crashing to careless descending in one fell swoop (sic) with no middle ground of sensible riding...

    I've just seen this movie way too often. Too many people who insist on the joy ride over reading the road, adjusting speed accordingly, sensations over all. Descending at speed is an athletic endeavour; I'll say it right now: you will kill yourself or hurt someone else if you don't get your head in the game. Purely a walk before you run rule violated.

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    1. Descending carefully here, not at speed; couldn't have made the turn otherwise. Subjectively it still felt fast due to the sheer length of the descent, and the hairpin was a new experience despite having expected it.

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    2. "Braking awkwardly, somehow you made it."

      The turn surprised you as you were dreaming. Again life does not resemble maps. Camber, available traction.

      One should never have to yell back to another rider, "hairpin". If so the following rider is either going too fast or not paying attention.

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    3. Simple basic technique helps. Look at where you want the bike to go. Your bike will go where your eyes are looking. Do not look at the edge of the road or your bike emphatically and certainly will go towards the edge.

      If it's a big long descent and you are very uncertain about your ability to handle what's next do what mountain bikers do. Stop and put the saddle down. Lower is more stable. Nine times out of ten the saddle should've been lower anyway.

      No one ever knows what they could and couldn't do. Instant karma's gonna get you. I learned to descend one day when riding with the big boys out in the Bay. Got dropped near the top of the climb. The gruppetto swarmed around me in the second hairpin. Learned a lot in a couple seconds. Yes, I could and I did.

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    4. When you know you doing it right: guys on sport motos and Porsches giving the thumbs up when you pass them.

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    5. In all fairness New England descents are not at all like California descents. California roads are laid out by highways engineers and, it would seem, sports car enthusiasts. New England descents are laid out by historical happenstance and flinty old grouches. There are 'interesting' and 'exciting' turns on New England roads that would be flat illegal in California. To get a small taste of New England in the Bay Area try a quick descent of Tunitas Canyon or China Grade. Yes, it can be done, but it's nothing like barreling down Tam.

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    6. Wows. Where are these New England roads?

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    7. Tunitas is my all time favourite!

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    8. When I was in the Bay for a month or so most years I was told repeatedly by the locals that "nobody" descends Tunitas, that it was for climbing only. The one person I met going down (and Lord he was faster than me) happened to be Tom Ritchey. If you like Tunitas head south toward Santa Cruz and see what you can do with the stairsteps on China Grade

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    9. Tunitas was repaved 6,7,9 years ago or so. Very nice now but it was best back then on a moto with crappy suspension.

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    10. Re: China Grade - too old, plus youngsters do this coming the other way: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pK9UP_BfiZs&feature=youtube_gdata_player

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    11. V @ 7:52

      That would be most all New England mountain roads. Erratic radiuses, random camber, no sight lines or at least no sight lines that were ever maintained, frost heaves, potholes, abominably patched potholes, crumbling road edges. Highway departments that have never bothered to paint even one road sign that looks better than kindergarten are not going to bother with little things like grading and embankments. So it's miniature golf descending.

      Jim - Those mountains are quiet enough you can hear the motos around the next bend. The logging trucks are even worse. Age does creep up. Pin me down and yes it has been 9 years since I was in your neck of the woods.

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  4. This is one of the best stories you've written. The tension I felt as you're riding through the first hairpin was pretty gripping (no pun intended); although...

    I'm sure many of us have experienced narly hairpins. It takes quite a bit of focus to stay on the road while fighting back fear. It'll test one's mettle, for sure.

    Anyway, you're blog has been part of my morning news-perspective-entertainment-coffee ritual since around January/February of 2011.

    Your word choices are great--their precise. Your descriptions of things, places, and people are clear; the image created in the reader's head is never disturbed by a poor word choice.

    Your a good writer.

    -Steve

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  5. This is where it all happens:http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=trollstigen&oq=Trollstigen&gs_l=youtube-reduced.1.0.0l4.280832.284359.0.290339.11.8.0.3.3.0.246.1150.1j6j1.8.0...0.0...1ac.1.gjzUltwyAEI

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    1. Whoa just watching that took my breath away!

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  6. http://youtu.be/7OwrwrercBo

    Stage 20, 2012 Giro d'Italia.

    The Stelvio Pass is the last climb of the day (and of that year's Giro). The Mortirolo which came before it was steeper and nastier though. That stage is worth watching.

    One of the things I wish I had near me is some real climbing. Sadly, we lack that in Southern Ontario.

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  7. Wonderful writing. I can see the road.

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  8. I like the photo, very nicely staged!

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  9. Even when we know what's coming empirically, it's not the same as experiencing what's coming physically and mentally.

    See the Elephant, did you?

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  10. I love twisty descents. Ideal for me is 5-7% grade with turns tight enough that I corner faster than cars. That way I can use the full lane and not worry about cars passing me.

    Descending is a skill, it's not just about being daring. I learned a lot from a road racing skills class I took from Nicole Freedman years ago. And from following my hubby down the hill, imitating his line and when he braked and when he accelerated. My favorite descent: http://youtu.be/He_lOoPmVbw

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  11. I love twisty descents. Ideal for me is 5-7% grade with turns tight enough that I corner faster than cars. That way I can use the full lane and not worry about cars passing me.

    Descending is a skill, it's not just about being daring. I learned a lot from a road racing skills class I took from Nicole Freedman years ago. And from following my hubby down the hill, imitating his line and when he braked and when he accelerated. My favorite descent: http://youtu.be/He_lOoPmVbw

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    1. I like that descent on cloudy days. Too much dappled light to make out the tar snakes otherwise.

      Experience = appropriate speed + braking points + lean angle.

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    2. That looks like fun, and fast. How fast we're you going at , say 6:30?

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    3. Nice video, Ladyfleur! I used to live up there about a mile below the 84/35 junction, and did that descent many times in the mid 1990s.

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  12. Hmm, never really felt a 'violent' force when making a descending hairpin but rather a slow strong pull....Going up hill on a hairpin is another story and the violence is felt in the legs!! :)

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    1. Slow and strong is a better description but violent force is what you get if the slow strong pull wins.

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  13. The hairpin curve seems to aptly describe your journey with this blog :)

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  14. Ride within one's comfort zone and better be safe than sorry.

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  15. This isn't my video, but I cut my teeth on this very ride in 1983.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zULHDjeYLCI

    You learn a lot about proper use of brakes and when to downshift very very quickly.

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  16. For all the doubters, I'm pretty sure I know which hairpin that was. It's one that I usually warn people about if they aren't familiar with it, because one time I took someone down that road and he ended up scraping his backside across an entire lane's worth of asphalt before smashing into a wall on the other side. It comes up unexpectedly because there aren't many other curves that sharp nearby, and it gets steep right in the middle of the curve, which turns out to be sharper than you expect, and there isn't any visibility around the turn. Basically, it's a case where all the technique in the world is no substitute for knowing what's coming.

    I gotta say, I love fast, twisty descents though. One thing I like about riding with a GPS is that you can see the shape of the road and have some idea of how sharp the corner is going to be, even if you can't see it.

    It does bear mentioning, though, that no matter how good you are (or think you are....), none of it will prevent you from coming screaming 'round a corner, perfect technique and all, to find a deer or other obstruction staring you in the face trying to decide which way to jump.

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    1. That's good. I would've done the same. Decreasing radius.

      Writing about bike stuff on the interweb...leaves a lot to be desired.

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  17. I'm planning to visit Northern Ireland at the end of May and this was a nice reminder of your trip last year. I found your photos and stories very inspiring. I also browsed some of Chris Sharp's photos and I was amazed. I can't wait to get there.

    We were thinking about renting bikes on our trip. Unfortunately, we might not have the time to cycle around because we want to see EVERYTHING in a couple of days.

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I particularly liked the Brompton hike towards the causeway. :D

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