Thursday, December 17, 2015

Descents Into Madness

The bicycle in motion offers no fixed vantage point. The moment of cresting a hill is gone no sooner than it arrives, and before the abyss ahead can be fully glimpsed we continue to roll, picking up speed at a breath-taking pace, our mind a soup of sensations. It takes standing still on the hilltop and watching the road unfurl down to the sea for the full scope of it to sink in. The magnitude of the descent. The enormity of it.

The descent is a thing more difficult to describe than the climb. It is for this reason, I am convinced (and not because climbs are more arduous), that less attention is lavished upon it in cycling lore and ride reports.

The slow speed of a climb gives us time to ruminate, to form thoughts that give concrete shape to the things we are feeling. The apex ahead provides a point to fixate upon as it steadily comes into view. As an experience, the climb is tunnel-like. Sensations sharpen, with each pedal stroke growing into more defined versions of themselves. Up is up. Pain is pain. Strain is strain.

But what the climb focuses, the descent scatters. There is nothing to fixate upon, and so it cannot be grasped. The horizon tilts. Distinction between up and down blurs. The sense of time warps. A sensation arises that can only be described as a fullness, a visceral satiation that is nonetheless paired with a restless sense of urgency, of needing to merge with the distant vistas ahead.

They call them "screaming descents" because internally we scream. But whether it is from fear, or joy, or a sense of catharsis, or some other, as yet unknown, emotion, at once too powerful and too fleeting to survive outside this immediate experience, we cannot say.

The descent is not so much an experience of flying, as it is of spilling. A thorough, absolute unraveling that, even once we've come down and calmed down, stays within us, like a giddy hidden madness.



39 comments:

  1. I had two "screaming descents" in my cycling life so far. Both on a mountain bike. The first one when a steep downhill ride ended on a meadow with a very wet grass. Then I was screaming internally from fear, realizing I had no control of my bicycle on such surface.

    The second one was a bit later when I rolled downhill on a paved service road. I screamed internally from joy when I saw my cyclocomputer showing 72km/h (45mph).

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    1. That is about the fastest I have gone as well. The descent was very long, but the road was more or less straight, and wide, with no winding/scary bits. The speed crept up on me gradually, so that I had no sense of going quite that fast and was surprised to see the figure. There have been other times though, when picking up speed within a very short time span, I've felt the sensation so keenly it took my breath away - even though my actual speed was far lower.

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  2. "Descending reassembles me," says Fournel, in what I've often thought might be a mistranslation, so far is that conception from my experience. "Spilling," "unraveling," are much more like it, if you ask me. I wonder if part of the difficulty of writing about descending is that, done well, it's largely an unconscious process, where climbing is a conscious act of will.

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  3. Appreciate this thoughtful post as I venture into climbing routes with my new low-geared, mixed terrain bike. I like the juxtaposition of the focused ascent and spilling descent; the former prepared for, the latter not so much! When you crest, you're done; when you bottom, you're undone! Thanks for illuminating! Jim Duncan

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  4. My glorious descents on a bike consist of sticking my legs out and shouting "WHEEEEEE" above the wind. I'm shamed by the beauty of your analysis!

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  5. Hitting 50mph on my XO-1 on a steep decent with the wind at my back was exhilarating, but my most memorable descent was on a moonlight ramble in Austin around 1982, a pack of people on cruisers terrorizing the city streets under the full moon. We hit a fast decent near Town lake where the tree's grew over the road forming a tunnel that the moonlight could not penetrate. Suddenly it's pitch black and we are all going upwards of 30 mph. You can't stop or slow down for fear that the person in back of you will plow into you and you are just hoping the people in front of you don't stop!! As it turns out we all start yelling and screaming at the top of our lungs! All at once we are in the light again and the excited laughter as we all emerge unscathed is infectious . . a RUSH!
    There, how bout that?
    -masmojo

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  6. We must be wired differently b/c this sure ain't my experience!!

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  7. The Wall Street Journal had a very interesting story about Tour de France descents. They are very dangerous, and where the race can actually be won. The problem is that they cannot really be practiced at racing speed because it is just too dangerous, and a spill could cost the rider is life or the remainder of the racing season. So the riders just really hope for the best!

    In my world, I have taken to slower descents to enjoy the machinery and view, and spend more time resting. You know, bike rides are mostly uphill as measured by time spent in saddle.

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    1. WSJ gets that wrong on every count.
      The obvious counterexample would be Federico Martin Bahamontes winning the Tour in 1959 in spite of being such a poor descender he would at times unclip and slide his foot on the ground while negotiating downhill hairpins. Further he was notorious for arriving at the summit first, by large margins, then stopping, getting an ice cream from vendors or fans, and waiting for the rest of the race, because he felt lonely descending by himself. Yes, those tactics will win TdF.

      There is some part of the media that enjoys painting cycling as dangerous. Racers are professional entertainers. They know perfectly well there is no entertainment value in dying on a descent and they never go near that. Race organizers structure courses to discourage foolishness on the descent. Race officials would never sanction a course that rewarded downhill stupidity.

      No one dives off a cliff and hopes for the best. The game is not played that way.

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    2. Not dangerous? Results of a quick google search for TdF injury crashes on descents: Alberto Contador, 2014; Joseba Beloki, 2013; Alexandre Vinokourov, 2011; Jens Voight, 2009; Oscar Periero, 2008; Fabio Casartelli, 1995. The injuries included race-ending, career-ending, and fatal. This is one type of crash, in one race.

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  8. How very poetic! My most memorable "screaming descent" was of the literal variety. I was going around 30mph, deep in the zone, coming around a big sweeping corner, minding my own business, when out of nowhere I was viciously attacked by a kamikaze bee! It flew up the arm of my jersey and started stinging me. I couldn't stop, or swat, or really do anything other than scream.

    Of course, I'm sure from the bee's perspective.... "And there I was, flying through the air, deep in the zone, minding my own business, when out of nowhere I was viciously attacked by a kamikaze bike rider!" :-)

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  9. Things that happen on descents:
    Deer steps into the road.
    Rider in front falls.
    Tire blows out.
    That rivulet that's just around the outcropping is now a torrent.
    Done all the above at better than 50mph. Still have not seen the abyss. Madness? Highly subjective and perhaps overrated. Haven't done the screaming yet either. The experience is however quite addictive.

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    1. For me the worst things at high speeds so far have been sheep, and a quick-acting front tyre flat. On both occasions the quickness of my reflexes surprised me. Thankfully.

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    2. It's sorta like moving from platform pedals to the other kind, the kind you have to clip into, where you think you're doomed if a surprise occurs in front of you but the real surprise is how marvelous ones reflexes are when the brain gets out of the way.

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  10. I really need to find a long steep hill.
    Around here I just start to enjoy myself and then the hill ends.

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    1. In Full Tilt (see this earlier post) Dervla Murphy mentions a 125 mile descent somewhere in North Pakistan. In case you're considering destinations!

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  11. "But what the climb focuses, the descent scatters. There is nothing to fixate upon, and so it cannot be grasped. The horizon tilts. Distinction between up and down blurs. The sense of time warps. A sensation arises that can only be described as a fullness, a visceral satiation that is nonetheless paired with a restless sense of urgency, of needing to merge with the distant vistas ahead."

    Veloria, you really should think about writing a book. That was excellent and magical.

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  12. Trinity Alps, Northern CA, July 1985. 62 mph on a 1981 Stumpjumper wearing slicks on early Phil/wheelsmith MTB wheels.
    I have never forgotten the sensation, and I have never gone faster, to my knowledge.
    Something forged in that speed to be very hard, and something broke to fragments, never to restrain me again.

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    1. Wow, that's crazy!!! The fastest I've reached is 52mph, on pavement, last year, on my 650B Rawland. I had a heavy load in a front bag (with a big heavy DSLR camera in it) and had to hold the bars firm to avoid the massive shimmy this bike used to experience (before swapping out the headset for a needle bearing version). It was quite the thrill. On dirt, the fastest I've reached is 42mph, also on my Rawland. Equally thrilling. One of the reasons I endure the pain and suffering of steep climbs is to experience this thrill.

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  13. three (at least) screaming descents - two on tandems - hitting 55 mph on a remote highway outside of Bisbee NM (1) and hitting 45 mph on the Hilly Hundred (2). Stoker said all she could image was a watermelon splat on the side of the highway - little help from the helmet(1) and when we hit someone's pump in the road we had to stop and regain composure (2). the most scary was on a transcontinental tour on a single (3) fully loaded at 40 mph front tire blows out..... managed to keep control and not wear a lot of asphalt on my skin but the streak left by my inability to maintain control otherwise had me looking for a tree to hide behind to change before attempting to fix flat. Screaming downhills - I will leave them to the youngsters like yourself. beautiful writing btw.

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  14. You can speed down a hill w/o concern of falling but are unable to mount your bike w/o the pacifier of butt on saddle? I've fallen both ways and one is embarrassing while the other is painful. I've managed the mounting but not the downhills.

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  15. Excellent... I have had screaming descents for certain, and I completely agree that there is a certain exhilaration that is simultaneously exciting and frightening.

    The most frightened and thrilled (and focused like a laser in case of mechanical failure or road debris/hazards) was on the final descent of the Centurion Canada 50 mile ride; a 700' drop over 1.45 miles with a maximum grade of 13%... I hit 60+mph and now I can say that I am happy to never go that fast on my bike ever again. :/

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  16. The joy of any decent is earned. Before one can unleash the full adrenalin the hard yards of the assent must be earned. As in life nothing is for free, and the work must be done before the rewards earned. Here's to the hills and the thrills, the elation and the spills.

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  17. I've had three decents that have stayed with me. The first was coming down Mt. Palomar in Ca., my first mountian decent and on a fully loaded touring bike. It was just a lot of fun. The second was when I reached 62mph and the front wheel started to oscillate. I really thought I was going to go over the bars. I knew I couldn't touch the brakes, so I sat up as tall as I could on the bike to try and make a wind brake. It worked. The third was down a very steep, twisty bluff. I was doing about 40 mph cutting the corners and swinging out to the edge of the road on every turn. On one turn the cliff was on the outside of the turn, the bend sharpened more than I expected and my wheels left the pavement, I nearly hit the guard rail, which I would've gone over if I had hit it and would've plummeted over 300 feet. Then had to stay on the gravel until the car coming up the hill past me. Never did anything like that again in the last twenty plus years. The thrill of speed was one thing, but to put others lives at risk was never my intention, the stupidity of a twenty year old.

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  18. I am amazed that you manage to do any cycling worthy of the name in the winter. I live in London, and the ground is absolutely sodden with moisture after what seems like( but probably wasn't really) a lot of rain. The paths in the park and by the river seem to be a sodden mess, with slippery mud and treacherous potholes everywhere. True, we have had no ice, but the moistureis everywhere and everything is slippery. I am scared to ride on flat surfaces, let alone descents ...

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  19. the only reason I climb, is for the descent. I think more poetic prose is given to climbs because you have more time to think about and question "what the heck am I doing?". whereas on a descent all your attention is given to not crashing and burning. the blend of fear and joy in the scream gives the best giddiness afterwards, almost a post-orgasmic feel. :P

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  20. If this photo represents "madness," I'll have a double portion. Fine writing, great photo.

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  21. Not to be a drag or anything, but this is the part of our sport that actually kills people, and you can't blame cars. Remember Fabio Casartelli? And then recently there was that rider killed in Levi's Gran Fondo here in California. He was from my city, that guy. His partner's daughter went to preschool with my son years ago.

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    1. I do remember Fabio Casartelli. He died in 1995. Before that Francesco Cepeda died descending the Galibier in the 1935 Tour. If you feel this is an unacceptable level of risk you might refrain from contesting the Tour de France.

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    2. The other fellow I mentioned was not contesting the Tour de France. He was an amateur riding in an event anyone can enter. Consider also: He was an experienced rider and was among those in the front of the ride. There was no indication of any extraneous cause for the crash--no other rider, no car or spectator, no hole in the road, the weather was good, the pavement was dry. It seems he was going for a good finishing time and simply misjudged a curve on a steep descent. It can happen to anyone.

      The moral is: Exhilaration is fine sometimes, but don't kid yourself. Descending safely is easy and you know when you're not doing it.

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    3. I'm not a sport cyclist but Anon 1:02's post hit me hard as a reminder. It's not just a TDF thing. Anyone who has climbed any sort of hill has to get down, somehow, and if that descent includes curves or wind or traffic or gravel or any number of other distractions it's got potential for disaster. I tour and commute via bike and have connected with many others from this tribe. We share stories of broken bones, near misses, scabs and hospital stays along with the joys. While I didn't die, I also don't remember my crash. Months of recovery and rehab and am now trying to 'let go' again b/c biking is such an important and everyday thing. Accidents are freaky.

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    4. If you and your friends are injured with regularity and severity of course you think cycling is a dangerous undertaking. Myself I've done over 400,000 miles and the worst that has happened is once I broke my collarbone. I don't think that safety record makes me special or unusual. All it says is that I like to ride my bike a lot and I would rather ride it than fall off of it. As drastic as you make cycling sound you may wish to consider a less hazardous sport.

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    5. Apparently, we're all Anon's here…;) I don't think cycling is a necessarily dangerous undertaking but I do think it has dangers associated with it, as to all activities. So many miles and no terrible incidents, kudos!! You're clearly a skilled cyclist, or blessed, or normal, I really don't know. I can only guess miles but thirty five years of maneuvering in space via a bicycle, hopefully, give me a legitimate voice to share but, again, I dunno. The vast majority of stories shared are about joy. That's why we choose bikes to make our lives better. Sadly, those stories which involve disaster bring a reminder. They happen on all fronts, in all manners, and mine just included a descent, a freak accident….I don't ride for sport, I ride because it gives me joy. I'm glad you don't fall off your bike. All the best!

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  22. Sheep like to turn back on you just at the wrong moment. I've had a few near misses but seen a few riders go over the bars after a direct hit. Managed 58mph on a long downhill after maxing out the gear and then picking up a slipstream. Age however points out all that can go wrong so its much more sedate these days.

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  23. One need not bomb down descents to enjoy cycling. Some are skilled at it and some, not. I belong to the latter. I go down at a conservative pace just so to avoid crashing.

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  24. For me, climbing is meditative, deep thoughts territory. Descending uses my lizard brain, full of "don't die" thought fragments. Oh, and constantly looking out for squirrels and rabbits. Still, I love them both. In the Bay Area, both are epic, nothing like the (mostly) cutesy topography back east.

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