Sunday, October 9, 2016

What Goes Up Must Come Down



Admittedly, my experience with mountain climbs is far from expansive. But the ones that are local to me seem to follow a distinct pattern. I've attempted to illustrate it for you in this highly technical drawing.

Since mountains are rarely symmetrical things, it is often the case that one face is steeper than the other - sometimes dramatically so. And should a road happen to cross the mountain, it is likely that the stretch along the steeper face will have different characteristics than the stretch along the face with the more gradual incline.

Along the steeper face of the mountain, the road will usually twist in a series of tight bends, as a means of reducing the monstrous gradient. Along the face with the more gradual incline, the road will be comparatively straight, following the natural slope of the mountain.

Now, a cyclist seeking to climb (and, eventually descend) a mountain, is faced with a choice of which direction to tackle it from: Ascend via the straight gradual incline and descend the steeper twisty bends, or the other way around?

Around here, it is considered that the former is the easier method. A nice steady climb followed by a "fun" twisty descent? Why that's nearly cheating! More challenging is to endure the pain of climbing the steep twisty bends, only to descend in an endless, monotonous manner.

For me, however, it is exactly the opposite. As difficult as a climb up the twisty steeper face may be, it pales in comparison to my terror of hairpin descents. For a while it used to be that the very sight of a steep tight bend downhill would launch me into full anxiety attack mode, complete with flash-sweats, trembling and tears. As my handling skills improve, I'm at least able to descend stretches where I would previously have walked. But the experience remains so stressful, I prefer to avoid it if possible.

So, while I get some local street cred (farm lane cred?) for always climbing in the "difficult" direction, it is entirely undeserved, as I do this out of necessity. What goes up must surely come down, and I want to come down the easy way. Far from finding the long even slope monotonous, I enjoy the time it affords me to examine the view, and the speed I can pick up without the worry of upcoming bends. Beyond all that, there is an otherworldly dreaminess to a long, steady descent, that I find incomparably beautiful. And I suppose, like beauty, the notions of what is easy and difficult are in the eyes of the beholder.

What is your preferred direction for climbing and descending mountain roads: Steep and twisty up, or steep and twisty down? Or are you one of those sickos who needs to ascend it from both sides, to feel as if you have truly conquered a climb?


38 comments:

  1. I'm with you - my descending skills are sub-par!

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    1. There are those who have the knack of bombing down mountain roads. I am not one of those. So I go down at my own safe pace.

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  2. I agree. Go up slow, come down slow.

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  3. I hate to be THAT GUY, but I cannot help but notice the bunny's ears are not in the aero position.

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    1. I know. And the paws are over-extended. But does he listen to friendly advice? No.

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    2. The bunny is taking the more gentle descent, so aero-ears are not a necessity

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  4. But... if you have a long straight descent you can actually pick up much more speed than breaking and floating around each curve of switchbacks. I purposely got disc brakes (yes, how uncool) on my new bike so I could enjoy descents as well as the climbs, and it was totally worth it. I would still prefer straight down, where I can see as much as the road ahead as possible, but I hate riding UP switchbacks, it just feels so monotonous. Most of the time I do ride up the switchback first, so as to enjoy the descent as much as possible.

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    1. Interesting. Do the switchbacks not introduce variety to the climb? That's what it feels like to me. And I can break down the climb into sections, with each bend becoming the new visual focus.

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    2. To me it does not feel like variety because you are going back over the same way you just came (though technically just a wee bit higher)...it feels tedious as hell. I prefer to ride straight up, even at a steeper angle, it just feels more like progress.

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  5. I always plan to go up the 'easy' way and then, when poised at the top looking down the steep hairpins, absolutely sh*t myself. It once took several minutes sitting on the side of the road working out that all the alternate routes would be even worse, to make me go down the Kyle Rhea side of Sgurr na Coinnich. The Glen Shiel side of Ratagan Pass a couple days later was even worse. Yet I planned the direction over both mountains deliberately, on the basis of having driven a loaded Citroen Dyane (602cc engine) over them in the opposite direction six years previously. I still think I made the right decision. But God! The going down is terrifying.

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    1. Oh wow, those final flicks in your photos look very similar to the Bishop Road descent off Binevenagh Mountain toward Downhill. The first time I did it, was unplanned, so I had no idea how steep and winding it was at the end and I think my entire body went numb with terror as the road "dropped" beneath me before the final sharp bend! Well done on your journey!

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    2. Well done for going down the Kyle Rhea road. I haven't enjoyed doing it even when I've been in a car. I do however keep thinking it would be "fun" to cycle up it.

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  6. Steep and twisty up and down. There's definitely a learning curve to rapidly descending on twisty mountain descents without risking life and limb. But I think it' worth learning. Weighting the outside pedal and hence moving the center of mass outside the tire path seems to make it easier and safer to descend rapidly .

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  7. The presumption that there is a choice is not always the case. If the route is out and back I get both. If the route is a loop, and can choose the direction. If the route is one way, I get whatever geography gives me. Living on Pikes Peak and in the surrounding Rocky Mountains, it is either up or down here, so I can grumble for half the milage (and 3-4 times the time), or I can delight in the gift of being out on the road, whatever it offers. There is a learned abandon that makes long steep climbs and cliff-side hairpin descents wondrous. Ride with abandon! Grin.

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    1. Oh of course. I meant in situations where there *is* a choice.

      Touring can be tricky especially. Although when we were touring Kerry this summer, all the climbs seemed to "line up" the same way.

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    2. Aye! It is intriguing how consistent geology is in relation to cardinal directions.

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  8. Clark in VancouverOctober 9, 2016 at 3:01 PM

    Some downhill slopes that don't have interruptions make me think of what it's probably like landing the space shuttle. Coasting for a long long time.

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    1. Shuttles landed as pure gliders - no engine activation possible after atmospheric re-entry. Shuttles were not very manoeuvrable. Riding a bike downhill probably is not a good analogy, it lacks the calculations and the stress.

      Before you ask, no I haven't landed a space shuttle.

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  9. While I have no mountains in my area, the short punchy (gravel) hills to my south provide more than enough elevation change to get the heart pounding (going up or down). My observation from a front loaded camping trip last weekend: I prefer my uphills unpaved, and my downhills paved. Trying to bunny hop a surprise washout with a front load is not my first choice.

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    1. When descending on gravel - especially the kind of deep gravel that characterised some of the unpaved rides in New England - for me it's mainly a matter of suspending disbelief. If I think about it too much, it just starts to seem impossible. But once I let the bike go, it takes care of itself. Assuming wide tyres of course!

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  10. In terms of traffic, I'd prefer getting passed uphill where there are more straight sections for cars to give me plenty of room. Hopefully on the downhill twisty sections, I'd be more likely to catch up to cars rather than the other way around.

    Nonetheless, when descending, I'm always telling myself, "Ride your own ride" if I'm feeling pressured to go faster than I'm comfortable with.

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  11. My wife took the "test" and without knowing your (or my) preference and without hesitation said "I would work my way up the switchbacks and weee down the hill." For us this is in context of tandem riding. While it has very good disk brakes it is hardly "flickable" in turns. The current new tandem (Seven Cycles) is the first completely stable descender out of three we have owned. Relax and take a hand off the bars while spinning downhill at 35-40 mph, no problem. The old ones would get "scary wiggly"

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    1. My 3 experiences riding on the back of Seven tandems have been pretty good in that respect as well!

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    2. Our first tandem, a Motobecane, was so flexible it felt like the stoker was going to overtake the captain on fast twisty descents. Quite disconcerting for both parties.

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  12. If I get to choose which way to go on a ride, then I'd climb the twisty bits and enjoy the straight ride down. It's the long straight down-hill blasts that make me feel like a 10 year-old kid again. No matter how many times I do it, it never gets old. There's a moment where, if you let it, you can tune out the world and feel like you're flying. Absolutely the best feeling.
    And on a more practical note, if I'm climbing the twisty bits, then I don't "see" how much of the climb is in front of me. I can talk myself into "I'm almost there..." and I don't dwell on the rise ahead of me.


    Wolf.

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  13. Going down shouldn't be frightening if a few basic rules are followed;
    1. ensure that the brakes are in good working order,
    2. brake before the corner, slowing to a speed that feels comforable for you. (you can increase the cornering speed once confidence improves)
    3. Depending on visibility ahead, take a "racing line" through the bend to increase the radius of your turn,
    4. keep your weight of the handlebars during the turn,
    5. if you do need to brake in the turn then apply brakes very gently with a 60/30 front to back brake weighting.

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    1. This is helpful advice, although sometimes the problem is none of these things. For me, I guess at this point it's mostly stress rather than lack of skill. And the stress comes from prolonged concentration, plus an awareness of the consequences of getting it wrong. Because I mean, it really isn't all fun and games. Remember the Connor Pass I wrote about recently?... A week after we crossed it, a German cycle-tourist was killed descending down the hairpin side. Went straight over the the edge. By all accounts, she was experienced and brakes were not the issue.

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    2. It is always a good idea to keep consequences in mind.

      In the absence of motor vehicles or acts of God bicycle accidents will have some warning more often than not. When other choices are gone the fallback is lay the bike down. Requires no skill, no practice, just a decision. Laying the bike down will probably hurt, it hurts a lot less than going over the edge.

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    3. Very recently, in my sixth decade of life, I read a quote from Grant Peterson recalling the best single piece of bicycle-handling advice he had ever received: to use his hips instead of his hands to steer on downhills. I have found that advice has made a huge difference in my own sense of control on downhills. Now the challenge is not to let that newfound control entice me into bombing hills at unsafe speeds.

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  14. I try to avoid hills altogether!!!

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  15. It's a difficult post to relate to…It's been years and years since I actually chose to ride up top to a mountain and then back down, just for the challenge, and those bikes were probably ten pounds heavier than what's being ridden today. I do remember going up, however, and if it became too steep I'd do zig zags myself until reaching the top. I rememberer the descents less….Says a lot about me, I guess. These days my challenges and joys on a bike lie elsewhere.

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  16. I do not do anything beyond my abilities, which is probably how Ive survived 25 years of cycling without injury. If necessary I walk. Friends can wait, or I ride alone.

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  17. Although going down more or less straight is certainly easier and less stressful then the curves (although less fun) Is climbing really that much harder on the curves? Of, course it depends on the comparison to the other side, but the function of the switchbacks is to more or less negate the steepness of the hill. so the climbing might actually be easier, the same or harder then the somewhat straitish side. As you say each is different. I think if I had my way I'd do twisty UP & Down! But, my knees aren't what they used to be! - Mas

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  18. For me it would always be up the steep slope and down the slower gentle path. I am not one for gathering speed and hurtling down hills.

    When I was young we had a triangular road route that started out from my house. Taking the left route took you up the two slow inclined parts of the triangle and down the very steep third angle of the triangle. I soon learned that I didn't like hurtling down the hill, the only other option was to be continually on my breaks...

    I prefered the heavy slog up the hill and a slow and gentle ride after I had ascended the hill :-)

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  19. my kind of mountain riding…long and straight, up or down…curves are fine if one can maintain the speed….this is oregon...https://www.instagram.com/p/BLY4asChi9D/?taken-by=sugarwheelworks

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  20. Best to do both ways every time just so you don't feel you're missing out.

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  21. Some years back on this very blog there was a discussion of the use of the front brake. It was illustrated with a photo from BQ or Jan Heine showing proper posture for applying the front brake while going downhill. Basically requires moving the butt way back behind the saddle. You have some steep descents in Donegal, on the steep ones that posture will be mandatory all the way down.

    Weight over the front wheel makes a bike steer quicker. Dropping the front wheel of the bike moves most all of the weight to the front wheel. With little weight on the back wheel the rear brake can't do much. If you are dependent on the rear brake you just have to keep the speed completely under control all the way down. At the same time the rear brake becomes ineffective the steering gets real quick. Yes, it is nerve wracking. The only recourse is moving the center of gravity rearwards by moving your butt rearwards.

    If your descent is the least bit bumpy it can get even worse. When there's only a few pounds of weight on the back wheel it doesn't take much bump force to lift the wheel right off the ground. Then you are doing a nose wheelie. You probably don't want to try that the first time while going downhill at speed. You just have to pay attention to center of gravity when descending. If parked in the saddle steeper than 5% or 7% will never be comfortable.

    Simple test. Apply your front brake hard. As hard as you can. This should be very easy to do. Now try it again going slightly downhill. Then try it a little steeper. When it stops being easy you can't get down a grade any steeper without a lot of trouble. On a 20% downgrade for all practical purposes your front brake is your only brake.

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  22. This post reminds me of a stunt that my non-cycling brother pulled when he was in college. He and a friend borrowed a couple of 10-speeds, drove to the top of a mountain pass and coasted down a steep, winding canyon. He said they reached speeds close to 50 mph, based on how fast the car that dropped them off was going as they descended. If I recall correctly, he said they passed a car or two on the way down. I'm certainly glad that the brakes seemed to be in working order, although I'm not sure that they actually bothered to check them before they rode off hell bent for leather.

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