Back in the early aughts, Subaru had a clever commercial for one of their cars. The scene was a family of four eating at the dinner table. The young son was using his fork to power a green bean around his plate. He made rally car sounds. After a few seconds the father says something to the effect of: “Billy! How many times do I have to tell you? Accelerate at the apex and through the turn.” The boy paused, slightly startled, and replied: “I was.” “Oh,” father says. And they went back to eating. I thought of this commercial while descending one of the two best descents in Portland. We were able to cruise the first mile or so but then came upon a Subaru Forester operated by an unskilled and/or unworthy driver. Clearly this driver never received any advice at the dinner table. Il Falco I’ll never be, but I had to ride the brakes the rest of the descent, the good part, to keep from landing in the back of this car.
I don’t live for the descent, as many cyclists do. I enjoy descending and believe it is just rewards for summit efforts but I have yet to break through the ‘what if’ barrier and truly let it free on most descents. I’ve lost more races than I care to remember because of timid descending. Last week I did a long ride with a group that included a longtime professional snowboarder. Every descent we approached he attacked with such control that my being dropped seemed an appropriate and foregone conclusion. Even on roads he’d never ridden, which most were, he chose the right lines with the right speed. I wonder if a more confident mindset, a disregard for consequence or a finely honed feel for balance relative to speed allows for such impressive performances. Likely, it is some combination thereof. If you are lacking in one component, which I am, perhaps more than one, than impressive descending will be a struggle. That is not to say that they are not fun and exciting. By no means do they ever get old.
The Giro always seems to produce race winning or saving descents. In 2005 with Savodelli won with Discovery Channel, Simoni was a couple minutes up the road and in the virtual maglia rosa by the top of the climb. Il Falco seemingly remained calm through the climb only to put on a show that should have made Phil Ligget coin a new catch phrase. Savodelli brought back most of Simoni’s advantage in under ten kilometers of descent, enough to retain the jersey and take the overall. This year in the Giro David Arroyo put on a similar performance in an effort to bridge to Basso and Nibali. Dropped on the Mortirolo (or was it the Gavia?) climb, Arroyo crested several minutes behind Basso and a couple minutes behind Sastre, Evans and Vino. About half way down he caught Sastre with such speed that Sastre was startled when he was passed. Shortly after he put it all on the line and caught Evans and Vino. The conditions were treacherous at best: cold rain, insanely twisty, limited visibility. The moto cameras had trouble staying with him as most of the shots were from the helicopters. Arroyo couldn’t catch Basso and lost the jersey but that descent will live in memory. He was truly the best on the road.
The dynamics of descending are highly complex. In a group, solo, open road or not, atmospherics all play critical roles. The entertainment factor is higher for descending; the likelihood of catastrophe greater, the visual appeal of 180 riders strung out through a series of switchbacks, the immediately noticeable difference in skill. And just like there is always someone who can go uphill that much faster, so too will someone make it to the bottom.