In the world of professional cycling nothing grabs the attention like an epic mountain climb; Passo dello Stelvio, Monte Zoncolan, Alpe d’Huez, Mont Ventoux, Alto de l’Angliru – mention any of these mountainous beasts to a serious cycling fan and a few of the famous old stories will come to mind (and if they’ve attempted the climbs themselves perhaps a wince or a wry smile).
But, as the saying goes, what goes up must come down, and while there are riders who excel in scaling these great roads there are others who shine when going down the other side too; Thor Hushovd springs to mind, or Vincenzo Nibali. Type ‘Nibali descending’ into You Tube and you will get clips of the bold Italian scorching round hairpins and bunny hopping pot-holes.
In dry conditions most pro riders – even the ones not famed for their descending skills – are generally unfazed by scorching headlong down a descent at 80 kph. On reaching the peak of a climb they will begin the descent no-handed and wrestle with a windproof jacket, refuel at speed, then contort themselves precariously across their bikes in the search for aerodynamic advantage.
For most of us, it seems wise to exercise a bit of caution when plummeting off a climb; after all we have families and jobs, and a nagging worry that this kind of behaviour might invalidate the life insurance. The pro’s get paid to do this, but for us hobbyists there’s no point going mad – except there’s always at least one in our group who just can’t help himself.
We all crest the top of whatever climb we’ve chosen (in dribs and drabs), perhaps have a quick stop at the summit for a chat and a mouthful of liquid, before zipping our wind-proofs and heading down the other side. We dare ourselves to avoid touching the brakes, play chicken with the bends and steal a glance down at the on board computer – 60kph…63…64…whoah, that’ll do…and we ease off with eyes streaming and adrenalin pumping. But our mate the demon descender is still going.
The rest of us have pushed our luck as far as our nerves will let us – any faster and our minds become filled with all kinds of wild theories about what might go wrong, we tense up on the bike, and the moment is gone. But our friend is not the type to dwell on the accidents that could befall him and he barrels on regardless, seemingly unconcerned by the consequences of clattering a pothole, misjudging a corner or finding gravel.
As we watch from a safe distance he picks a sweeping line through the bends, relaxed and free on the bike, and finds an aerodynamic tuck at every opportunity; he’s not reckless and dangerous but confident and concentrated, fast because he treats the descent as more than just the bit to go ‘wheeeeee!’. He also doesn’t check his speed every five seconds.
As our friend becomes a dot in the distance the rest us cruise downhill and chat, wondering when the day will come that we have to scrape him of the road.
At the bottom he waits, casual, thinking ‘what kept you?’