When it comes to cycling, the downside is the upside.
If you’ve read my race reports from Mountains of Misery you know that I have a vexed relationship with that event, to say the least! Both times I have done the Double Metric version it has been a punishing, painful, exhausting, soul-sapping experience (much like enduring a US election cycle, only without a clear winner). But I feel about the Double Metric a lot like that OK Go song: “You don’t love me at all. . .but you’re so damn hot.” The Double is the most difficult ride I’ve ever done but it is also one of the most beautiful. It is a ride that, as I observed last year, makes you pay hard for your pleasures, but pleasures there certainly are. While it has the most difficult climbs I’ve ever done it also has a couple of really cool descents. . .descents that aren’t available if you take the century option.
So the first climb is about five miles of steady uphill grind. It isn’t that steep, just long. This kind of climbing isn’t about power as much as it is about rhythm and patience, getting into a zone of steady effort and staying there, varying it slightly up and down as the terrain alters almost imperceptibly, knowing your body well enough to know the warning signs that you are expending too much energy.
On the day, I was passed by pretty much everyone and their dog on this climb; tri bikes aren’t really built for this kind of thing and I wasn’t trained for this kind of thing! But the payoff for all this hard work is a fantastic 5 mile descent. The descent looks very similar to the descent on the Ironman course at Lake Placid. It is only about half as long, but it has the same long straightaways and gradually sweeping turns. You barely need to touch your brakes. Well, ordinarily that would be true, unfortunately I ended up with a state trooper in front of me all the way down the descent. I felt it would be bad form to ride his bumper, especially since he was being careful to pass the cyclists safely, so I ended up holding the speed to somewhere in the high 30s most of the time and topped out only at 41 mph.
But it is this kind of descent where for me the joy of cycling flows unabated. You let go and just allow the bike to run, to feel its own way down the course. This is everything about cycling that I love. Like ascending, descending is in part about rhythm, but it is also a lot about vision (looking way ahead of where your bike is going). More importantly it is about sharing an almost mystical connection with your bike based on the many long hours in the saddle and many different kinds of rides that the two of you have done together. If you are well-fitted to a good bike, the bike will find its way down a smooth descent with very little assistance from you. It will follow where you are looking almost as if it is responding to your thoughts, the tiniest correction will nudge it this way and that (too heavy a hand, braking too heavily. . .all these things court disaster).
There are a number of obvious cliches here–feeling “one with the bike” etc.–but these cliches contain an element of truth. Looked at objectively, a bike is a fragile, insubstantial piece of machinery. You yourself are a fragile, insubstantial piece of machinery. When you join human to such a machine, however, you become something else entirely. It is a kind of synergy that you rarely get with any other piece of machinery. Your slightest action influences the machine, the machine transmits the most subtle feedback to you through your entire body.
Then of course there is the obvious: the speed. One of the things that is arguably one of the most dangerous features of our reliance on automobiles is that they insulate us ever more effectively not simply from the world outside but from our own progress through it. Only when something goes really tragically wrong do we ever get a sense of how fast a car is traveling for example. But on a bike, the air pours over you, the road quivers underneath your bike in a subtle vibration, your tires hum, your freewheel purrs, snarls, or buzzes, depending on its type. Merely by changing your body position the bike speeds up or slows down, or changes its approach to a corner.
I’m not as good a descender as I want to be, but I think I’m better than most. Certainly on the way down Potts mountain I passed about a dozen people. Nor is it the case where the tri-bike made it easy. The tri bike accelerates downhill really quickly, but it is no more designed to carve turns than it is to climb and one of the strange features I’ve noticed about this bike is that it definitely seems to have an upper limit. If I just let the bike run, it doesn’t matter how steep the descent, it is very rare that I get above 45.
Part of me doesn’t understand people who are afraid of descents and ride their brakes the whole way down. But another part of me does get it. Humans are inherently disposed toward over-thinking and over-analyzing (and I am the poster child for that). But descending requires that you turn your brain off, essentially. This isn’t to say that you aren’t still making judgments about the camber of a corner, etc., but you aren’t really thinking about the fact that you are hurling yourself down a mountainside at 40mph on a couple of thin pieces of aluminium. I was watching Thomas Voeckler descending on the final stage of the Criterium du Dauphine last night and the difference between someone who descends well and someone who doesn’t, even at the professional level, is night and day. Watching Voeckler as he flowed into and around the hairpin corners you saw that there is a major difference between recklessness and fearlessness.
Maybe that is one reason why I love descending: it takes me out of myself, it is the moment where I become someone who is, for the most part, someone I am not: someone who operates on instinct, who just goes with the flow, who rides the moment.
The second climb on Mountains of Misery, bastard that it was, also had its downside payoff. This time there were no long straights, but a descent where the road waved back and forth in front of you, sweeping from left, to right, to left beneath a canopy of trees, a serpent hypnotizing you: lose yourself for a moment, come back to the basics demand of cycling: enjoy the ride.