If you’re familiar with my background in ancient epic literature which often finds its way into my posts, then a blog about descents might conjure up images of journeys into the underworld – the katabasis (Ancient Greek for ‘going down’) – the ultimate test of the great hero travelling where mortals dare not venture, into the realms of the dead. Think of Odysseus, Aeneas, Herakles, or Orpheus on their quests to attain special knowledge or bring back those they love. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but this has nothing to do with that kind of descent.
Big mountains have dominated my riding over the last couple of months – big mountains with long and often very technical descents, up to 35km long in the case of Mount Hotham. Until very recently it was these descents that made me more nervous than the climbs themselves. Going up always involves a high degree of suffering and you can usually, at the very least, grind it out slowly until you get to the top. But climbing involves little risk of losing control at speed as you seldom get to go fast enough for this to be an issue. Descending is very different.
On my first big climb, Lake Mountain (21km and 900m), the first 4.4 km hovers between 8-11%, so it’s very slow on the way up and very fast on the way down, too fast for my liking. I did this a couple of times in early 2013 and pretty much rode on the brakes all the way down. My hands would get sore and tired. Similarly on my first alpine training camp at Bright, I found the descents down Buffalo and the top sections of Hotham too steep to really enjoy them. Again, I was on the brakes most of the way down, holding loads of tension in my upper body and arms. Descending is physical but it shouldn’t be like this. The descent should be the reward for the work you’ve put in to get to the top, but in my case I didn’t really look forward to them at all. It was more hard work, especially with the descents on big mountains where it might take an hour to ride down. It was exhausting.
Over the last few weeks though, my descending has come together. Only the other day did I realise how much so when I decided to take the longer and steeper of two descents down into Healesville, the beautiful Myers Creek Road. I’d ridden it quite a few times with friends but my preference had always been for the less challenging Chum Creek Road. Amazingly it didn’t feel that steep at all, and because I was able to draw out nice long lines through the corners I rarely had to touch the brakes at all. If anything I was looking for more speed. It just felt beautiful, and sooo much fun. More than anything it confirmed for me just how far I’ve come and that was extremely satisfying. What I experienced was such a contrast with my previous experiences there. More importantly, it consolidated much of what I’ve been learning while riding the big mountains. At Bright for the Domestique rides, my descents were the real highlight. Unlike the first time, I was now able to enjoy every millisecond of them.
A few things have come together to create this change. A few weeks ago I got some coaching which involved working on my cornering. My coach observed how much I was holding my breath and holding tension in my arms and upper body especially when I was going into the corners. Then there were my lines – what lines? To be fair, my lines weren’t always as bad as they started out that day. But they were inconsistent. Getting the lines right made the biggest difference of all. You see, I was having to brake a lot of the time because I was riding a line which gave me no option. It was such a revelation. Once I started to change this I found I was making the corners much bigger and safer for myself which meant that I didn’t tense-up so much on the approach. With a longer line through the corner I found I could also maintain more speed, only braking if it was really necessary on hairpin corners. I’ve been able to work on this on my regular rides but there’s nothing like testing out new skills on challenging terrain.
Looking back, the Baw Baw descent was probably a turning point. I was so nervous about this one that I asked the organisers if I could get a lift down. On the day, I decided to go for it, and while I took it as easy as I could, I got down safely and that was what mattered. It was a lot like the first time skiing down a black diamond run. Going down Baw Baw put other descents into perspective. It took a little while for this to sink in though.
By the time I got back to Bright last week I was able to integrate my technical knowledge of cornering with the experience of going down some much steeper gradients. It was like a revelation. It was just pure exhilaration. I was drawing all my lines well so I could go fast through the corners, remaining relaxed. The descent now felt like the reward, not work. I appreciated this most on the home stretch of my big 208km ride which ended with a 23km descent of Buffalo. The last time I’d done this I hadn’t enjoyed it much at all, but this time it was completely different. As tired as I was after being on the bike for over 8hrs I just focussed on drawing my lines. I could let go and just go with the mountain. In the fading light, feeling the euphoria of completing my biggest ride, it was magical.
At the start I said that this had nothing to do with the Classical katabasis. But, I’m not so sure. Like so many aspects of the cycling journey, the experience offers jewels of knowledge that we can bring into the rest of our lives. For me this has been about acquiring knowledge and finding the courage to move through fear. More than that it’s about learning to relax and let go of the illusion of control. We can’t control life, but we can draw our own lines through the twists and turns and make our way forward with skilful, light hands.
If you want to work on your descending skills do some research, speak to your local bike shop, and consider getting some coaching. Check out this article on corning techniques on Cycling Tips.
Also watch footage of the pros, such as this one of Cancellara:
For learning how to find the best lines through corners you can also look at motor racing where drivers take the best lines so as to maintain the greatest speed.
Special thanks to Kirsten Simpson for making photos such as the one featured here, available. You can many other great shots from this and other Domestique rides, among other things at: http://kirstenlsimpson.photoshelter.com/