Long ago — it was the 1981 Tour of Switzerland, I think, or was it the year later? — I dropped down the Furka Pass on the wheel of the great descender Johan van der Velde. Johan went downhill fast, scarily fast. I could hardly hold his wheel. I had to launch myself into a full-out sprint to catch up after every corner. It was an important lesson — descending can be just as painful as climbing.
As the wind buffeted my ears and the cold bit into my chest, an extraordinary realization struck me — Johan never used his rear brake. There, on the wheel of the master, had I discovered the secret to descending? Should you only use your front brake?
A short time later, I asked him about it. Johan rode for a rival team. We were in our early twenties. He laughed. I wasn’t sure if he was laughing at me or with me. “My rear brake was kaput. The cable had come loose,” he said bluntly. My wonder swelled. I hadn’t seen that coming. Would he really dare to attack that steep, twisty descent, to push the limit, with no rear brake? Had I forgotten that I was once a great descender myself?
Even longer ago — I was 12 — a neighbourhood buddy and I went to stay for a while at my aunt’s in Brunssum. In Brunssum, our future began. At least, that’s how we saw it, there stretching out before us. In the far south of the Netherlands, we would find what we were lacking in our hometown of Peel, where it’s as flat as a billiards table. We would find relief. We wanted to become bike racers, and we’d found a super campus.
From my aunt’s house, where we’d established our base camp, we set out every day on our cruiser bikes, which we’d removed the fenders from. We would arrive in Valkenburg, right at the bottom of the already-mythical Cauberg. We wore green army caps.
Up and down the Cauberg we would ride, out of Valkenburg and back into Valkenburg. We were monomaniacal, merciless. Climbing, I imagined I was the best climber of all time. My neighbourhood buddy soon realized he definitely wasn’t the climber he’d imagined he was.
Descending, my belly would swirl. The wind would whistle in my ears. I’d drop. Cars would flash by to the left and right of me, nearly brushing me with their mirrors. On my bike, I’d reach speeds I’d never thought possible. So what if my rear brake cable was loose? I was the best descender of all time, I imagined. I was at least as good as Rini Wagtmans anyway. In those days, Wagtmans was considered a demonic descent artist. I’d read about it in the newspaper and in magazines, and had once had it confirmed for me by images on a black-and-white television.
How did I dare to descend the Cauberg without a rear brake? Fun clearly eclipsed my sense of danger. But playing with your life is definitely not an art, I soon learned. My friend was able to descend even faster than I could. Later, he became a motocrosser.
I’m now 59 years old. Slumped on my chaise lounge, I can’t stand to watch riders race down a mountain on the TV. The threat of pain and death overwhelms me. Only when the whole bunch has arrived safely at the bottom am I able to relax again. Why do I clench my butt cheeks together so tightly when I see something I’ve done so often myself? It’s impulsive; the pull of gravity haunts me. I no longer have a handlebar in my hands, let alone a brake lever. I don’t have any control. My well-being is in the hands of others. On the bike, I feel safer than I do in my living room. How absurd is that?
My late wife fled from the television whenever she saw me about to take on a descent. I used to laugh at her, but now I understand. In front of a television, you have to rely on others’ bike-handling skills.
Still, I watch. There may be more stories to be told about going down mountains than there are of climbing them.
I remember a poem by Levi Weemoed, titled Tour de France: A Synopsis
It goes like this,
The one climbs faster than the other, the fastest gets a dapper shirt. And the very fastest descender, he gets a coffin and a church-bell concert.
It seems to me that the poet confronted a great many descents in his life, even if they weren’t on a bike, let alone as a professional cyclist. He’s clearly mocking the idiots who take on the roads of France. I find it a really beautiful poem. The two outermost words are linked, the dapper shirt and church-bell concert. My rashest interpretation suggests to me that the poet is jealous of the idiots’ courage and bravery.\
There are good descenders, and then there are really good descenders. A professional team’s mechanics can tell who is a good descender right away. They won’t have to replace his brake pads after a stage in the mountains. A very good descender will let go whenever it’s possible and pull back when it’s not. Air resistance is his friend. He’ll swoop down whenever the parcours is clear and then sit up at the last fraction of a second when it gets precarious, using the wind as a brake. A really good descender plays a sublime game with nature. But there are better descenders yet. The very best, the perfect descender, lives for the thrill. If he wasn’t a cyclist, he’d be an alcoholic, or worse. There is no greater pleasure for him than living on the very edge. The perfect descent is indescribable. It’s a dangerous, wordless sort of poetry.
Which contemporary riders have it in them to ride a perfect descent? Sagan can do it. I’ve seen him pull it off a few times on television. Cancellara used to be able to, but he’s now reached the age when wisdom abolishes your ability to play freely with the power of nature. Few more riders come to mind.
A really good descender is in total control of himself, his bike, and his surroundings. The perfect descender seems as if he has control over a situation that’s more powerful than himself.
Here’s another personal anecdote. In the spring of 1980, when I was still an inexperienced amateur, I travelled behind the Iron Curtain to take part in the so-called Peace Race as a member of the national team. The Peace Race was the Eastern European equivalent to the Tour de France. The national team’s coach was no one other than the daredevil I’d idolized as a child, Rini Wagtmans. In the finale of the deciding stage, which was run from Karl-Marx-Stadt in the DDR through the Ore Mountains towards Ústí nad Labem in Czechoslovakia, I descended with two Russian break-mates, Barinov and Morosov, on my wheel. While the Russians pushed me to my limits on the climbs, I push them to theirs on the descent, or so I thought. I missed a turn and landed unluckily on a pile of tree trunks by the side of the road.
I watched him step out of the car — my childhood idol. He gave me a good-intentioned kick in the ass and revived me with a barrage of words I still remember to this day. “You bugger, you had better get back to the Russians.”
A couple of days later, our mechanic, who was in the team car at the time as well of course, relayed the following story to me.
“Gé, get a spare bike ready. He’s going to crash!” Wagtmans had said. That was kilometres before I hit the asphalt. The national team’s coach had had a premonition. Gé, the mechanic, who was an ex-professional himself, hadn’t noticed anything unusual up until that point. “Rini just has a feel for certain things,” he said.
A feel for certain things — what is this strange intuition? I once spoke with Rini about it sometime later. He gave me an education. He taught me how to balance my weight between my wheels, how to steer with my body and save my brakes, how to share the load between my front and rear brakes if I really needed them, and how to find the right line and let my bike find its own way — all skills I earnestly promised to master. He then went on about the feel you have to have for the descent. Even if you can’t see into the future, it’s very possible to know what’s coming. My guru in the cult of speed seemed to be watching for me around every rocky corner. Although I certainly wasn’t a master descender yet, I understood what had made him one when he was a racer, and why he was one in the team car.
After all, he was Merckx’s domestique. Look him up in the history books. He was the brain behind the insane attack on Luis Ocaña’s hold on the yellow jersey during the 1971 Tour. The stage began with a serious descent.
My fall left me with a broken rib, but I didn’t realize it until long after the Peace Race was over.
Nearly every professional thinks he is a good descender until he meets someone who’s better. I once raced down the Joux Plane on Bernard Hinault’s wheel. We’d been dropped by the leaders during the torturous ascent. It must have been the 1984 Tour. The finish was at the bottom in Morzine. To be polite, let me just say that on that tiny, steep road with loose stones in all the corners, I was shitting seven colours. But I managed to block out my fear and let loose. It’s actually interesting to consider why I did so. Was the Tour more holy than my life? Or would arriving ‘home’ a few seconds earlier make all the risks worth it? Maybe. But was it also kind of fun? Yes, it was fun to race down the mountain behind that snowplow Hinault. A divine sort of indifference overcame my angst.
Hinault rode an imperfect, but still very good, descent. That same day, on the same descent, but long after we’d finished, the Italian Carlo Tonon hit a tourist who was crossing the road. “Abandon: Tonon”, the footnote in the communiqúe read that evening. I honestly didn’t want to know any more. Much later, only a couple of years ago in fact, I heard exactly what had happened. Tonon was dragged from the asphalt with a brain injury, and then lay for months in a coma, before waking up handicapped. In 1996, he committed suicide.
When I’m sitting in my chaise lounge, I often think of Carlo Tonon. The lady he hit was English. He would not have seen more than a flash of her. After a day of pointless drudgery, the non-climber launched himself down a redeeming descent. That was his reward. And that is, in my opinion, the most profound and banal meaning you can find in the art of descending — the reward. Descending is like whiffing fine wine — so long as it goes well.
I’ve read that the highest speed ever recorded in a bike race is 140 kilometres per hour. Lucien Aimar is said to have set the record in 1970 on the descent of Mont Ventoux. Do I believe it? It seems to me that you’d be blown off your bike by the hurricane-force winds you’d face at that speed. The speed was measured on the speedometer of a police motorbike. What was my top speed when I was racing in the 80s? 120 kilometres per hour, according to our Flemish mechanic, who’d checked the speedometer of the team car. It was during the 1981 Tour of Switzerland on the descent of the Simplon Pas, a concrete highway that drops down the mountain with just a few gentle turns. I was tucked neatly in line in a decently sized group. It was fast; that’s for certain. But was it so fast? A couple of years later, when the first bike computers came into use, I got up to 109, which is also pretty quick — unbelievably quick really, considering I was on a bike that wasn’t designed for such speeds.
Gianni Bugno was known for being a poor descender. You had to make sure to pass him before you reached the top of a mountain, because as soon as the road turned downhill, his athletic body was transformed into that of an old man. He’d have to puke. His bike would spasm. It was truly unfortunate that his climbing abilities were cancelled out time and time again by his fear. Whoever descended behind Gianni Bugno was lost. One time, I had the chance to experience it.
This can’t go on, Bugno thought. He decided to get therapy with the Milanese doctor Bertele, who was known for helping opera singers with their stage fright. Bugno was told to practice descending with his Walkman, so he could listen to a cassette that had certain Mozart compositions taped on it. The process took months. They played with the sound levels and playback speed. And then, as if he’d been reborn, Bugno could steer again. And he was now a lover of classical music.
How about the worst descender in the modern peloton? Has he been cured? Thibaut Pinot’s problem was easier to diagnose that Bugno’s complex. Pinot was simply afraid of speed. His saviour wasn’t a doctor but a former racing driver. Max Mamers thought it would be a good idea to take him out on the Magny-Cours circuit in an Exagon race car to get him used to speed over the course of a few weeks. He learned miraculously quickly. His therapy could even be called green. An Exagon is a ferocious car with a water-cooled electric motor that has capabilities of acceleration and a top speed that can only be described as disturbing.
Still, even when I’m sitting on my chaise lounge, when I have to watch Thibaut Pinot descending, I’m not completely convinced of the effectiveness of the therapy he underwent. A bike, no matter how modern and cut out for high speeds, will always remain a bike. And the body on the bike is just as fragile as it was centuries ago. Helmets — and in my day, we never wore helmets — are worthless when you’re going faster than 50 kilometres per hour. At a certain moment, Pinot simply must come to the realization that he’s perched on a bike saddle and not safe in the bucket seat of an Exagon.
Enough. This is the problem with us veterans — we’re always seeing bears on the road.
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 16 where it was first printed.