I was explaining to my
mate as we dropped down off a climb the other day, just how fast and how
difficult it can really be descending in pro races.
I think I blame TV and
an uncertainty in the road closure system in amateur events for no one
(including my 21-year-old self) really understanding just how hard going down
could be. I mean, in an amateur race, you can never really, really trust that
the roads are completely closed; there is that slight lack of faith that, like
in training, slows things down.
Pro racing takes
competition cycling to its absolute limit. It simply requires another level of
skill in all areas of racing. Descending is a perfect example of this; the
mental and physical challenge of descending at pro level (even at the back of
the bunch) is something else.
There is literally no
quarter given in pro races; that's where the bucks are, and naturally that
includes going downhill. I can recall days racing in Italy, when we would fly
over the top of smaller climbs (I say smaller climbs - I was dropped on the big
ones, so wouldn't know) and would literally stay in the same long line all the
way down the other side. It was like
doing a ski run without oxygen.
No big ease-up to
drink, or think, or look about the group admiring our good work getting that
far. It would just be head down, and sprint out of every bend, going to the
limit time after time on switchbacks - the first riders making good the
advantage at being in charge of 'the whip'.
I remember how
exhausting descents used to be, I would fear them more than the climbs. My
triceps would ache like all hell and I would have to use so much mental energy
to keep my mind sharp and within centimetres of the wheel in front.
When you have suffered
up the hill, suffering more on the way down can be an odd sensation; the
descent should provide the respite surely? Well, no. Guys who descended badly
were as disliked as guys who would let the wheel go in crosswinds, and were
berated in a much more demeaning fashion.
Descending at the top
level is really, really hard. Not simply because of the level of skill
involved, but often these descents can go on for a good 20 minutes or so, and
at the end of the day, if there is an advantage to be had some guys will take
As for television,
well it just can't show how demanding going downhill is. Everyone just looks
like they are freewheeling, and aside from the odd shot of the motorbike speedo
there is no real way to show just how hard it is during this 'dead' time of the
One of the best things
I ever personally witnessed (we've all seen the Kelly clip by now surely) was
Paolo Bettini going downhill to win the G.P. Camaiore. I had been in the break
all day and he passed us on the final ascent like we were stood still. He
crested the summit with a handful of seconds on an emerging Frank Schleck who
was in full chase behind, took both hands off the bars, zipped up his jersey
and promptly plummeted the seven kilometres to the finish, his lead extending
corner by corner.
Perhaps it was his low
centre of gravity, perhaps it was that we had already been down that descent
five times that day, but my word did he go. It honestly looked like he was on
rails; he could not have got any more out of the descent. It was truly
something to behold, and it was seeing him do that descent that perhaps made me
respect the man more than anything else I saw him do on a bike.
Going up is hard,
going down isn't easy, and to be a real champion, you surely have to master