I am never scared when I descend. I feel like the master of the universe, even if it’s my mind playing tricks, because danger is all around: we take a lot of blind bends with pockmarked surfaces. But often as I come out of a corner, I think that I could have gone through it faster. It’s funny how it leaves me with the taste for more.
Descending demands total lucidity and it’s a tough transition, especially after battle has raged up a col. I don’t have a clear head at the summit and it’s a shock to the system going from 20 kilometres an hour to 70, 80, sometimes more than 90 in the blink of an eye, from suffering to dropping the following cars and motorbikes, from overheating to feeling the body cool down quickly. Wind buffets the face and we have to rediscover our dexterity again. We move our hands from the handlebar tops to the drops. Sometimes it feels like suddenly doing a different sport altogether.
Downhill, the key is braking as late and as smoothly as possible, managing speed by feathering the back brake in the curve, then accelerating out of it like a bunch sprinter. Then, there’s picking the right sprocket, shifting mid-corner to not end up overgeared.
When going over 60km/h, there’s no point pedalling. I make myself into a tight aerodynamic ball. I perch on the frame and shift back into the saddle for corners. Muscles stiffen and the posture quickly gets uncomfortable; we’re not immune to bumps and jolts on the road either.You can see that there are plenty of things to bear in mind; it’s the absolute opposite of recovering from the climb and just letting yourself be carried down by gravity. In a stage with four or five cols, it’s too tiring to do every descent à bloc. Those micro-sprints of five to ten seconds out of each corner whittle down the energy and concentration levels.
The most exhilarating part of it all for me is seeing race motorbikes ahead. They serve as points of reference: if they don’t drop us, I can anticipate the next corners from seeing their rear brake light.
Paradoxically, I’d say I’m better on descents that I don’t know, a sign of how much I enjoy this exercise. I’ve rarely gone wrong downhill, helped by my creative improvisation, pushing it as far as possible. Whereas on familiar roads, I have a greater tendency to look out for the traps, the dangerous bends. I’m more cautious – it makes no sense, I know.
Image credit: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix
I have fond memories of the descent of Pra-Loup (in the Alps) in the 2015 Dauphiné, which served as the launchpad for my stage win, even though it’s straight, dangerous and has no escape route, with a sheer drop to the right of the road. No risk, no reward.
My most dramatic descending memory is from the 2017 Tour de France, coming down the Mont du Chat on the way into Chambéry. I was at the back of the little lead group because I was in oxygen debt as the battle on the way up was so fierce. Dropping back by a few metres for safety proved to be the saving grace when Richie Porte came down in front of me, taking Dan Martin with him. I dodged them and regained my confidence on the other hairpins, finishing the downhill alone in front.
Funnily enough, after a full-on effort by favourites trying to isolate one another on the way up, it took a dangerous descent of 12 kilometres to make the decisive gaps. The ten remaining flat ones to Chambéry were fatal for my hopes of glory, as I tried to outrace a motivated group chasing stage victory. But proof, if it was needed, that challenges are not just uphill struggles.
Cover image: Zac Williams/SWpix