Hairpins are Magic

A Note from Fatty:Thanks to everyone who entered the “Design Kenny’s Tattoo” Photoshop contest. Kenny and I will spend some time today reading the 160+ entries and comments and will post awards tonight or tomorrow morning.

A little more than a week ago, Stage 4 of the Tour of Utah was rolling through my neighborhood — almost literally. This is — in my opinion — the most important stage of the tour, because it’s such a big day in the mountains, and rolls through all my backyard climbs.

I packed up the kids, we parked at the top of Suncrest (the second — and easiest — summit of the day), and cheered for each rider as he went by.

It was pretty fun.

A day or so later, Dug sent me a link to Rock Racing’s photo gallery from the day, which included this awesome action sequence of Tyler Hamilton. (Click any of the photos for a larger version on the Rock Racing site.)

First, here’s Tyler as he first goes wide of the hairpin. I love this picture. Tyler’s clearly got his brakes fully locked. It’s too late for those brakes, though; the gravel’s flying. He’s got a foot out, hoping to do a Fred Flintstone stop. Above all, though, I love his “Just Another Crash at the Office” expression.

And here’s Tyler, 0.00001 seconds before touchdown. I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’d be happy to have a crash like this photographed of me if it meant I could have calves that look like that. Those calves look like they were drawn by the guy who draws Spider-man. Also, notice that Tyler’s expression remains unchanged. “Ho hum, another day, another high-speed descending crash.”

Annnnnd…he’s down. On the bright side, at least he’s not still clipped in and thrashing like an upended turtle. That would be embarrassing. Or at least, I think it would be embarrassing, although I have never personally found myself in that kind of situation after crashing. Does anyone else, by the way, think it looks like Tyler’s taking the fall on his elbows and knees on purpose? I wonder if Michael Ball instructed them earlier in the day: “Look, no matter what you do, do not damage the shorts and jerseys. They’re priceless.

No serious harm done. Look at the expression on his face, though. Those are the eyes of a man who has just had a near-death experience.

Bob’s Bane
I like any photo action sequence, but I really like this one. Why? Easy. Because as soon as I saw the first photo, I knew — without any doubt whatsoever — where that crash happened.

It’s an extremely tight, steep, hairpin switchback we call Bob’s Bane, named because Bob similarly turfed it in that hairpin.

But really, pretty much everyone who rides down the American Fork side of the Alpine Loop eventually has a close encounter with that switchback. You’ve just started the descent after miles and miles of climbing. You’ve gone a mile, and the curves have been gentle. The descent has been moderate. You’re just beginning to relax into the speed: in the high 30’s or low 40’s, probably.

And then you come out of a gradual right to see a 170-degree left, steep and unbanked, with a million-zillion skidmarks and a gravel shoulder. The turn whips you around so hard and suddenly that even with hard braking, the centrifugal effect throws you to the outside edge of the turn like you’re the salad in a salad shooter. (Oooh. “Salad shooter.” That’s a not-bad name for a hairpin turn. I’ll have to remember that one.)

Hey, it’s all part of the magic — some good, some dark — of riding a hairpin turn on a bike.

Hairpin Turns on Road Climbs
As freaky and scary (and roadrash-y) as an unexpected downhill hairpin can be, there’s an exquisite counterbalancing magic to encountering a hairpin turn on a road climb.

Tell me if I’m the only one who’s experienced this: You’re on a steep climb, barely turning the cranks. Then you come upon a switchback that looks even steeper than the straightaways it joins up. And yet, somehow, you find yourself accelerating through that turn. Somehow, it’s easier to pedal through it than it should be. It’s like you’re being pulled through the corner. Like the corner has a built-in tailwind.

You’ve felt it too, right?

Many times I’ve wondered why a climbing road hairpin feels like this. Is it the centrifugal effect? If so, I’d like to ride up banked corkscrew climbs from now, please.

Is it just psychological?

Is it something else?

I don’t know. If you know, explain it to me. But there’s something there: the sense of being swung around the switchback, like you’re a bucket on a string.

Hairpins on the Mountain
While a hairpin on a road descent can be terrifying and a hairpin during a road climb can somehow be a respite, a tight hairpin on a mountain bike — a turn with a radius less than the length of your wheelbase — is…complex.

First, you’ve got to shed all your speed. And then you start the turn. Slowly. Smooth if you can, but more likely herky-jerky. If you’re me.

And then there’s the point you hit the apex of the turn. It’s a magic moment. You’re briefly stalled out, and either about to squeak out of the corner and roll out triumphant, or find that your front wheel is at too sharp an angle to the rest of your bike, and fall over on your side (unless you’re lucky enough to clip out in time, in which case I would argue that you weren’t fully committed to the attempt).

Will the magic be light or dark? You won’t know until you know.

When you make it, though — when you slide around a hairpin that you’ve never cleaned, or even one you only clean half the time — you get that wild moment of elation, a moment that can only be described as “magic.”

And that goes double if the guy behind you falls over.

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