When I think about descending and what is required to go downhill with the abandon of a pinball, what I think about are the turns, not the straights. Once the road arcs with the lazy bend of a river descending becomes little more than an equation involving mass and gradient. The heavier the rider, the greater the speed. Full stop.
But there’s a point at which gradient, turn radius and the distance between turns levels the playing field and descending shifts from a gravity calculation to a matter of introspection. How we enter a corner is determined by our understanding of the road surface, the shape of the turn, our speed, our bike’s ability to respond to input—and more—and we sum up the conditions in the blink of an eye. All this, to decide if, when and how hard we should brake.
So at a certain point our ability to descend becomes a measure of our right brain’s ability to turn these disparate factors into a kind of art. Think of it as a cyclist’s response to the succulent curves of a Ferrari California. There is geometry enough to describe every swell, every arc, every contour, but the numbers miss the point, don’t they? The fastest line down a road has a certain art and it can only be appreciated in its whole.
I live in a city consisting of more millions than there are eggs in a carton, so I’m constantly meeting new people. Inevitably, it comes out that I’m a cyclist. Next question: “Where do you like to ride?”
I’m as unable to contain my enthusiasm for riding in Malibu as the average dog is to go on a walk. I all but wag my tail as I jabber about the views, the twists, the speed, the suffering.
“Oh, so you’re a risk taker.”
And just as inevitably, I’m on the defensive, differentiating what I and my friends do from BASE jumping and big wave surfing and all other manner of dare devilry. To me there is a central difference. I won’t enter a turn at a speed that I don’t have every confidence will allow me to exit said turn intact. I don’t personally know any riders who do.
While I don’t think it is possible to break descending down into discrete steps the way you might team someone to build a wheel, in my mind, there is a hard line I never cross: the line that separates what I know my bike can do from the unknown.
There’s something deeply spiritual and ethical about taking a turn at high speed, but a speed that you know with confidence will allow you to complete the turn. It’s a form of faith. Sure, things can go wrong; you can run over an unseen piece of glass, encounter an oil slick or have a brain fade that sees you ride off the shoulder, but the point of the effort is to assess the known conditions and then reduce your presence there to the briefest possible span. The burglar’s alter ego, if you will.
A high-speed turn can define a certain sense of faith, one informed by reason. It’s the same act of faith that leads many of us to treat our fellow man with consideration, to go to church, to obey the 10 Commandments. We view these acts as the wisest choice for a peaceful existence now and in the afterlife.
Entering a switchback at freeway speeds is a bit like hoping God will help you win the lottery, or that he’s really, really forgiving.
The ethical dimension is a question of responsibility, of impact. Every time a rider goes down, the crash ripples through the community. The first impact of course is to the injured rider. The second are the riders in his company who must tend to him; their ride will be marred, perhaps cut short and certainly disturbed by what they saw. There are the emergency workers who may be called upon should the injuries require it. There’s the news through the local community: local residents who saw the hullabaloo and area riders who hear about the crash through friends. It makes folks question the sanity of cyclists.
We speak of reducing our carbon footprint, but the footprint left by an accident takes a psychological toll on many and can be largely eliminated with a touch of the brakes. But that begs different questions: How much braking is necessary? What does it mean to ride your brakes down a descent?
Aside from the obvious hazard that comes from heating the rims with excessive braking, riding the brakes indicates a lack of faith, faith in one’s own ability to read the road and conditions, faith in the bike’s inherent ability to carve through a course of your choosing, even faith that at speed you have not abdicated all control.
Faith isn’t defined by maintaining micro-control, nor by hoping for the best in a foolhardy rush. Paradoxically, it lies between the two, in a state where not every inch of road is known and yet shy of that point beyond our ability.
It is within that window bounded by a fear of loss of control on one side and a disregard for ourselves and the future that we find true faith, a point where skill allows us grace in our liquid movement through the world.