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.


  1. Robot

    I have, on occasion, overcooked a turn, put myself at serious risk, drifted across the yellow line, and found that surviving such a miscalculation inculcates faith’s twin brother, gratitude.

  2. souleur

    Padraig, you describe ‘faith’ very well. You also described something, just not the way i have heard it described before, that of ‘blind faith’. I don’t really believe in that, because it perhaps is the least of all faith, and it incorporates no thought, no calculation, no history, no evidence. Its the greatest faith we have, based on evidence before us, the road, the careening of the corner, the speed we carry, the product of what we have done before, & how we feel that dictates ‘faith’, as you well put it. I have never thought of our faith in the saddle, and find your points very well said and thought provoking.

  3. MattS

    I’m certainly with you Padraig, descending at speed does take faith. Naturally, we all make mistakes and overstep the bounds of our abilities, at least from time to time. Some do indeed throw caution to the wind and ride beyond their ability. I consider this ‘blind faith,’ in that its not informed be enough experience. Back when I used to race downhill mountain bikes I’d often enter turns at speeds I wasn’t sure I could pull off. If I crashed I knew I’d have to back off a bit. This was, in a sense, blind faith, but probably more aptly described as ‘risk taking.’ I knew there was a risk I would crash, and was fine with that. I had most of my body padded up, and I just didn’t really mind crashing that much. I ride cyclocross the same way sometimes. I push it beyond what I know I can do and see how it goes. Sliding out is just not a big deal.

    On the road things are different. I REALLY don’t want to crash, especially when I’m riding at downhill and sprint speeds. I don’t take ‘risks’. I do what I know, or rather, believe, I can do. I have faith in my ability, and I listen to my intuition. When I misjudge the elements you list above, my mtb handling kicks in.

    On the matter of ethics, the group you don’t mention being affected by our crashes is of course our families. My in-laws think I’m a risk taker; or at least my father-in-law does. He does not understand what we do, or why we do it. No clue, never done anything remotely like it. He thinks I am unethical in putting myself at risk as I do. What if I crash and kill myself? What about his daughter and granddaughter then?

    ‘At risk’ and ‘taking risks’ are different beasts though. I’m always ‘at risk’ to some degree: of having a stroke, being struck be a car while walking, crashing while riding. A life without being ‘at risk’ is not a life I want to live. My passion for life, the very passion I impart in my daughter, is intimately bound up with my cycling practice. Cycling is my art. If I am fatally injured while cycling my family will know I was doing what I loved most in life (aside from being with my wife and daughter of course). At least those in my family who understand me will know this. Others will consider me selfish. Why couldn’t he be into gold instead?

    I’d be interested to hear what others think about when people pull the ethics card on them in relation to the riskiness of cycling.

  4. Doug

    The biggest risk is the one taken by the most risk averse- the sedentary lifestyle. I would rather die instantly in a high speed bike crash than have my family watch me die slowly from the sedentary lifestyle favored by people whose lives are guided by fear. Those whose endorphins lie dormant, whose veins, arteries and capillaries have never been stretched and flushed by vigorous exercise do not want to face that fact- that by letting themselves go physically they risk their lives.

  5. MattS

    Well put Doug. Sadly, these words would ring of lunacy to most. These matters are philosophical whan you boil them down. Its about what constitutes ‘living’. There is existing, then there is living.

    “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.”
    John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (1863)

    I think this pretty much sums it up, even if Mill was not likely thinking so much about sport as intellectual pursuits.

  6. Marco Placero

    A couple local descents are 65-70 kph for 10 twisty chilometri of faith but a steep penalty for losing it: 700 vertical rocky meters to the river just off your right pedal. We joke about the most dangerous part of the ride: the way back home gotta dodge through a touristy commercial area with fresh latte motorists darting out like one ton arrows into our route. Having faith in accelerator pedal smashers is even more difficult than finding faith in tires, brake cables, “things truly of a lesser order than myself” (Krabbe).

    Keep the faith Padraig, grazie e buon natale.

  7. Dan O

    As usual – another great post – nice job.

    As a motorcyclist with an interest in sport bikes (even though I sold my last one in 2006), this post strikes a chord with me. Corning well on a motorcycle is like a bicycle times a thousand.

    A lot more physics at work – the weight, fat sticky tires, powerful motor, incredibly powerful brakes, and of course – much higher speeds. Really counter steering to initiate the lean, the feel of brakes, selecting the right gear, the incredible rush of power rolling the throttle back on – all very addictive.

    The acceptance of risk is very similar between serious sport motorcyclists and cyclists alike. It has nothing to do with daredevil risk taking, but more of gaining skill and experience to master a craft.

    Oh yeah, plus going fast is just damn fun…..

  8. Trev

    Counter steering has improved my riding [ safety and enjoyment] ten fold. Possibly Padriag, you should discuss it a little bit. My friend who raced pro Superbike for Suzuki taught my how to counter steer and its a skill every roadie should know.

  9. Glen

    Good job Padraig as always. Well put by Doug also, reminds me of one of my favorites “get busy living, or get busy dying.”

  10. wvcycling

    On the gnarliest descent in our area during my first ride with another cyclist, I asked him: “How do you know how fast to go down this?”

    His response? “Are you one with your maker?”

    I knodded.

    He then said “Well, just go at it then.”

    Best advice I ever received.

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