DURING THE PRINCETON 200K yesterday (I finished), I was thinking how a brevet that goes the way it’s supposed to doesn’t make for good stories.

At mile 10 there were hills.

At mile 26 there was a really big hill. Everybody went slower.

At mile 38 a turkey buzzard was eating a rabbit. We made ironic jokes.

I did write this haiku:

sweat and butterflies
drop through my vision, the road
like cartoon static

But I’d pretty much decided not to blog about this one until the long descent on County Road 519.

Boy, do I love descending.

I laugh when things are funny, and I smile when one of my children does something that opens my heart. But basically, I’m not a smiler. In my experience, male smilers are mostly salesmen.

But around 35 miles an hour, downhill, my heart’s beating faster, and by 40 there’s a grin. At 45, it’s full-out, flushed, eyes-bright glee, the way people look after a really awesome roller coaster.

I hate roller coasters. But I love descending.

When my stomach’s flat and my hairy butt’s got no lard on it, I’m between 190 and 195. In the small print for bike parts, I’m “For our heftier riding friends…” And I climb like a banana slug. You’ll have time to call your friends to help cheer me on.

But descending? If everything’s lubed and packed, and I’m not too exhausted to hold the position and trust my reflexes? Newton was wrong. Gravity loves me.

THE THING ABOUT a good tailwind on a descent isn’t that it speeds you up. It’s that when your ears are coasting along at the same speed as the wind, the turbulence roar goes away. The pinna, the outside part of the ear, has all these folds and curves that are great for sound focusing and directional localizing, but for hearing anything but ROOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAARRRRRRR on a downhill, ears suck ass.

But not with a tailwind.

If there are birds, you can hear them. If you have good tires, you can hear little leathery blumps over surface breaks and dips. If you have lousy tires, you can hear the same thing with a little more crack to the sound.

And if there’s a tailwind, and you have good tires, and it’s a few miles of new pavement?

And it’s sunny and nice?


PART OF THE reason I love descending is probably that I’ve never wiped out on one. So far, my wipeouts have been in the city: Two doorings (van; taxicab), two endos (hidden pavement heaves; submerged algae slime).

The best descents in Manhattan are Fort George Hill, 168th down to the Hudson Greenway, and the switchback above the Little Red Lighthouse.

These are not descents. In order, they are wrong way against heavy traffic, ends abruptly at major intersection; average New York traffic, ends abruptly at hard left; and place where kids play and people walk and you’re a city jerk if you act like it’s Paris-Roubaix.

Each of these little downhills lasts less than 30 seconds.

ACTS OF BEAUTY don’t get much more senseless than zooming downhill at 49 miles an hour with your jersey rippling and your gloved fingers on the levers. It’s pure. There is no manifesto, and you can’t get theoretical. Some beauty is simply itself.



Filed under Bicycling, Randonneuring, Senseless acts of beauty

19 responses to “Descent

  1. Sorry I missed you on this one, Keith. Last minute change of plans. One of my favorite routes. I look at descents differently, though. I probably dislike them as much as you like them. Give me a 4%-7% descent any day, but over that I’m all brakes. Been that way for years. Fear of heights, maybe. Will I see you on the Princeton 300K?

    • Hey, George. I’m not sure yet. I’m registered for it, but I’m not sure I’m ready. If it didn’t cost so much to do each of these (both in dollars and in family disruption), I’d say what-the-hell and go for it, but I may look for a flatter 300.

      Or I may just show up. I’ll probably decide about a week before.

      BTW, your name came up during Katie’s send-off safety speech. “And if you don’t think safety’s important, talk to George Swain…”

  2. Bill Russell

    All hail to a fellow descender!

    My best recent experience was last year on the Boston 600k, coming down off the Petersburg Pass: a blistering tailwind had me descending at 40-45 in completely still air. My mantra: breathe and keep your fingers off the brakes.

    • Ooo…how long was the hill?

      Was that the Boulder?

      • Bill Russell

        I’ve been over this pass both ways; this time west-to-east. The meat of the descent is 4 miles, so 6 minutes of pure falconry. It was the inaugural brevet for the Boulder; the rains and road overwash were enough to wear through a brand new set of brake pads!

        And I know: to brake is to admit defeat.

  3. I used to skate home from school, back when Rollerblades were the new hip thing: 96th and Park to 12th and the Hudson. The best part was always the sweet coast down 9th Avenue from 34th Street to 14th Street, with Voice of the Beehive’s “Just a City” on my Walkman and the wind in my hair. Love those downhills.

    • Walkmen were magic.

      I remember the first one I ever got. Junior high. I let my friend try it, and he looked around the quad and said, “It’s like everyone’s bopping to Al Di Meola.”

  4. Bill, did you find the fatter ties felt different on descents? In my imagination, they stick to the road more, but I can only fit the skinnier ones on my bike.

    • Bill Russell

      The fatter tires afford far more security cornering, hence descending. The lower pressure alone makes for an easier ride, allowing me to roll over cracks and bumps without regard for safety.

      Can you squeeze in 32mm? The Grand Bois 700c fattie, run at 80psi, is a sweetheart. Ask George.

      • The local bike shop mechanic says no, but I’m not really clear why. I see clearance where the tire would be.

        Maybe it’s a rim thing. I dunno…

      • Agreed. I do notice a big difference with fatter tires at lower PSI. The Grand Bois 700 x 30 on my bike are amazing. Go as wide as your frame will allow. 28, 25.

  5. “At mile 38 a turkey buzzard was eating a rabbit.” Thanks for the morning chuckle, Keith. Great post.

    • Thanks, David.

      I don’t know how many bike blogs you’ve read, but the “ride report,” when not kept on a tight leash, goes quickly and irrevocably laundry-list.

      I should do one about riding to the grocery store.

      • I read a lot of “ride reports” but I read them with the understanding that the ride reporters are not professional or semi-professional writers. I read them with the understanding that most of them are just trying to tell some folks a bit about what they did, maybe brag a little, maybe learn a little, maybe teach a little. Frankly, I think if someone can’t find a story to tell after spending all day on a brevet – even when nothing goes wrong, they’ve missed a big part of the experience. Because after all, even a ride to the grocery store can lead to a good story, if you are in it for the experience.

      • Hmm, that did sound a little disrespectful, didn’t it. I actually had a “little voice” about that sentence until I got distracted by other things.

        I didn’t mean it that way–laundry-list is just the trap that the form mostly easily falls into. First this, then this, then this, then this, then this, then this. Since that’s the form of the ride, it’s the first way of writing about it that comes to mind.

        (Also, David is the author of a short-story series I really like, so I was falling back on writer lingo instead of making myself clear: Critiques actually do call it “laundry list” when a passage of description in narrative goes that way.)

        Mea culpa.

  6. Keith,
    Have you ever read Tim O’Brien’s “The things they carried”? He took laundry listing and turned it into a work of art. Critiques are for critics. Writing is for writers. IMHO.

    • Keith

      Sorry, I meant writers’ critiques—looking at each other’s work and offering constructive commentary—not criticism after publication, which is only useful for selling more copies.

      Anything can be art, but when writing doesn’t work, it tends to not work in ways we’ve seen before and given names to.

      (I took a different view before I read my publisher’s slush pile.)

      Haven’t read it, but I heard it was great.

  7. Thanks for the clarification. I actually knew the difference when I made my hopefully constructive comment.

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