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Zero Tolerance Descent

– Like hunger. Like lust. Primitive forces, fiercely felt: How else to describe my one-time fear of flying? The night beforehand was the worst of it -- when countless scenes of catastrophic system failure went vivid: Simultaneous engine malfunction; mid-air collision; an exit door blowing out like a champagne cork; cuckolded-now-suicidal pilot; wind shear on the glide path. Mine was a typical case of irrational fear of what you can’t control, and my first-ever trip to the Tour de France, back in ’03, only happened because a good customer -- he also happened to be an American Airlines pilot -- talked me through my catalog of ‘what if’s’ with a mystic’s patience.

I’ve long since shed the phobia, so the return last week of its attendant sensations -- the fluttering nausea, the jacked-up breathing, the scrutiny of fragile mortality -- it was as surprising as it was unwelcome. It came in the dark of a strange hotel room, thanks to a memory of tiny Trivigno, Italy -- the highest village atop the ‘easy’ side of the Passo del Mortirolo. I’d ridden as far up as the snow would allow earlier that day, and I stopped there to admire the valley. The micro scale of the towns far below; the way they weren’t out in the distance, but straight down instead -- it was a mid-flight type of view. A wicked descent awaited --

To climb a mammoth Dolomite pass is to foremost see the treachery of the return trip. (a) Few of the roads are much wider than a golf cart path. And I’m talking a public course cart path at that -- choppy, rutted, and entirely unagreeable. (b) The road markings are inconsistent, i.e. hairpin warnings are present for 3 out of every 5. (c) The roads are never chute-like, but rather they blindly twist from top to bottom, giving you no warning of what’s coming up toward you -- a lesson I almost learned the hard way by coming within a whisker of colliding head-on at 60kph into Cadel Evans and two of his teammates who were amidst a pre-Giro recon of the ‘hard’ side of the Mortirolo. (d) It’s uncertain what’s worse -- the near-total lack of guardrails to keep you from plummeting 500m down if you miss a turn, or the occasional strategic anti-avalanche guardrail built with a bunker’s worth of concrete & steel.

The universal language of cyclists is suffering. Even though Pantani or Basso might’ve climbed the Mortirolo at triple my speed, our stories of spikes and lulls in the agony all come from the same Book of Pain. We celebrate the punishment of the trip upward -- but what about the descents? Why so much silence on the terror of flying down? Look in the literature of our beautiful sport, and see how little is mentioned of fear. Press a PRO on the subject and you’ll learn just how many races get split up worst on the descents, not the climbs. Rarely-if-ever will you hear ‘fear’. These same PROs emphasize the amount of control they have as individuals on the descent -- based on their level of aggression, they can either lose or make up a minute on a big one. It’s a function of effort, they say, never balls. Is this confidence a lie, or is it another attribute of the discipline that makes them PRO?

A couple of hairy moments descending Trivigno got me nervous, then with no added input it escalated uncontrollably from there: I became reacquainted with ’03-vintage all-consuming terror: One nano-second of drift or the slightest over-correction would be self-murder. And when I tried calming myself by channeling my inner PRO, i.e. emphasizing the control I had over my speed and my line, irrationality took over nonetheless. What if I blew out my front wheel in a sweeping bend? What if my brake cable pinch bolts gave out? What if, out of nowhere, I suddenly went blind? What if my [insert bike component category] snapped in two?

The act of descending, in fact, was never a problem. On the bike my brain nicely shut down and I rode on instinct. But in bed I felt a type of fright perhaps best portrayed in Michael Barry’s masterful le Métier (a book unafraid of discussing PROs & fear, it should be noted): The struggle to shed visions of imagined-descents-gone-bad drove me to insomnia. I was clocking 4000m of climbing per day, but sleep was an impossibility. For 3 straight nights I downed a desperation 1am Ambien to shut the IMAX Theatre of Tragedy in my brain.

I considered bringing up the subject with my riding partner for the week -- Craig Lewis of Team HTC-Columbia, but given that in a few weeks he’d be racing down these very descents, it seemed selfish. The one time we spoke of descending at length, it regarded a point in Stage 19 when the race would bomb halfway down the Aprica Pass, then take a blind 120° turn onto a road no wider than a yoga mat to start the cruel bitch named Passo Santa Cristina. For Craig fear played no part in the conversation; rather it was a concern of being positioned up front so he wouldn’t get bottlenecked & gapped through the turn. The youthful confidence. The sure self-determination. Why cloud it? I kept my mouth shut.

The final stop of the week was to the Madonna del Ghisallo sanctuary, and the somber sight of Fabio Casartelli’s bike there was doubly chilling. It was a final reminder that the sport I love can kill me. It’s always been that way, I’ve always been aware of it, and whatever bargaining I’ve been doing for 2 decades has generally been working. The private breakdown I had in the Dolomites -- I’m not sure if it was temporary irrationality rooted in the sublime (Edmund Burke defined ‘the sublime’ (in context of a trip to the Alps, no less) as horror spawn from overwhelming beauty), or perhaps it was an overdue act of mature rationality? I’d like to say time will tell, but since 20 minute zero-tolerance-policy descents are few and far between in the US, I don’t know when I’ll be put to the test again.

– Other notes from the Dolomites:

* It was my first time making extensive use of a compact crankset (50×34). It seems I spent most of the week in my 34×25, and if I’d had a 27 I would’ve used it (a lot.) It was clear that no matter how low of a gear you put on your bike, you’d end up using it there. There were points when a triple (a mountain bike triple??) would’ve been welcome. It was an eye-opening experience about gear choices on authentic Hors Categorie climbs -- low-cadence/high-power looks cool at Flanders, but it’s an impossibility when you’re biting off 500-1500 vertical meters at a time..

Craig rode with a 52×36 and an 11×27, a set up he says he’ll use during the Giro during stages 19 & 20. In passing he referred to the crank as a ‘Dolomiti Compact’ and he was surprised to learn that the US market basically doesn’t support 52×36. Nary a bike is equipped with it as OE equipment, and if you look at QBP or other distributors, the ratio of 52×36 cranksets available vs. 53×39 and 50×34 is about 1:500. That might be a change we’ll need to champion here at Competitive Cyclist…

* Most important component of the trip? Honorable mention goes to my DA 7900 brakes with their stock pads and cables. They proved reliable and consistent, and given the mental + geographic challenges cited above, they became my BFF. But the various travel legs (flights and then a few different trips in the car to various recon points) proved that nothing beats a chain peg when it’s time to pack and unpack.

* Lance Armstrong called the Passo del Mortirolo (climbed from the Mazzo di Valtellina side) the hardest climb he’s ever done. It’s 12km long with eternal spells of 18%. Each turn is counted down from bottom to top, starting with ’33° Tornale’ at the bottom, and stretches of road run so long in between that you forget the signs exist ’til you see another one. It’s such a savage climb it made me wonder how Alpe d’Huez got to be the Augusta National of bike racing. Surely it’s because (to the whole world except Italy) the Tour is considered a higher-caliber race. But for beauty + degree of difficulty, the Mortirolo is unmatched.

A funny irony is that previous to this trip I never gave much thought to the Mortirolo because we once sold a model of Wilier called the Mortirolo and it’s not particularly expensive. I made an unconscious assessment that low frame cost = low climb difficulty. Not smart. In a just world the name would be reserved for Wilier’s best bike. Really, it should be reserved for the world’s best bike (whatever that might be) in tribute to a climb so charmingly beautiful and fully devastating.

* I confess I broke my no-computer rule for the trip. I used a Garmin 500, primarily so I could download the rides for posterity’s sake. Two Garmin-specific notes:

(1) It was my first time using the 500. It seems like it has a bit of time delay in the current speed and gradient display (maybe 1-2 seconds delay?) Has anyone else experienced this? Is there anything I should know about it? Any settings I should change?

(2) I love VAM, i.e. the display of your vertical meters ascended per hour. Previous to this, I’ve only been able to make entertaining comparisons to the giants of the sport via w/kg, where the most PRO riders are close to 7. During my week I became a fan of VAM and got a chuckle measuring my climbing prowess vs. the high-PRO VAM standard of 1700ish. It seems like we should hear more about VAM, but there’s little talk about it. Maybe with the 500 we’ll get more VAM benchmarking by riders of various abilities?