One of the skills that make a top road cyclist is not only the ability to climb mountains, but also the ability to descend them.
Today’s stage in the Tour de France has the longest descents of all the stages, where riders will reach speeds in excess of 70mph, as they lean into the bends trying to find the most efficient route down.
Unlike climbing, one of the biggest issues with descending is that it’s virtually impossible to practice the big descents prior to the races, so the riders tend to be racing blind. On recces of the stages in the lead up weeks to the tour the riders will check out the mountain stages so as to know what to expect on the downhill parts. But even so its impossible to replicate the speeds and intensity of a race as the roads aren’t closed, and no team wants their top riders hurtling down mountains at top speeds un-necessarily.
The secret is to read the road. Cyclists can pick up clues as to the road ahead either by where the gravel is on a bend, or even by following the break lights of the motorbikes they follow. But ultimately you are either a good descender or not! As Fabian Cancellara has said:
“You either have it or you don’t have it,”
It’s really only the riders who feel that they can make up time on the descents that will take the risk to really go for it. Nibali, seen as one of the most skilled descenders in the peloton, may take that risk today. He has nothing to loose, whereas the riders higher up the ranks will no doubt ease off on the speed and play a little safer.
One of the worst crashes on the Tour’s history was that of Fabio Casartelli, who crashed on the descent of the Col de Portet-d’Aspet in the Pyrenees, a section of road that still appears on the Tour. This year’s tour marks 20 years since his death, and as the riders went past the memorial on the road where he died last week, the supporters in that area paid respect by clapping quietly rather than the usual raucous applause and cheering.