Monday, December 12

The Psychology of Descent


This post is the last in a three part series on "psychology." The first post was the Psychology of Long Rides and the second was the Psychology of Climbing. We're almost down man!


Some sick souls are just gluttons for punishment, riding up steep grades on bicycles for no good reason...sick. Of course those sick souls must find a way down from their lofty heights. And getting down can be a big deal.

More rock and mountain climbers are injured or killed on the descent than any other time while climbing. Could the same be said of cyclists?

The hard part is over. You did the ten mile slog up to the pass just so you could whoop-de-doo down the backside at 50 miles an hour. Your wife would divorce you if she knew you cracked five oh on the ole cyclo-computer. Child services would whisk your kids away in a nanosecond. But you pushed on those pedals as if your life depended on it once you saw you were coasting at 45 mph.

Reckless? Or calculated risk?

Descending Mount Vernon Canyon

Part of the thrill of riding a bike is bombing down hills. I don't care who you are, you can deny it, but you love the feeling of going really, really punk rocker fast down some curvy hill. It might scare the pee out of you, but you love it. Screaming down a steep canyon road with tears whisking back into your ears is one thing, riding willy-nilly-out-of-control down a snaking singletrack is a completely different monster.

But both types of descents require complete focus and fast descents are not for everyone. The good news is that bicycles are typically outfitted with brakes, so your descent does not have to be such a kamikaze affair.

Cyclist coming down Lookout Mountain

When we rode the Virginia Creeper Trail a few years ago we met an elderly gentleman and his wife. They were on hybrids with upright sitting positions. But gramps extolled the virtue of a good fast ride down an incline. They intended to fly into Damascus down from Whitetop Station. They took off and we never caught up with them as we bombed down the mountain ourselves.

On roads I've always been a full throttle kind of descender. I'm cognizant of the hazards. I accept the consequences of my risk. But I ride a bike to have fun, even when I'm riding a bike for utility. Going fast is fun, and the easiest way to go fast is to start at the top of a hill, the steeper the better, point the wheel downhill and pedal. Hard.

Until recently I've been a more reserved dirt descender. I have no desire to implant a tree trunk into my brain. I like trees, just not that much. And you never know when you'll round some sharp, narrow curve and come face to face with an obstacle you don't want to merge with on a molecular level.

Buffalo Creek

You must have confidence to descend fast. And to gain that confidence you really have to have quite a few successful descents. The best way to survive this process is to start slow and build up to faster speeds. This is a pretty common notion in any activity. You've got to build up to it.

The danger with cycling is that any yayhoo can point the bike down some monster and let gravity do all the work. Voila! Sudden death.

Yayhoos notwithstanding, even you Dear Reader, can succumb to going too fast. Even I...

But as in climbing rocks and mountains, you can't let your guard down once the hard stuff is over. Even though you're going to let the single most powerful force in nature move your nappy behind down the road, you must still exert some power and will of your own. While rocketing toward the flats below, make sure to keep your attention riveted to the road or trail ahead. If you want to take in the view...stop.

The reason rock climbers and mountaineers perish themselves while descending is because they believe the hardest part, and most dangerous part, is over. The reality is that moving with gravity can increase your danger exponentially because of momentum and endorphins. Your brain was awash in a "runners' high" only seconds before as you reached the apex of your climb, but you find yourself blazing through the atmosphere at near terminal velocity as the bottom drops out from under you. You want to enjoy the moment, revel in the feeling of accomplishment, but you shouldn't be doing those things at the expense of your attention to the task ahead: descending safely.

Enjoy the ride, but remember a few things:

1) Focus on where you want to go, not on where you DO NOT want to go. Don't stare at the rock in your path, zero in on the narrow gap between it and doom.
2) Plan ahead. If the route is blind SLOW DOWN. If you can see far ahead, then put the spurs to 'er Chuck, but be ready to stop, slow down, or maneuver before you get to any obstacles.
3) Keep yer hands on the bars. While descending at speed you should not brush mud off your downtube. You should not take the opportunity to wrassle with a gel packet. You should not be picking your nose. Keep your hands on the bars.

And lastly, only YOU know your limits. Don't let the thrill of gravity and momentum lure you into speeds that you can't manage. And slob in a smelly t-shirt can hit 50mph. Be the slob that hits 50 and lives to tell about it.

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