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The Essence of Descending

November 22, 2011

Today’s Ride: 81km—Concession 5, St. George, Jerseyville

Weather: Very cold; heavy winds

Descending. Winding down the Old Ancaster Rd., leaning into turns, carving out sharp lines, using every inch of my lane. Smiling. This was the end of the day’s ride, one that had involved dying a hundred deaths into strong winds over the past 15-20 kilometers. But I was smiling. If I think about descending—realize how just a couple of centimeters of rubber are the only thing between me and the tarmac—then I’ll be more cautious. I’ll squeeze the bars too tightly; I’ll feather the brakes to frequently; I won’t lean into the turns as confidently; counterintuitively: I’ll be in less control. When descending at speed, the mind needs to be in the moment. Cogito ergo sunk.

While the romance of climbing doesn’t occur in the moment, the essence of descending is all about being in the moment. Not thinking, not over-analyzing, but relying on reflexes. Feeling the road. You can mentally prepare for a particular descent—knowing to avoid a pothole near the bottom of the hill, for example—and you can assess your performance in its aftermath as you resume your cadence. But whereas climbing becomes a black hole in the mind as blood rushes to the legs and the lungs heave, the descent is all about the feel and experience. It’s about the adrenaline coursing through the body. The sensations. Letting the mind go. Letting the body lean and letting the bike guide.

The essence of descending is all about smoothness. Today, I was smiling. Not the arrogant grimace that comes with powering up a steep pitch; an almost giddy, childish smile. Playful. Risky. Fun.

Naturally enough, the descent in question wasn’t more than a couple of minutes in a three-hour ride, which began at Domestique. Bitter cold with a wind that reminded the body that time indoors with a cup of tea would be a better idea. Getting warm on days like can be a real mental struggle. Espresso down and fighting my way up Sydenham against blustery winds was enough to warm the core, and as I turned westward, I had the wind behind me. All the way out to St. George. The kilometer of dirt road—feeling the uneven ground and riding harder while loosening my grip on the bars—was the last fun of the ride before I turned into the wind.

I have little memory of the homeward leg. I know it was slow. I know I was turning a pitifully low gear, trying to strike a balance between higher cadence and some degree of speed. I know that climbing the rolling hills along Jerseyville Rd. provided some respite from the howling wind, with me tucked against the back of the slope. And then being walloped by the wind’s full force as I crested. But my mind wandered. I don’t recall seeing common landmarks. In retrospect, passing through intersections was a hazy memory. Where was I? Why was I thinking about Oxford United? My history of the future course? Skiing? And how were these connected? I’m not sure I would have had a better answer at the time.

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