As one of just half a dozen riders to have won all three Grand Tours, Vincenzo Nibali is very capable of going uphill fast, but can be absolutely astonishing heading downhill if he sees an opportunity for victory or to apply pressure on a rival. His victories in the 2015 and 2017 editions of the Giro di Lombardia owed much to his breathtaking descents off the Civiglio, the penultimate hill on the course, the narrow road dropping sharply through a series of extremely tight switchbacks in villages piled one on top of the next on its steep hillside.
The first of those successes offered a master class in how to open a gap on a descent. His initial attack comes in textbook fashion from the back of the lead group at a moment when his teammate Diego Rosa is on the front. Naturally, Rosa isn’t going to respond, so the chase is picked up by Frenchman Thibaut Pinot, famously flaky going downhill.
As Pinot starts the pursuit, Nibali sprints into the slipstream of the TV camera bike and uses the shelter it provides to up his speed and slingshot past toward the first switchback, where the difference in the two men’s skill sets is immediately apparent. Nibali sweeps around it and is quickly back up to speed, while Pinot takes it too wide, loses his momentum and his place at the front of the chasing line. It means another second gained by the Italian, maybe two.
With a knee angling out on the bends, Nibali resembles a MotoGP rider, moving his body weight from one side of his bike to the other, pushing it as far over as it will go, and he’s doing this on rubber a mere inch wide. The best measure of his speed is the rate at which he closes in on the motorbikes buzzing around the riders. Usually, a touch of the throttle fires them away from the riders in an instant. But Nibali’s speed is so breakneck that they can’t get away or even keep pace with him. He moves and reacts faster than they are able. It’s terrifyingly exhilarating to watch. As he sweeps around the final bend and back onto the flat, his lead is 25 seconds with little more than 10 kilometers remaining. The contest is over.
Two years later, Pinot was prepared for a repeat and made a preemptive strike climbing the Civiglio, going clear on his own, only to be joined by Nibali just before the summit. Approaching it, the Frenchman stuck out his right hand to grab a bottle from a team helper, and Nibali saw his chance, flashed by and, as they started down the descent, constantly applied pressure. To his credit, Pinot stuck with the Italian most of the way down, but the elastic between them stretched as Nibali kept pressing on the more technical lower sections, testing the Frenchman’s nerve. Nibali came off the climb with an advantage of just five seconds, but once again it was enough.
In between, Nibali turned around his fortunes in the same intrepid manner at the Giro. Criticized by the Italian press as he fell five minutes behind Steven Kruijswijk two days from the finish in Milan, Nibali went to the front of the maglia rosa group coming off the mighty Colle dell’Agnello pass, almost daring his rivals to see if they could stay with him. Soon after, Kruijswijk overcooked a sweeping left-hand bend and ploughed into the wall of snow at the roadside, the impact sending him and his bike cartwheeling. By the stage’s end, Nibali had almost recouped his losses. The next day, he completed the turnaround, his second Giro title essentially the result of his verve on descents.
“When we were on the Agnello, I saw something that maybe the others didn’t pick up, that the maglia rosa was breathing quite heavily at the summit and at the same time I was feeling better, so I thought I would attack on the descent and put the pressure on,” Nibali explained. “That’s how it is in cycling, you’ve got to be able to attack on every kind of terrain. I realized at that moment that I could turn the whole race upside down.”
Descents have always been a part of bike racing. In the sport’s early years, when bikes were either fitted with one brake that didn’t provide much slowing power, or no brake at all, coming down was a haphazard experience. The most perilous sections were marked with lanterns or by flag-waving marshals. Some riders walked, while others put rocks in a bag on their back to improve stability. The most daring, though, didn’t bother with caution, opting to tackle the rough, unsurfaced roads in speedway-like fashion, sticking a leg out to provide balance and a touch of control through corners, hoping that was enough.
In the postwar years, there have been plenty of instances where riders saved their hopes by being daring on descents or lost them due to nerves or pure bad luck. Certainly the most renowned occurred in the 1971 Tour when Luis Ocaña crashed out on the descent off the Col de Menté when leading the race. The Spaniard was following Eddy Merckx’s recklessly frantic pace down the Pyrenean pass in a violent mountain storm that had washed debris onto the road, turning it into a rock-covered obstacle course.
The Menté is typical of the remote Couserans region of the range, not especially long, but with frequent changes of gradient as it cuts through dense woodland, with the road dropping away even more steeply at tight hairpin bends. Coming into one of them too fast, Merckx went down and the Spaniard followed him. While Merckx was quickly up on his feet and underway, Ocaña struggled for purchase. When he found it and got up, he was instantly floored by Joop Zoetemelk, his brakes rendered useless by the torrents, who hurtled into him. Too injured to continue, Ocaña lost a Tour that, with an advantage of more than seven minutes, he had all but won.
Four years later, once again defending the yellow jersey against sustained attack, on that occasion by Bernard Thévenet, Merckx repeated the same harrying tactic. Thévenet said the Belgian attacked on every descent of the Tour that year except one, and Merckx went particularly fast down the treacherous Col d’Allos, which has a terrifying drop off one side, gaining more than a minute on the Frenchman, who was known for his weakness going downhill. For once, though, Merckx’s pressing tactics redounded on him when he ran out of gas on the subsequent climb to Pra Loup, losing the stage and the yellow jersey to Thévenet on what turned out to be the last time Merckx wore it in his career.
Like Merckx, Bernard Hinault was also ready to push to the limit on descents if he felt some advantage could be gained. He wrapped up the 1980 Giro title largely thanks to a well-planned attack over the Stelvio pass and a daredevil descent over the far side on the wheel of Renault teammate Jean-René Bernaudeau, who instructed his boss that he would shout as he led the way through a series of unlit tunnels and that Hinault should slow if the shouting stopped. Given that devotion to his leader, it was only right that Bernaudeau ended up winning the stage as Hinault took the race leader’s maglia rosa.
Former pro Sean Yates, who went on to become a DS and guided Bradley Wiggins to the Tour title in 2012 from the Sky team car, was one of those bigger riders who had a particular aptitude for descending. Realizing he had a knack for it, he worked to improve it even more and often used it to his advantage in a canny way. “Suppose there was a stage with three mountains and on the second climb the attacks start and guys start getting shredded. That was the point where I’d go as hard as I could down the other side and leave those guys behind and get back to the front group so that I’d be there to get bottles for teammates or whatever in the valley,” he explained to Procycling.
“Then I’d have time to just take it easy up the last climb of the day, whereas the dropped guys, somewhere behind me, are down in the valley killing themselves at 50 to 60 kilometers per hour to try to get inside the time limit. I learned it’s easier to recover from the short, hard intensity that I was doing than the medium intensity that they were having to do over a longer period of time.”
Although descending has always been a skill that every top racer needs in their armory, in recent seasons the ability to go downhill fast has become a more tested and, therefore, crucial asset. But what makes a good descender? Tiffany Cromwell of Canyon SRAM believes that more than anything it comes down to being confident. “It’s about enjoying speed and having no fear,” she says. “Secondly, it’s about getting the line right, recognizing where the apex is on a corner and going through it correctly, braking before you get to the apex rather than on the corner itself, and shifting your weight at the right moment from one side to the other. This is most easily achieved when you’re at the front and don’t have to think about having people around you, as being in the middle of the peloton when you’re going down a descent throws up some particular problems. There are a few more unknown elements when you’re in that position, principally the fact that you can’t control the people around you.
“Having a good bike setup has a lot to do with it too,” Cromwell continues, “trusting your tires, trusting your equipment, because the moment you think there’s an issue there—‘Are they going to slip out from underneath me?’ ‘Is my center of gravity right?’—it will start to play on your mind and erode your confidence. You start to think, ‘Maybe I should hold back a little bit.’
“It’s such a mental thing, though. I went through a period when I crashed a few times on descents and it knocked my confidence completely. But I have got it back. Perhaps that comes from growing up in the hills back in Australia and training with the guys who are based around Monaco. I just love the speed. There’s no better feeling than when you get a descent right and go flying down.”
Adapted from How the Race Was Won:Cycling’s Top Minds Reveal the Road to Victory by Peter Cossins with permission of VeloPress.