By Chris Carmichael
Dario Frigo gave Italy its first Tour de France stage win since 2000 today by winning the last hard mountain stage of the race. Unlike the majority of the 2002 Tour de France climbing stages, today’s race finished at the bottom of a fast and technical descent.
Descending in the Tour de France is nerve-wracking experience. The rider’s drop like stones down the Alps; at times they are descending at nearly 60mph. Physical fitness plays a role in how well a rider can descend these mountains. The more physically fit a rider is, the faster he can get down a mountain. A fatigued athlete makes poor, slow decisions because of a drop in glycogen stores, the fuel that your brain uses. Decisions must be made quickly while you life is on the line, for example:
Descending at 60mph equals approx. 88ft per second. Therefore, if there are rocks in the road 300 feet ahead of you (approx. length of a football field), you have about 3.4 seconds to recognize them, decide on a new line, and adjust for…or you could smack one directly and crash. The riders only have a thin layer of clothing and a helmet for protection while descending at 60+mph. Think about it for a minute the next time you are driving in your car at 60mph. If you were to open the door and jump out at that speed (do not, under any circumstance do this, anywhere) – that is what a Tour de France rider experiences during a high speed crash while descending.
Momentum is the key to maintaining high speed on descents. Riders don’t want to hit the brakes any more than they absolutely have to because it takes a long distance and a lot of work to regain the momentum they lose through braking. In the Tour, riders have the advantage of descending on closed roads. They can use the entire width of the road surface without worrying about cars coming the opposite direction. Using the whole road allows them to get through tight turns very quickly.
Correctly setting up for a high-speed corner is absolutely critical. You have to choose a good line because you don’t have time to adjust it once you commit to the path. Riders often try to choose a line that passes through the apex of a tight turn. They start far out on the opposite side of the road; brake before the turn, lean the bike (keeping the body upright over the wheels) into the turn, and come out wide on the exit from the turn. They are careful to put almost all their weight on the pedal facing the outside of the turn. This helps to keep the tires in more secure contact with the road.
Professional cyclists are great descenders, but accidents still happen. Remember last year when Jan Ullrich misjudged a turn and flew off the road into a creek? Johan Bruyneel, the Postal Service Director Sportif, knows all about that too. He missed a turn in the Alps and went flipping off the side of a steep embankment. I can’t say I escaped descents unscathed either. I was once involved in a pileup while descending through a tunnel. I emerged from the tunnel with someone else’s bike and only one shoe!