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.