The art of the descent: Sierra Nirvana

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The key elements that separate the great from the good can often be reduced to simple numbers. A rider’s weight, build, power, Vo2 max, lactic threshold, and so on can help identify those with a talent for climbing, time-trialing and sprinting. Coaches and talent spotters determine race programmes and careers based on these metrics.

Going downhill, however, remains something of a less quantifiable ability.

Being heavy can help. BMC’s Marcus Burghardt, at 78kg (172lbs), was able to hit a top speed of 130kph (80.7mph) while descending the Côte del la Comella on stage 9 of last year’s Tour de France.

Vincenzo Nibali and Peter Sagan are perhaps the greatest exponents of the skill in the pro peloton. Despite differing greatly in weight and physique, they possess the technical ability, coupled with a fearlessness, which allows them to put significant time into their rivals. 

Now even the likes of Chris Froome, all 71kg (156lbs) of him, cresting the top tube as he attacked on the descent of the Col de Peyresourde, is showing that even the unsuspecting types are perfecting the art of the descent.

Upon introduction, Budd White looks like a rider more at home going uphill than down. His slight frame and quiet, affable nature belies an inner aggression and intrepid nature that is shared by great descenders.

“I grew up mountain biking in Canada, which I guess was where I started to learn the technical side of riding downhill,” White told me. “When I moved to California in 2011 I bought a road bike. I’d go out with friends and ride some of the local climbs, but they would always kick my ass, so I wanted to return the favour on the descents.”

With a background in engineering and nanotechnology, White was drawn to the technical aspects that relate directly to speed and performance.

“I was interested in what would work best in terms of acceleration, braking, aerodynamics, and biomechanics. Some of my friends were crit racing at the time. They talked about the details when it came to cornering and attacking, so I thought about applying similar principles to descending.” 

Video: Gorilla Face Productions/Daniel Dunn

White became fascinated with the technical descent of a local climb called Page Mill, to the west of Santa Clara. The rider who had the KOM was a Strava employee and White wanted to know if he could go faster.

“I realised that there were a number of factors in play when it came to the long and technical descents, fatigue being one of them,” he said. “So it was all about management and efficiency in terms of the variables that you can influence on a descent.

“Page Mill is a famous climb in the Bay Area. It’s actually not a pure descent, but the climb is used as a measuring stick for a lot of cyclists out there and at the time I was keen to test myself on the descent.”

After collecting a few KOMs on local descents, White’s horizons began to expand beyond Santa Clara and San Jose. He wanted to know how he would fair on a longer, more technical drop. 

In 2015, White came across a website, managed by the PJAMM Cycling Team, which calculated and listed the most difficult climbs in the country. It identified the top 10 paved climbs in the U.S. based on gradient and distance, and added a difficulty factor for the elevation. He noticed that three of the top 10 were in Owens Valley, an arid, desolate landscape to the east of the Sierra Nevada. 

“I checked out some of the top times on these three descents via Strava and they looked insanely quick, but I wanted to have crack, so we started planning the trip.”

Onion Valley Road

  • Elevation Difference: 1,533m (5,029 feet)
  • Grade: -8%
  • Distance: 20.1km (12.5 miles)
  • Time: 16:08
  • Average Speed: 75.1km/h (46.7mph)
  • Top Speed: 103.0km/h (64mph)

After driving for six hours from Mountain View, to the west of San Jose, White and friends arrived at Onion Valley Road, somewhere between Kings Canyon National Park and Death Valley. The group arrived at 3pm and despite the area’s reputation for extreme heat, conditions were decidedly cooler. 

“Naturally I had forgotten my jacket and it was freezing, but the conditions at the top were pretty good, so I gave it a go. When I hit the bottom half of the descent there was a huge crosswind and I was over 100kph for around 90 seconds. During the fast sections I was tucked and I really felt my muscles starting to tighten, due to the length of the descent”

White took about around a minute off the top Strava time, averaging over 75kph for 16 minutes and 20km. Despite the success he felt that given more time to recon the descents he could go faster.

White Mountain Road

  • Elevation Difference: 1,775m (5,825 feet)
  • Grade: -6%
  • Distance: 31.5km (19.6 miles)
  • Time: 35:03
  • Average Speed: 54.0km/h (33.6mph)
  • Top Speed: 80.6km/h (50.1mph)

The following day White headed to the nearby descent of White Mountain. The face of the mountain is so rocky and barren that Mont Ventoux immediately springs to mind.

As with The Giant of Provence the area is prone to strong winds, so the group were lucky to find conditions relatively calm. 

Shortly after beginning the descent White found himself grounded. 

“I came round a corner in total shade from the canyon and as my eyes were adjusting I realised I’d massively overcooked the corner. I came in at around 65kph (40mph), hit the gravel and flipped over the front end of the bike. I was a bit banged up but figured as I was on the clock I’d get going again.”

“When I got to the incline I realised I had a pretty big gash on my elbow, and at that point I lost all my energy. I rolled to the bottom, but it was way off the top times.”

A second attempt yielded a faster time before White concluded that the slight ascent on the mid-slopes was going to put a top time out of reach. His intuition when it came to shifting weight and counter-steering allowed him to carry significant speed through corners, but these advantages were nullified by the uphill stretch.

Horseshoe Meadow Road

  • Elevation Difference: 1,201m (3,939 feet)
  • Grade: -8%
  • Distance: 15.2km (9.5 miles)
  • Time: 14:41
  • Average Speed: 62.5km/h (38.8mph)
  • Top Speed: 77.0km/h (47.85mph)

With the experience of two technical descents in his legs, White was keen to try something a little more straightforward, a descent that might better favour his skill set. Horseshoe Meadows Road, 90 miles further south in the Valley, was exactly that.

“Horseshoe was an interesting one/ We went up in a truck and I realised how steep this road was pretty much straight away. It was so narrowly cut into the mountain, with long 3km stretches and then a switchback, pretty much repeated the entire way.”

As soon as White began the descent he realised that the headwind was significant, and therefore the KOM wasn’t on. 

“I was kinda depressed that I wasn’t able to go as quickly as I’d wanted to,” he said. “But we realised that there was another descent in the area that looked interesting, near the Mount Whitney Portal.” 

Whitney Portal Road

  • Elevation Difference: 1,348m (4,421 feet)
  • Grade: -7%
  • Distance: 18.9km (11.8 miles)
  • Time: 16:30
  • Average Speed: 69.1km/h (42.9mph)
  • Top Speed: 100.4km/h (62mph)

White’s group drove to the short distance north to Whitney Portal Road to recon the descent. They realised it was very steep, but it was a pure descent, which was perfect for White.

“It’s an entirely asphalt road with rumble strips down the middle. I was on the top tube for around 10 minutes of the descent, maxing out at around 100kph (62mph).”

The favourable conditions allowed White to take a fair chunk of time — almost one minute — off the previous best effort.

Reflections

The variables at play over the course of a long descent are not dissimilar to those a cyclist may experience on a climb of similar distance. Though it may be over comparatively quickly, a host of different conditions can all impact the margins between success and failure. 

“It was difficult to set the right expectations for myself going into the trip” says White “Factors such as sunlight, both amount and direction, wind, and temperature played much bigger roles that I could have anticipated. Choosing when to start riding was much more of an art than I could have ever imagined.”

“The Onion Valley Road descent was the most difficult 16 minutes I’ve ever endured on a bike, between the temperature and the crosswind trying to push me off the road whilst traveling at 100km/h.”

Next Trip: Hawaii

Having attempted four of the top 10 descents in the U.S., setting Strava KOMs on two of them, White is keen to seek out those that remain. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, five of the remaining six can be found in Hawaii.

“The allure of Hawaii is both that the location is epic and that there is a concentration of these awesome descents” said White. “Mauna Kea [biggest elevation delta in the world, at 4200m or 13,779 feet], Haleakala [longest paved descent in the world], Mauna Loa, Kaloko Drive, and Waipoli Road.”

The biggest of these roads are two or three times the kind of elevation delta and length than White has attempted previously, representing a step into the relative unknown.

“To run a pure descent down Mauna Kea you’d have to be be fully tucked and sprinting out of hairpins for about 50 minutes. Onion Valley was only 16 minutes of pain.”

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