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by Matt de Neef
December 13, 2019
Photography by Tim Bardsley-Smith
I take a long, deep breath in, loosening my grip on the handlebars a little as I do. I shake out my arms, trying to release the tension that’s been tugging at my neck and shoulders for the last little while. I’m trying to steel myself for what’s about to come.
I’m descending at something approaching 60 kph, glued to my best mate’s wheel as he monsters us through an unusually stiff headwind. He’s considerably stronger than me but, for now at least, I’m holding on just fine. If previous descents are any indication, though, it won’t be long before we hit a corner and I’m uncoupled from this particular express train.
It’s a game of trust, you see. I have to trust Nick, to keep us in our lane and away from any hazards on the road. I have to trust the worn tyres beneath me, that they’ll maintain their grip as I lean my bike further and further from the vertical. And I have to trust myself, to remember that I can corner at this pace, even if I normally lack the courage to do so.
I had that courage, once, several years ago. I can tell you the exact moment it evaporated.
June 30, 2016. A sharp right-hander on a rain-soaked descent off the Kitzbühlerhorn in the Austrian Alps. The disc brakes on the brand new Cannondale Evo HiMod I was reviewing gave me a degree of confidence I was never entitled to.
I remember the moment vividly. Turning lazily into the steep bend, the front wheel losing traction and sliding out from under me, the ground coming up to meet me in that terrible slow motion that gives you enough time to realise what’s happening, but not enough time to do anything about it.
I landed heavily, cutting open my forehead and tearing my rain jacket, jersey and gloves. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I also broke a rib in the fall, adding to the daily challenge of covering the Tour de France in the weeks that followed.
It could have been much worse, of course, but that silly crash affected me well beyond the superficial injuries it caused. More than three years on, barely a descent goes by that I don’t think of that day in Austria and consider the possibility of a repeat performance.
Just ahead of me, Nick reaches the entrance to a sweeping left-hand bend. I can feel my anxiety build as I realise he’s showing no signs of slowing. I offer myself a quick word of encouragement, and resolve to do whatever is needed to hold his wheel.
In recent months I’ve studied this particular descent in some detail. I’ve learned there are only two corners that demand braking — a few skipped pedal strokes is all that’s required to safely traverse the rest. This left-hander is one of those corners you don’t need to brake for. But to my mind, we’ve come in far too hot.
I feather the front brake ever so slightly, worried about overshooting the bend and ploughing into oncoming traffic. And that’s all it takes for a gap to open between Nick and I.
It’s remarkable how quickly it happens. In the blink of an eye, the mere centimetres between our tyres becomes a metre, becomes two, becomes five.
The road straightens out and Nick turns his head briefly to see if I’m still on his wheel. Noticing the gap, he graciously stops pedalling for a brief moment; just long enough for me to put in eight hard pedal strokes and come back to his wheel. And then he’s off again, his orange jacket flapping wildly in the breeze.
On a straight section of road I pull out of Nick’s slipstream briefly to survey the scene ahead. I’m caught off guard by the ferocity of the wind that hits me in the face — it’s the strongest breeze I’ve ever felt on this section of road. Not only is Nick railing the corners at breakneck speed, he’s also drilling through a block headwind at over 50 kph on a false-flat. I quickly pull back in behind him and decide against any further forays into the wind.
We approach another left-hander; another corner that doesn’t need braking, even though it looks like it does. This time I resolve to leave the anchors alone. This time I’m going to stay on Nick’s wheel.
My heart pounds in my chest as we enter the corner, again seemingly too fast. I resist the near-overwhelming urge to wipe off a little bit of speed and instead commit to the corner, and to the line of the man in front of me.
Still, a gap opens up. Still, I’m left several metres behind in the space of a second or two. I’m reminded of descending towards Falls Creek on the wheel of Marianne Vos in 2017. Her unbelievable lines through the corners, her confidence, speed, and the significant gaps she opened out of nowhere.
I can’t help but laugh as I put in another short effort to bridge across to Nick’s wheel. He’s waiting for me again; again just long enough for me to make contact before he’s off again. Off home at warp speed after a mid-ride coffee break that ran a little too long, past a blur of lush green ferns and towering eucalypts.
A familiar pattern plays out as we wind our way further down the mountain. I enter each corner on Nick’s wheel, full of determination to remain there, but exit a few metres behind, forced to chase him every time. But I don’t give up. Each time it happens I try to learn something. I watch the line he takes into the corner. I watch how far he leans the bike over. I watch the way he comes out of the corner. My confidence builds slowly, bend by bend.
And then, on a tightening right-hander with only a couple kilometres left in the descent, something finally clicks. I follow Nick’s line through the apex, leaning hard into the corner at a speed I’d never do on my own. I leave the brakes alone and stop pedalling for only as long as it takes to avoid scraping my pedal on the bitumen.
And then the road straightens out and, somehow, I’m still there; still locked into Nick’s slipstream. This time I don’t need a flurry of pedal strokes to get in position for the next bend. I’m grinning from ear to ear.
I feel untouchable, indestructible. Here, in this moment, glued to my best mate’s wheel on one of my favourite roads, I can’t imagine descending any faster or better. By the time we reach the final few corners of the descent Nick has stopped looking around for me.