That’s me in the Lycra,
That’s me on the descent,
Losing my abandon.
Trying to break my Strava record.
And I don’t know if I can do it.
Oh no, I’ve said too much.
I haven’t said enough.
I’ve been chasing descents since I was a kid in the Green Mountains of Vermont. By the age of thirteen I was riding up the hills and then riding back down with a grin plastered on my face. Biking home from Riverside Junior High School and up Elm Hill, I had the choice of a really steep, short switchbacked road, a moderately steep but straight street, or a long, gentle ride up a holler. If I was feeling really grumpy and needed a longer therapy session in the saddle, I’d take an extra hour to ride to the far side of Elm Hill, then back up to the summit and down to my house on the other side. Riding up ten or fourteen percent grades on my Schwinn twelve-speed taught me physics and tenacity. I wasn’t the fastest or the fattest kid on the block, but I was the most stubborn. I wouldn’t quit on my bike.
I was an awkward and often angry teenager. My bike became my outlet. When I was fed up with the world, I’d go ride my bike. I’d ride ten, fifteen, twenty-five-mile circuits around the Connecticut River Valley. I loved visiting my grandmother because then I could ride the Middlebury and Brandon Gaps, two mountain passes with viciously steep sections that demanded all out, anaerobic effort, but then rewarded with intense, thrilling descents.
Climbing a hill on a bike is as much mental as physical. It demands both self-knowledge and physical endurance. It requires a willingness to suffer. In the best moments of climbing, I find a zen-like, meditative intensity. In the worst moments, it can be tortuous.
New hills are like a box of chocolates: sometimes they’re likable, sometimes they’re surprising, and sometimes they don’t agree with you. Sometimes, rarely, they become best friends.
I feel connected to a hill when I climb. The feel of the road is transmitted through the pedals, bars, and saddle into my muscles and bones and nerves. I can feel the difference in the texture of concrete, asphalt, gravel and dirt roads. Potholes, cracks, painted lines and cat-eye reflectors all have a different feel under my tires. Tires, handlebars, and saddles all change the feel of the bike as well as the feel of the road. Water and sand and leaves can all change the road feel even more.
I learned the latter descending a curvy hill as a teenager one autumn. I had ridden up and down that road a dozen times before, and was cocky as I took a little too much speed into a corner. The road was damp, but the wind had blown away the clouds, and leaves were blowing across the road. Banking into a right turn, and taking the center of the road to avoid a pothole, my rear wheel slipped out for a second on a wet leaf, and my front wheel shuddered as I jerked on my bike, trying to regain equilibrium in the face of an oncoming truck. I pulled my bike back into line, passed by the truck with just a foot to spare, slowed down to the speed limit, and pedaled through the butterflies in my belly. I learned that day that I needed to respect the limits of my bike and adjust my riding to the conditions of the road.
That was the mantra of a science fiction serial killer created by Tad Williams. For the better part of a decade it’s been my adopted mantra when I go on an endorphin bender. It’s good to be confident. But hollow, unearned confidence is just cockiness. The cocky get lazy, and the lazy get hurt.
I learned to listen to my intuition, check my equipment twice and trust no one on a descent. I ended up descending solo. While it was good to see the lines that other people chose to follow down a hill, I also knew that I was competitive enough to follow somebody into a line that I couldn’t hold. I learned to trust my gut. When I was nearing my limits I’d get nervous. More often than not, when I rode past my limits, I’d end up scaring or hurting myself. I learned that descending too fast in the rain or twilight wasn’t a good idea. I learned that cold, clear days were the best for unbridled descents. I looked forward to those first rainy days of spring that washed the sand and salt off the roads, leaving clean asphalt for me to tear down.
Thirty years later, I found myself at the summit of the White Pass, on the Alaskan-Yukon border. The wind was still. The road was dry. There was no traffic. My bike and body were ready. With a rebel yell, I sprinted past the summit sign, chasing the endorphin rush of another epic descent.
Wesley Cheney leads bicycle tours in Skagway, Alaska and Norfolk, Virginia for Sockeye Cycle Company and Phillips Destination Management Services at more humane speeds. He also delivers sandwiches freakishly fast for Jimmy John’s.