Issue 06: Riding the Impossible

By Patrick Brady

A light rain started just as Eric and I hit the base of the Col du Joux Plane. We’d taken several wrong turns that afternoon, missing tiny, undermarked turns and then making course corrections once we found a road that appeared on our map. Eric suggested we pull over for a bit of food and then recommended that we might consider heading straight south to avoid descending slick road. A quick scan of the clouds was all it took. We would be lucky to make it to the valley before the sky opened up.

We were behind the van, on our own, but so long as we were out of the mountains by the time the rain hit, I figured we’d be okay. I thought once we hit Taninges, we’d be in the clear, but a short roll into our hotel in Cluses. I didn’t realize that road with the bend in it was an oversimplification of yet another climb—and descent.

Riding in the rain is bicycle kryptonite. Of all the things you want to do on a bicycle, none of them are improved by the rain. It’s bad for sprinting, bad for cornering, worse for braking and awful for descending.

We hit a patisserie just as the clouds dropped their payload. One tarte citron later, the rain had eased enough to continue south. The temperature had dropped and the smell of summer, part diesel exhaust, part mown grass was replaced by the sweet damp of an afternoon shower.

As we crossed the village we ran into another rider from our group and the three of us soon found that the way out of town meant climbing. That could mean only one thing—the final kilometers to our hotel would be downhill. Depending on your view, the fact that the road had recently been repaved was either a benefit or a liability. The asphalt was smooth as polished marble and twisted like the logic of a sci-fi movie. As if that wasn’t bad enough, there were more arrows and dashed lines than a factory floor. I wasn’t certain whether to ride over the paint or to take a crazy serpentine line just to stay on wet asphalt.

At the top I told the guys to follow my line; I would take the gentlest line down, hopefully preserving not just our kits, but the skin beneath. Despite slowing before each bend and turn, it wasn’t long before I could no longer see the riders behind me. I still had a couple of kilometers to go and faced a choice—ride my brakes and go through my brake pads like a belt sander through balsa, or leave them to their own pace and preserve my pads for what was sure to be more rainy riding in the days ahead.

I let go of the levers, reached up in the drops and whispered to myself, “Bombs away.”

It was raining, so I know that my glasses would have had water droplets on the lenses, that my view would have been compromised, but that’s not how I recall my view. In my mind’s eye, my view is unimpeded. Similarly, there’s not a single sound I recall from that descent. The world went silent as my speed climbed and my concentration grew. I took deep breaths and coached myself to relax as much as possible. I knew that the more I relaxed, the more natural the line of the bike would be and the more I let the bike follow the pull of gravity, the more likely I was to stay upright.

Fortunately for me and my fellow riders, the road to Cluses, the road to our hotel, was gentle in both bend and grade. I let the bike run and without any switchbacks to negotiate other than a single one that marked the end of the climb and the beginning of the descent, I was able to keep my index fingers off the levers and though my speed climbed, I was able to sit up a bit and air brake whenever it seemed prudent.

There have been times in my life when I would have been terrified of such circumstances, convinced that every time I leaned the bike over I was going to wind up surfing my hip to the guardrail. Somehow, I knew that wasn’t going to happen. It would be a year or two before I understood why, but the upshot was that confidence I felt was no mistake.

When I reached the turnoff for our hotel, I pulled over and waited for my companions. Whole minutes would pass before they arrived. In the meantime, I noticed an odd euphoria. I would never describe that descent as something fun, something I wanted to do again, but there was no way to deny that having completed that descent safely, I felt terrific. I could do this until dinner.

It would be a few years before I found out why, as I sat, waiting for other riders, I felt an unusual happiness. I was cold, wet, hungry and had just experienced one of the single riskiest episodes of bike riding I’d ever encountered without actually crashing, a feat I would top before the week was out. So why was I smiling?

What I would come to find out some months later was that I’d experienced had a name; it was called a flow state. I’d long heard pop-psych talk of being “in the zone” and had heard the phrase “flow state” once or twice, but I’d figured it was psychobabble, a name for something that wasn’t quite a thing. What I was to learn was that there was serious neuroscience underpinning flow states. Much of what we’d learned about flow states we’d backed into, serendipity making introductions while we looked elsewhere.

There was a reason why my focus sharpened. My body was releasing a powerful stimulant, norepinephrine. Ritalin activates the same receptors to keep the ADHD on task. That I didn’t feel cold or any discomfort was thanks to the endorphins coursing through my system—I wasn’t cold, wasn’t shivering. And that happiness? That completely surreal and inappropriate happiness that came from feeling satisfied with my performance, confident that I was in control of my riding—well, that was the dopamine.

What I didn’t know was that my endocrine system had taken over, giving me a little assist (the norepinephrine and endorphins) to get me through something with the potential to be very fatal. Once through, I got a reward for performing as needed, that was the splash of dopamine, which was just the ticket I needed to get me associating the crazy challenge of descending Alpine passes in the rain with fun, something firmly in my wheelhouse.

Two days later, the rain hit us again. This time on the climb of the Cormet de Roselend. Climbing in the rain wasn’t bad, but the dropping temperature had me concerned. The top of the Cormet de Roselend was at roughly 6000 feet. It was going to be damn cold up there. I knew that once we hit the descent the wind chill would set in and I would begin shivering. Hypothermic is no way to spend a descent.

While other riders pulled over at our van to make sandwiches and have an early lunch, I figured I would fare better if I didn’t stand around in the 45-dgree rain chewing on a sandwich of cold cuts and cold cheese. After filling my bottles, I dropped.

I had been wearing a rain cape, so while everything from the waist down was soaked, I was only damp with my own perspiration on my torso and arms. All things considered, I was in pretty good shape.

That would change.

The first 10k of the descent was very moderate, with long straights between occasional switchbacks. It was the perfect circumstance to pick up plenty of speed and be chilled even at my core. The only time I didn’t shake was when I was leaned over in a turn.

The Cret Bettex is a section of the road about two-thirds of the way down where the road drops down a fairly sheer section of the mountain. The road pitches to 10 percent and a rapid series of 10 switchbacks breaks the existing rhythm. Initially, everything went fine. I’d blast down the ramps, hit my brakes and take the widest arc possible through the turn. As there had been no traffic, that meant going into the left lane for right-handed switchbacks.

It was at the seventh of the 10 switchbacks that my strategy fell apart. Just as I was about to look over the wall to my right to see if there was any traffic coming up, a camper swung into view. I began braking immediately as I knew I wouldn’t have the extra road to work with. Just one problem; I wasn’t really slowing down enough given the space I had. The camper was moving pretty slowly and for a second I wondered if I might end up beneath it. What didn’t help was the motorcycle following the camper. I was going to need all of the switchback. I just wasn’t slowing quickly enough.

I continued to brake with as much force as I thought was wise. My prospects only worsened when I saw there was a second motorcycle behind the first. I really needed all of them to be on their way. Time slowed like I was the protagonist in some action film, so when the third motorcycle swung into view, I was able to avoid panicking. Just at the point many reasonable riders would have considered laying the bike down in order to avoid going over the wall (and ensuing cliff) at the outside of the switchback, the van either missed a shift or stalled. Which it was is unimportant. What mattered for me was that the three motorcycles came to a stop. The rider on the third moto put his feet down and a split second later I arced between him and the rider ahead of him, and I swung so close to the wall my knee could have grazed it.

I didn’t pass unnoticed, of course. The guy on moto #3 sat, shaking his head at me. I experienced a momentary urge to stop, walk back to him and report that my brakes weren’t doing all they ought, that I wasn’t really a daredevil, a numbskull, but to talk to him would require me to stop the bike altogether and that struck me as a bad use of a dwindling resource.

So I did the only reasonable thing a guy in my position should do: I stood up, pedaled my bike back to my side of the road and continued the drop.

When I reached the roundabout at the edge of Bourg St. Maurice, I found that not only was the bike not slowing down all that well, I’d lost the ability to stop altogether. I clipped out my right foot and dabbed it on the curb, stopping only once I was actually into the roundabout. What I learned when I grabbed my brakes from the hoods was that the levers were bottoming out against the bar. I’d done it; I’d burned all the way through the pads. All they could do now was generate white noise. A quick half-dozen turns of the barrel adjusters, though, and I had functional brakes again.

As I sat, waiting for the others to arrive, I struggled to make sense of my circumstance. I was cold, wet and underfed, but I wasn’t particularly uncomfortable. I could have died minutes before, or at least been badly injured, had things not gone just right. None of my current situation qualified as fun. But there I was, despite the rain and the cold, despite threading motorcycles—stopped motorcycles, if we’re keeping score—despite the view of the drop beyond that wall, despite complete failure of my brakes, I was laughing. And I, a guy who is anything other than cool, I felt something like a superhero’s invincibility.

Ed. Note: After riding many miles together at events on the road and dirt, convinced Patrick to write an article for us and now as a series.

He blogs at Red Kite Prayer.

Also published on Medium.

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