Friday, March 19, 2010

Review - 2004 Paris Nice or How To Descend

From here.

A while back I bought a whole slew of race DVDs. I've worked my way through most of them, with just a couple monuments left. One monument actually, the 12 hour 2007 Tour set.

But in the meantime I watched all the other DVDs.

And, like any time you have a batch of things, there's one or two that pop out.

The 2004 Paris Nice DVD pops out.

Jorge Jaksche (yes, of doping fame) wins for CSC. CSC, a new-ish team at the time, blows the race apart in the crosswinds at the beginning of the race. It's an impressive demonstration of the collective strength of CSC.

Later, Jaksche defends the jersey, but he does it a bit differently, almost like a Cat 3. Instead of the cold, calculated march of, say, a Bruyneel team, where the team motors along at the front and gobbles up everything in sight, Jaksche actually responds personally to attacks. Not just one attack, a few. And not just dinky ones, real, serious, in the mountains attacks.

I found this pretty interesting for two reasons. First, now we know that he doped at certain parts of his career. I'm not sure if a leader chasing down unimportant riders is indicative of doping, but it's rare to see nowadays. On the other hand it's kind of nice to see the leader responding to attacks. And second, I found it interesting because, to me, when leaders respond to dinky attacks, it looks like a Cat 3 race, albeit in pro kits and at higher speeds.

These features don't necessarily justify buying a DVD though. I bought it because I wanted to watch CSC demolish a field and see how Jaksche rode in this particular Paris Nice. I remember reading how CSC really put the screws to the field, and how Jaksche was "impressive".

Watching a field get demolished in a crosswind isn't all that impressive, not any more so than watching a field splinter on a hill. But with them doing the whole echelon thing day after day, I got some good learning time in.

And Jaksche, to be frank, looks unnaturally strong. So watching him ride so dominantly reminded me of watching Basso in his "just before I got suspended" Giro. Always calm, always in control, never really stressed, and, honestly, not really entertaining.

So should you buy the DVDs for those reasons?

Not really.

But I did get one surprise. And boy was it a surprise.

On the penultimate stage Sammy Sanchez does a totally insane descent.

And when I say insane, I mean totally, like totally, insane.

I admit I like watching descents. In fact, I bought the Salvodelli Giro to watch his descent that "saved his Giro". Watched 4 hours or something just for the descent on the penultimate stage.

After I watched the DVD, I felt disappointed.

That descent is nothing. Although Salvodelli takes a minute back, a bunch of guys stay with him, like 6 or 10 or something, so it's not like it was impossible. For me it was totally boring. I expected him to go rocketing down the mountain, shedding others like a comet, and blasting down to the main GC contenders.


He won the Giro because he climbed better than the others on a few days, and time trialed really well. That last descent was not totally necessary. I mean it was, but it wasn't any show stopper.

Compared to Sanchez's descent in the 2004 Paris-Nice, Salvodelli's descent was an absolute yawner.

Sanchez is totally on the limit.


I've never seen a descent like that where the rider stays upright, never. Not Floyd on that stage in the 2006 Tour, not Hinault on any of his incredible Tour stages, not even Sean Kelly's descent off the Poggio (although Kelly at least dropped everyone with him).

Sanchez's descent was like Fangio's Nurburgring, where Fangio's Mercedes had marks on his wheels from hitting marker stones along the umpteen zillion turn course. Reading the description you feel like, "Hey, yeah, that's cool, but I think I could do that, or something close to that anyway."

Then you get into a period correct car from that era, like a nice Jag XK120, like I did on one very fortunate day. Things start dawning on you. Like you realize that, whoa, the brakes don't work.

"I think the brakes aren't working"

"Just push harder, I just had them done, they used to be really bad..."

"Really bad?! This is good?!"

You also realize, when you try and turn into a side street, that the car steers like it's on wooden tires. And that everything from your belt up is exposed to whatever you hit or whatever hits you.

Suddenly that despicable (name your favorite modern car you love to hate) isn't quite so bad. You feel vulnerable in this handmade car, a car made with almost no regard for modern engineering. You realize that from 35 mph it takes about 100 feet to slow to a walking pace.

Then you think about the Grand Prix drivers hurtling along at 100+ mph on roads with no safety barriers, no corner marshals, no radios, no nothing, just the driver, the car, and the road.

And Fangio's Nurburgring becomes legendary.

Sanchez's descent, it's legendary.

I'm surprised I've never read anything about it, because, frankly, after having watched whatever bike races on TV from the mid 80s, I've never, ever seen anything like Sanchez's descent.

In fact, when I watch most race descents, I think, "Oh, that would have been fun." I even went to Lake Wohlford this year with last year's Tour of California stage in mind, when that Lampre rider zoomed up to the camera bike on the descent. I watched him get into an aero tuck and ride right up to the camera lens. You could almost see the camera in his glasses, he got so close.

And I thought, "Oh, that would have been fun."

I usually think (but not in the Wohlford case), "Dag, he could have taken that corner a bit better. I'd have turned in a touch later."

Stuff like that.. It's easy to think those thoughts when you watch the poor descenders in the pack, like poor Rasmussen, or even, sorry to say it, Levi, who, in the DVDs I have, seems to take it easy on the descents.

But when I watched Sanchez, I realized something.

That wouldn't have been fun.

It would have been scary.

Instead of those "I could do better" thoughts, I had other ones in my mind.

"Holy carp, I'd have gone off right there!"
"OMG I'd have gone off there too!"
"Wow, I can't believe it! I'd have had a face full of rock wall right there!"
"I... Ooh... Aah... Yaaa.. I can't believe he saved that. Cannot believe it."

It got so distracting I would find myself soft pedaling on the trainer so I could focus more of my energy towards assimilating this insane descent.

If you ever have a chance to watch this DVD, do it. It's totally worth it. And it's a nice textbook way of handling rivals one by one.

But watch it for Sanchez's descent. You'll know what I mean when you get to it.

So what makes him able to descend like that?

First, he gets really low in front.

You have tons of spacers and a short stem? Not gonna to happen. You want a long stem to weight the front end. This set up makes you less stable at lower speeds (under 7-8 mph). It makes you really stable at higher speeds. If your frame doesn't allow you to do this, and you can make position adjustments, think about changing your position by going longer and lower. If you need to change the frame to use a longer stem, I'd do it.

It's that important.

I link to a blog post (not my blog, but I fit him to his bike) all the time. He was a Cat 4, wasn't quite there in crits, and I made wholesale changes to his position. He won the next three Tues crits he did, placed third in a Sunday crit, and, the next season, was staying with the A race breaks, breaks that I can't hang onto.

Quick summary of his position change? Longer and lower in front. Link here.

Second important thing: Drops.

You have to be in the drops. I can't believe how many people race a tight crit on the hoods. Descents are like crits. Fast, scary at times, and at the limit of control at times.

Drops, people, drops.

Whenever you're under pressure, think drops. You have to be in the drops. That's where you're most stable, most secure, have most control over your bike. If you don't feel that way, if you don't feel most safe on the drops, something is very wrong with your setup. The drops let you brake firmly, shift, sprint, swerve, bunny hop, bump, pretty much any severe maneuver you can think of you can do in the drops.

Scary fast descents are scary fast. Get on the drops on descents.

Third important thing - steer with your eyes.

Sanchez looks at where he's going, not what he is trying not to hit. He keeps his head parallel to the ground in turns, like a skier or motorcyclist.

Don't look down at the pavement.

Don't look off the edge of the road.

Look down the road, as far as you can see.

On hairpins you look at the point where the road disappears, i.e. around the corner. Practice this last bit by looking around exit/entrance ramps when you're driving your car. You shouldn't be looking at the white line delineating the shoulder from the road. You should be looking out the passenger window (for example) where the entrance ramp starts to merge with the highway. If you're on a curve like that, where it does a 180, you shouldn't really look out the windshield, at least not the center of it.

Fourth thing: Knee out.

This is Optional (with a capital O). It gives you something to think about. I like doing it but I don't think it does anything very functional. Probably pushes my center of gravity inward just a touch. Whatever, it makes me feel better. In crits I don't do it, so I think it's mental. Sticking your knee out slows you down a touch because you become a bit less aero.

In fact, when I sit up on a downhill straight and want to slow a bit, I stick both knees out.

Fifth thing: Inside pedal up in sharp turns.

Kinda goes without saying. But I'm saying it because otherwise you may not know. Just sayin'.

Sixth: Brake before the turn, but you can brake if you have to.

You brake before the turn, but if you are exiting an always-accelerating-due-to-the-downhill turn and are going a bit hot, you should be able to get more vertical (i.e. less turning) and grab some brake. Sanchez grabs big brakes on a couple exits where he's about to go flying off the road. He really grabs big time on one turn, I thought for sure he was going to lose it.

It seems like although Sanchez may be somewhat familiar with the descent, he doesn't know the turns. So, for example, I'm somewhat familiar with the descent off of Palomar, but I don't know the turns individually. So I kinda sorta know what to expect but I also get surprised by the most extreme of turns (sharpest, longest, not so sharp).

When you get surprised you'll be surprised at how much extra traction you really have. But don't slam on the brakes because you'll skid. Actually, this idea segways nicely into the next tip.

Seventh Thing: Don't chicken out.

If your line takes you to the edge, but not over it, it's a good line. Trust your line. You don't need a huge margin of safety. 1 cm from the edge and 1 meter from the edge are usually the same. Sanchez, on a few turns, gets to within 1-2 cm of the edge of the pavement without ever bobbling or reacting. You can see he was hesitating because he stopped pedaling, you could see him fighting the temptation to react, and he pulls it off. This happens at least 3 times that I can remember.

If you act scared and do things like grab mad brake, bad things happen. If you let the bike do its thing, let it take care of you, it takes care of you.

Don't force things.

Eighth Thing: Run scared.

Sometimes you need motivation. A breakaway. A chasing group. Adrenaline, ever before you get going, works wonders.

But then let yourself bath in the adrenaline. Don't necessarily ride scared, but ride with that adrenaline edge. It keeps you alert and quick and helps you take some of those risks that you realize later weren't all that risky.

Phew. All that descending talk's made me thirsty.

(Take a sip of water, catch your breath.)

Alright, so where were we?

Oh, right. The 2004 Paris Nice DVD. Buy it. Watch it. And study Sanchez's descent. Be amazed.

Note: I don't get money for hawking the DVD, and I paid money for it, albeit a sale price.


Dan said...

After reading that was hoping like hell that you'd give a youtube link at the end of the post!!

Aki said...

Yeah, sorry, I actually didn't even search for a link. I figure that if a race is worth $20, watching the DVD, even for just the descent, is worth that too. You can even do "do-overs", unlike a race, and watch it more than once.

It's on sale for $20 incidentally. I think I spent less on my whole DVD big purchase than I did on two tires for my bike. In the scheme of $5 movies at Walmart it may not be cheap, but for a bike DVD, limited edition/distribution, etc, I think it's worth it.

Let me tell you, I was in total awe watching that bit. Before I didn't think much of Sanchez, but now, well, now I know that no matter what I thought of him before, he sure as heck knows how to descend.

I forgot to mention this - he totally drops another guy on the descent. Totally. Like the other guy had no chance whatsoever to stay on the wheel. The other rider's descending ability (or motivation or whatever) may not be top notch, but I think that even a Salvodelli would have been scrambling to hang on to Sanchez.

I seriously think that anyone who tried to match Sanchez on that descent would have gone off or gotten gapped. I can't see following him on that descent.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget the man of the moment, Cancellara, as one of the best downhillers.

re: knee out: in addition to the eyes pointing to your destination, the knee out helps square the hips to the same exit point.

Aki said...

Cancellara is a great corner-er (the best I can think of, ever), which, come to think of it, helps immensely with going downhill fast. But he goes so fast so regularly it's become kind of normal. And, as far as I know, no one's caught him on video for a few minutes of 100% cornering.

Interesting point on the knee out bit. I didn't think of the knee as keeping the hips square. I'll have to remember that the next time I'm riding outside.