Top 10 descenders
Cycling's history is full of brilliant performances, tragic stories, brave heroes, and scandalous villains. With more than 100 years of collective experience telling the tales of two wheels, the VeloNews staff has seen the best and worst of bike racing up close. We recently charged our editors with compiling their own best-of lists across a number of categories. Through a series of votes set around our sometimes contentious, often loud editorial table, we narrowed the first of these lists down to Velo's Top 10 Descenders of All Time.
The road to the top also goes down. Descending is a special skill, essential for any rider hoping to reach the pinnacle of the sport. Some riders are notoriously bad descenders, something that often handicapped their chances to win.
Early in his transition from mountain biking to road, Cadel Evans was a terrible descender simply because he was descending on pavement as he would on the dirt: keeping his bodyweight over the frame, essential to retaining traction in dirt, yet impractical on the road. Evans has since improved, as his daring descent off Corkscrew Hill at the 2014 Santos Tour Down Under confirmed.
Others admit they simply won't take the same risks as before, with Carlos Sastre once saying he had the image of his wife and children in the back of his mind every time mountain roads dipped downward.
The Schleck brothers are also a tad sketchy when the road tips downhill, with Frank catapulting into a ravine in stage 5 at the 2008 Tour de Suisse. Of course, descending can be the most dangerous and perilous element of cycling, with the sport's past full of close-calls and terrible crashes, including Johan Bruyneel's fall during the 1996 Tour de France and Pedro Horrillo's miraculous survival after falling more than 150 feet into a ravine during the 2009 Giro d’Italia.
Perhaps almost miraculously, only a few crashes have resulted in tragedy, with the horrific fatal spills of Fabio Casartelli, at the 1995 Tour de France, and Wouter Weylandt, during the 2011 Giro d'Italia, the most recent exceptions.
What seems like a simple thing — letting gravity take over — is actually a thing of raw beauty, strength, skill, concentration, and above all, courage. It's perhaps cycling's most overlooked skillset, yet among its most essential. What follows is our list of cycling's best all-time descenders. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com
10. Sean Kelly
To become a prolific winner, a champion needs to be competent on all terrain, in all conditions, and in all facets of racing. And perhaps there was no rider as well balanced as Sean Kelly. Though the Irishman could not time trial or climb on par with the pure specialists, he could do just about anything else as well as anyone. He wasn't a pure sprinter, yet his nearly 200 career victories are a testament to his jack-of-all-trades acumen.
Dubbed "Insatiable Kelly" for his appetite for victory, the Irish fighter developed excellent descending skills. He claimed he once clocked an eye-watering 124kph (77mph) while descending the Col de Joux Plane to Morzine in the 1984 Tour de France. Kelly's last major victory came at the 1992 Milano-Sanremo, thanks to his descending chops, when he flew like a madman down the Poggio to chase down the attacking Moreno Argentin, who nursed a 15-second lead over the top, only to reel in the pugnacious Italian with just over 1km to go. With a chasing group breathing down their neck, Argentin started his sprint, and the cagey Kelly came around to win Sanremo for a second time, proving yet again that the farmer's son from Carrick was one of the most daring and audacious in the sport.
Watch the downhill attack Photo: John Pierce/Photosport International
9. Peter Sagan
There's no one in today's peloton who boasts the bike-handling skills of Peter Sagan. A child of BMX, Sagan can bunny-hop up stairs, pop wheelies across the finish line, and even ride his bike on top of his car to place it on the roof rack (watch the video). So it's only natural that he's equally as good when he has gravity working in his favor.
Ever the showman, the 24-year-old Slovakian has quickly earned the reputation as one of the best descenders in the peloton. In 2011, the precocious young pro was already showing off his descending skills, catching Damiano Cunego — who is no slouch going downhill — coming off the Grosse Scheidegg and then pipping him in the sprint at the Tour de Suisse. Later, in his grand tour debut at the Vuelta a España, he split the group descending in stage 6, winning one of three stages in the Spanish tour. In 2012, he showed his versatility, winning three stages and his first of two green jerseys at the Tour de France, as well as earning a Porsche from then-team owner Paolo Zani, who promised Sagan the sports car if he won two stages and the points jersey. The stocky Sagan lacks the power, at least for now, to climb with the best and contend for the overall in grand tours, so his lethal descending skills are most effective for stages and one-day classics. It seems it will only be a matter of time before he rips down the Poggio to win Milano-Sanremo. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com
8. Abraham Olano
Perhaps no rider used tactical descending to make up for struggles on the steep side of the mountain as Abraham Olano. At 5-foot-11, even at his most svelte, Olano had trouble holding the wheel with the fleetest of climbers on Europe's longest climbs. A world-class time trialist, Olano took a page from the Miguel Indurain school of grand-tour tactics: keep them close on the climbs, and take it back in the time trials. But Olano added an extra chapter to his tactical playbook with his searing descending skills, which proved essential in his lone grand tour victory, at the 1998 Vuelta a España. That race saw a bitter intra-squad battle with then-Banesto teammate José Maria Jiménez, who attacked Olano in the mountains despite Olano riding in the leader's jersey.
On long descents, Olano could easily recoup a minute or more of losses on the climb. His world-class descending skills were broadcast to the world during the epic 1995 world championships in Colombia, when Olano attacked alone over the top of the Cogollo climb with one lap to go with the blessing of Spanish teammate Miguel Indurain. Olano fended off cramps, rain, a chasing pack that included Marco Pantani and Mauro Gianetti, both top descenders, as well as a puncture in the final kilometer to win the rainbow stripes.
Watch the 1995 worlds wrap Photo: Pascal Pavani | AFP
7. Lance Armstrong
Love him or hate him, Lance Armstrong could handle himself going downhill. Time and again, the fearless Texan would pressure his rivals into making mistakes. One of the most famous incidents came in the 2001 Tour, when Armstrong was pressing off the Col de Peyresourde in the Pyrénées, as the chasing Jan Ullrich tumbled into a creek alongside the road. Armstrong's most famous expression of deft bike handling skills came during the 2003 Tour, the most hard-fought of Armstrong's seven yellow jerseys that were eventually stripped. That 2003 Tour proved to be Armstrong's most difficult, yet his bike-handling skills helped carry the day.
Perhaps the most logic-defying of all of Armstrong's infamous exploits came on the narrow run into Gap. A summer heat melted the tar on the roads, so hot that race officials sent trucks ahead of the race to spray water on the tarmac to cool the surface. Spaniard Joseba Beloki lost control and high-sided over the handlebars when his rear wheel locked up, all but ending his career as his hip and femur cracked under the heavy fall. Almost miraculously, Armstrong avoided the crash, steered wide of a police officer standing alongside the road, and then picked his way across a hayfield, bounded over a roadside ditch, and cooly clipped back into his pedals to regain contact with a chasing group.
Watch Armstrong descend into Gap Photo: Joel Saget | AFP
6. Samuel Sánchez
It's often difficult to compare champions from different eras. The dynamics of racing have changed over the decades, as teams, salaries, and the demands of modern racing have forced changes in how top riders focus their season. Long gone are the days when riders like Sean Kelly and Eddy Merckx would race an entire season, intent on trying to win every race they started. Road conditions have also improved dramatically from the early days of the sport, when the first alpine climbs and descents were on dirt roads.
Today's traffic furniture on urban streets has created new hazards that previous generations never faced. Technological changes have also made important advances in how cyclists race, something that's especially true when it comes to descending. Today's pros race on stiff, lightweight frames, better tires, and more responsive wheels that handle the demands of descending beyond the wildest imaginations of riders from previous generations.
A good descender, however, remains eternal. And one of the best to emerge over the past generation is Spanish rider Samuel Sánchez. Now 35 and in the twilight of his career, "Samu" quickly earned the reputation as one of the best descenders in the bunch. Born and raised on the rain-slicked mountain roads of Spain's Asturias region along the wet northern Atlantic coast, Sánchez said it was his experience with motorcycles that helped sharpen his descending skills. "My father was a big fan of motorbikes, and I used to ride a lot as a teenager," Sánchez said. "The skills are similar between the motorbike and the bicycle. You must accelerate through the corner, pushing your weight into the bike. And I am accustomed to wet roads.”
One of Sánchez's first big wins came when he attacked off the harrowing Monachil descent in the 2007 Vuelta a España, catching the attacking Manuel Beltrán, winning one of three stages to secure the first of three career grand-tour podiums. His descending skills found a worldwide audience in the 2011 Tour, when he blasted down the Galibier, helping him snag the King of the Mountains jersey that year.
Watch the Galibier descent Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com
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5. Eddy Merckx
"The Cannibal's" victims found no solace during a bike race. Merckx raced to win, and saw the asphalt as a wire-to-wire battleground. He would attack in the neutral start, in the wind, in the wet, on the flats; he would attack when it made no sense at all to attack. And inevitably, the rider from Brussels learned to attack on the descents.
When Merckx first commenced his ruthless domination, the downhills were the only chink in his armor. Growing up in the flats around the Belgian capital did little to prepare him for the harrowing descents of France and Italy, but he soon upped his game. And by the late 1960s, downhill attacks became part of his repertoire. In fact, Merckx would soon become the master of a deadly, double-edged attack on mountain summits, using both sides of a mountain to twist the knife.
Typically, Merckx would open up a brutal acceleration on the upper reaches of a climb, stringing out his rivals, and then continue the aggression on the descent. One prime example of this was his attack over the Tourmalet in a 130km solo breakaway to win a stage in 1969 that would seal his first of five Tour wins. This tactic proved lethally effective, and was decisive in his classic showdown with Luis Ocaña in the 1971 Tour. The Spaniard seemed poised to knock back Merckx, holding an eight-minute lead to the “Cannibal” after riding into the yellow jersey in stage 11.
A few days later, in horrid conditions, Merckx promised to fight, attacking up and over the Col de Menté in the Pyrénées lost in clouds, with Ocaña marking his wheel. Merckx pressed his attack on the descent, putting Ocaña on the defensive. Merckx slid out in a corner, with Ocaña unable to avoid crashing into him. Merckx quickly remounted, but Ocaña was held up, and then reportedly struck by the chasing Joop Zoetemelk. Ocaña crumpled onto the pavement, his face distorted in pain as Merckx disappeared into the rain and fog. Ocaña was taken away by helicopter to a local hospital, while Merckx would win his third of five Tours, though he refused to wear the yellow jersey the next day out of respect for Ocaña.
Watch a French news recap of the Menté incident Photo: AFP
4. Gastone Nencini
The "Lion of Mughello" was the most feared descender of his day. A winner of the 1957 Giro and the 1960 Tour, Nencini rode in the transitional period from the Fausto Coppi era to the rise of Jacques Anquetil. A solid all-rounder who could win in all types of terrain, he was truly a master of the downhill. In an era of bad roads and heavy bikes, Nencini was able to take huge gains on the downhill. Raphael Geminiani once famously said, "The only reason to follow Nencini downhill would be if you had a death wish.”
Those words would ring true during the 1960 Tour, which would be Nencini's high-water mark. Pre-race favorite Anquetil skipped the Tour after winning the Giro, while defending champion Federico Bahamontes abandoned in the first week with an illness. Racing as national teams, world-hour record holder Roger Rivière was the big favorite, but Nencini used his prowess downhill to take the jersey in the Pyrénées. When Rivière, a superior time trialist, tried to follow Nencini down the harrowing Col de Perjuret, Rivière over-cooked a corner, catapulted 40 feet into a ravine, broke two vertebra in his back, and ended his professional career. Rivière remained paralyzed for life, and died of cancer at age 40.
A monument stands where Rivière fell, but it also serves as a testament to Nencini's downhill panache.
Watch black-and-white footage of the crash Photo: Harry Pot | Anefo
3. Vincenzo Nibali
The “Shark of Messina” is considered the best descender of his generation. Nibali can slice down roads with fearless precision. Former teammate Ted King once said Nibali goes downhill like "a rock in water," and few can match the Italian's concentration, smoothness, and sinuous lines while losing elevation. Nibali said it's about gaining confidence, accelerating out of corners, and pushing the pedals when others tend to hit the brakes. "Descending has saved me a few times," Nibali said, "because I know I can take back time going downhill that I might lose on a climb. I never take unnecessary risks, but others might not see it that way.”
Nibali said his descending skills have helped deliver wins, including a stage at the 2010 Giro d'Italia, when he won the Monte Grappa stage after a whistling descent down the Asolo. He also pointed to a similar scenario during the 2011 Giro, when he was struggling across the Dolomites, using his descending skills to stay close despite struggling on the climbs, saving a podium spot.
It was Nibali's descending skills that helped set up then-teammate Ivan Basso for the overall in the 2010 Giro; Nibali piloted Basso, an infamously tentative descender, down a wet Mortirolo, putting overnight leader David Arroyo under pressure going into the final mountain summit.
Watch Nibali slicing down the Mortirolo in the wet Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com
2. Thor Hushovd
A Scandinavian, the peloton's best descender? Huh? Well, that's what top sport directors said in 2009 when polled by L’Equipe to name the best downhiller in the bunch. That vote reveals a lot. Hushovd has pulled more than a few great descents out of his hat that have entered Tour lore.
In 2009, in a bitter battle for the green jersey versus Mark Cavendish, Hushovd angrily attacked alone across the Alps in stage 17 to pick up valued intermediate sprint points waiting on the other side of the mountain. Cavendish won six stages that year to Hushovd’s one, but his climbing and descending proved the difference.
In 2011, then as the reigning world champion, he rode out of his skin in the Pyrénées, attacking up the Col d'Aubisque in stage 13 and flying down the descent at 110kph to catch leaders David Moncoutie and Jeremy Roy, who were nearly two minutes down the road, to win alone. A few days later, Hushovd attacked down one of the most harrowing descents in the Tour, coming off the Col de Manse — tracing the same road where Beloki so infamously crashed in 2003 — to link up with then-teammate Ryder Hesjedal and compatriot Edvald Boasson Hagen. Hushovd won, again.
What makes Hushovd such a good descender? It's the combination of technique and confidence, coupled with precision and pure power. Hushovd packs an impressive 80kg (176-pound) race weight, and perhaps the only rider who can equal Hushovd's descending from pure power is Fabian Cancellara, who also deserves special mention (watch Cancellara descending in the 2009 Tour). Both Cancellara and Hushovd can push huge watts going downhill, yet Hushovd holds another card that sets him apart: his smarts. While others tend to race with either their natural brawn or hard-earned ability to go the distance, there are few in the bunch that maximize their talent and squeeze the most out of their motor than Hushovd. Strong yet supple, Hushovd can match power with aerodynamics to use the descents to his advantage. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com
1. Paolo Savoldelli
The idea that descending cannot win a grand tour alone was thrown out the window by Paolo Savoldelli, whom many consider the best descender of modern cycling. Nicknamed "Il Falco" (The Falcon), Savoldelli was as fearless as he was seamless when the road turned downhill. He was without fear, especially on the narrow, off-camber descents that mark the roads of Italy. Both of Savoldelli's Giro wins — in 2002 and again in 2005 — came thanks to his prowess defying gravity.
"I've never seen anyone descend like Paolo," said former sport director Sean Yates. "He can accelerate out of corners, and rides the most aggressive line of anyone. But he never seems out of control. It's the opposite, and that's what makes him good, is that he is completely in control.”
In 2005, Savoldelli was on the back seat in the final decisive stage, losing dangerous ground to Gilberto Simoni and José Rujano, but he dropped like a rock off the Colle delle Finestre, allowing him to secure the maglia rosa for a second time.
Savoldelli simply made descending look easy. He claimed that his background as a skier helped him feel comfortable at high speeds. That only fueled his confidence going downhill, and he knew he could use his skills to recover lost time on the climbs or attack nervous rivals on the descents. And as Yates said, no one could read a line as well as Savoldelli (as this clip from the 1999 Giro demonstrates). In what's more artistry than athletics, “Il Falco” was in a class by himself. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com
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