In praise of… Hair­pins

They are the bends that turn roads into ar­chi­tec­tural master­pieces and sport­ing are­nas

Cyclist - - First Person - Words TREVOR WARD Pho­tog­ra­phy TA­PES­TRY

There are few more al­lur­ing sights for a cy­clist than a thread of tar­mac as­cend­ing a moun­tain­side in a se­ries of hair­pins.

Hair­pin is per­fectly ac­cu­rate as a de­scrip­tion, but not as po­etic as the French term lacet – lace – or as dra­matic sound­ing as the Ital­ian tor­nante. Both these coun­tries re­vere their road en­gi­neer­ing to such an ex­tent that they of­ten num­ber their hair­pins.

Count­ing them down as you grind up Alpe d’huez or the Giau may not of­fer much phys­i­cal re­lief, but it does serve as a wel­come men­tal pal­lia­tive (although in the case of the Giau, only if you know how many hair­pins there are to be­gin with, as they are num­bered se­quen­tially from the bot­tom up. The first time I crawled past num­ber 26 in sting­ing sleet, I still had no idea how many more were left. For­tu­nately, it was just three).

A ser­pen­tine, coil­ing piece of as­phalt is not just aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ing – here is a road that com­ple­ments the nat­u­ral con­tours of the moun­tain rather than grace­lessly bi­sect­ing it – it’s also a piece of en­gi­neer­ing de­signed to as­sist the grav­i­ta­tion­ally chal­lenged.

This as­sis­tance is part phys­i­cal, part psy­cho­log­i­cal. A hair­pin will not only iron out a steep gra­di­ent, but will also lift the spirit of a rider. The sud­den shift in per­spec­tive lets you see just how high you have come, and how far be­hind you have left your ri­vals.

Even former World Cham­pi­ons such as Lizzie Deignan aren’t im­mune to this feel­ing. In the sump­tu­ous cof­feetable book Moun­tains: Epic Cy­cling Climbs – in which rac­ing cy­clist-turned-pho­tog­ra­pher Michael Blann cel­e­brates some of Europe’s most iconic hair­pins – Deignan says of her favourite climb, ‘The Col de Braus is steady, never too steep, and to­wards the top there are some lovely long switch­backs. Look down on the bends, and you can see the rid­ers you’ve over­taken far be­low. See­ing them as lit­tle specks spurs you on.’

The hair­pins of the Alpe d’huez of­fer an even bet­ter re­ward – the sen­sa­tion of be­ing cat­a­pulted up the next in­cline. Built in 1935, with

14 dif­fer­ent con­struc­tion com­pa­nies re­spon­si­ble for each kilo­me­tre of its climb, the D211 was de­signed to ser­vice the ski re­sort at the top of the moun­tain. Con­se­quently, to ac­com­mo­date all those trucks and coaches, the hair­pins are wide and – this is the cru­cial bit for cy­clists – pan-flat. Af­ter winch­ing your­self up a 7% or 10% ramp, the re­lief of­fered by a per­fect semi-cir­cle of flat tar­mac is like dis­cov­er­ing you have an ex­tra sprocket on the back.

I well re­mem­ber this ex­pe­ri­ence the first time I climbed the Alpe. Af­ter weeks of trep­i­da­tion, to sud­denly learn that every hair­pin was ef­fec­tively a sling­shot be­tween ramps felt al­most like cheating. From bend num­ber 21 at the very bot­tom, I no longer had any doubts that I would reach the top.

Hair­pins on other climbs may not be so ac­com­mo­dat­ing (a plung­ing cam­ber can make the in­side of the bend twice as steep as the out­side) but the en­gi­neer­ing is no less im­pres­sive, ‘com­pa­ra­ble with the con­struc­tion of hun­dred-storey sky­scrapers or mile­long sus­pen­sion bridges’, ac­cord­ing to re­search physi­cist Fred­eric Harte­mann in The Moun­tain En­cy­clopae­dia.

Names such as An­to­nio Pa­ri­etti Coll and Carlo Done­gani may not be as cel­e­brated as those of Coppi or Mer­ckx, but these two engi­neers are re­spon­si­ble for some of the most beau­ti­ful curves on earth.

Reg­u­lar vis­i­tors to Mal­lorca will be fa­mil­iar with Pa­ri­etti Coll’s work. He over­saw two en­gi­neer­ing projects of the 1930s that made pre­vi­ously in­ac­ces­si­ble beauty spots sud­denly within reach of the grow­ing num­ber of tourists – the For­men­tor penin­sula and the tiny fish­ing vil­lage of Sa Calo­bra.

His road to the lat­ter is rightly re­garded as one of the most spec­tac­u­lar in Europe, a thin sliver of as­phalt that al­most ties it­self in knots as it tum­bles down a nar­row cleft of rock in the north of the is­land. One of its 26 hair­pins even de­scribes a 270° curve, loop­ing around and un­der it­self (in the down­hill di­rec­tion).

It’s Done­gani, mean­while, whom we have to thank for the 70-plus hair­pins that grace the road over the Stelvio Pass in the Ital­ian Alps. The road took five years to build and, on its open­ing in 1825, earned Done­gani the nick­name ‘De­signer of the Im­pos­si­ble’.

Hair­pins are usu­ally only an ir­ri­tant in the down­hill di­rec­tion, as it seems such a shame hav­ing to scrub off all that free speed be­cause the road dou­bles back on it­self. A tech­ni­cal descent trans­forms hair­pins into malev­o­lent forces de­mand­ing to­tal re­spect. They test your nerve, taunt your courage and pun­ish the un­wary.

‘We’re al­ways at the mercy of the moun­tains, no mat­ter how good or fit we are,’ says former Team Sky rider-turned-au­thor Michael Barry. And yet watch­ing the pros de­scend from a great moun­tain pass is one of the most breath­tak­ing sights in modern sport.

Here is a raw brav­ery that we rarely see so close up in other sports, where the met­rics – speed, al­ti­tude, line – make the spec­ta­tor shud­der. Here is a grace and agility akin to ski­ing and surf­ing that too of­ten is sac­ri­ficed to a TV ad break when it should be given star billing, even if we can only bear to watch through our fin­gers.

Hair­pins are the po­ten­tial plot twists in the drama that is pro­fes­sional bike rac­ing. We should cel­e­brate not just the rid­ers who brave them, but also the engi­neers who de­sign them.

A tech­ni­cal descent trans­forms hair­pins into malev­o­lent forces de­mand­ing to­tal re­spect. They test your nerve, taunt your courage and pun­ish the un­wary

Hair­pins are more sci­en­tific than you might imag­ine, de­signed to iron out a steep gra­di­ent and, as an aside, give the ail­ing cy­clist a psy­cho­log­i­cal boost

‘We’re al­ways at the mercy of the moun­tains, no mat­ter how good we are,’ says former Team Sky rider Michael Barry on the sub­ject of de­scend­ing tech­ni­cal hair­pins

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