In praise of… Hairpins
They are the bends that turn roads into architectural masterpieces and sporting arenas
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