Hairpins are Magic

08.25.2008 | 7:12 am

A Note from Fatty:Thanks to everyone who entered the “Design Kenny’s Tattoo” Photoshop contest. Kenny and I will spend some time today reading the 160+ entries and comments and will post awards tonight or tomorrow morning.

A little more than a week ago, Stage 4 of the Tour of Utah was rolling through my neighborhood — almost literally. This is — in my opinion — the most important stage of the tour, because it’s such a big day in the mountains, and rolls through all my backyard climbs.

I packed up the kids, we parked at the top of Suncrest (the second — and easiest — summit of the day), and cheered for each rider as he went by.

It was pretty fun.

A day or so later, Dug sent me a link to Rock Racing’s photo gallery from the day, which included this awesome action sequence of Tyler Hamilton. (Click any of the photos for a larger version on the Rock Racing site.)

First, here’s Tyler as he first goes wide of the hairpin. I love this picture. Tyler’s clearly got his brakes fully locked. It’s too late for those brakes, though; the gravel’s flying. He’s got a foot out, hoping to do a Fred Flintstone stop. Above all, though, I love his “Just Another Crash at the Office” expression.

And here’s Tyler, 0.00001 seconds before touchdown. I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’d be happy to have a crash like this photographed of me if it meant I could have calves that look like that. Those calves look like they were drawn by the guy who draws Spider-man. Also, notice that Tyler’s expression remains unchanged. “Ho hum, another day, another high-speed descending crash.”

Annnnnd…he’s down. On the bright side, at least he’s not still clipped in and thrashing like an upended turtle. That would be embarrassing. Or at least, I think it would be embarrassing, although I have never personally found myself in that kind of situation after crashing. Does anyone else, by the way, think it looks like Tyler’s taking the fall on his elbows and knees on purpose? I wonder if Michael Ball instructed them earlier in the day: “Look, no matter what you do, do not damage the shorts and jerseys. They’re priceless.

No serious harm done. Look at the expression on his face, though. Those are the eyes of a man who has just had a near-death experience.

Bob’s Bane
I like any photo action sequence, but I really like this one. Why? Easy. Because as soon as I saw the first photo, I knew — without any doubt whatsoever — where that crash happened.

It’s an extremely tight, steep, hairpin switchback we call Bob’s Bane, named because Bob similarly turfed it in that hairpin.

But really, pretty much everyone who rides down the American Fork side of the Alpine Loop eventually has a close encounter with that switchback. You’ve just started the descent after miles and miles of climbing. You’ve gone a mile, and the curves have been gentle. The descent has been moderate. You’re just beginning to relax into the speed: in the high 30’s or low 40’s, probably.

And then you come out of a gradual right to see a 170-degree left, steep and unbanked, with a million-zillion skidmarks and a gravel shoulder. The turn whips you around so hard and suddenly that even with hard braking, the centrifugal effect throws you to the outside edge of the turn like you’re the salad in a salad shooter. (Oooh. “Salad shooter.” That’s a not-bad name for a hairpin turn. I’ll have to remember that one.)

Hey, it’s all part of the magic — some good, some dark — of riding a hairpin turn on a bike.

Hairpin Turns on Road Climbs
As freaky and scary (and roadrash-y) as an unexpected downhill hairpin can be, there’s an exquisite counterbalancing magic to encountering a hairpin turn on a road climb.

Tell me if I’m the only one who’s experienced this: You’re on a steep climb, barely turning the cranks. Then you come upon a switchback that looks even steeper than the straightaways it joins up. And yet, somehow, you find yourself accelerating through that turn. Somehow, it’s easier to pedal through it than it should be. It’s like you’re being pulled through the corner. Like the corner has a built-in tailwind.

You’ve felt it too, right?

Many times I’ve wondered why a climbing road hairpin feels like this. Is it the centrifugal effect? If so, I’d like to ride up banked corkscrew climbs from now, please.

Is it just psychological?

Is it something else?

I don’t know. If you know, explain it to me. But there’s something there: the sense of being swung around the switchback, like you’re a bucket on a string.

Hairpins on the Mountain
While a hairpin on a road descent can be terrifying and a hairpin during a road climb can somehow be a respite, a tight hairpin on a mountain bike — a turn with a radius less than the length of your wheelbase — is…complex.

First, you’ve got to shed all your speed. And then you start the turn. Slowly. Smooth if you can, but more likely herky-jerky. If you’re me.

And then there’s the point you hit the apex of the turn. It’s a magic moment. You’re briefly stalled out, and either about to squeak out of the corner and roll out triumphant, or find that your front wheel is at too sharp an angle to the rest of your bike, and fall over on your side (unless you’re lucky enough to clip out in time, in which case I would argue that you weren’t fully committed to the attempt).

Will the magic be light or dark? You won’t know until you know.

When you make it, though — when you slide around a hairpin that you’ve never cleaned, or even one you only clean half the time — you get that wild moment of elation, a moment that can only be described as “magic.”

And that goes double if the guy behind you falls over.


  1. Comment by James | 08.25.2008 | 7:24 am

    You snooze you lose. First Comment.

    Brillian set of photos highlighting that if you have to crash, crash like a pro.

  2. Comment by Big Boned | 08.25.2008 | 7:34 am

    A couple of hairpins like you describe on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. You see them and think “ain’t no way”, after you cruise up them you nearly crash because you are so busy patting yourself on the back for being such a great climber!
    Your description of the apex on a MTB were perfect.

  3. Comment by John | 08.25.2008 | 7:41 am

    Not for me Fatty – switchbacks *kill* me.

    At least, all the ones I encounter always go UP, and trying to keep up momentum while turning is brutal…


  4. Comment by Orbea Girl | 08.25.2008 | 7:43 am

    I just love hairpins. Doesn’t matter whether I’m ascending or descending: the more the merrier.

  5. Comment by steve sax | 08.25.2008 | 7:51 am

    Newton’s Laws of Motion stuff, FC. Accelerating means changing speed and/or direction. So you feel the turn making you accelerate even though you are probably not changing speed.

    That’s on the climb.

    On the descent, what you are feeling is…sphincter
    muscles doing their thing. Because you have done the
    gravel shoulder getoff before. I don’t fall much on road, but I got off yesterday (SUCCESSFULLY) avoiding
    a small yapping dog. I looked like Tyler hours later
    when I got home.

    Hey, we have a local turn I’m going to call Salad
    Shooter, ok? Great name.

  6. Comment by Big Bird | 08.25.2008 | 7:51 am

    I was wondering if they’d put a sign there (“warning: death turn ahead. Apply brakes or perish”) for TofU. Obviously they didn’t.

    I’ve been riding the loop for years, and that turn still sneaks up on me every time. Usually while my hands are off the bars and I’m zipping up my jersey.

  7. Comment by Boz | 08.25.2008 | 8:06 am

    I thought I was the only one one that felt that surge as I turned sharply up hill. I guess not. Maybe the leaning around the corner adds more weight to the inside pedal thus increasing power a tad over my normally pitiful output. OK, who’s going to fund the study?

  8. Comment by cyclingeurope | 08.25.2008 | 8:16 am

    Tight hairpin turn aside, Tyler has always been accident prone and does things like win stages with a broken collar bone. With calves like his, it’s obvious he spent his suspension on his bike.

    Great descriptions, FC, I LOVE switchbacks! Have done the 21 SB of Alpe d’Huez a few times and I’m salivating at the thought of doing the 48 switchbacks of Monte Stelvio in Italy someday! Here in Colorado we have a few, but most are sweeping instead of tight. Road designers here need to learn from those European engineers…

  9. Comment by Kalidurga | 08.25.2008 | 8:48 am

    Please tell me this site isn’t going to turn into something like the dork-fest over at BSNYC, where people vie to be the first commenter and then rub it in the face of every commenter who comes after.

    Now that that’s out of the way: Unfortunately, I can’t comment on switchbacks because I suck so much at climbing that none of it is magic for me. But that last photo of Tyler still looked like “Ho-hum, just another day…”.

  10. Comment by BSNYCcommenter | 08.25.2008 | 8:51 am

    Top 10!

  11. Comment by Eufemiano Fuentes | 08.25.2008 | 8:51 am

    fortunately for Tyler, with a heomcrit level of 72%, his blood is so thick that he will not bleed from those small cuts.

    The average joe would not be so lucky.

  12. Comment by Emily | 08.25.2008 | 9:06 am

    What, you mean your mtb trials skills are not up to doing repeated rear-wheel skids while descending tight switchbacks?
    Aaah who am I kidding, my trials riding is not that great these days either… although in my head I can do it :)

  13. Comment by Bryan | 08.25.2008 | 9:16 am

    I think you got it right on the Michael Ball instructions to Tyler. At over $400 for a set they probably only get one set a season.

  14. Comment by KanyonKris | 08.25.2008 | 9:18 am

    I recognized that turn right away, as I think any Alpine Loop rider would. Can’t count how many riders that turn has suckered. I warn newbies, but sometimes they still don’t show the turn the proper respect and pay for it. That turn is one of the many good features of the Alpine Loop – man, I love that route!

    I think the uphill switchback is psychological. It’s just so fun to crank around those turns I think it blocks out the physical effort it takes.

    Bingo on the MTB switchbacks. Few things are sweeter than cleaning them. I have a running tally on many of the local switches.

  15. Comment by Jay Peitzer | 08.25.2008 | 9:22 am

    My guess is that the Jersey and shorts are gotten wholesale only $300 for the set….easy come easy go……

  16. Comment by Mike Roadie | 08.25.2008 | 9:51 am

    I know a guy whose entire year’s salary was to be paid in RR gear….and that was AFTER the raise. Sheesh that stuff’s expensive!

    And, isn’t it Salad Spinner?????



  17. Comment by SYJ | 08.25.2008 | 10:04 am

    I think the acceleration comes from a temporary flattening of the road at the apex of a hairpin. Conventional wisdom in climbing curves is that, due to the banking, it is best to stick to the outside of the corner as the rise of the road is more constant, whereas the apex side of the road tends to be flat right at the corner, but ramps up steeply immediately thereafter.

    Of course, that only holds true if you subscribe to conventional wisdom.

  18. Comment by fatty | 08.25.2008 | 10:12 am

    mikeroadie – see, you just pointed out a fundamental difference between us. you thought of a salad spinner — a fancy-pants bourgeois gizmo from williams-sonoma. i thought of the salad shooter, an infomercial classic from Presto (Ronco’s less-classy competitor).

  19. Comment by Jay | 08.25.2008 | 10:58 am

    For what Rock Racing is chanrging for those jerseys, I’d might take it on the knees too. I wonder if Tyler gets an employee discount

  20. Comment by The Woulfes | 08.25.2008 | 11:05 am

    ever wonder why pros always seem to snap collar bones faster then osteo-arthritic 80 yr old women? Look at the way he falls!?! Hands out, face first, then elbow.

    The first thing I learned in Airbrone was the tuck and roll. It has served me well as a cyclist who has serious issues remaining upright. Tight and locked limbs are nothing but trouble.

    BTW, show two looks a lot like a swimmer coming off the blocks. maybe tyler is training to enter a sport where he won’t be out of competition tested…

  21. Comment by M2 | 08.25.2008 | 11:09 am

    I think the feeling of acceleration through a hairpin turn while climbing is purely visual. As you move through the radius of the turn everything in you field of view (road, road cut, horizon) changes quicker than what you see while climbing a long straightaway.

  22. Comment by Clydesteve | 08.25.2008 | 11:10 am

    Fatty – Tyler’s calves in shot #2 were the first thing I saw, too.

    Not that there is anything wrong with that.

  23. Comment by whumpus | 08.25.2008 | 11:27 am

    Those are some *hot* calves. And there certainly isn’t anything wrong with that.

  24. Comment by KT | 08.25.2008 | 11:47 am

    Apparently, Tyler only has the one facial expression: ho hum, another day at the office, blah blah blah.

    Having seen the prices of the RR kit for sale, I too would do everything in my power to avoid scuffing, wrinkling, or– all deities forbid– hurting them. Or wearing them, for that matter.

    Lucky for me, they’re too expensive, so I’m not planning on getting anything there, anyway. And they’re ugly, and momma taught me not to buy no ugly kit. :)

    Salad shooter vs spinner: we go either way in my household, and usually end up calling it “the salad thingie” as in, “hand me the salad thingie please, so I can finish making the salads”.

    Speaking of switchbacks, did anyone catch the travesty of Olympic mtb coverage? The womens race SUCKED to watch. We hardly get through the first half of the first lap when they go to commercial, and when we get back, we’re on the last lap! Wha??? Where’d the rest of the race go?

    The mens race was better, we at least got to see most of the course, even if we focused on Absalon a lot and ragged on the Americans for not doing well.

    Anyway, my point is, did ya see the switchbacks they had to climb? And then go down??? Yikes!!

  25. Comment by eclecticdeb | 08.25.2008 | 12:03 pm

    In case anyone cares…Twin Six just let me know that they have taken the pic of the smoker off their front page (yes, I wrote them a “What are you thinking??” email). I guess everyone can have a brain cramp, even cool folks like them.

    Rode 55 miles with 4000 elevation gain on a fundraiser bike ride, proudly wearing my Fat Cyclist jersey, in honor of my Mom (who lost her battle December 1, 2007) and for Susan.


  26. Comment by Tikki | 08.25.2008 | 1:13 pm

    A salad shooter is/was an appliance that cut veggies into thin slices or shreds. -Haven’t seen one of those in a while. A salad spinner is the contraption that spin dries your veggies after you’ve washed them. I think either would be a good name for a hairpin…

  27. Comment by ann | 08.25.2008 | 1:14 pm

    It’s ALWAYS a metaphor, always.

  28. Comment by whumpus | 08.25.2008 | 1:51 pm

    I can’t turn off the photoshop fun.


  29. Comment by Lifesgreat | 08.25.2008 | 2:05 pm

    Totally and completely off today’s topic, but I can see here from Utah County that Corner Canyon is on fire. :(

    Hoping your favorite riding areas somehow are/remain unscathed.

  30. Comment by fatty | 08.25.2008 | 2:20 pm

    lifesgreat – yeah, i’m watching a live video feed from kutv of that fire. really really hoping that they get that under control soon. and not just cuz of the trail. i’ve got friends who live up there. and i live on the other side of that mountain.

  31. Comment by Carl | 08.25.2008 | 2:36 pm

    My buddy and I just rode up Mt. Evans a couple of weeks ago, and I brought up the fact that I always feel a little acceleration going around a switchback turn while climbing. He made fun of me the rest of the day, every turn we rode through. I laughed it off, like “yea, your right, it’s just in my head”. But I was secretly still thinking it was true.
    Now I know it’s true.

  32. Comment by Big Mike In Oz | 08.25.2008 | 2:50 pm

    His expression in that last photo is pure “Ooooh S#$t, did you just see that”.

  33. Comment by Rudi | 08.25.2008 | 2:53 pm

    Nice pix, appropriate commentary – I like!

    And I think that the corner, since it’s a change in the ho-hum of some uphills (especially on the road) causes a rider to push just a little harder, thus increasing cadence and increasing speed. Change the situation, watch the rider adapt.

    On a completely unrelated note: is the Corner Canyon fire affecting the trails?

  34. Comment by bubbaseadog | 08.25.2008 | 2:53 pm

    explain the magnetic pull you get on some roads your bike barely moves and your not on a hill no wind just a hard pull against you. its frustrating as all literally dont go anywhere.

  35. Comment by Mike Roadie | 08.25.2008 | 3:31 pm

    But the spinner spins, the shooter shoots (centrifugal effect???).

    And OK, Steve…….there is nothing wrong with that. I’m envious too!

  36. Comment by aussie kev | 08.25.2008 | 3:41 pm

    i think i can see blood on his elbow maybe he will need to get his blood levels topped up !!!!

    we have all beenthere havent we ???


  37. Comment by Lizzylou | 08.25.2008 | 4:21 pm

    I shared that photo series with some of the other ladies at work. (Oddly enough, the school I work for hasn’t deemed Fatcyclist worthy of blocking). While I was busy being impressed with Tyler’s awe inspiring calves, they were busy being slightly disgusted. I don’t get it.

    Anyway, I have no idea what you’re talking about with climbing up hairpin turns. I usually find that they are much harder because my poor oxygen deprived brain cannot possibly concentrate on turning the cranks AND steering the bike at the same time. I am just not a multi-tasker.

  38. Comment by UpNorth | 08.25.2008 | 4:22 pm

    Hey KT – you should have been watching CBC coverage. I missed the men’s race, but the women’s race was fully covered.

    The course was pretty cool looking. Hard, but cool looking.

  39. Comment by tea-rider | 08.25.2008 | 4:39 pm

    These pictures are bringing up some unpleasant memories for me…
    I just had my first wipeout. Nothing major, mostly embarrassing. I simply went home after and took pics of my scraped knees and elbows to share this badge of honor with friends and family(a la fatty July ‘08).
    Then it stopped being funny when I got a staph infection and I haven’t been on my bike for 2 weeks.

    So I see these photos and all I can think is “boy I hope he washes with soap and water and bandages with Neosporin!”
    Not very cool of me.

  40. Comment by Corey | 08.25.2008 | 4:47 pm

    Ummm, the link to Bob’s Bane goes nowhere…which of course makes that much more curious!

  41. Comment by Lucky Cyclist(the d----eb-g) | 08.25.2008 | 5:16 pm

    There is one of these magical switchbacks on the South Fork Deer Creek trail on the dirt. When your climbing back up to the summit. It’s right before you cross the dirt road about 100 yards before you come out at the Cascade Springs Fork. Your grunting and sweating and then you hit this 179 degree frickin switchback. It’s so sharp that when I am riding a bike with a double clamp I started just turning it until it hit the frame. But I always seem to get a boost on it. It must be mental because I know the climb is almost done but it’s awesome.

  42. Comment by Kathleen | 08.25.2008 | 5:27 pm

    I just did my very first triathlon on Saturday (well, first race really since college 20+ years ago) and the 34 mile bike section had some serious hills that had scouted out via car. And I was worried.

    But I totally get what you’re saying, the turns – while often the steepest part – were somehow the easiest part of the climb. And I did it!

    Following your biking escapades helped me gather the courage to tackle this event…so, thank you!

  43. Comment by Aaron | 08.25.2008 | 6:58 pm

    And have you noticed that you make switchbacks in a certain direction better? I am much better turning left, than right.

  44. Comment by Lizzylou | 08.25.2008 | 7:49 pm

    A note on the Salad Spinner/Shooter discussion:

    Aren’t salad spinners those things that you put your wet lettuce in and crank around to fling off the water droplets and have dry lettuce?

    Therefore I think it does make more sense to be a salad spinner, since centrifugal force is involved. Whereas with the salad shooter, you’re dicing and spewing out vegetables. Unless of course you want to highlight the dicing of knees when eating gravel.

  45. Comment by Al Maviva | 08.25.2008 | 8:27 pm

    >>>>>EclecticDeb writes:
    >>>>>In case anyone cares…Twin Six just let me know that they have taken the pic of the smoker off their front page (yes, I wrote them a “What are you thinking??” email). I guess everyone can have a brain cramp, even cool folks like them

    That’s good. We can’t have anybody doing something dangerous that we disagree with, ’specially not on bikes. Next thing you know, kids will be riding them off road, jumping off stairs with ‘em, and eating high fat foods afterward. Or racing at the SSWC, getting stoned to the bejeezus, and generally being socially unacceptable.

    While we’re at it, I hear Stevil Kinevil at HTATBL promotes unsanctioned street racing by publishing Alley Cat Posters and drinking PBR completely unironically. Plus he’s a total bacon promoter, and lord knows how many heart attacks that causes. Who’s up for a letter writing campaign targeting Swobo?

    ——–Al Maviva for President in ‘08. Hope you that’s better than the Hope you had before, and change you can put in your pocket. I’m Al Maviva, and I approved this message.———–

    Ps. Deb, life is about choices, including using your free will to make stupid choices. Every time you try to shame somebody out of their individual liberty, a little corner of life dies. It’s funny coming from a cyclist too; the decision to get on the bike often results in broken bones or death. Nobody who is a serious cyclist should stand around waggling a puritanical index finger at smokers for taking unnecessary risks; assigning moral value to others’ risk taking while being blind to your own is especially silly.

  46. Comment by Kathy | 08.25.2008 | 8:53 pm

    Let’s all come down off the soap boxes (I wonder where that expression came from) and get back to the most important topic at hand — How does Bob feel about Tyler wrecking on his hairpin? (Perfect place for a hair joke about Bob, but I’m too tired to make it work.)

  47. Comment by Debamundo | 08.25.2008 | 9:36 pm

    I’m from Kansas. What do I know about descending. Or climbing. Or any of that stuff. Talk to me about wind. Wind I know.

    I guess I’m too late for the contest, huh? Well, here’s my entry anyway. I would actually prefer it someplace where it would be visible in normal bike clothes, such as the back of the calf. Or, since Kenny appears to wear sleeveless jerseys, maybe the upper arm/shoulder/bicep.


  48. Comment by Debamundo | 08.25.2008 | 9:38 pm

    Oops. Sorry so huge. What do I know about posting pics on the internet. Wind. Wind I know. (Sorry!)

    P.S. I saw three other Fat Cyclist jerseys at Hotter ‘N Hell in TX last weekend. There were probably others I didn’t see, with more than 11,000 cyclists.

    Reply from Fatty: Don’t worry, I smalled it up for ya.

  49. Comment by Mark in Monterey | 08.25.2008 | 9:51 pm

    On the switchback speed – no, you aren’t mental and yes, you do go faster on a switchback – but only for the fraction of a second it takes your front wheel to come across the arc. When you whip a sharp turn uphill, your rear wheel rotates around a very small point on the ground while your front wheel makes a much longer arc to change direction. So, even though your rear wheel isn’t really moving a long distance, your front wheel certainly is – and your body really is swinging around faster than you were going just before you began the turn. It’s just like when you drive your car (horror!) and the rear wheels take a different track (shorter) than the front wheels around a turn. Only on a bike at a slower (for me anyway) speed, you can actually feel yourself going faster in the turn.

  50. Comment by Tim | 08.25.2008 | 10:30 pm

    Ah phooey, whumpus beat me to it, and beat me at it. I just got around to doing my version and saw that cow had already been flung. Oh and why is it so tough to find a good photo of a skyscraper these days. Nonetheless:

  51. Comment by Coelecanth | 08.26.2008 | 12:23 am

    My favorite hairpin was on my commute home from work. It was a right angle turn on a sidewalk (the street was one way the wrong way) on a hill with a 7-8% grade. It made for a seriously off-camber turn, no big deal in summer. In winter with a couple of feet of snow and a renter in the corner house that never shoveled it was a huge challenge. It took me two winters to clean it and the first time I did it I was so excited I crashed immediately thereafter. I’ve never used that particular tail flip skill anywhere else, but I’m still proud of it.

  52. Comment by TK | 08.26.2008 | 7:22 am

    There is a wicked right hander on the descent from Mt. Ventoux to Malaucene that will definatly spin your salad as well as bruise your lettuce! I was reminded when I saw the corner during the ‘08 Dauphnie during the ascent of Ventoux on Vs. The guardrail has been pushed back from the road probably by vehicles going in both directions but it is when flying down on a bicycle at 80-85kmph that it looks easy until the corner drops away and you see the gravel strewn beyond the centerline and visions of Jalabert going down in the 2001 Tour start dancing in your head and the turn just keeps bending back on itself. Of course this is after having climbed Ventoux from Bedoin!

  53. Comment by AF | 08.26.2008 | 8:22 am

    Completely snubbed (not even a nod after I lifted two fingers off of my handlebar as a wave) by a rider in a pink FC jersey this morning in American Fork…and I wasn’t even on a recumbent.

  54. Comment by tim | 08.26.2008 | 8:58 am

    Al Maviva – I salute you. I too winced at the front page of the Twin Six site but if they wanna allude to the – now very old fashioned – premise that smoking is somehow cool then it’s up to them to look SUPERDUMB.
    Nice shot, thanks for sharing Elden, keep up the good work….Great recovery Tyler.

    WIN SUSAN!!!!

  55. Comment by tattoogallery | 09.5.2008 | 12:32 pm

    I’ve been riding the loop for years, and that turn still sneaks up on me every time. Usually while my hands are off the bars and I’m zipping up my jersey.

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