I've plunged and plummeted and careened and careered and in many other action-verb ways pointed my front wheel down the Rockies, the Cascades, the Appalachians, the Green Mountains, the Coastal Range from Cali to Oregon, the Sierra Madres and Nevadas, the Berks, the White Mountains and a good share of the isolated freaks such as Mt. Rainier and, just off Elliot Road in Wayne County, the highest point in Indiana (at which you ought to stop and ask the Gobels for permission to ride across their property before you go). I haven't done all the drops to be had, not even close, really, but I've done enough to know that the best descent isn't a destination. It's a sensation.
Something happens on the best descent. The relief of ending the climb (or, perversely, for many of us, the regret), the speed, the wind, the sound, the thrill, the fear, the rhythm of the corners, the licentious surrender to gravity, the ache of your hands and the strange chilliness that comes on your legs, and the bird on the wing 50 feet below eye level, and a good friend off your wheel, and a hamburger joint waiting at the bottom or maybe just a stop sign and a chance to sniffle your nose and take a cold drink of water--all of it strips you. You forget your life, the worries and the hopes, then as you get deeper into the descent you start to forget to forget and everything floods you--emotion, memory, aspiration, awareness--which means you are close and on down still you forget you are riding and at that instant the most reductive description of you is also the most complete. You are a cyclist going down a road. That is all you are doing and all you are.
The sensation ends.
The best descent is over, one more time.
The experience might have lasted an instant or an hour. Sometimes the enrapture has been so intense that you can't be sure how long you rode in it. To find any sense of time you have to look at your cycling computer, or the angle of the sun, or croak out a few words to the rider beside you. Usually, the road is still downhill, and usually as well you try to ride your way back into the magic and the inevitable failure to do so makes what is gone that much sweeter.
I've been there off the back of the Tourmalet and continuing on down down down the lengthy valley all the way to the base of Hautacam. Hours. And I've been there in the couple of hundred feet of screaming half-corkscrew on Dogwood, just a few miles from my home. Seconds. Each the equal of the other, and of all the other best descents of my life.
Despite the lofty title of this story, there's no guarantee that any of these 10 descents will become one of your best. But we do know for sure that these are great places to chase the magic, roads where the odds tilt sharply in your favor, whether you love to water your eyes on wide-open straightaways, or dive through a tangle of technical corners, or bag elevation-loss bragging rights, or simply sit up and take a good look at the landscape. Whether it comes on one of these roads or on one the next town over, your next best descent is out there waiting to be ridden.
GPS maps of the best descents in the United States:
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Route 156, Mt. Charleston Wilderness Area, Nevada
Rides compiled by John Summerson
Hat Tip To: Bicycling Magazine