This may be the least informative KYT! we do, but I simply can't write from much experience on today's topic. You see, I am a pretty lame descender. It goes well with my climbing, and in fact I can thank my climbing for ensuring that when I do descend in a race, I don't have a lot of company. At least, not before the bottom, by which time my superior momentum (ahem!) will sometimes slingshot me back into contention...
Anyway, back to the (un)real world of the Tour de France. Stage 9, while featuring the highest point in the Alps on this year's route, may be heavily influenced by what the riders do coming off that climb, the Col de la Madeleine. Maybe not, as there's a flat after. But while we know the names of the guys who go up quickly, you might not know the guys who can use the downhill portion to extend a lead or make up a gap. Just because a guy can climb doesn't mean he knows what to do when, inevitably, he must go back down.
First, some skills talk. The basic function involves knowing how to lean your bike through a turn, which coaches may tell you involves leading with your head (free your mind and your torso will follow?). The basic handling skills are something you'd expect everyone to acquire. The other part is getting low on the straightaways and hanging on for dear life. Coaches out there, feel free to add some finer points here.
Next is knowing how to choose your line. This is a matter of judgment/feel. Ideally you'd shoot for the tightest arc possible to save a few meters and therefore seconds in the turns. To locate the right line involves seeing it; to execute that line involves braking just the right amount, not so much that you dump speed and crawl through a turn when you didn't have to, but not so little that you overshoot it and invite disaster. Pretty intuitive to anyone who's even driven a car. This part of the equation is where cyclists start to separate a bit. Some guys have a better feel for this than others.
The last part, probably the most important, is confidence. Or a death wish, whatever you want to call it. But some guys are simply less afraid/cooler under the pressure of a big descent. Sometimes casual descenders will find their inner death wish when they're in fear of losing the race. In any event, the psychological hurdle is real, even at the top levels.
I don't have a comprehensive list in mind of guys to watch, so I'll ask the community to chime in on who their favorite descenders are. But a clear #1 is Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel. He's a B-list threat to win in his own right, so he should be among the favorites at the top of the climb. Growing up near the gnarly Pyrenees is apparently a good way to master descending. Sammy once said his ideal race was just a long, non-stop screaming descent. Or something like that. Anyway, he's a madman, and terribly fun to watch. Not in attendance this year (boo) is Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas, another noted descender. Nibali has actually served two functions with his downhilling, his own interests and those of his teammate Ivan Basso. The latter isn't a noted descender, but sitting behind a great downhiller like Nibali is good for a guy like Basso, who can take some confidence in watching the descent done well and seeing where the right lines are.
OK, that's all for now. I really love watching when descents really come into play. It's not often but it's truly awesome. Hoping for this Tuesday.