Day 4 – Leysin to Sion – 56 km with an 1100 meter descent
I awoke to the sun peeking over the mountains to my east and illuminating the snow-capper glacier to my right. Breathing the cool, fresh air felt like a luxury. As a matter of fact, it would have been nice just to sit on the veranda overlooking the mountains sipping a coffee and reading a book for the rest of the day.
But my employed-with-limited-vacation days travel companions had an itinerary and a deadline. Alas, we snapped a few more photos and began the steep, windy, switch-backed, beautiful 17 kilometer descent to Aigle.
The road was fast and exhilarating. But the stunning views demanded that we stop and take pictures.
Unfortunately, during those stops we never put two and two together that Emily’s bike was taking longer and longer to stop. I attributed her overshooting one turn to the fact that she was perhaps a little inexperienced with hills this steep and had gone too fast into the turn. It wasn’t until a bit later when she appeared to passing Alex and a long, steep open stretch while cars were also trying to pass her, that I shouted “Slow Down! Get Over!”
She screamed, “I can’t! My bakes don’t work! I can’t stop!”
This was a scary place to be with no brakes: a solid rock wall on the right, a guard rail and steep cliff on the left, stopped cars at a construction stop about 150 m ahead. There were limited options for a bail out.
Her instincts and quick thinking caused her to her right foot down onto the pavement and drag her toe. Just as her toes were heating up from the friction and the last rubber was just about worn through, she managed to slow her bike enough to pull it to the side of the road.
It was a death-defying, fear-inducing, God-thanking moment when she finally came to a stop. But it could have been much different. Adrenaline pumping, hearts racing, gratitude that she was safe, anger at the rental shop, anger at ourselves for not seeing the signs, tears, fear and relief were the emotions of the moment.
Alex and I tried to figure out what went wrong thinking maybe her brakes had over-heated. They were hot but so were ours and they still stopped on a dime.
We thought maybe the brake pads were worn through and considered swapping out his front breaks for her back. But, upon close inspection the pads were fine. The rotor was fine.
But both brakes did not work. Pulling the brake levers did not stop the wheels from turning.
So we hitched a ride for Emily and her bike to Aigle while Alex and I rode at a MUCH SLOWER PACE than before. I know we were all a bit spooked.
We found a brake shop and BOTH cables needed tightened but then they both worked as designed.
We had some lessons learned in this situation:
Check a rental bike thoroughly before leaving the rental shop. Alex and I had just assumed that a shop renting Trek 720s with a top-of-the line shop and experienced mechanics would lead to well-maintained bikes.
Have an experienced cyclist check the bikes. Emily, having never ridden a bicycle with cable disk brakes, thought maybe cable disk brakes were supposed to take a long time to stop and cause her forearms scream in pain in the evening after trying to stop the bike. Alex and I could have seen from a check of the brakes in the shop that they were not adjusted properly.
Slow down on steep descents. As much as I LOVE pretending like I’m on a downhill course in the Tour de France, speed only compounds other possible scenarios.: brake failure, tire punctures, obstructions, water, gravel, pot-holes, other vehicles…the list goes on.
And, to give credit to Emily, she did get back on the bicycle and ride about 30km to the train station in Martigny where we a short train ride to our destination of Sion.