Shepard Tone // Always Descending

Is this a music blog or a bike blog?

I like music me. Rubbish at making it, but I can still enjoy it.

Envious of those wistful lads at parties who’d sit down and start playing guitar to the adoration of all, I got my first real six string and tried learning to play. Mostly in the hope a certain someone would be impressed. In short, 1 thumb, 4 fingers, 6 strings just doesn’t add up for me, I barely learnt enough cords to play in a punk band, and she wasn’t impressed.

This is the always ascending part

I quickly realised that I’m atrocious at playing music and vowed never to inflict my attempts on anyone. There’s a name for people who persevere with subjecting their badly thought out and executed ideas on the world whether they like it or not. Politicians.

However, being rubbish at playing music doesn’t stop me loving listening to it. From the C F & G chords at the heart of punk to the modern complexities of composers like Anna Meridith, queen of the Shepard tone.

Lorne's tall, but not as tall as Mont Blanc.

The Shepard Tone I hear you say? Or at least for the sake of narrative construct I do. Yes, the Shepard tone. In the words of Franz Ferdinand (I’m not saying the only musicians worth listening to are Scottish, but….):

“Always and always and always ascending

Opening line leaves an uncertain ending

Always and always and always ascending

The chords seem to pause”

If you're going to pause, do it in the light.

Using a song about the Shepard tone to explain the Shepard tone is a little meta, but does the job.

Basically it’s a clever musical construct where you, the listener, get the impression the pitch is constantly rising, or falling, despite it being on an infinitely repeatable loop.

I'm not sure if I'm descending or ascending here, hence nicely fitted in next to the infinite loop line.

“Always and always and always ascending

The Shepard misleads so you think you’re transcending

Always and always and always ascending

Pause the progression”

Clever eh.

Ever been on a bike ride like that?

Oooh, look at the texture.

Like a song, you can start and finish a ride in the same place, or on completely different notes, but if it’s a human powered endeavour then chances are the ride is going to feel like you start by always, and always, and always ascending.

Before a bite of lunch and then a short descent.

You might have gone up and down the same vertical metric but thanks to relative uphill / downhill speeds, the time is skewed very much in one direction (who are not a Scottish band, see my point yet?).

Transcending not ascending along the Crete des Gittes

Normally at least.

Every so often you end up on a ride that has a little bit more creativity. The trail, the landscape, the conditions all combine to fool the head into thinking the infinitely repeatable loop is actually headed one way only. “The Shepard misleads so you think you’re transcending”

What went up gets to go down. Like the grand old duke of york, although he seems to be avoiding getting sent down unfortunately.

I’d be stretching it a bit to say the climb from the lac Roseland to Col de la Sauce felt like a descent, but being on a very pedallable mix of tarmac and gravel for 700m, then an engaging mix of pushing and pedalling along to the 2538m high point of the Crete des Gittes, it really didn’t feel like 1000m of height gain.

Perfect late autumn alpine weather and the familiar, but not overly so, views of Beaufortain probably helped. As did the occasional patch of snow, ice and frictionless greased rock. I guess you don’t notice your burning calves so much if you’re constantly on your toes.

Big hills biking

Time for a bite of lunch before a short descent. I had sandwiches, Lorne quiche. Lorne definitely won lunch.

We make a U-turn and start the descent. Apparently U-turns are all the rage right now. In reverse the Crete des Gittes is even better. Less time absorbed by the views, more time negotiating with yourself to compromise between a pace fast enough for your inner Kilian Bron, but slow enough to manage the odd patch of snow or grease next to an always and always and always steeper than you’d like drop.

Lorne on la Sauce

The Crete is just the warm up though, or an Anacrusis if we’re playing musical reference bingo.

From the Col de la Sauce the trail heads back north east. Nothing outstanding at first, but still a fine and fun example of that classic “narrow band of singletrack through alpine meadows” with strong backdrop and the occasional misplaced rock to keep you conflicted as to which you should be watching for.

We left the Crete a while ago, so long ago it's now on our right.

Crossing the Torrent de la Gittaz (why couldn’t it be the Torrent de la Sauce!?!) a couple of times, the trail starts getting more engaging, more interesting, with trickier little rock steps to manage and the occasional hint of exposure as the river starts to cut deeper into the valley floor.

The occasional flat or even uphill sections mean you’re not really burning that much height even if it feels like it.

A prelude of what's to come?

The Shepard tone makes its magic by using overlapping, looped, rising pitch (or falling pitch, but usually rising) scales which are played louder or quieter out of sync.

So, as one scale reaches its highest note and nears needing to have to start again from the lowest note in its sequence, it fades quieter to be overtaken by a louder scale that’s earlier in its journey to its highest pitch, which in turn fades out to be replaced by the next scale that’s gradually getting louder. Like the aural equivalent of a spinning barbers pole, or an M.C. Escher painting, or the Barrage de la Gittaz.

I really like this image, so it goes in. I could write something about it be allegory of the always ascending Shepard tone, but really, it's just 'cos I like it.

Our ride managed its magic by overlapping a mix of scenery, no stress environment and regular stops to record the magic onto memory card so that whenever we thought we were going uphill, a new distraction came along.

The sacrifices we make for your content.

Bikes are well gid.

Back to the trail and the unavoidable sense of the valley walls narrowing in on you stops you from having any time to spare pondering the intricacies of what happens when cognitive science meets music.

You can’t escape the feeling that the trail is building to something. I guess we could say a crescendo.

Trail, building. Very different to trail building.

But first, there’s a pause (caesura). One more river crossing, with the foundations for a bridge but no bridge, which feels like it should have been a musical reference but was instead quite literal.

After a dismount, quick game of wet-rock-hopscotch and sprachle back up the other side, we drop in to the main act.

What we came for. If you are a world class rider with a world class production team, you can make some great content here. The rest of us just have fun.

All good trails have something that sets them apart, it might be a particularly fine sequence of corners, an exemplary natural drop or an exquisitely picturesque ridge.

For the Col de la Sauce descent it’s an improbable rough-hewn trail, hacked from the side of a cliff, at points forming a barrel overhead to surf your way through.

Radical, dude.

Lorne getting bodacious, surf that grey wave bro'

Just don’t fall right.

yeah, don't fall right

It’s a cool bit of trail alright, but all good things come to an end (all bad things too I hope) and spat out the end of the tube you abruptly change tempo from 100% rock to 100% dirt and a fun line through the vegetation. So also a pretty cool bit of trail. Just don’t get too excited at the sudden lack of consequence and repeatedly try popping off rocks only to find in mid-air the landing isn’t quite what you were hoping for.

Aren’t modern suspension forks amazing.

Amazing how much a trail can change in the space of 100m or so, out with the rocks and exposure, in with dirt and flow.

We’re into the coda now, but still without doubt descending. Or at least as far as the plateau before the Lac de la Gittaz and a choice to be made. Ascending 150m over the Col de sur Fretes or 110m above the barrage?

We chose the latter, who doesn’t like a good looksee at a dam, but over the col is definitely the most direct way back if you’re doing a circular ride. You choose your own adventure, you do you.

Always descending. As far as the water, then it goes uphill again. shrug.

Like a song, you can start and finish in the same place, or on completely different notes. For all this trail feels like descending on descending, where the Shepard tone is infinite, hills ain’t.

“Don’t be concerned

It’s just the way that gravity works ’round here”


We could easily pick a note to end on, which in our case was a bar. Musicians have only their imagination as the limit for wherever they end their track, although I suspect quite a few end in a bar too.

Eitherways, a fine resolution to a fine trail.

An explanation. This was my first time in about 4 months using a "real"camera. My battered RX100 is on the way out and sometimes takes a few goes to work. We're mostly riding so you don't always have much time to get the camera out, on, set correctly, then shoot. I completely failed with the set up here, it could have been a great shot, but it's not. However, the situation is stunning, so I'll hide it here at the very end of the piece instead. Anyone got recommendations for a new camera?
An explanation. This was my first time in about 4 months using a “real”camera. My battered RX100 is on the way out and sometimes takes a few goes to work. We’re mostly riding so you don’t always have much time to get the camera out, on, set correctly, then shoot. I completely failed with the set up here, it could have been a great shot, but it’s not. However, the situation is stunning, so I’ll hide it here at the very end of the piece instead. Anyone got recommendations for a new camera?