Panic braking? Time to face ‘the flinch’…

It’s a sensation familiar to most mountain bikers, that moment when the trail takes you to the cusp of your skills quotient and there’s a split second decision to make.  Attempt to stop, or ride it out.  I’ve written before about the role the sub-conscious mind plays in making your decisions for you.  Sometimes, when the learning and the practice comes together there can be a synchronicity of action on your part, that somehow transcends all the individual elements of the trail’s complexity ensuring the success of your manoeuver.

But, unfortunately it seems that quite often in mountain biking that reflexive action, the flinch; well it does you no favours at all.  Panic braking; you know it’s not going to help, but almost everyone, at some point, will have instinctively hauled on the anchors in a bid for self-preservation and the avoidance of impending damage and disaster.  I remember talking to Chris Ball about this phenomenon in relation to the different disciplines of the sport.  His observation was that gravity inspired riders generally have a better capacity to override the inherent, fear-based instinct, and allow momentum to exert a more positive influence on the chances of staying upright and intact.

I’ve thought a lot about this since, and I think it’s fair to say that you have to be incredibly mindful in your riding to reprogramme a thought process that rests on evolutionary foundations of a geological scale.  Deliberately fisting the grips and leaving the brakes uncovered in less challenging scenarios, goes some way to creating a conscious denial process that can, over time, be translated more effectively in those split seconds when the going gets squirrely.

As part of my journey to actively retrain my instincts I’ve recently discovered and been inspired by the writing of Julien Smith, in particular the messages articulated in his ebook ‘The Flinch’*.  In it he talks about how a combination of nature and nurture hardwiring, guides us to avoid the unknown, the potentially painful, the difficult, the uncertain, and to follow the safe path of least resistance and change.  He observes that we habitually avoid what we see as dangerous, even when there is no real evidence to support the perception we unconsciously carry with us, that our wellbeing and safety is threatened.  His key message: see the flinch for what it is, a fear without foundation.  Flinch forward, deal with the consequences, as it is only by constantly challenging the flinch that you start to really recognise it for what it is and become aware of the obstacles it creates for you, whether on the trail or in life.

Now, I’m not advocating that you go out and launch yourself down the scariest downhill trail section you can find, so that you can learn life lessons in casualty.  But if you want to improve your riding experience, then maybe, just maybe it’s time to take some active steps to face the flinch. The life benefits, well hey, they are there for the taking.

Julien’s quote of Ralph Waldo Emerson is apt:

‘Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail’.

*Julien uses a mountain biking analogy in his writing and therefore scores extra brownie points from me.

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