A moment of perspective …

It’s easy when you’ve been riding a long time to fall into a routine where the activity itself has become accompanied by a set of accoutrements and a series of rituals that belie the actual challenge ahead. Camelbak stuffed with shock pump, mini tool, snack bar, phone, spare top, buff, first aid kit, jelly beans, banana – anyone? Fettle with forks, fiddle with bolt-thru, tyre pressures, OK – check!

Sometimes you just need a little reminder, a moment where the essence of ‘why’ smacks you squarely in the face.  Yesterday was one of those days.  As we wound up the gentle forest incline a cursory glance confirmed my sense of an approaching rider and we spun wide to let him past.  And there he was, pounding along on his old, rigid touring bike, wind in his hair, tracky bottoms and T-shirt flapping, gloveless, grinning.  He whistled on by, effortlessly; his arms and legs providing suspension, with trainers doubling up as emergency brakes. We saw him twice more as we meandered through the forest – the descending had a tendency to rattle those pannier straps loose, forcing him to stop momentarily for a quick fix.   Then off he went again, unencumbered, happy and free, it really was all about the ride.

If the cumulative effects of routine and habit are weighing you down [literally] and you feel like life, with it tendrils of responsibility and expectation is depleting your energy, then maybe, just maybe it’s time to simplify.

Let me know how you go.

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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.

Life mechanics, it’s the sum of its parts

“It’s no good, something’s not right, I‘m gonna have to stop for a minute”.  Sound familiar?  With the exception of the exclusively solo rider, pretty much everyone at some point in their riding history will experience that moment when the pair or group grinds to a halt as the annoyance of the offending ‘thing’ overwhelms the instinct to keep turning the pedals no matter what.

Sometimes it’s just a little hiccup – a squirt of oil on the chain guide roller, was all that was needed to keep my spinning karma firmly intact on this weekend’s ride.  But at other times, it seems that your theoretically simple bicycle takes on a unique complexity of its own, and no amount of trailside tweaking can solve the niggle.  So you rattle on round the rest of your loop, muttering about ‘suspension settings, bearing wear, tyre pressures, worn out running gear’… while mentally scrolling through the possible factors that could explain why your once perfectly tuned and fettled machine, is no longer behaving how you expect it to.

Head down and distracted, you don’t notice the first hint of bluebells grabbing the light before the woodland canopy bursts into life, you miss the fleeting glimpse of a young deer startled by your passage, and you barely register the growing richness of the pastures as the passage of the seasons gathers pace.

Back in the workshop, it takes a systematic and patient hand to trace the problem, and to diagnose and fix the source of your discontent.  As often as not, this involves a dismantling and rebuilding process, with washers and bolts ‘pinging’ off metalwork in a bid to escape.  To understand what’s going on – or going wrong – you have to be prepared to look at the bike’s parts and the connections; but the effort is worth it for the smooth shifting and quiet rotations that mark its return to a functioning whole.  With this time invested, its role as your transporter and vehicle to a world of sensation and experience is restored.

Bike mechanics providing life lessons?

Sometimes, you just have to be prepared to step back a bit and look again at the constituent parts.  It’s how you choose to put them together that makes all the difference.