Monday, 6 October 2014

Finding Flow

I got into this mountain biking lark too late in life. Gone was the chance to rely on a youthful, sponge-like brain to help me develop the natural skills needed to shred with ease (not to mention hours upon hours of free time to play with.) As a mid 30’s-something year old, each trick has been a lesson I've learned through experimentation, frustration, applying theory from books and DVDs, repetitive sessioning and lots of self analysis and critique. I've also employed coaching along the way to help me unlock a few Eureka moments. It’s not always a pleasant way to learn the sport as disillusion creeps in where ability is found lacking. But I feel I’ve developed a decent understanding of everything I’ve learned and take pride in how far I’ve come (although I still have a long ways to go. The urge to always go faster, bigger and higher is one of the driving joys of this sport, and one of its biggest curses.)

Like most riders my age I spend far more time thinking about riding than actually doing it. During one of these dirt dreaming sessions I came to realize my learning curve could be broken down into definite stages. Each milestone reached took me one step closer to achieving the tantalizing satisfaction that is : Flow. Now, allow me to caveat. I don’t believe I’m able to achieve flow all the time. Neither have I conquered all the stages I’ve described. And I’m not a coach. But I think the following is a fair boiling down of everything I’ve learned and try to put into practice whenever I ride.

The Fear Stage
Perhaps fear is too strong of a word. We're not yet scaring ourselves on steep, high consequence technical sections or hitting big drops, but we're not confidently driving the bike when the trail points south either. We are passengers giving mechanical input to the bike but we don't yet fully understanding the feedback our steeds and trails are sending back. Trepidation constantly tickles the nerves and though the fun factor is definitely there, confidence has yet to be earned. Body position might not be quite correct so it often feels like you're sat too high up on the bike and failure to clear any obstacle or section of challenging trail can result in going over the bars. At the mercy of gravity and the undulating terrain, we exercise control through the only way we know how - by constantly dragging the brakes to keep speed in check.
This is the beginner stage where technical singletrack and open, gravelly fire road all feel the same. Speed is something to be reigned in and descents are challenges to be endured. Getting through in one piece is the primary objective. We enjoy it, but we don't yet have the confidence to really own it.
To leave this stage, we must first learn to brake correctly. Simply applying either brake without proper control will pitch the rider forward doing all sorts of bad things to body position, weighting and traction. This leaves the rider with less control which in turn dims confidence. The rider brakes even more as uncontrolled speed becomes something that induces the run away train feeling of fear.

Learning to Brake
This is the first real stage of achieving flow on the trail. Applying the brakes in short, controlled bursts as a means of maintaining traction is the goal. Dropping the heels at these moments counters the momentum of the body pitching forward as the bike decelerates. A good neutral body position is maintained which keeps the bike balanced. A balanced, controlled bike induces confidence so braking is used only as needed. The habit of dragging the brakes begins to be broken.

Learning to Unweight
Recoil from the bike happens often, for example when braking force is released or when coming out of a bermed corner. This recoil can also be induced with a quick preload and release of the bike's suspension, eg bouncing on the pedals. When in this state, the bike is less susceptible to being deflected off course by rough terrain. This un-weighting of the bike is a key component to finding flow as it allows the bike to float over technical trail sections that would otherwise cause the rider to slow down (either because of trail topology sapping momentum or through rider braking to regain control in a challenging section.) Un-weighting also allows the rider to easily manipulate the bike as it becomes momentarily weightless, eg flopping the bike from one lean to the opposite side to change direction between chicane corners.
As un-weighting becomes familiar, it can be exaggerated so the bike is pulled tight to the rider as the arms and legs bend to accommodate. This is the perfect setup to push the bike back into the dirt and create the pump......

Pumping the Trail
Wise old men of the mountain will say "if you're not pedaling, you should be pumping." Use of this technique should become the default way to ride any descent (and most flat sections) in order to maintain control and carry speed. Not only does it allow the rider to squeeze extra momentum out of the trail, it stops the riding high and feeling like a passenger sensation that can happen during the early stages of learning. Pumping keeps the arms and legs loose and in sync with the terrain. Body weight settles low in the bike's chassis so the trail feels less harsh. Riding feels smoothed and more relaxed. This can only have one effect - increasing control.
The compression stage of the pump (loading the suspension) creates incredible grip. Squashing the bike and tires into the dirt with deliberate force can often create enough grip that the need to brake in order to maintain control is made redundant. Often when people brake it is a reaction to feeling loss of control of the bike (either through speed increasing or trail conditions changing.) However it isn't always a scrubbing of speed that is required to maintain control, it is a need for better grip.

The Holy Grail. Achieving flow depends on more than just the mastery of technique. The delicate balance where ability meets challenge requires many stars to be in perfect alignment. However it is possible to give flow a helping hand. A nudge in the right direction. Once pumping becomes (almost) unconscious the trail morphs into something new. Individual sections that used to require their own unique problem solving (and often slowing down for) become threaded together into one continuous motion. Everything feels fluid, regardless of trail technicality. Sometimes it even feels slow and its only a Strava sanity check that confirms you are riding fast. You are in the zone. This effortless feeling requires a lot of effort to maintain, yet it feels like the bike and body are bearing this effort. The mind is freed to live in the exact moment and soak in the sheer pleasure of achieving flow.

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