Canyon Riding and the Theory of Flow
A couple of recent events have really got me thinking about how people approach canyon rides; especially first-time rides on roads they are not familiar with. Given that a lot of you are gearing up for the Dragon run, I thought I would post up some things to consider for those of you who might be inexperienced, a little timid, or generally anxious about riding canyons with a group of people.
The Ride and the Approach
In the time that I've been organizing and doing group rides in canyons (and other technical public roads) I've seen that different riders have different ways of tackling an unfamiliar situation or environment. Some choose to instill trust in their lead-riders and ride balls-out hoping for the best. Other people hang back and get to know the road, even if they are riding at a small percentage of their usual pace.
We've already addressed the subject of peer pressure and social influence on riders but it is important that I make mention of it here because that is a very large factor in how some riders choose to approach the situation of a group ride in an unfamiliar environment. "I just want to keep up." "I don't want to hold anyone up." "I know that I'm faster than this so I should be picking up the pace." I have heard all of these things said at least once during every group ride I have ever organized or participated in. Hell, even I've uttered them but never really followed through on pushing myself any harder (I'm just stubborn like that... even against myself). Sadly, those sentiments are usually followed by a crash or a "pucker moment."
What I find ironic is that so many of these prideful, ego-driven, aspiring racer-types tend to forget one golden rule in trackdays/racing: the warm up lap.
No one hits the first session of a track day and rides balls-out. I mean, some people do, and those are the people that usually crash out early. Your tires are cold, the track is cold, you may not know the track, there are a lot of variables that track day riders and racers take into account when hitting that first practice session. Since a canyon ride isn't a race and doesn't offer a contingency prize for the first person to get to the lunch-spot, I've never seen much point in pushing well beyond your limits on a road you don't know.
Personally, I consider the first run up any mountain, through any canyon, or along any twisty road, to be a sight lap. I don't care if I'm the last person to roll in. I want to read the road, learn the entry points, apexes and exit points. I don't want to have to worry about trying to figure out where that corner goes on the fly because I'm coming in a little hot and hoping it doesn't close up. To be honest, I don't think you learn as much that way.
I used to be afraid of leading. These days it makes me uncomfortable to have a pack of riders behind me but it's not as bad as it used to be. The truth is that I prefer to have an unobstructed view of what's ahead of me. To me, every road is like a book and I like to take it in with the widest, most unobstructed perspective possible in order to best determine how to apply myself and my abilities to it.
This is what they mean when they say "Ride your own ride." Let me reiterate that if you're on a ride with a bunch of impatient assholes, then you're probably better off riding on your own.
I'm not one for following the leader because, quite frankly, how do I know that they know what they're doing? Also, I don't want to learn their lines (especially if they are running wide all over the place). I want to learn the lines of the course. I don't want to pick up some other guy's bad habits; I have enough of my own to break. If someone is in front of me, I am usually looking past them. I am looking at what lies ahead for them because what lies ahead for them is also what lies ahead for me; if for no other reason than if they screw up and go down, I want to have an alternate escape route or alternate line that isn't going to put me in the path of an oncoming car. Focusing on the rider in front means I target fixate on everything they are doing and subconsciously apply it to what I am doing.
I've seen too many timid or inexperienced riders just follow the leader and it has frequently ended badly. In fact, most of all multi-rider crashes that I've seen or heard of occurring on group rides, happen for this reason.
That isn't to say that I'm not going to consider alternate strategies or feedback from other, more experienced riders. But it is to say that I'm going to observe with a grain of salt.
I am sure that a lot of people are thinking "Well I'm only gonna get to hit this mountain once, I might as well conquer it while I'm here." But that mentality can go a long way to creating circumstances that result in this first run of the mountain being your last. You're also probably thinking: "Well not everyone goes on a ride to learn anything, some people just want to go out and get a quick fix." And that's fine if that's your way of looking at it, but this is another good reason of why I don't place too much stake in trying to keep up on a road that I don't know. You might not have much regard for the consequences of that mentality, but I don't really want to have to deal with the downtime and expense of what happens when that roll of the dice doesn't land in my favor.
The Flow Theory
In college I studied the relationship of brain and consciousness. During that time I was introduced to the Flow Zone Theory. Flow is the mental state that one achieves when performing an activity that they are fully immersed in, enjoying, and experiencing a state of balanced proportion between the challenge of the course and their own skill level. Many people refer to this as "The Zone." You are fully focused and absorbed in it to a point where you seem to transcend self awareness, fear, insecurity, etc. In order for a person to experience this state of mind, the degree of difficulty should be such that it challenges but does not overwhelm a person's perceived or actual ability to carry it out. The degree of difficulty should also not be 'too boring' otherwise a person isn't going to be engaged enough.
So let's say you're riding behind a guy who is moving at a good clip. You're pushing hard, you're coming into corners hot, maybe sliding out the rear, and possibly running a few corners wide, chopping the throttle, white-knuckling the clip-ons and you can feel your heart jumping in your chest. Your adrenaline is pumping because you don't know what to expect and you're at the seat of your pants and a little frustrated with yourself for not riding better. You're constantly having to tell yourself to relax, or get your ass off the seat, or flow smoother on the throttle or whatever.
The degree of challenge has surpassed your perceived ability and your focus is distracted by the survival mechanisms in your brain that are either influencing your instinct and counteracting or impairing your judgement. When this happens, we usually commit a series of rider errors. Then the thoughts come around and we start thinking too much. I don't know anyone who has fun on a ride that is a constant internal struggle because of these factors. Yet this is often what happens in the inexperienced-canyon scenario.
A lot of people dig the adrenaline rush aspect. Personally, I don't enjoy the adrenaline rush. I enjoy the Zone. In fact, adrenaline really just gets in my way, it's one more thing I have to mentally reconcile when I'm trying to find my groove. I have thought about the relationship between adrenaline and skilled riding and I considered at one point that maybe if I wasn't scared enough, I wasn't riding hard enough. Then I went on a ride with my mentor (he is significantly faster than I am). We hit a technical road and I was feeling good. I hit the zone and at one point in the ride, I came back to reality and I realized that I was keeping up with him. I had scraped my knee pucks a few times and I was holding great lines but I didn't feel like I was anywhere near my limit. I just felt good. At one point I passed him and when we came to a stop I gave him shit for holding back to wait for me. His response was: "Actually, I was trying to pull on you."
So in closing, it would seem to me that the goal shouldn't be to become the fastest guy in the pack, or to even prove your own prowess (to yourself or anyone else) by keeping up. The focus should be to find your zone, to ride your ride, and to enjoy the hell out of it. You can still find the zone even if you are riding at a small percentage of your actual pace. Because while you may be a badass on roads near you, the degree of environmental difficulty is no longer as significant as it was when that road was unfamiliar to you. Usually people offset this by upping the ante on how much faster they can ride the road and therein lies a new challenge. But the unfamiliar road poses the same degree of challenge and if you are doubling up the challenge by trying to ride it too quickly then it simply becomes overwhelming, unenjoyable, and even dangerous.
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Last edited by MistressOfMayhem; 07-03-2013 at 12:44 PM.