We are preoccupied with the idea of “flow“ as a tribe, a trail has flow, a rider can flow through a techy section, a trail is appraised and assessed on how much flow it possesses. However the language of flow usually isn’t very sophisticated, with this ephemeral measure often being communicated and quantified through hand gestures and whoosh noises. When we are talking about the character of a trail it is a easier quality to define, albeit a very personal definition, one mans flow trail is an other mans sanitized blue.
Flow is a very interesting idea, it is spoken about outwith the mountain bike community, in fact you could argue that flow is a borrowed term with it being common place in other spheres and other activities that require skill. We would accept that a musician in the height of a performance can be in full flow.
Flow or flow state is usually used to describe a state of mind brought about by performing an activity of skill by the participant that brings about a state of complete mental absorption and heightened focus. This is what I am sure some riders are referring to when they describe flow, however illusive and intangible a flow state may be there are some commonly agreed criteria that have to be met for it to occur.
I gave a lecture at my work to a class of art students about flow and how it can affect artistic performance, I used cycling as the example to illustrate the sensation that some may of experienced was not unique too artistic output.
Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi is a philosopher and psychologist who has studied the phenomenon of flow states, he has defined characteristics and criteria to describe a flow state and how one can be achieved and I used these to help describe the sensation, they are.
- Completely involved in what we are doing – Focused
- A sense of Ecstasy – of being separated from the everyday
- Complete inner clarity – Knowing what needs to be done & how well you are doing
- Knowing the activity is doable – that our skill level is high enough
- Serenity – no thoughts beyond the immediate
- Timelessness – Hours and minutes are interchangable
It is its own reward – The activity that produces a flow state is reason in itself
I am sure any seasoned cyclist of road or dirt will recognize these in their own riding, having experienced them in some form or another.
The participant or in our case (the riders) sphere of focus narrows down to the immediate trail before them. Everything else falls from their mind, hunger, pain, time, even the sense of their own self dissolve away. This is because we can only focus on so much information at once. When you are riding hard, the trail is providing you with a huge amount of information. For you to react quickly enough, the brain stops processing information that is not necessary for this activity.
The bike becomes an extension of your body, you feel the trail through your feet and hands. You know exactly where your wheels are in relation to obstacles on the trail, and can pick and place each one at will without even thinking about it. You react, you don’t think, you simply do.
Flow will only come when the rider has adequate skill for the trail they are riding. The task at hand is well within their abilities and as such they know the “activity is doable” because they posses a developed technique. This allows the rider to not think about what they are doing, they are not engaged with thinking about how to ride the bike, it simply flows beneath them. Obviously this requires a pool of experience that has allowed the rider to develop their skill over time and when faced with new challenges gives a depth a prior experience to draw upon. This practice and experience is similar in some ways to the 10,000 hours rule theory.
So once a rider has enough relevant skill, and is engaged with a trail, a full flow state can occur. A sense of joy and serenity wash over the rider, as the speed and trail bring on the almost deep meditation of full flow. The time that the rider inhabits becomes elastic as minutes and hours blur, time can speed up or slow down and will frequently do both within the same trail.
Satisfaction is received through the act of doing, the heightened awareness with the sense of clarity and joy brought on by flow are reason enough to repeat the task, to ride the trail to achieve and seek flow.
Descents are not the only times where this can be achieved, on prolonged climbs I have entered in to a full flow state only to discover the 30 minute climb is over and my legs are sore as time contracted and the awareness of my limbs fell from my mind.
It is also important to note, that sometimes when we speak of flow we simply mean you don’t have to brake and you can carry speed effortlessly through the trees, joy in itself really.