Progression – Chasing Form

Often when riding, I get the nagging feeling that even though I’m trying to progress my skills and become a smoother, faster rider. That last year, I was fitter and faster.

Turning the cranks, trying to move forward, deliberately practicing skills and sessioning challenging trails, yet sometimes I feel like I’m just going backwards. Mostly I am sure it is a confidence issue, I lack a certain confidence, not in my ability to ride at a pace but that my current “form” is always weaker than it has previously been.

For me, the doubt was probably always there, but it started to creep in more last year when my wife and I were blessed with our first child. As you can Imagine, towards the end of the pregnancy and for the first few months riding took a back seat with not many miles being clocked and my “form” began to stiffen in my mind.

But how much of these feelings are just that, feelings.

So much of our sport is psychological, intangible feelings of form and flow, yet anything we can measure and quantify needs to be placed within context. The condition of the trails changes with the seasons, meaning comparing any two runs made at different times should only be done with a pinch of salt.

As a tribe, mountain bikers have always tried to go faster, we have always raced, but when your racing yourself we do have some tools to help us measure our progress.

Lets do the math!

Pulling timings from Strava, I plotted the top 10 fastest times for two regular trails in chronological order. The first trail (Roots Manova) is fast, steep and with some proper technical sections to catch you unawares, the second (Log Ride) has less vertical drop and more pedal but still has plenty of teeth to bite you. Both are regulars and I have ridden them a few dozen times each so I know them well.

Roots manova top 10 times

Log Ride Top 10 Times

The trails are both natural in style so have eroded, been dug and have evolved over time. Runs two months apart can be on noticeably different trails, so as I said previously, any comparison has to be with a pinch of salt. All that being said, once the times are plotted chronologically we can see the trend.

The progression is visible as the trend is for the time to decrease, ie for me to get faster, and I would certainly hope so. I have been riding these trails for a good few years, and whilst erosion has made them more challenging, I would hope my skills would have grown to match the evolving trail. I can also see that my recent times, albeit whilst not feeling fully back to pace, are still landing within the top 5 of my times.

You can also see that whilst the trend is saying I’m getting faster, there clearly is a spell in the spring of 2015 when I was faster, on form. Once a level of speed and confidence is felt it is oft remember fondly in the rear view mirror and when the mojo is a little rusty, it can feel like the faster times where faster and you are more off the pace than you actually are.

DCIM100DRIFT

Strangely, I do feel that I am riding cleaner from a technical stand point, cornering better, braking better, hitting technical sections more smoothly. Just without some of the small amount of speed I once had.

Ultimately even without timing we know when we are riding fast and when we are just cruising. Not every run has to be a “YOLO” run, but it is important not to let the gremlins into your head. Once there, target fixation and doubt creep in, thoughts of past crashes and crashes still to come make you jam on the anchors. And that is when it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, I’m off form so I’ll ride conservatively, I used to be faster here and that drop is bigger than I remember so I’ll just roll it, thus making you slower and stiffer on the bike.

Better to ignore past pace and just enjoy the ride and remember.

Its all in the mind.

 

Tarland

With the spring rain keeping the natural trails slick and muddy a little dry trail action goes a long way.

There isn’t a trail centre in Aberdeenshire, the nearest is the Glenlivet trail centre near Tomintoul. We enjoy a plethora of every style of natural trail, just not a lot of weatherproofed hardpacked trails

The Tarland Trails are a collection of three graded trails and a expansive pump track out in rural Deeside. Its not as big as a full trail centre, but its not a small “bike park” either, it sits comfortably in between. The three trails are roughly 0.5km each starting and stopping at the same place, this gives you great value for time as its a quick winch back to the start for another run. You wont be clocking up any huge miles or big vertical gains/losses, if your looking for that in a ride you have plenty of other options.

pump track Tarland Trails Mountain bike

Tarland Trails Pump track mtb stravaiging
An expansive pump track is a highlight.

Due to the fact that I just don’t ride that sort of trail very often means jumps and getting an aggressive lean in berms is a weakness of my riding. With improving my skills being on the agenda for this year it was time to pay the trails a visit.

The trails were only recently opened but they were badly damaged by flooding in January and have been closed for a rebuild. Back open the drainage improvements and tweaks have set the trails in a perfectly groomed and smooth state.

The blue is a ribbon of fast brakeless flow,

The blue is a ribbon of fast brakeless flow, crafted berms are punctuated by smooth jumps and rollers that encourage you to jump into the turns. It is an unashamed flow trail, perfect for younger or new riders, but the more experienced will still find their kicks trying for that perfect run.

The red has the same fast flow of the blue with added rock gardens and drops. Smooth berms are joined with flat turns that do their best to break your momentum, so you have to keep your concentration for a clean run. Some jumps are armored with hand placed slabs of granite on the up and down slopes, this gives you the added challenge of pumping the jump and bunny hopping a rock garden simultaneously.

The orange has all the charms of the red, only with the rock gardens making way for some impressive tables and the odd awkward double to catch you out.

The big surprise for me was how physical the trails were, unlike the more gradual undulations and gravity assisted nature of a blue trail at say Glentress. The Tarland trails whilst not having the vertical drop turn the trails into an extended pump track that has been beefed up into a full blue or red run. An argument could easily be made that my fitness isn’t what it has been, (having a baby will do that) but the additional pumping and pedaling required really does make for a very physical if short trail.

Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 21.25.33
On the edge of the village they aren’t hard to find.

If you are looking for something a little different than the usual Aberdeenshire fair, or for somewhere to session some turns and jumps then you could do a lot worse. It might not hold you for a day but for a few hours fun it is worth the visit.

Rule #9

The seasons march on, the contracting of daylight hours mirroring the trees receding sap, falling like the leaves that blanket the trails on which we play. The sap in the legs also slowing as we are ironically in the best condition of the year if not our lives but tired from a year of training and riding, riding and training, the wheel always spinning. There are those who move away to other pursuits waiting out the wet months for fairer weather and dryer times. There are those who change tyres, clothing, pack lights and every autumn relearn how to let a bike slide. There are those who change discipline and count miles rather than meters descended, on the road or on the trail trying to stem the tide of seasonal decline.

RULE 9 XC Winter Training stravaiging 5

On any given Sunday we can be any of those riders, Struggling to find the motivation to maintain our gains, work on our weaknesses or ride trails that challenge us as they will be too loose, too wet, too sketchy, almost too easy to find reason not to ride. These months are long and many in Scotland, if you don’t ride in the wet here then you won’t ride at all, with the same hill frequently having dusty corners and deep scarred muddy ruts that will never fully dry.

Even so when the mist clings to the hills, the air wet with the slow creeping cold that only a dreich autumn day can provide it can be especially tough to step out the door and turn those wheels. It may be canon to road culture but Rule #9 still applies here, it is still acknowledged by people who ride mountain bikes even if they don’t know its cultural significance to our lycra clad cousins. If such a manifesto as The Rules were ever written for mountain bikes it would be a much shorter tome, probably along the lines of like bikes, like beer and don’t be a dick to your fellow rider, but that is an argument for another time.

RULE 9 XC Winter Training stravaiging 4

Once on the trail and turning into the wind the rain gathering on your helmets visor as your eyes narrow to see, goggles and glasses are useless here, pray you don’t get grit in your eyes at the wrong time. Your feet cold but the worst held off by water proof socks, the wet slowly working its way through the outer layers. You know you are the only person on the hill, everyone else is warm and inside, your mind wanders as you try to keep focus as a tough climb is round the corner.
 RULE 9 XC Winter Training stravaiging 1
Low cadence, just south of top of the block you keep the pedals moving, forcing yourself to look up trail rather than the ground in front of your wheel, each oncoming turn is a new goal, somewhere else too aim for. Metronomic in movement the grit in the drive train equaling that in the limbs, counting your breaths to clear the mind. The meditation of the climb settling in as the heat in your legs starts to mount, you start to enjoy the work as the flow comes from the ups as well as the downs.
Flow comes in the ups as well as the downs.
Transitioning onto the plateau the deraileaur moves the chain through the block to keep a constant cadence whilst building speed, nursing the changes as any oil has long been washed from the chain. Moving into a descent, heals dropping and moving over the back wheel, keeping your weight low carving turns and letting the bike move beneath you. The flow brought on from the climb still in control of your thoughts.
Reaching home you wrap yourself in the warmth and sanctuary, the ride that is begun is never regretted but if taking those first steps to go for a ride are hard and the conditions poor just remember there is always Rule #5 to help motivate us.
RULE 9 XC Winter Training stravaiging 2

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Flow of mind

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 state rock pool Broad Cairn

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.


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