Days after my crash in October of 2012, I wrote that I’d be back on Tuna Canyon, the site of my crash, in weeks. Every now and then a writer writes something that is impossibly incorrect without knowing just how wrong it is. There was no way to fact-check the error because to do so required using a time machine to find out. I had no way of knowing then just how great an impact the crash had on me, in that oh-so-clichéd way—both literally and metaphorically.
It would take weeks, but eventually signs emerged that I’d had a concussion. I never got a professional evaluation, but two medical professionals who know a thing or two about scrambled brains were able to ask a couple of strategic questions, and my answers showed that using your face as a dynamic braking instrument can result in some lasting effects. I did delete the offending Facebook post.
I spent months trying to get comfortable in a group again, even though I wasn’t in a group when I crashed. I struggled to be comfortable going faster than 35 mph; there’s a big difference between doing 35 and being comfortable doing 35. The combination of speed plus lean equaled anxiety. Some of my favorite roads in the world became gauntlets run only to reach the other more enjoyable parts of the ride. I joked with friends that I might need training wheels.
More than 18 months later I can report a few things. First, my off-road descending returned at a rate faster than my paved descending. My best theory is that descending on my mountain bike requires an acquiescence that riding on the road doesn’t. If you can’t handle having your tires slide, mountain biking will never be fun; having made my peace with that, I was able to resume my pursuit of dropping down trails like a predatory bird. I’m nearly back to where I was prior to the crash. There are times when a trigger will send me out of the moment and into fear. I can’t control when or if it happens. Last fall, I dropped into some singletrack that got steeper and steeper, and with my seatpost still extended fully I became concerned that I’d endo, even if I was only doing 5 mph. By the time I stopped and clipped out, my entire body was shaking like I was withdrawing from heroin. Ah adrenalin, you cruel intruder.
And here I make note of two of the more curious intersections that I believed true prior to my crash, but couldn’t claim with complete conviction. The first is that the good time I’ve been chasing in descents for the last 20-odd years, known as a flow state, has a bete noire. The funny thing is that we’ve been operating with a complete misunderstanding of our own neuroscience. We love to refer to adrenalin junkies, as if what extreme athletes are after is the hormone known for kicking us into the fight-or-flight response. Bad journalists and lazy doctors have allowed us to be saddled with this false belief. In a flow state, there’s no fear. But if adrenalin is coursing through your system, it’s because you’re afraid, mortally afraid. Straight up, there’s no such thing as an adrenalin junkie. Flow junkies, yes, but to be addicted to adrenalin you’d have to be profoundly dysfunctional. You’d make a cutter look like a Buddhist.
For all the chasing of flow states I’ve done—and I know now I’ve been chasing them my whole life, in drumming, in skateboarding, in video games, in working on bikes and in writing—I can say that I’ve hated every encounter I’ve had with adrenalin. If I never get another dose of the stuff in my life, I’m good with that. It’s one reminder of being alive that just isn’t useful to me.
My understanding of flow states and adrenalin has led to a surprising insight about my relationship to my equipment. A flow state results from a knife’s-edge performance. It’s lots of challenge, but not more challenge than is within my ability. Too little challenge results in a small-scale “whee” at best, boredom at worst. But if the challenge is too great, more than I can handle, and I’m thrust into a situation before I have a chance to pull back, adrenalin is the answer. When my equipment is substandard, inadequate to the task, I never get going fast enough to reach that challenge. What has surprised me is that my biggest scares in the last year have come when I’ve thought everything was going well and took a bike to my limit (and maybe to its limit) and got a jolt of adrenalin. Bam!
So the trick has been to try and find those bikes I can trust. Bike reviewers often talk about those bikes that inspire confidence. That’s a real thing. The Focus Izalco Max made one of the easiest descents I know feel as sketchy as riding ice on slicks. It made me question how much my abilities had returned. Maybe I’m not as over this as I thought.
I hated that.
Some weeks ago I rode an Ibis Ripley 29 on an assortment of trails, some stuff I knew super-well and other stuff I was familiar with, but didn’t have memorized. The bike was a revelation. On stuff where I had only marginal familiarity, I found myself ripping through turns with verve and confidence. I wasn’t just riding fast, I was riding with authority. Ima tear this up.
What I’ve learned is that while a bike can’t give you a flow state, it can take you out of one. Flow is perhaps the most fragile emotional state human beings enjoy. You can chase one for a whole afternoon and not catch it. Or you can spend hours doing something, hours that slip by like minutes because you are deep in the thrall of flow. The thing is, one interruption, one cramp, one missed shift can blow it for you. If I have to think about how a bike is cornering, how it’s shifting, how it’s braking, I won’t be in flow, which is why the first thing I look for in a bike is whether it disappears beneath me.
Just days ago, I rode the descent of Mulholland Highway headed toward the famed Rock Store, a descent where weeks ago I waived friends by as I took time out to turn on my hazard flashers. Okay, not quite, but I was definitely slower than guys I used to drop routinely. For my latest descent I was riding the Scott Solace, their grand touring bike. I felt more confident than I had on that descent since the crash, but while I was riding with some spirit, I still didn’t feel like I was attacking it. No matter.
When I uploaded the file to Strava, I discovered something beyond unlikely. Initially, it was beyond belief. I had recorded a PR on the Mulholland descent. I’m sure I’d gone faster in the pre-Strava era on at least one occasion, but the sheer factuality of the PR brought with it an inescapable conclusion. Mr. Mojo is back, at least in part. And while I may have had speed, because I wasn’t that comfortable, I wasn’t in flow.
And that’s the real point. Speed was never about speed. It was always about reaching that magical place that comes only when your senses are so overloaded the critical mind shuts off and you just exist in the moment, kicking large-scale ass.
So there’s still something missing. I attribute it to a couple of factors. One is that my crash occurred when I thought nothing could go wrong and in that my faith has been shaken. Also, my sense of my responsibility for my sons informs just how far seems smart to go. That crash went wrong to a degree I didn’t think was possible, and the point was driven home by the two doctors who looked me over and told me I was lucky to be alive.
I’ve had any number of people suggest that having crashed, the natural thing now is just to take it easy on descents. My response (usually) is to smile and nod. I don’t try to explain how I was chasing a flow state, how I don’t really want to quit chasing flow states, that flow is known to bring people the greatest satisfaction in their lives, that the experience is so powerful it needs no outside incentive. Yes! Please! May I have another? NOW?!
The feeling is its own incentive.
It’s just too much to communicate to the uninitiated. I feel strongly that I need to show my sons someone actively engaged in the world, someone chasing his own happiness and not just living through their exploits. I believe that example, and being honest about my struggle to balance my sense of adventure against my sense of responsibility, will help shape their lives for the better. I don’t have the answers, and being honest about that is also part of my responsibility to them. At least I’ve found the right question and in sharing that with them, they can start the same quest I’ve been on, but from an earlier age. I envy them that.
In the meantime, I’ll keep chasing.