The Return of Mr. Mojo

The Return of Mr. Mojo

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.

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  1. Kurti_sc

    Flow. You nailed it. Perhaps it’s another four letter f-word.
    Just like an addict might recall thier first this or that, I can still recall the day, the feeling, the location where I entered a long speedy flow state. That was 20 years ago.
    I recall when that bike was stolen I was more upset about loosing that connection to that flow state then I was about buying another bike. I couldn’t explain it to my wife or friends. Cash wasn’t the problem. Loosing my touch to the flow was.
    Mmm. Mmm.
    Fortunately I can and have gotten back to flow.

  2. Mitch

    Just think how much more confidence-inspiring that bike might be if the rear brake was in the right place ….

    1. Author

      I’d like to remind anyone who has a short memory, comments are meant to be constructive, not snarky. If you can’t handle that, we’re okay with your silence.

  3. Pat O'Brien

    Isn’t it something when that happens? When I used to be an archer, I became interested in traditional bows and instinctive shooting without sights or sighting methods. As Bryon Ferguson titled his book, Become The Arrow, you know when your shot will hit the bullseye. When you pull the bow, anchor, everything except the arrow and target disappear. You are not distracted; your concentration is total. The arrow goes where you last looked. Just like flowing down a single track. If you look at the big rock, and not the line you picked around it, you will hit the rock.

  4. John OConnell

    I think you are on to something. Thinking back on it, my most treasured descents, races, drives, experiences really, have all involved some amount of flow. I too still chase it when I can.

    1. Author

      John: I can’t take credit here. To a certain degree I’m simply parroting what I’ve learned elsewhere. The thing for me is that once I learned about flow, I was able to go back and start plugging that understanding into all my most satisfying experiences. There’s a book I’ll be reviewing soon that deals with flow in depth. Learning that that thing I’ve been chasing my whole life had a name helped me revisit my priorities, allowed me to make peace with decisions I’d previously made, but hadn’t had the vocabulary or understanding to objectively justify.

  5. dave kean

    man, flow is the thing. easier to find in the dirt on a mtn rig or in the pow on fat skis than on the road. but last night I found flow on the road. 17 months after a lucky to be alive c5 fracture in the trees. chasing a colnago c59 carbon disk super record eps. 83k on my 38mm 650b lavecaise. that was flo, and it’s the thing.

  6. Drago

    “my sense of my responsibility for my sons informs just how far seems smart to go. ”
    Yep. Used to be just one’s self that was put at risk. Now it’s a whole family. But can’t raise couch potatoes = much less flow/ more memories of flow and passing it on.

  7. Shawn

    Endorphins vs. Adrenaline.

    I like them both, but usually appreciate the adrenaline only after the need for it has passed. Level 2 fun …

  8. kidalv

    I’ve given up chasing the flow after I hit a double-parked car after making a right turn. There was no way to avoid the car or anticipate that it would be there. What kind of an idiot basically parks in the intersection? Unable to control behavior of others, I am taking greater control of mine in hope to have more of a chance to avoid chance encounters.

  9. BigDave

    WOW, I never did like or use the expression “Go with the flow. All along it should have been “Go to the flow”. Why does it take so long for the pieces to fall into place and make sense?

  10. GLarson

    Comforting to see that others have encountered popular bikes that descend like ice skates. That is how I also describe my current ride, but it will take years to replace. Until then, I’m stuck under 30 for descents. Someday I will have a lower BB, longer chainstay bike again which doesn’t feel like riding squirrels down the hill.

    1. Author

      GLarson: There are a number of strategies you can pursue if you’re having trouble with how your bike descends and can’t afford to replace it. The first is fit. Get your fit looked at. I shift in CG can make a big difference; you needn’t count on a lower BB to get there. If your weight is too far back, or the bar too high, the bike will be difficult to control. Also, going to a slightly larger tire (say 25s if you’re running 23s) and dropping the pressure 5-10 psi can help. Finally, in looking at new tires, higher TPI casing tires will give a more supple ride and can make some bikes feel more calm in corners.

    1. Author

      Jay: Well caught. I’ll be reviewing Kotler’s current NY Times Bestseller “The Rise of Superman” shortly.

  11. Irene Bond

    Well said, Padraig. “Flow State” is perhaps the only interesting concept that I’ve retained from Grad School, and I find it both in writing and in riding. Adrenaline? It’s not the same thing at all, and though sometimes we need to overcome situations which produce perhaps a disproportional sense of danger, we also need to listen to those times when our fight/flight systems say, “too much!” without letting it become a reflection on our ability as a rider.

  12. H M

    What is it about the particular bike you mentioned that makes it descend badly ? I only have owned one proper road bike (Aluminium Cervelo Soloist) and I wonder if I am missing out.
    I echo what you say about fit though, I distinctly remember how the bike felt completely different when I took the spacer stack out.

    1. Author

      HM: I’ve been on a variety of bikes that descended poorly. The bike I mention in this post was problematic because it was so stiff it chattered on rough surfaces and that made it difficult to hold on line. I’ve ridden other bikes that lacked enough inherent stability that they wouldn’t hold a line once you leaned them over, and other bikes that simply didn’t want to turn in. Getting them leaned over was next to impossible. Most bikes I ride handle well enough, but every now and then you encounter something that just won’t stick with your input in a turn. If you feel like your bike follows your input and does what you ask, then you’re probably not missing much.

  13. Jay

    Is your flow state the same as being “in the zone”? It seems so. If that is the case, give me more…

    1. Author

      Jay: Flow states are known by many names, and yes, one of them is being “in the zone.”

  14. Pingback: The Rise of Superman | RKP

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