The Whelm

The Whelm

Back in the early 1990s I played a computer game based around the F/A-18 Hornet. I think they call those first-person flyers, as opposed to first-person shooters, but trust me, there was plenty of shooting. To play it, you needed an extended keyboard; that is, you needed a full keyboard plus the 10-key addition. And function keys. You needed lots of function keys, too.

The game was crazy difficult. It took me months to become competent enough to fly and shoot at the same time. Then there were the smart bombs and missiles. Oh—radar! As if keeping track of everything wasn’t hard enough, just knowing which key to hit to release flares instead of lowering the landing gear was harder than doing differential equations with an abacus.

Yes, the graphics were primitive by today’s standards. This was the era of the Motorola-chipped Power Macs, but despite the low-res targets, the game was crazily immersive precisely because it was so demanding. The amount of control it offered remains unmatched in my (limited) gaming experience. As a result, few games have approached the level of satisfaction that F/A-18 Hornet offered.

I’ve been thinking about that lately because I heard some mountain bikers complain about a too-complex cockpit. Like the criticism Antonio Salieri is alleged to have leveled at Wolfgang Mozart—”too many notes”—I often hear riders complain of “too many buttons.” Though I get the urge behind single-speeding and the entire subculture that has spawned, the TMB complaint seems to come from a different place, where the urge isn’t to strip away all complication, but to avoid making things too hard. While they sound the same, one seeks a kind of freedom and the other strikes me as a kind of laziness.

A bit more than a year ago I reviewed a Scott Genius with their Twin Loc suspension system. I’m in the process of reviewing yet another Scott Genius, this time running 27.5 Plus tires. With the shifters, brakes, dropper post and Twin Loc, there are seven different items to control, a whopping nine buttons total. I’ve had people look at the bike, shake their heads and say, “No way.”

I’ve not been swayed by the criticism, and I’ve been thinking about how complication is a key ingredient of flow states. That said, my thoughts didn’t entirely crystallize until I saw the object above. It’s a replica of a steering wheel from one of the F1 cars of the Mercedes AMG Petronas team.

By my count, there are nine dials, almost all of which offer 12 positions (there’s a Spinal Tap joke in here about 12 being one more than 11). There are another 13 buttons, a switch and then the paddles for the shifter. What it would take to command and control all of that would require superhuman focus. In other words, a flow state.

Annadel State Park contains the most difficult terrain I’ve ever ridden (no, I haven’t done Downieville yet). It’s a place that rewards big: fitness, travel, wheels, tires, balls. The thing I’ve noticed about Twin Loc is that it gives me the opportunity to dynamically adapt the suspension to rapidly changing conditions. I see reaching down to flip a shock into the pro-pedal position as being tantamount to reaching between your legs for a dropper post lever. That’s a big glass of nope. Stopping to hit a lever interrupts the flow—literally—of a ride. I want something I can reach with my thumb.

It’s true that if I haven’t been on the bike for a week, I will on occasion shift into the little ring when what I meant to do was release the suspension. It’s the mountain bike equivalent of looking for the thumb button on an STI lever. It passes.

So yeah, there’s a lot to track, to manage, but the whole point to me is to eat up bandwidth in my forebrain. Upshifting as I crest a rise, opening the suspension and then dropping the seatpost in a series of fluid moves as I drop into a descent leaves me with no room for the incessant I.

The key to flow is matching skill and challenge. Ramp up the difficulty until you’re literally at your limit. Managing a bunch of bike settings from gear choice to post height and suspension setting—good. Subverting gravity by carving up a hillside—good. Keeping your heartrate just a bit below threshold—good. Finding a novel line through a crowded rock garden—good. Giving the bike a little axial twist while airborne—good. Do them all within a few second span of time and you’ve got the key to Nirvana.

Just to make sure that there’s more coming at me than I can possibly process, I try to whisper—if not sing—the lyrics to whatever song is playing on my iPod. My playlist is dominated by music I’ve been listening to for 25 years or more, so there’s a good chance that I know all the words.

As I’m pedaling as hard as I’m able, and picking my line through a bunch of bone-breaking rocks, and deciding what gear, which suspension setting and whether or not I need to brake for that turn, I’m also trying to sing—

Burned all my notebooks, what good are notebooks?
They won’t help me survive.
My chest is aching, burns like a furnace,
The burning keeps me alive.



Lyrics from The Talking Heads’ “Live During Wartime” reprinted without permission. 

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