Muscle Memory

The saying “it’s like riding a bike” is one of those adages that we, as cyclists, are prone to feeling pride for. It’s as if we have placed something unforgettable on an altar. The greater truth behind those words is not of body, but of brain.

Neuroscientists are learning that the way the brain is wired isn’t as we once believed—static and unchanging, like the number of floors in a skyscraper. They have learned that the brain is more like a cube farm, with paths changing, walls moving and new lighting changing the landscape in response to the life we live.

I did my first race in nine years today, my first cyclocross race in ten years. Techniques I haven’t practiced or needed in ten years came back like a light bulb flicked on in a seldom-visited basement. While I do all my braking on road bikes with my index fingers, on mountain bikes and on ‘cross bikes, I do all my braking with my middle fingers. Though that practice has lain as dormant as breaststroke, it’s no less ingrained—my middle fingers went out without a thought.

The first time I stood up to accelerate I kept my arms relatively straight and my ass back. That’s not the weight distribution I use on the road. And I favored my rear brake in turns the way I normally favor my front brake. It’s not something I thought through, I simply did.

And though I hadn’t practiced dismounts and remounts, I swung my right leg over the saddle and slid it between the frame and my left leg like I’ve been doing it once a day for a dozen years. The one moment in which I became conscious of my movement was after I landed on my saddle the second or third time. There was a brief flash of recognition that I hadn’t done that little toe bounce that so many of us do when we fear committing to our weight to an airborne approach to that saddle. I was coming down on the right side of my pelvis, keeping the delicate bits out of the landing zone.

While I knew I still knew how to ride a bike going in and that I’d manage my way through the technical aspects of riding a ‘cross course, the question mark in my head was whether I’d be able to find that old feeling again. The feeling to which I refer is the one is which you’re fully committed to the endeavor. The race becomes a sort of question.

Once posed, the question reduces the barriers, berms, run-ups, serpentine turns, curbs and other obstacles to spice. The actual meal is your fitness. Can you go hard enough that you cease to think about the obstacles and instead focus on your physical limits?

There were moments when I took stock and wasn’t really pleased at just how slow I was. Mine was an anonymous finish—which was perfectly fitting. For most of the race I was going so hard I couldn’t have told you my name.





  1. todd k

    I’m appreciative that muscle memory takes over. It allows us to take some training for granted. While I put in a fair amount of cross specific interval work outs coming into the season, I did a lot less technical training this year. While I am coming into barriers with a tad too much space betweeen me and the barrier, I am otherwise not missing a beat. (I guess that at least prevents me from doing a ‘Joey’.)

    It is also impressive how a seemingly small and temporary change from the ‘normal’ can have dramatic consequences to that memory. I had change recently that was only present for one week on my current ride, but has now messed up my muscle memory pathways. I generally route the rear brake on the left lever (moto style), but for one race it was inadvertantly routed to the right lever. While I now have the cables routed that way I prefer, I am now perpetually finding that my brain “stutters” at which lever to activate if the though even remotely begines to enter my brain. I came into a barrier this week and grabbed a lot of right lever and managed to lock up my front wheel and just about found myself running right on past my bike.

  2. bryand

    Is that, by chance, the “low slung fun” frame? I’m a believer in this concept and have designed it into my own bikes. Nice to see you using it!

    1. Author

      Bryand: Boy, I should stop being amazed by how observant readers are … and how good their memories are. That’s the bike alright. I should have run a bit less tire pressure to get even better cornering out of it, but it does handle really well on those tight, windy courses, and that course was very tight and windy, more so than any other course I’ve ever ridden.

  3. Everett

    Ok, now you have to do a piece on the “low slung fun” frame? Are we talking BB drop and the other features of cross geometry?

    As to me an muscle memory, I’m always pleasantly suprised at my shifting muscles, I easliy ride SRAM, Campy, and Shimano bikes all in the same week and never need to think about this.

    But for crosss this year, I’m going back to ‘no shifting’, single speed, only pedaling.

    1. Author

      A few years back I did a series of posts for Belgium Knee Warmers (back when that was pretty much my sole outlet for work) on building the frame, how it handled and then my views regarding BB height. I will say I’ve had some friends whose opinions I respect disagree with me strenuously on the point of low BBs on ‘cross bikes.

      My position is based on the idea that a lower CG makes the bike easier to get around tight turns and the fact that, historically speaking, the whole reason ‘cross bikes had high BBs was based on the need to keep toe clips from becoming lawn mowers following dismounts. Clipless pedals eliminated that design parameter. We’re starting to see bikes with lower BB (say 27.5cm instead of 28 or higher), but the Brady is even lower than that.

      Here’s the series of posts (be aware that a lot of readers assumed all of my work was written by Radio Freddy. Don’t let the comments confuse you):

  4. Matt S

    Welcome back to racing Patrick! I too maintain a keen interest in neuroscience, both from sporting and intellectual perspectives. I think you succinctly capture a really important aspect of racing for a lot of us: the stripped down, raw experience. Cycling is amazing to me for many reasons, but one of the most intriguing is the way racing forces the rider to maintain analytic thought while pushing the body to the point where the brain really wants to skip that and ‘just ride.’ In other words, there is a tension between getting into a flow state, and navigating the social/ethical side of one’s interation with other racers. One might posit that the ‘dicks’ out there in the races have a hard time keeping from slipping right into a flow state and simply acting ‘as animals.’ That’d be kind of off bast though, as its pretty clear that non-humans display ethical behaviour too. I’d argue that our ‘pre-refective orientations,’ kind of the core of who we are, come are what steer us when we are in flow states, wrt our social interaction. So ‘dicks’ will be dicks out there on the race course?

  5. Kevin

    I’m an absolute novice cross racer – last week I was practicing riding around trees to work on making sharp turns, and once as an experiment I tried using the tops instead of the hoods and my radius got huge! so then I tried in the drops, and it was much tighter than on the hoods. Now I understand why.

    I recently bought a used Co-Motion Demon from 2009 – and it looks like in those days, they had a BB height of 26.5cm, so I guess that can go on the list of “production” cross bikes with a low bottom bracket. The current model has a 28.5 BB Height, according to the website.

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