CGI in our Brains

Altered Reality and Mountain Biking

Words Cam McRae
Photos Cam McRae
Date Jul 31, 2019

Lately my riding has been a series high points punctuated by a few slumps. I've had several days where I felt great on the bike, riding moves I have either never attempted or ones I hadn't ridden in years. Last Tuesday I rode 5th Horseman, a relatively challenging trail on Cypress, and I rode it better than ever. All the rock faces and steeps looked... doable. Through the same eyes, and recently on the same bike, these moves I had seen many times in the past 20 years, had physically changed. Or at least they appeared to have changed, and all of a sudden they were mine.

I've been changing up some things myself lately which helps me understand this newfound confidence, but it still baffles me that being some combination of slightly stronger, more limber or more focussed (or the opposite) somehow tweaks the way visual information from the trail alters the picture that appears in my brain. I'm talking about critical information; the kind that leads to given 'er! or slinking away in shame.

On today's ride we took on some terrain that makes 5th look tame; a trail I hadn't ridden since 29ers weren't cool. I felt good rolling on dirt and I rode some chutes I was happy with, but I was tentative on wet slabs and I stepped away from a couple that were within range for me. And I felt shame, as I always do. A difference between today's ride and Tuesday's on Cypress was rubber; I was on some sticky tires (review on the new E13 rubber on the way) that gave me confidence on those tricky first milliseconds on the rock before gravity takes over. But come on! It seems insane that rubber on my tires could alter the way a rock slab appears, but I'm quite sure that was part of the formula.

"Just send it! It's all good;" is something we have all said to riders who are less skilled than we are.

Performance fluctuations are a constant, more so for punters like me but for Greg Minnaar as well, and it makes sense that we ride better some days than others. What baffles me is when a move I have seen hundreds of times changes before my eyes. Most sections of trail evolve over time, but most rock slabs are on a geological schedule. And yet we have a filter that alters their appearance; one day a rock face may seem less steep (or steeper) or a line choice I thought was too nasty all of a sudden makes sense. When this happens because of weather I don't question it, because a wet move is almost always trickier than a dry one and moisture changes the appearance enough that other changes seem less obvious. If it's identical to the last time I was there, either equally wet or dry, but it looks entirely different to me, I start scratching my dome.

The first time I remember this happening was around 2005. There was a wheelie drop off a massive fallen old growth log* on Dangerous Dan's Flying Circus that I had walked away from probably 20 times, but one day it seemed half as high. This visual info would be dangerous if it tricked you but on that day and others, it's been entirely reliable and I dropped to flat with nary a head bob.

*It may have been called the Mother Log, as opposed to the Mother Tongue, but I'm not certain

One takeaway from this is that we can never listen to advice from buddies who are better than us. A drop that looks like certain death to me looks like a flipwhip to Semenuk. "Just send it! It's all good;" is something we have all said to riders who are less skilled than we are. I don't think this is disingenuous though. When our perception alters, it becomes reality. When we can see the line, even if we couldn't on the previous ride, we expect that others will be able to as well, because our reality has shifted.

A drop that looks like certain death to me looks like a flipwhip to Semenuk.

My cousin and I used to take a backroad after Kamloops on our way to Shuswap Lake. We'd cross the bridge at Pritchard, B.C. and finish our trip on dirt roads. There was a spot after Chase with a nice lookout where we'd have a beer. One evening we arrived and it was certainly after 4:20, because it was getting dark, but it felt like 4:20. Anyway, there we were sitting on the tailgate drinking a beer, in the middle of nowhere, when we both notice a bear running toward us. Not a grizzly, but not a cub. We both saw a medium-sized black bear that was more than large enough to disembowel us both with a single swipe. We both leapt into ineffective action. I think I was trying to collect the chips before I scrambled to get into the cab of the truck and my cousin might have elbowed me out of the way on a similar mission.

When we finally looked around we saw a couple ambling behind said bear, which was actually a medium-sized black lab. The light wasn't great and we were about 20 kms from the nearest town, so it was weird to see a dog running out of the bush, but we were both certain that what we were looking at, without a shred of doubt, was a bear.


This move, on Bowen Island, is one that eluded me until one day it seemed like a piece of cake. Rider –Trevor Hansen

We all think we see the truth. And hear the truth, feel the truth, and taste the truth. But there is no objective reality for any of us. One of the benefits of riding moves that are binary, those that I either ride or I don't since crashing isn't an option, is that they are perfect crucible. I can collect feedback on my mental health, sleeping habits and physical status, and get a pretty good idea of how each contributes to my confidence in the saddle. Riding a corner more smoothly or faster gives less useful data, but riding against the clock likely works as well.

Riding mountain bikes down silly moves is an exercise in self delusion. Most sane people would look at the some of the pitches riders attempt on aggressive terrain and logically come to the conclusion we are insane, exactly the conclusion we would have come to before we rode mountain bikes. Gradually our vision changes as our skills improve, but this change isn't static. It responds to the bike we are riding, the suspension, the tires and brakes, and to our mental and physical states, to help us decode trail features. And it's an essential part of the magic that is riding mountain bikes.

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+5 Mbcracken Todd Hellinga capnron Cam McRae Tremeer023
fartymarty  - July 31, 2019, 5:01 a.m.

Cam - The older I get (now mid 40's) the more it becomes a mental game.  Like you big crashes and associated hospital visits are no longer an option, i've played all those cards.  Sometimes you just have to let it be.


+4 Agleck7 capnron Pete Roggeman Cam McRae
flash4092  - July 31, 2019, 6:13 a.m.

Has anyone ever noticed how inviting everything looks in the sunshine as compared to when it's overcast? I first noticed this effect years ago when whitewater kayaking, but the same applies today with the gnarly bits on a piece of singletrack.


+2 Mammal Ben
fartymarty  - July 31, 2019, 7:39 a.m.

Definitely.  Also summer v winter, day v night, sunny v rainy.  Saying that I have had some fun rainy winter night rides.


+6 capnron kiwizak Pete Roggeman Karl Fitzpatrick Skyler Tremeer023
cyclotoine  - July 31, 2019, 9:43 a.m.

Riding with someone who is more confident than you also has an effect. I have done a couple of rides this summer with riders who are more confident and skilled than I am and I watch them do moves I'd balk at riding alone or with less skilled riders. Suddenly it all seems possible and I am able to do that drop or that roll and suddenly my perspective changes and it all seems doable.


+4 Pete Roggeman Cam McRae Geof Harries Tremeer023
Luix  - July 31, 2019, 11:25 a.m.

Talk about timing! I was discussing this with my shrink last week, how you both have to let the trail surprise you, and let yourself surprise... Well, yourself. 

I found myself throwing my first six-feet-plus drop, and let's say it wasn't voluntary. I ran too fast into a blind corner on a trail I didn't know at the time, and upon realizing I couldn't stop in time to avoid the drop, I opted to mash on the pedals and throw it. I managed to complete a decent landing, and ultimately I found myself with a deeper confidence on my skills. The second run on that trail implied taking that drop with a lot more confidence and style.

I turned 43 a couple of days after that episode, and even when I can't allow myself any downtime derived from crashing -you know, because of work, family and mortgage- I still need to venture into that territory where you know a mishap means a lot of nasty consequences. The key is to allow yourself the necessary room for improvement, while recognizing your actual state and limitations.


+2 Pete Roggeman Cam McRae
Shinook  - July 31, 2019, 1:12 p.m.

A really beautifully written way of communicating the phenomenon of progressively changing vision.

I think learning about this change in vision that comes as you improve is something that gave me the freedom to push off riding features I was afraid of or not ready for. As a skills coach I work with frequently said, view it as "tomorrow's success, not today's failure", being able to recognize that things I see as scary now or that are over my head will look less intimidating a year from now makes me feel more comfortable putting it off until I'm ready.

I most recently encountered this at a bike park near me in WNC, there is a technical blue trail that I rode for the first time about two years ago. I ended up walking almost all of it, looking back at sections and thinking: "I'll never ride that". We rode it a few weeks ago and I cleaned the entire thing (admittedly, fairly slowly) and it felt totally natural for me, at no point did it feel like I was pushing beyond my limits, but the trail was completely the same.

I see a lot of riders getting hurt pushing themselves beyond the limits of what they should be doing, either going too fast for their skill level or vision (most frequent) or riding features they aren't prepared for. I've also been in the hospital because I pushed myself well beyond my limits. The 6 weeks of no riding, followed by 6+ months of confidence recovery, didn't exactly do much to improve my riding and I've learned to progress as it comes, as difficult as it may be to discipline myself to do so. As much as pushing yourself to improve and challenging yourself is a self discipline, so is recognizing when you aren't ready for something and telling yourself no, which I honestly find a bigger struggle than forcing myself to do something I'm not ready for.


+7 Pete Roggeman Cam McRae luisgutierod Ben Mammal Tremeer023 Ben Rogers
Trevor Hansen  - July 31, 2019, 1:50 p.m.

Gradually our vision changes as our skills improve, but this change isn't static. It responds to the bike we are riding, the suspension, the tires and brakes, and to our mental and physical states

I remember riding Grannies with Cam and a buddy in the nineties. We came to the rock roll at the end of the trail, got off our bikes and analyzed it like golfers scoping their putting greens. We looked at it from different angles, discussed it and after 5 minutes we were standing to the side of it and a group of riders came through. 3 guys hit it clean, then the last rider, a female, rolled it. We looked at each other and without a word grabbed our bikes and hiked up and we all hit it. So add sexism to the responses to vision change.


Mike Wallace  - July 31, 2019, 8:51 p.m.

"I remember riding Grannies with Cam and a buddy in the nineties".
  So Trevor, can we infer that Cam is not a buddy?


Trevor Hansen  - Aug. 5, 2019, 8:58 a.m.

Thinking back now I remember the buddy was you. Ya Cam is a friend, you're just a buddy.


+4 luisgutierod Cam McRae Mammal Luix
Velocipedestrian  - July 31, 2019, 3:41 p.m.

Riding with better buddies can go either way. I recently broke a helmet following some friends into a trail I've ridden before, but over a year ago.

I assumed that I was still on par and should follow the line and speed. OTB, head into a root and it's time to go home... I need to pay more attention to my own current ability to stay safe. Ego can be hazardous.


[user profile deleted]  - Aug. 5, 2019, 9:37 p.m.

This comment has been removed.

+5 twk Velocipedestrian Cam McRae Ben Mammal
luisgutierod  - July 31, 2019, 6:03 p.m.

at 4.20 I also get altered reality. duh.


+4 luisgutierod Mammal Luix Tremeer023
AlanB  - July 31, 2019, 6:30 p.m.

It used to be about what I can ride.

Now it's about when I can ride it.


+1 Cam McRae
Ryan Walters  - Aug. 1, 2019, 7:28 a.m.

Never, ever doubt the importance of good tires - especially for us riders in the PNW. Sticky tires make all the difference on wet roots and rocks, and can literally mean the difference between charging into a section, and getting off the bike and walking it. I never thought too much about tires, until I started trying different brands and compounds.


Trevor Hansen  - Aug. 5, 2019, 8:59 a.m.

What have you settled on as the best tires for PNW Ryan?


+4 Cam McRae Luix Velocipedestrian Tremeer023
yahs  - Aug. 1, 2019, 7:30 a.m.

My Enduro bike is like my skis. If you get forward and attack it really does the job. If you are having a day of holding back, being a bit apprehensive, well that's the day you are having. I too being self employed, mortgage, family, take that into consideration and wonder is it worth the risk? Some days I feel unstoppable, other days just out for a fun rip and happy to get home in one piece. We all have our white whale, features we haven't cleaned, maybe I will never clean it, maybe I will....... I try to keep mountain biking in the fun category, not the frustration category.


ZigaK  - Aug. 6, 2019, 5 a.m.


+1 Luix
tashi  - Aug. 2, 2019, 12:49 p.m.

I recently had a ride than totally messed with my head. 

Started out all cranky about life. My riding felt terrible. I felt slow and didn’t bother trying to clean a bunch of hard climbs that are generally within my tough but doable range. Eventually I slipped into being present and not thinking and voila! A smile on my face and a cheery disposition for strangers and family for the rest of the day!

And when I checked my Strava, a ton of PR’s!  I wasn’t riding slow at all, my mood was just ruining my perception of my ride!  What the hell, brain?!?

Lesson: don’t indulge your shitty attitude and don’t trust what you think.


Greg Bly  - Aug. 4, 2019, 2:42 p.m.

Great write up Cam. Fifth Horseman always gives me sweaty palms I just never feel confident on that trail! Sweet if you felt like the pilot on all those rock problems. I believe the mind game is a huge determining factor on how well you ride. I know I can do any steep section on my 55,s or Fox 36 fork. If I am riding a DH bike with Fox 40,s those steep sections look far more doable. fresh sticky rubber same.

One should not feel any shame for walking a difficult section. There are many stunts and crazy sections waiting for me that day my mind says im ready.  Knowing my bike is quiet and performing perfect also plays a huge role on my mind set. 

I love it when Im riding with some one of greater talent( that would be most of my freinds) says:  No problem just send it you will be fine. They are correct but your mind needs to envision a successful landing. 

Does any one use breathing,  meditation before a crazy stunt? I inhale, exhale  three deep breathes and try to lower my heart rate .

Best feeling is when I just feel on. I look at all the nasty sections and say I own this moment.  If I felt that way all the time I would have to step up my game. I prefer to be a moderately good rider. More room for progression.


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