Brandon SEmenuk -
Editorial

Does Semenuk Have More Fun Than We Do?

Words Cam McRae
Date Mar 1, 2018

Do Brandon Semenuk or Cécile Ravanel (insert name of rider[s] you admire most here) have more fun riding than you or I? How are fun and skill-level related? Does how much you can accomplish on your bike, the ability to transfer your boldest intentions into reality, make riding more fun? Or is it the process; the feeling that gradually, or in fits and starts, we are getting even slightly better? My fun is different than your fun and the brew won't be identical for anyone, but for the sake of pseudo-science let’s try to establish some parameters and see where this leads.

Brandon Semenuk -

To be clear, I'm not talking about Brandon Semenuk or any rider in particular. I'm simply examining the relationship between skill level and fun. Above - see Brandon smiling. Photo - Graeme Murray/Red Bull Content Pool

It stands to reason, considering our own experience, that better is more fun. When we go faster, put more schralp into corners or jump higher and further than usual, we have more fun. But since that experience is pegged at our personal level, whether we are World Cup winners or beginners, we may have to chuck that hunch.

To figure this out, without any data collection, expert testimony or even a real journalist at the helm, there are other elements we’ll need to discard. Competition messes with objective reckoning because of the accolades and/or fat stacks that sometimes accompany a strong performance. Novelty cheques always bring smiles. Winning is more fun so in that realm being a better rider should be more fun, despite the presence of  miserable champions in most human pursuits (with apologies to Shaun Palmer).  

Semenuk Rampage

To be honest, this looks equal parts amazing and terrifying to me. Now if I could do it without being terrified... That sounds fun. Brandon ruling at Rampage 2015. Photo - John Gibson/Red Bull Content Pool

To drill this down examine this somewhat meaningfully we’ll need to talk about riding for… well for fun, with our buddies, and riding at a level that has become normal, which means the question becomes something like this: Does riding at a higher skill level on a daily basis, in the absence of a podium, automatically make riding more fun?

The other component I’d have to dispense with is my friends because, once daily variations are accounted for our core group is pretty comparable, so I’d be leaving those suckers in the dust if my skill ramped significantly. Or I guess I could just boost them up for the sake of argument (you’re welcome boys).

Figuring out who is having more fun is as problematic as mining for happiness. Researching comparative contentment across populations is a bear for researchers because it relies on self reporting, perhaps the most fraught data collection method. Do I have more fun than you? Does our internal calibration measure happiness, or even understand happiness, in ways that are similar enough to make any comparison relevant? All we can do is ask the question; how happy does riding make you?

Steve Smith

Faster is more funner, but since we each experience that in different ways it sort of levels out. What is ridiculously fast for most mortals would have been pedestrian for Stevie Smith, shown here in Pietermartizburg South Africa in 2012. Photo - Tyrone Bradley/Red Bull Content Pool

Let’s clear those landmines as well, and imagine we are comparing ourselves to ourselves. And then we’ll need to to be clear that riding better means different things as well. For some that might be more control, for others speed is everything while many value style, tricks and boost. There are even those for whom the descent is something to endure before the next climb. The idea of ‘better’ then, for this question, must be something we choose ourselves, like building a character for a video game or for Dungeons and Dragon. Errr... or so I’ve heard.

I think I’d choose a little of everything, rather than being able to do a flip whip at the expense of hill climbing ability. Let’s say I could choose to improve 15% in 4 areas or dump that 60% into my downhill domination or any combination thereof. I think I’d put 25% on DH, 20% on fitness and leave the remaining 20% to bolster my rather pedestrian jumping skills so I could bust out a table or a sick whip, because that looks fun. And yes, I took 65%. Because I invented this game.

Now obviously if I pressed a button and immediately got that boost, like Tyler Hamilton on testosterone, that would feel amazing. But if that was my baseline riding level a bad day would be any day I rode below that threshold. So comparatively I may not be much better off. Wayne Gretzky’s worst day playing hockey was still a bad day for him, despite still being better than virtually everyone else.

Rad Company

Riding with friends is fun, no matter what level you ride at. Brandon getting next level with Brendan Fairclough for Rad Company. Photo - Sterling Lorence/Red Bull Content Pool

To try and drill this down I think we need to examine a few aspects of riding and see how they might be affected by having polished skills.

One thing that makes riding fun is doing more of it, so being fitter and stronger is a vote in the plus column. Crashing isn’t generally that enjoyable, except when your buddies do it, so avoiding the bail more often goes in the plus column as well. Another element that squeezes a lot of the juice out of a ride for me is sensation. There is a reason why there are no slow roller coasters and why most trail builders avoid building lines that are straight and flat. The weighting and unweighting that occurs makes it clear that we are as far from a desk as we could be, and when skill and speed increase, the forces acting on us ramp up as well. Damn, that’s another in the plus column. 

Flow is another factor that directly influences enjoyment. The intense focus that becomes a survival skill on challenging trails quiets our monkey mind for brief intervals, allowing us to feel something that is at once primal and, if I may, transcendent. Describing this as fun doesn’t ring true, but these moments reduce the static and let the fun spill out, no matter how shitty we felt before saddling up. It seems to me that athletes at all levels experience flow. In fact you could argue that riders at higher levels become a little more relaxed allowing thoughts like, “shit - is that a scratch on my Chromag bar?” or “I wonder if Pete brought beer for once?” to pierce the perfection. Put that in the no column.

Brandon Semenuk - Logan Peet

As I said. Riding with friends... Brandon hitching a ride with Logan Peet. Photo - Lukas Pilz/Red Bull Content Pool

If there are two people on bikes, whether they are riding home with a load of firewood or climbing a fireroad, at least one of them is racing. Even when we are being non-competitive we are trying to be less competitive than everyone else. It might stand to reason that pack animals like us would derive more enjoyment from being faster than our riding companions, but in my experience the nectar flows even more freely when there is parity. When you are houndoggin’ your buddy and you can’t quite catch him or her, but they can’t quite lose you, that’s about as good as it gets if you ask me. Point for present skill level.

There is of course a third option. We all know riders who are always having a little more fun not matter what they are doing and that for them, these concepts are entirely decoupled. Which means the rest of us could have that as well. It's all about having a good attitude damnit! Or as Dale Carnegie put it "It isn't what you have or who you are or where you are or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about it."

winning

Of course winning is fun, but maybe not for the best reasons. Photo - Lukas Pilz/Red Bull Content Pool

Now you may think I have pretty much solved this, and that I’ll likely be awarded an honourary Phd in one of the social sciences. Thanks for saying so. But while I’m flattered, Harvard, my brief and awkward musings suggest that this isn’t as simple as it might seem. Watching better riders is inarguably more fun, but being a better rider may be a little like having more cash; no matter where we are, we think we’ll be happy once we get just a little more.

We treat the greatest athletes around us like demi gods, worshipping them and showering them with riches. And for most, plenty of hard work has augmented the talent they were born with, so they deserve our respect and praise, but it might be that we can suck almost as much pleasure from the experience of riding as the best of the best. Except maybe the air part. Flying sounds good. Can I fly please?

Put that in the plus column.

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Comments

craw
+1 FlipSide
Cr4w  - Feb. 28, 2018, 9:31 p.m.

What portion of other areas of your life are you willing to sacrifice to be better at one thing? For us non-professional riders there has to be a line somewhere. I know a lot of people who refuse to cross-train because spending time doing stuff like yoga or super heavy squats isn't fun. But being stronger makes riding more fun so maybe they're wrong? Is the person who rides more having more fun? Or less fun because they've given up time with friends or other fun life-affirming things? I sure have more fun riding when I'm fit and my skills are relatively sharp. I definitely have much less fun riding when each ride feels like my first time out in two months and everything is a struggle. 

TL;DR In every area of my life more skill=more pleasure=more fun.

Reply

cam@nsmb.com
0
Cam McRae  - Feb. 28, 2018, 10 p.m.

I agree, but I calved that out from the question, because the process of getting better is fun in itself. Progression is fun, but is being better inherently more fun. If two riders both work their asses off to get to a certain skill level but one arrives at a higher level will that rider derive more enjoyment from riding? Wait... did you not read my article or were you summarizing your post with TL;DR? lol

Reply

craw
0
Cr4w  - March 1, 2018, 7:15 a.m.

Haha maybe I didn't!

There's a risk:reward factor. If you're not getting reward then the risks of this sport become pretty ominous. So if you suck at crashing and you crash a lot while learning then that's going to limit your access to reward. Skill is a forever moving target. You have to have enough talent and clarity of vision to get advances on your delayed gratification to get you through today's suck.

Shit I really don't know. In some comparisons I'm the slow learner and in others I'm the Semenuk. But I'm still riding while a lot of the people I started out with are long since retired so I guess I was having more fun, even while breaking gear, lying in the clinic getting stitched up.

Reply

cooperquinn
+2 Metacomet Cr4w
Cooper Quinn  - Feb. 28, 2018, 9:58 p.m.

But, as you're well aware, that's a personal thing.

Some people are perfectly content, and have a brilliantly amazing time, riding at the same level for decades.

I'm with you to some extent, the rider I've described above isn't me, but I'm also not out heavily cross training. I'd rather just be riding - and I know I'd be a better mountain bike rider if I spent time in the gym, on the trainer, at Air Rec, and on a road bike. But I'd rather just be riding. I'm significantly WORSE at many aspect of riding compared to 15 years ago (basically, anything that isn't "pedaling"), but I'm having more FUN.

This desire to excel and exceed is evident in other aspects of your life too, Mr. Cr4w; you started your own business.

Some people want to go to work, leave work, and leave work at work.

And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

I would also argue, at the top... There's less fun. To excel at anything at a national or world level, you no longer do it for fun. Yes, hopefully you still ENJOY it, but its a job. You wake up, live, breath, eat, and think [insert sport] until bed. You do this in every aspect of your life, from the sport itself, to weights, cross training, and mental training. And then do it again the next day. You seek nothing but betterment. And that's not necessarily "fun". Its a job. Does Semenuk enjoy some of the time he rides bikes? Yes. Is it a full time job? Absolutely.

Reply

fartymarty
0
fartymarty  - March 1, 2018, 1:34 a.m.

I have had a little think about this...

As humans we like to get better at stuff and see progression.  There maybe difficulties but you overcome them and progress.  As a result you get a sense of enjoyment or fun.   I guess you could call this learning - whether it be physical or mental learning.  When you stop "learning" either by not overcoming the difficulty or are not challenged then you stop "learning" and it is not enjoyable or fun.   Maybe stagnation v progression is a way to describe it.

This can relate to many things from your job to mountain biking.   The advantage I see with mountain biking is there are many aspects to it - fitness, strength, skill (on the bike and in the workshop).  As such you can trade one off for another and still have fun.  Also something as simple as changing bikes (back to a HT or rigid or to something easier like a FS bike) or changing seasons can make things easier or harder and allow you to progress.  

As a beginner you are learning a lot quickly.  As such probably get the most enjoyment.  As you get better the percentage increases are smaller and you have to work harder for them.

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slimshady76
0
Luix  - March 1, 2018, 4:28 a.m.

Betteridge's Law of Headlines dictates the answer: No.

Reply

cam@nsmb.com
0
Cam McRae  - March 1, 2018, 7:33 a.m.

Contrary to Betteridge, I believe the answer is more nuanced.

Reply

slimshady76
+1 Cam McRae
Luix  - March 1, 2018, 5:21 p.m.

I was just pulling your chain Cam ;-). See my answer below.

Reply

metacomet
+1 Niels
Metacomet  - March 1, 2018, 7:25 a.m.

I love this topic.   Something I have thought about in the back of my mind for years actually and shared with people about skiing and riding.  

Here's my big dumb theory.   The most "fun" you can have when doing an activity like biking, skiing, basketball, Whatever, is largely dependent upon what is, or more definitively 'is not' rambling around in your head.  In that the highest, most simple, and most pure form of "fun" comes when there is no concern, no stress, and no internal or external expectations to fall short of, and making no comparisons to yourself or anyone else during these experiences.  I really think beginners or relative newcomers have some of the most raw fun of anyone on the mountain/court/ice or whatever.   Whatever gets you closest to that child-like naivety to the world around you and away from your own nagging thoughts.  Anyone at whatever skill level can achieve that mindset in the moment, but it becomes more and more dependent on an increasing number of variables.   The more better/fitter/skilled you are or rather the older and more experienced you get, the more complicated achieving that mindset can become.  We go through cycles, but a lot boils down to expectations, comparisons, and self consciousness.  If you've ever stepped away from something for a while or had a setback in your fitness, you know what I mean.  You want to be RIGHT back where you were, and that comparison is front and center in your mind.  Going from fit to un-fit is Not fun.  Being self conscious and trying to compare your own progress to someone else's can lead to major frustration and burn out.  

I think as you become more experienced, that feeling of just raw simple fun comes when things are just clicking and your mind is free.  You are riding as well as you know how, your fitness feels your best, and you are with friends that do not complicate things.  That can happen to anyone from Semenuk or your's truly.  The "people" that you mentioned who seem to always be having the most fun (Ratboy, LooseDog, MacDuff, McGarry, Andreu, etc. all come to mind) are just really good at being in that uncomplicated child-like state of mind where the fun flows like pizza and pop at a kids birthday party.  

When a kid is out skiing with his friends in ski club just messing around , or young and exploring the neighborhood woods on your bike with a friend or two, there are zero comparisons and zero expectations.  Everything is new and everything is an adventure.  The experience is Completely uncomplicated.  And that is about as fun as it can get.  Skill and fitness are relative to the rider, but our own expectations are what controls the experience.

Reply

slimshady76
0
Luix  - March 1, 2018, 5:38 p.m.

I call that feeling "the flow zone". It's when everything falls into place and your body seems to react by itself, without a mind to limit it or impose its fears. Pure magic, forcing your face into an endless smile.

Bart Brentjens says once you reach a higher performance zone you somewhat feel it like a milestone, so it'll be a lot easier for you to stay in that zone. When you apply those notions to high level competition, it means it'll be easier for you to stay in the top ten once you get there, when compared to all the effort it took you to get there.

Now when you aren't a pro or someone facing competition as a mean of earning your daily bread, the concept still applies, but impacts directly on your comfort and your fun zones. So maybe you'll feel better only hitting that particular trail segment at mach stupid, or dropping into the steepest chutes. It doesn't always have to mean to stand on the edge, but it surely will take you dancing to the rhythm of your improved reactions.

I've also found it's an awesome way to regain confidence after those nasty crashes which leave you wondering if you shouldn't ditch the bike and embrace backgammon for the rest of your life: Just focus on finding your flow zone, and once you do, enjoy feeling it expand while standing on the shoulders of your progression.

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morgan-heater
+1 Mitch Mason
Morgan Heater  - March 1, 2018, 1:37 p.m.

For me, more technical, challenging trails, are actually more fun than easier ones. Going fast on an easy flow trail is awesome, but not nearly as awesome as sending a new feature that you've walked around several times, and having it feel easy.

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