Does Semenuk Have More Fun Than We Do?
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.
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).
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?
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.
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.
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."
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.