Getting Better at Bikes
Most of us upright apes are trying to get better. At something that is. Maybe it’s just drinking beer, watching football (either kind), or achieving tryhard status at Fortnite, but we're also striving at even more monumental, historically significant and fundamentally important pursuits. Like mountain biking. Whatever the goal, why do we bother? What makes us put so much energy into these passions, however significant they are?
One very likely and, sadly believable theory, suggests we are motivated to improve our status in order to select the most genetically attractive mate, just like our primate cousins. Others believe that hella likes and new followers pushes us. Whatever it is that makes us dig deep, from where I sit, it's too widespread to be anything but primal.
Of the riders I know, I think there is only one who is pretty happy about where he is and not too worried about whether his skills are ramping up, staying the same, or sliding a little. He’s just happy to be out there riding with buddies, and he’s very good at that. I think he’s actually getting better at it in fact. He never has a bad day, even when he has a bad day.
I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed with becoming a better descender, which is where my focus lies, but when I get a taste of blood, and some strategy or habit I’ve stumbled upon begins to show results, I inevitably want more. There’s nothing like the feeling of becoming someone else; transforming from the rider you once were into a newer model; longer, lower and even slacker.
Lately that's been happening to me again, after a fallow period that followed a similarly fertile stretch. There are times when lines that used to be terrifying and chaotic, feel comfortable and controlled. I get down and it feels like something fundamental has changed; the planets have realigned or a young, sensible and capable president has been elected. And I guess that makes improvement a safety consideration for me. I won’t talk about injuries or how many spills I’ve taken recently or otherwise, because I am superstitious about this (and only this),* but I have certainly felt safer on my bike recently, despite riding harder features and often going faster. Intermittently and unexpectedly that is. I can never predict whether it's going to be a good day or a bad day but the odds are higher if I'm riding the day after a good one.
*While on a break during a ride, I once told my riding companion that I’d never broken a bone while riding. I broke my wrist 20 minutes later.
Independent of the source of this desire within us, I sometimes wonder if there is any point in getting better. I’m going to keep riding regardless. Even when I start getting worse again, much of the experience of riding in spectacular forests, with the usual dodgy suspects, will remain undiminished and glorious. I suppose I’ll have to give it up eventually, assuming I live long enough, but if I make it to a crusty 80 or beyond, I hope to keep making marks in dirt with knobby tires. Improvement isn’t what keeps me going, but it makes the fire burn brighter and gets me on the dirt more often.
Personally, I'm quite sure that part of this desire to get better is hubris. It feels good and burnishes my rusty self-image when I ride above myself, particularly when I ride features that I was once sure were permanently out of my league, which has been happening some lately. Another more pure motivation is the elation that accompanies new physical sensations; bigger air, speed or exposure, longer and more treacherous rock faces, and moving the bike deliberately, even ever so slightly, when it’s off the ground.
My favourite sensation usually happens by accident. It involves coming into a corner with more speed than I have before, either because I’m on a new trail, I’ve judged things poorly, or because I've lost control. The most recent occasion this happened was riding what may be the steepest and scariest line I've ridden. It's a long chute which has a sharp "don't miss" left hander at the bottom. Self preservation kicked in, aided perhaps by newer skills and body positioning, and I threw the bike over at an angle that I’ve never experienced. The sensation in that moment was indistinguishable from falling uncontrollably, and when everything worked out, I momentarily understand the rapture those televangelists can't stop talking about. It makes me think I’m feeling a tiny slice of what World Cup riders feel on a warm-up run. It also becomes clear that, over time, as we improve, we become desensitized, and what felt foreign, thrilling and frightening, begins to feel normal, resetting the cycle. The next time the same thing happens, it won't make the ground shake quite as much, which means only digging deeper will bring back that buzz. Which seems remarkably similar to what addicts say.
Another element that pushes me forward is existential. I have this feeling that if I’m improving, I’m moving further from death. How could I expire when I’m getting better? It has to be an immortality cheat code. Even if it's not, I'd bet a hundo that just believing this strategy will make me live longer, will make me live longer.
Improvement on my bike can feel transcendent and thrilling and also have me believe I’m capable of new things in other areas of my life. It gives me energy and inspiration that inevitably overflows. Perhaps not always in positive ways, particularly that hubris part, but it spills over nonetheless.
One of the great things about mountain biking is that there is always something you can work on. And, just like concert piano or vasectomies, you can get better through performing a task over and over again, if you practice deliberately that is. It can be something small, like figuring out a technical climbing section, or getting over a log, or something more consequential like getting comfortable with larger gap jumps and drops. Progress slowly and get comfortable before you move on, and you will inevitably improve.
The proviso to all this is, that I’m only getting better than I used to be; slightly less clumsy, and somewhat more proficient. I’m still a middle of the road Shore rider, but that’s one of the beauties of mountain biking. Even on days when I ride like shit, (and that feels much worse when I’ve been making small gains ride after ride), I never lose a mountain bike ride. Other riders can be faster and smoother and definitely more stylish but, as my buddy Craig put it, I can always rise to the level of my incompetence, and at worst, it's pretty great.
There’s nothing particularly noble about getting “better” from where I sit. It’s a fundamentally selfish endeavour, despite being generally harmless, but it’s the kind of selfishness humans falls all over each other for. In fact, it might be an essential part of taking part in “action sports” in this era of turmoil, along with imminent and seemingly irreversible global catastrophe.
It’s too late for me though. If this is a rut, I don't think I'll ever get out of it. But I may try to dig it a little deeper.
Height - 6'/183cm (mostly legs)
Weight - 170lbs/77kg
Inseam - 33"/84cm
Ape Index - 0.986
Age - 57
Trail I've been stoked on lately - Lower Digger
Bar Width - 760mm
Preferred Reach - 485-500mm (longer with 27.5 wheels than 29)