I’m going to pretend to sound smart.
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi wrote a book called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Now, I don’t know Mr. Csíkszentmihályi personally, but I have been friends with his brainchild for quite some time. Ages ago when I was but a neophyte rock climber, heck-bent on killing myself good, a friend—we’ll call him Professor Bob—introduced me to the concept of flow.
I was intrigued. And not just by the name Csíkszentmihályi (say it five times fast!).
As a budding rock climber I sought this state of mind relentlessly, but it eluded me for a long, long time. It wasn’t until I shirked ropes and metallic gear for the freedom of bouldering that I finally started to taste the flow.
Csíkszentmihályi said flow is "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake…Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost." Flow is related to the second nature of learned movements like walking, riding a bike, and yes, even rock climbing. It goes well beyond that though. Being in a state of flow is not second nature by definition. We cannot have our whole being engaged and our full attention laser focused often enough and intensely enough that that state of mind can become second nature. It’s too demanding.
Flow then is the movement of the fully engaged and fully attentive through complex activities with a high level of precision and skill. I’m going to argue that road biking, short of high intensity rides, falls short of taking you to this state of consciousness. It could be that a state of flow is reached on hard climbs, in heavy traffic, or at high speeds, but otherwise I don’t think road cycling demands the kind of attention that brings you into a state of flow.
On the other hand…mountain biking is where the well-rounded cyclist can find the elusive meditation of flow. I’ve felt it over the past few years more than a few times. But it wasn’t until the past year or so that I really and truly hit the deepest kind of flow while riding technical singletrack. I know the first time I recognized it was on the Cougar Slayer attempt as I rode miles and miles of really technical doubletrack.
I was focused on covering the miles. It was new terrain to me. I was climbing almost continually, and I had to focus on picking the best line both right under my wheels and out ahead. It was a total body demand. My mind was focused intently on moving through space. While I was cognizant of the time I wasn’t bound by it. It was going to take me as long as it took to reach my destination. Time began and ended beyond the moment. I couldn’t see either terminus.
Cultivating that state came accidentally as I explored new areas after we returned to Kentucky. I rode Veterans, Capitol View, Skullbuster, LAC, all over the oil fields and environs, the Eagle Scout Trails, Laurel Lake…and as I put in miles and miles of unfamiliar trails at a training pace I started learning to immerse myself in the moment and to flow. By the time the Mohican 100 came along my brain was adept at sinking into the depths of flow. I am convinced that’s why I did so well on wet and slippery trails without the benefit of focused vision. I just found my groove and followed it.
It’s odd for me to be on my bike and not pondering the mysteries of the universe or composing my next blog post. But those times when I can access a state of flow I find that all conscious thought flies away and I’m left with a mind stilled by focused attention and action.
The down side is that once you can find that state of mind with ease it becomes hard to resist the urge. It becomes hard not to want to be on your bike all the time and you start thinking of ways to do just that. And you think of ways to maximize your time in flow when you do get there.
I rode the GFX at Veteran’s recently (sorry Jeff, I know you would have enjoyed it, should have invited you) despite the danger of catastrophic headtube failure. My singlespeed simulator showed me that on bike park type terrain the SS is truly the right kind of Flow Machine. It took me most of the ride to forget the twitching urge to shift, but I think it wouldn’t take too long to untrain myself and be able to fully enjoy the simplicity of the SS bike. The simplespeed bike.
The other aspect of this is that once you do reach a certain level of cycling and it becomes totally second nature to you then finding a state of flow at almost any time becomes possible. I know what I said early on, about road cycling not demanding the right kind of attention to push you into flow, but I do believe that once your body ingrains itself with the movement and input of cycling then you become an efficient cyborg, a melding of man and machine, and then cycling become like walking or running within your neural network.
Flow then becomes natural and common. It’s an elusive state; but one that signals the borders of biketopia.
Biketopia is where we want to be. Biketopia is the place where there is no choice of bike versus car, there is no issue between bike versus car, and all roads lead to bike racks.
Biketopia is where we want to be.