the sound of mountain bike tyres

Recently I took my own advice on being open to life-long learning, and set out to learn something.

Specifically I decided that after years of riding mountain bikes, I should learn some proper technique when it comes to jumping. I can get down most trails, and have fun doing so, but jumps are something else. I like staying in contact with the ground, rubber firmly in contact with dirt, as it where. But at one of the places I ride there is a new trail littered with jumps, and while I can safely roll through them, it struck me that it would be more fun if I knew how to jump.

So I found myself on the trail with Peter, a friend and on this occasion mountain bike coach. We covered lots of technique, body position, movements, bike mechanics and so on, before I started repeatedly rolling through a series of turns and into the first jump on the trail.

At one point I was unsure I was approaching with the right speed, and asked Peter about it. An unexpected answer came back “You’re at just the right speed, you can hear it in the noise that your tyres are making.” Naturally I thought he was nuts – surely it’s about how rapidly I’m pedalling, what gear I’m in, the sense of speed from passing trees?

But he assured me again, “listen to your bike, listen to the noise the tyres are making on the dirt – there’s a kind of sweet spot where everything sounds just right. When you hear that sound, you’ll know you’re at the right speed and can hit the jump.”

A few days later I was reflecting on that advice, as I sat by the beach in Woolgoolga, NSW. I’m on something of a road trip, exploring mountain bike parks and bakeries between Brisbane and Canberra, my ultimate destination.

My mind wandered, as it does, to the nature of sound. What other kinds of sounds can we hear, that maybe tell us something about all being well, and good, and just right?

So I sat, just for ten minutes or so, and listened. I let my ears guide my attention. What did I hear – here’s a few examples:

  • Dogs barking and panting as they ran and played
  • Waves curling, tumbling, foaming and crashing against the rocks
  • Snatches of conversation from passers by
  • The rhythm of footsteps crunching on gravel, including that most Australian beachside flip-flop of thongs
  • The tinkle of cutlery from a nearby balcony as breakfast by the bay was enjoyed
  • Car engines and tyres – of different notes and pitch as cars approached, passed by and travelled away
  • A litany of birdsong (my bird loving friend Warwick would be disappointed that I have no idea what kinds!)
  • The whir of my zipper as I snugged my jacket up tight against the cool morning breeze
  • The call of a surfboat skipper, barking instructions to his crew
  • Laughter – perhaps one of the most human of sounds

As I sat and listened, I picked out natural sounds that would have been heard by this same beach for eons. I heard the sounds of people living life. And I heard artificial sounds, of engine and car door and seat belt.

But all of these sounds seemed like they belonged. It seemed like they were the sounds of life. Of fun, of recreation, of preparation for the day, of life and love and relationship, of creation and wonder and majesty.

I fancy, as I sat and listened, that I could hear the sound of mountain bike tyres on the gravel, the sound they make when everything is just right. It was that kind of morning.

flow and the red desert

One was called simply “The Track”, and the other “The Red Desert”.  The were they places that Wulguru kids hung out after school in the early 80’s.  The Track was a network of dirt tracks criss-crossing a gully behind the local primary school, while the Red Desert was a vast (or at least it felt that way) area of eroded red gravel trails in the foothills of Mt Stuart.

For a Townsville 10-year-old, these places were magic. We’d race home from school, dump our bags, grab a biscuit and a bike, yell out “see you Mum, we’re going to The Track” and be out the door.  Those hours of messing about on bikes, doing jumps and skids and having races with whoever else showed up that day shaped our childhood.

Later as a teenager living in Brisbane’s western suburbs, the story wasn’t much different. A narrow downhill bushland trail a couple of hundred metres from home turned into a race track where we’d meet neighbourhood mates to race bikes down the hill, putting the stopwatch to work to determine who was the day’s fastest.  Lots of fun, and the occasional gravel rash and one memorable crash resulting in a cracked collarbone for a visiting cousin were the results.

Kmart BMX bikes, Repco 10 speed ‘racers’ and the roadsters of the 80’s were our weapons of choice, dirt trails through the bush our playground, and hours of fun that fostered friendship and brotherhood the outcomes.

Forty-odd years later, and my weekends follow a now familiar pattern. I meet up with a bunch of mates, ride bikes down dirt trails through the bush and then tell stories for hours afterwards.  The tools of course are different; gone is the Kmart BMX to be replaced by eye-wateringly expensive mountain bikes, dripping with technology you wouldn’t believe. The stopwatch has been surpassed by GPS-equipped cycle computers or smart phones measuring performance to the nth degree.  At its heart though, it’s the same story four decades on: mates, bikes, bush, adrenaline….and occasional skinned knees or dislocated fingers.

It’s not that bike riding has been a life-long constant for me in the way that sports or hobbies are for some people – more that I’ve rediscovered what was a childhood love later in life, and uncovered mountain bikes designed to do what we did on completely unsuited bikes back in the day.

The riding itself, is amazing. When you hook into a trail that is in great shape, maybe with a little post-rain moisture (resulting in what we know as ‘hero dirt’), with bike and rider in sync, the sensation of speed and the challenge of control is hard to beat.  As the bike leaves the dirt over a drop or jump, or tyres scrabble for grip in fast corner, the heart beat increases in time with the adrenaline.  I love getting on the bike and exploring bush tracks – at least as much now as in those childhood years. 

As good as the riding is though, the company makes it even better. The guys I ride with I’ve mainly known for years. We’ve each navigated life and love, family, work and hobbies in parallel, reconnecting now over handlebars and the obligatory post-ride coffee (or in my case, chocolate milkshake). I wouldn’t swap it.

All of this reminds me of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s description of “flow”. He describes it this way:

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

(Flow, 1990, p3)

That’s the sensation I get riding a mountain bike when everything is at the limit. But I’ve also experienced it in a work context when a project or presentation or workshop was going just perfectly – when the challenges of the task at hand and my own capacity and performance were perfectly matched. You might notice it even in parenting, in those rare moments when your approach to raising your kids matches perfectly the challenges they’re experiencing. You might find it surfing, or skiing, or singing or dancing. The rest of the world fades away, challenge and capacity are perfectly matched, there is immediate feedback….these are some of the characteristics of the flow state that Csikszentmihalyi describes. Flow, he says, is:

“a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”

(Flow, 1990, p4)

To be not only conscious of the flow state as it finds us, but to seek it, to put ourselves in the right situations, with the right skills, facing the right challenges…that could be addictive.

Of course, there’s a shadow side too – when the challenge or difficult facing us far exceeds our competence and we find ourselves in misadventure, or the other way around that leads to boredom. But lets save those for another day.

Today, I’m thinking about flow. Finding it on a mountain bike trail as a fifty year old. Finding it in the red desert as a kid. Finding it in family and workplace. In speaking or presenting or offering leadership. In love. In life.

Let it flow.

on boiling frogs and busted fingers

silhouette of man riding bicycle during sunset
Source: unsplash.com

I think I’ve written before about how my current midlife crisis involves riding bicycles in the bush.  I’m not very good, or very fast, but I have a good time exploring with mates, experiencing an adrenaline rush and finding beautiful places.

Every now and then it doesn’t go so well and I find myself experiencing what I euphemistically describe as a rapid unplanned dismount (RUD). In other words: I crash.

Once such recent RUD resulted in my tumbling for quite a way through the bush and coming to rest with a dislocated and fractured finger. Not much fun, and it did hurt a bit but I honestly found myself thinking “that’s actually not so bad….it could have been a much worse injury!”.

The injury has been healing and a most excellent Occupational Therapist at the local hospital has been providing great advice on rehab, along with a few different splints and strengthening devices. It’s amazing what she can do with thermoplastic, Velcro and several variations of blue-tac.

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in the beginning…

Over the last couple of years I’ve been entering into that most terrifying realm for all parents: teaching a child to drive.

My #1 child is all the things you’d hope for in a learner driver. She’s cautious, obedient, patient (mostly), understands road rules, knows enough about how the car works to understand what’s happening when she pushes that pedal or pulls that lever.

We’ve taken our time, working up from what we came to know as “industrial estate Sunday” (you know…where the industrial estates are all filled with learner drivers on Sunday afternoons) to quiet back roads, to suburban streets before finally graduating to freeways and busy arterial roads.

We’ve used professional instructors at a few critical times (I’d far rather pay someone to teach freeway merging than sit in the passenger seat myself for a couple hours of white-knuckle on and off-ramp experiences), built in some road trips to get bulk hours, and had her drive all the local kid-taxi shuttles for her siblings.

We’re now past the critical 100 hour mark which under the Queensland system enables #1 child to go and take the driving test. Our time as teacher/learner is coming to an end.

It’s been largely pain and tear free, and despite a few near misses (which I assume all learners suffer) and a few stalling-in-the-middle-of-an-intersection moments (ditto), everything has gone pretty well.

I’ve worked hard to be outwardly the least anxious person in the car, to not raise my voice, to not provoke nerves or (unhealthy) fear in my learner.

And yet…

Every time I’m in the passenger seat, I’m all eyes on stalks, and hand hovering over the handbrake lever kind of nervous. I’m sure I’ve left dents in the passenger footwell from the number of times I’ve tried hard to apply the brake pedal from my side of the car. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve repeated my mantras (“the secrets of good driving are smooth, deliberate use of the controls”, “remember to look ahead and anticipate” and so on) desperately hoping she’ll finally listen. As we approach the finish line (at least for this first one, #2 is lining up in in just a few weeks for his learner’s permit), it frustrates me that I can’t fully relax despite the evidence that she’ll (probably, maybe, possibly) be fine.

The truth is that despite the everyday nature of driving, every time we get in a car we put our life on the line – trusting in our own abilities and attention span, and that of every other driver around us. It’s almost the very definition of a dangerous activity, even though we rarely think of it in those terms. And those dangers, the immediacy of them, never become quite so stark as when you put your precious 17 year old behind the wheel, conscious of their limited skills, non-existent experience, and the multi-tasking nature of driving a car as a beginner.

Life is like that isn’t it? The things we take for granted everyday were once new, and fresh and risky. The things we can do without thinking once took every ounce of concentration we could muster. Maybe teaching #1 to drive has just reminded me that we were all beginners somewhere along the line, and that learning (particularly a skill where there is danger) is a difficult and challenging road (pun 100% intended).

And maybe it’s a reminder to me that it’s been a while since I was genuinely a beginner at some new skill.

A few years back I started riding mountain bikes with mates. We would head out into the bush, desperate to recover our lost youth, struggle up hills and bomb down the other side over roots and rock and (in my case very small) jumps. I now ride a few times a week and these days rarely think about the dangers or difficulties of this pastime. But I do recall that it wasn’t always like that. It used to be that near misses, and actual crashes were part of every single ride. I recall the months I went with gravel-rashed knees and elbows that for some reason take much longer to heal now than they did when I was 13. I recall every descent was a cause for nervousness and anxiety. Most of that is gone…unless I take a wrong turn and head down a trail that’s beyond my capability.

Deep down of course, I know that when riding my mountain bike I’m always just one mistake away from a busted collarbone, or a battered, bruised 48 year old body. A bit like driving a car. And just like driving the car, I rarely think about that reality.

Maybe teaching Miss 17 to drive is reminding me of all these things: being a beginner, the challenges of learning new skills, my own fragilities, the ease with which I dismiss danger, the task of trusting my child to grow into her adult self.

Maybe it’s me who’s learning after all.

it’s just a trail

Recently I had the extraordinary opportunity to travel to Tasmania with a bunch of guys to ride mountain bikes for a week or so. Yes, indeed, I do realise how privileged I am to be able to do so. It was an amazing week.

We rode in two places, Blue Derby (which I’ve ridden before and know and love) and Maydena Bike Park. If you like riding bicycles on dirt trails among rocks and trees, you should put both these incredible places on your list.

Now before the rest of this will make sense (if indeed it has any chance of that) you should know that when it comes to mountain biking, I’m relatively average. I ride regularly at local trails around my city and suburb, I have a nice bike, and I enjoy it – but I’m not particularly special. I’m not the kind of guy you’ll see on those YouTube videos hurtling down some vertical descent, or starring in World Cup or Enduro World Championship races all over the globe. I also don’t really do jumps…I like it when my tyres are in contact with the ground. Really I’m just a guy who goes riding with his mates and has a good time. If I don’t crash, I’m generally happy. I even made my own hashtag to describe my level of competence: #veryaveragetrailrider

So when preparing for Tasmania, it was with a certain degree of trepidation. This is “proper” mountain biking country.

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