Bend in the Road: Flow, crashing and bliss

How to transform your ride — without hitting a deer

In recent years I've plowed into a deer at nearly 40mph and ridden straight into a 6ft construction sign in broad daylight. I've also had many moments of something damn near bliss on the bike — that rare mix of elation and calm — as endorphins flow through my system and I cherish being a moving part of the environment. You have probably had similar ups and downs. The difference, quite often, is simply a matter of focus.

"Pay attention to the world around you!" This is something I routinely bark at my children when they are acting oblivious to other people or to what, in my parental mind, is a threat of danger. You know, typical dad stuff. The irony of course is that I am perhaps more guilty of such oblivion myself, whether caught up in chasing a Strava downhill time and not seeing the aforementioned deer or fiddling with a cycling computer during a power-meter test, unaware of an enormous, bright-orange sign immediately in front of me.

Oftentimes, the obstacles are more mental than physical, made more of pessimism and lethargy than of hooves and metal. We've all ridden with a friend who grumbles away the whole time on a ride, nodding away in sympathy while internally thinking, 'Lighten up, you're out on your bike!' And we have been that grumbly rider ourselves.

Yet some of our happiest moments arrive by bike. So what's the difference? “Folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” This is a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln that, apocryphal or not, is one I appreciate.

A FACE FULL OF FUR

So about that deer. You've probably heard a few stories of riders acting stupidly in pursuit of a Strava time. Let me provide you with yet another. One day three years ago I noted that the site had a 'segment' for a downhill stretch of a local climb I frequent. I also noted that a friend had a top time. With a bit of coffee and hubris in my system, I decided to go 'race' him for this time.

My friend Dave and I chatted as we hauled up the climb, then flipped around just past where the segment started. I sprinted ahead of the segment's start, and with the GPS-fed clock running, I was off and 'racing' down the hill. Whipping around one corner, I encountered a truck stopped on the two-lane road. In front of it, six deer were lazily walking off the road to the right. A sensible person would have stopped at this point, but in my little mind I was racing, so I kept an eye on the deer and passed around to the left.

Unfortunately, the seventh deer still to the left of the road was not informed of my intentions, nor I of his. Just as I passed the truck, the deer scrambled out into the road to catch his friends. I swerved, but it was too little, too late. With both hands wrapped around the drops and the brake levers, I T-boned the beast, my face hitting its side.

By the time Dave came around the corner, the truck's driver was standing out on the road, I was sitting on the tarmac 20ft in front of the truck, and my bike was another 30ft down the road. The deer was nowhere to be seen. "This doesn't even make sense," Dave said. "How did you get hit from behind by a truck going downhill?"

NEW ROADS, NEW ENTHUSIASM

Avoiding deer and signs is simple enough — don't be an idiot — but dodging your own lethargy can be tougher. Generally, once I get out for a ride I feel better. I'm not sure exactly why. Riding is great exercise, sure, but that's not why we do it. Running on a treadmill is exercise, and may prompt a similar release of feel-good endorphins. But... blech. No thanks. There's something magic about pushing your body while interacting with the natural and manmade worlds.

Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi is credited with creating our modern definition of flow — being fully engaged in the task at hand. You hear mountain bikers talking about flow all the time, and the same sweet effect applies to skinny-tire pursuits. Csíkszentmihályi studied and wrote about flow for decades, concluding that people are happy when they're thoroughly absorbed in what they're doing, and that the optimal activity state requires enough challenge to keep you plugged in, but not enough to overwhelm you.

Ask your friends to take you out on new roads:

Csíkszentmihályi described flow to Wired Magazine as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost." Just like a great ride, right?

If your current riding routes feel more like a rut than a groove, switch it up. Ask a friend to take you on a new route, or use a site like Strava to find one yourself. If time or other constraints keep you local and you've exhausted your solo options, join or even create a little group ride. Simply rotating through a paceline with a few friends can enliven an otherwise dull stretch of road and get you that much closer to Csíkszentmihályi's state of flow. When the wheel in front of you can give you a draft and potentially cause you to crash on your face, you will be engaged. Plus, you'll go faster, which is always fun. You don't have to batter each other, just focus on keeping it smooth and tight.

The trick is to balance your little internal flow with reality. Beyond the hazards of traffic, there is something to be said for stopping to smell the roses. The nice thing about riding somewhere new is that is can combine these things; you can enjoy the rhthymic challenge of a new climb, and appreciate the scenery and small things like a tasty snack stop along the way. Why not engage all your senses, taste included?

This week, get out there on your bike. Go somewhere new. Find your flow. Just watch out for deer.

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