If life was a film, it would go all super slo-mo now. The thumping soundtrack would suddenly stop and you’d float effortlessly across the screen for a long few silent seconds before tyres hit ground once more, the music punches back in and everything returns to normal frantic noise and surround sound speed. Life is generally not like the films, but there are times on the trail when it comes close.
There are certain moments on a ride, specifically somewhere on a technical piece of trail, when you get it pin-point effortlessly right. Just perfect. Or perfect enough to be worthy of a small whoop, if the smile of quiet satisfaction isn’t enough. Depending on who you are, this might happen several times a ride, once a day or just once a year – these moments can be elusive for some. The terrain and the bike and the you stop being disparate entities and become one. There is an instant of exquisite unity that is both a seamless connection and a separation from everything else.
Backcountry rides are made up of an endless conveyor belt of moments, some of them are more important than others and there are a few significant ones that can become the ride. One or two of them might even define you. Riding off-road is about constantly processing information, adjusting levels of concentration, managing degrees of effort and measuring out quantities of skill, but not so much that you run out. Large portions of a ride can be of little consequence, easy going, nothing to trouble the brain out of tick-over mode, other bits might require mild concentration and a modicum of both mental and physical input but it’s pretty perfunctory stuff. There are brief instances however where you have to properly laser focus and everything you know and everything you and your bike have rehearsed together get called to the front of the stage and you have to perform.
Where this moment finds itself on the ride depends upon where you lie on the skill graph. One person’s faltering fear and “that’s going to hurt” is another person’s easy bunnyhop over roots. It doesn’t matter on the level of off-road dexterity though, getting something absolutely right is still getting something absolutely right. The reward is the same.
On any ride, the brain and body are full of chatter, a conversation of whirring cogs and the myriad little moves and weight shifts required to keep a fat-tyred machine in forward motion; servos whiz fizzing in joints adjusting to the variety of terrain, gyroscopes twirling. If it were to be vocalized it would be a ride long soliloquy, a constant stream of conscious and unconscious manoeuvres. When it goes right that babble goes silent. All the hours, days and years of practice, trying and trying and just pedalling over and over and over suddenly become everything, and then nothing. There is no thought, no dissecting the moment and movement into tiny little pieces, no trying to react to them individually and line all the minutiae up in the right order.
There is no anything.
All thought awareness ceases and all the earned knowledge that has become hard-wired takes over. It is far more proficient than you are, is wise enough to override all the technique, expertise and the stuff you think you have control over, and just does. There is nothing in your head, there isn’t time for process. Hard to quantify, it is something deeper than instinct and has come to be known as flow. The state where the usually spaghetti-mess wiring of the mental and physical process suddenly weaves together into a single strand of wonderful ability and threads itself through the trees like a breeze.
There is an opposite side to this coin, where you unexpectedly glide over a trail feature that would usually dump you, and it is at times like this where it’s better for your own safety to not know how the hell you managed it. The knowledge is withheld from your cognitive self by your subconscious so you’re not tempted to ever try it again. But this is not about those luck over judgement moments when your skill punches well above its pay grade, this is tying everything you know into a little ball of accomplishment and throwing it accurately down the trail.
This is where everything goes right; head, legs, arms, bike, trail, heart. Time goes simultaneously quick and slow, you know exactly what you’re doing and aren’t exactly sure how you’re doing it. A bubble of concentration, yet not even trying. Being exactly aware of what’s underneath your tyres and it not even being relevant, or even there. A second or two of poise and bike ballet, a sharp point of focus in a world of fuzz. The only witness an appreciative rabbit watching on, maybe.
Will this brief moment of movement and clarity ever happen again? Could do. Will it ever be as perfectly done? Possibly. Probably. With each well ridden piece of trail the finesse levels up and it’s easier next time. This is how we get better. This could be one of those times or it could just be a fluke when planets, hope, ability and chance aligned and it will never happen again. But there will always be that moment, like the films.