We were in the mountains in central Idaho. It was hot, sunny. Dry, dusty. We had come to learn how to mountain bike, because you can’t live in Idaho and not know how. We–my parents, brother, two best buds and I–planned to conquer what logs, rocks and riverbeds stood before us byway of a day of professional coaching and seclusion. About an hour, two poorly placed rocks and one sandpit later, my latent ankle sprain suddenly and conveniently revived, giving me the perfect excuse to unclip and go home.
While my friends and family continued their day of instruction, I returned to the lodge, ate a subway sandwich and slept the rest of the afternoon in the hammock. It felt like I came out a winner.
Years of mountain bike-less bliss followed. I did plenty of mountain person things: I camped, backpacked, hiked, climbed, I didn’t necessarily feel the need to also ride off road. I also moved to the east coast, where sharp rocks and slippery roots made me yearn for the sand traps I once feared. It sounds like rationalization, but I was perfectly content with bypassing the entire sport of mountain biking. It was just not for me.
Enter coach Pat O’Brien into my life. Pat, for those who don’t know him, loves to mountain bike. When he’s not coaching, he’s almost surely riding, except for when he’s on craigslist looking for bike parts. He literally dreams about trails, loses focus when we pass any, and makes constant bike-to-skiing comparisons. In particular, he argues that a good mountain biker has the mind and knowledge of a good skier. His argument proved persuasive.
After deciding this summer that I wanted to become a badass biker chick (the deciding of the thing was much easier than the doing of the thing, but I’m making progress), I’ll have to agree with him. Learning to ride a trail on wheels requires more focus than on skis, making the subtleties of transitions, turnover and body position a lot less subtle. Going uphill? Lean forward (as described by my bike sensei, like a gremlin), get your body weight up the hill, otherwise you’ll flip over backwards on your back tire (imagine if the same happened on skis…Hermod’s would be an entirely different experience). Additionally, with every minute change in terrain comes a change in gear. In order to flow down a trail, you have to constantly change your speed, turnover and power, lest you literally stop moving. Coming from someone whose mode of operation is “bogged down,” clearly seeing the effect of gear change helped me understand terrain better.
But then there’s one more thing you learn in mountain biking that applies to skiing, training and racing (and, you guessed it, life. “Anniespokorner.wordpress.com, extending metaphors since 2013”). It’s a lesson that is both simple and complex, best done when you don’t think about it too much, making it the hardest to actually execute. It’s one that was surely taught the day that I spent snoozing in the hammock, one that might have been worth missing the subway sandwich.
Here it is: don’t look at the rock.
When you’re barreling down a trail, in order to make it to the bottom (or top) safely, you have to take the path of least resistance. You go where you look, so, by focusing on the rocks/logs/rivers/palisades in front of you, you’re almost always going to hit them.
It’s a simple concept that we apply to our training all the time. When we build goal pyramids and training plans, we create the best possible outcomes, looking where we want to go and envisioning a route to get us there. You don’t pay attention to what could go wrong, but instead plan what could go right. You just don’t look at the rock.
But, like I said before, the saying of the thing is one part, it’s the doing of the thing that’s hard.
So, here is the question I pose to skilled mountain bikers, do you guys even see the rock?
On my best race days, it seemed like nothing could go wrong. Or, rather, nothing seemed to go wrong, because I wasn’t even thinking about what could. But then the bad race days, or training days, intervals, what have you, seemed wrought with impending disaster. Hard conditions could lead to bad wax, or I just couldn’t figure out how to conquer that steep running section in the hill, or it felt like this altitude was really getting to me. On days like that, you look down the trail and all you see is rock. How do you not focus on it?
That’s the paradox that I struggle with in sport: that of mindless execution. As an athlete, it’s helpful to have a plan, to know the course, your skis, the competition. But, at the same time, the best way to compete is to let go and just do it (hello, Nike). Training yourself to not see the rocks in the trail is certainly the best thing you can do, but it remains unsaid whether or not it’s best to completely ignore them or acknowledge and maneuver around them.
As I get better at biking, I imagine my strategy will begin to mirror skiing. There will always be adversity, always a challenge on the horizon. Some days I’ll pass through tough sections without even a thought, so in touch with my bike that I can flow right past stumps and roots without even noticing them. Other days, I’ll look down a sketchy section and see nothing but road blocks. On those days, as I have in skiing, I hope that I stand up and go for it, trusting that I can clear each snag and rough patch, but knowing full well that I just might get thrown over the handlebars.
And when I do, I’ll gain a little bit of knowledge about that rock/stump/riverbed that will get me around the next one, and the next, until I no longer look at them, let alone see them.
That, or at least I’ll get a really cool bruise.