At times I might describe my riding as furious. Legs pushing, face and hands clenched, tongue held between set teeth. I must get to the top of that hill and I must not be last. My body is the expression of the ferocity in my head. It is on fire with the fear of being too slow, of the final and universal realisation that I cannot do this (or anything). Often, I clamber on that bike, part aggressor, part fearful-cave dwelling defender (in Lycra), and I think little of this behaviour. Until recently.
One weekend, I found myself face down on a trail made of rocks the size of potatoes (Potato Alley). The next I was stood in a car park, bike at my side, with seven other students and our coach, JP of Aline Coaching. I was there for a Fundamentals course (too late, perhaps, looking at my swollen chin). Only, it turned out to be more fundamental than I imagined.
Aside from learning how to get on the bike (I was doing that wrong), how to maintain maximum stability and tension, how to balance, chose entrances and exits, brake, corner, lift it, wheelie it, manual it, the overriding message was we wouldn’t do any of this well, without mental presence.
So, it’s our first run. We’re on the start ramp, the hard packed trail is winding away between the skinny tree trunks ahead. This is Steel City, a purpose-built trail in Greno Woods, Sheffield. ‘I want you to take it slowly,’ JP addressed us, ‘just take each corner as it comes, definitely avoid the gap jump and concentrate on taking big deep breaths all the way down.’ I set off. No doubt I heard him tell me to breathe; I just didn’t actually breathe (often). I let the bike run as fast as I dare, hammering into corners, lurching over bumps and onto table tops. Probably three essential breaths were stolen the entire run. It was anything but smooth.
That was one of several times that day when it became clear that mentally, I was missing the point. Too fast down little practice drops, pedalling out of corners instead of letting the bike flow. Despite what I was being told I was more concerned with speed and what other people thought of me and my riding. I rode as if singed by a desperate urgency.
And what was that missing point? Enjoyment; and being good at what you do – same as in life, really. And to start to do this you must be present. ‘Show up,’ as they say. Don’t think about your mates who are on the bikes in front, or needing to be the fastest, or about that awkward situation at work or a shopping list or that goal you are struggling with. JP seemed to draw his guidance about focus and presence from martial arts. He reminded us to be conscious; of the trail, of how our bodies moved when performing a turn or a descent. He wanted us to feel it and breath through it. Do it slowly, allow our bodies to learn the movements. And repeat and repeat. It was not about who was fastest on a bike. That was completely out of my control. But I was in control of how I behaved on the bike, what I bought to it, how I practiced and that would dictate whether I would get better (and faster).
That concept was an explosion. It blew away the ferocity and defensiveness I am accustomed to and revealed a whole new, thrilling landscape. Much more exciting.
We stood beside a huge bomb hole while the sky began to lose its colour, and riders in primary splashes shuttled down the trails and pounced off the edge into mid-air. JP, who paused for the longest time before committing to words, reflected on how the really extreme guys manage to hold it together. ‘They are still afraid,’ he said, pausing. ‘But, they learn to manage their fear, they are in touch with something else.’ And he rolled forwards, leaping off the rooty edge, across the hole.
‘Your body will know if you can do it, the rest of the time you spend justifying your decision,’ JP had told us throughout the day.
As we peddled the fire road climb for the last time JP reflected on attitudes to risk, how much life depended on taking it and the wisdom of Bruce Lee. And I listened, letting thoughts creep back in of my day job – which is focused on the analysis and the eradication of risk. I considered this contrast in the warmth of what I had been given that day. Risk-taking was scary, but I realised the importance and the power was mine to make the difference. To be present and listen to what is inside me.
If Bruce Lee rode mountain bikes, I think he would have been amazing. However, as far as I know JP just liked to borrow his wisdom. So, I’ll leave you with his thoughts on presence:
It’s like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.
– Bruce Lee