A long time ago, when I was struggling to make it as a singer-songwriter in the acoustic folk world, I took a few voice lessons from a great local teacher. She was showing me ways to produce more pure sound while using less physical effort. My job was pretty much to fill my lungs and then let the air escape, freely taking shape as sound in my throat and mouth. She told me I was pushing too hard, and I made a wry comment about how familiar that message was to me. She then made a wry comment about how our least helpful patterns seem to follow us most closely into the parts of life we care most about.
In the short time I've been climbing the steep learning curve from experienced road biker to competent mountain biker, I've seen that same dynamic at play. It seems satisfying to heave body and bike over a steep, loose ramp through sheer quadriceps power, but in reality, it's wasteful. On even a moderately intense ride, I'm going to need every watt of power I can conserve, and often skill will create more speed and fun than power ever could.
At lunch today, I headed out for a neighborhood trail that features one super-steep portion which I've never managed to ride through. Feeling stronger and more confident after my personal-record ride at Kingdom Trails last weekend, I was determined to overpower it today.
Surprise! The hill won again.
I could have seen it coming. I set myself up for failure by viewing it as a competition: me versus the hill, My determination doesn't change the nature of this hill; it's steep, uneven, and features roots and rocks aplenty to slip on in the humid dampness of summer. I spun out the rear tire on a wet rock, and, of course, came to a dead stop, given the grade. Starting again wasn't an option -- too steep and loose -- so I hike-a-biked the final 30 yards.
And yet, I wasn't ashamed. Lots of people would choose to walk their bike up this hill. In the moment, I was humble enough to view this as a chance to learn, and saw that, 18 inches to the right of the fatal rock, there was an unbroken line of good dirt. "Next time," I thought.
Down the trail a ways, I reached another imposing ramp. I approached it in the tried-and-true manner, slipping forward on the saddle to keep my weight vertically aligned over the bottom bracket and evenly distributed through the wheels. But this time, I slid forward much further than usual, and found myself seated on the extreme forward edge. I hadn't even realized I could sit that far forward. And guess what? I spun up the ramp, steady and in control, no grunting or lactic acid involved.
Grace. Elegance. I felt like one of those guys in the extreme videos who make it all look so effortless.
I may be older than a lot of people who try mountain biking for the first time, but I have the benefit of having slogged through some life lessons a few hundred times already. I look for every way I can finesse my way through a fix, rather than power through. (At least on the bike; I'm working on being like this day-to-day…) The end result is that I was able last weekend to ride roughly 60% further and higher than ever before, on more technically demanding trails.
Now pass me the chopsticks, Daniel-san; there's a fly loose in the room.