Saturday, May 24, 2014

on flow states, adrenalin junkies, and equipment you trust

Do you check out Red Kite Prayer?

It's one of the few sites I look at that says anything at all about competitive cycling, because while they DO write a lot about competitive cycling, they also write (a lot) about other stuff about cycling: equipment, bad behavior, spirit and soul.

I got to this article a week or so ago, and for a few reasons, I wanted to wait a while before I wrote about it. The author writes about returning to cycling after a crash (bad enough to induce a concussion), and has a few things to say. One of them is about bikes, the machines themselves:

Bike reviewers often talk about those bikes that inspire confidence. That’s a real thing. The Focus Izalco Max made one of the easiest descents I know feel as sketchy as riding ice on slicks. It made me question how much my abilities had returned... I hated that.

Some weeks ago I rode an Ibis Ripley 29 on an assortment of trails, some stuff I knew super-well and other stuff I was familiar with, but didn’t have memorized. The bike was a revelation. On stuff where I had only marginal familiarity, I found myself ripping through turns with verve and confidence. I wasn’t just riding fast, I was riding with authority...

What I’ve learned is that while a bike can’t give you a flow state, it can take you out of one.

Which makes sense to me. I haven't ridden enough other bikes to know the difference he describes between the Focus and the Ibis, I know that if I've had a mechanical problem on a ride, even just a flat, it can take miles for the worry that a problem is going to recur. Sometimes the worry doesn't dissipate for the whole rest of the ride. And this is small potatoes indeed compared to his crash (go read the article).

Another thing he says is about flow states and adrenalin junkies.

And here I make note of two of the more curious intersections that I believed true prior to my crash, but couldn’t claim with complete conviction. The first is that the good time I’ve been chasing in descents for the last 20-odd years, known as a flow state, has a bete noire. The funny thing is that we’ve been operating with a complete misunderstanding of our own neuroscience. We love to refer to adrenalin junkies, as if what extreme athletes are after is the hormone known for kicking us into the fight-or-flight response. Bad journalists and lazy doctors have allowed us to be saddled with this false belief. In a flow state, there’s no fear. But if adrenalin is coursing through your system, it’s because you’re afraid, mortally afraid. Straight up, there’s no such thing as an adrenalin junkie. Flow junkies, yes, but to be addicted to adrenalin you’d have to be profoundly dysfunctional. You’d make a cutter look like a Buddhist.

Sorry, Padraig, but you can't presume your experience is universal. We in the mental-health biz talk about "satiation seekers" and "thrill seekers". Both of 'em may seek flow states... but to a thrill seeker, satiation is just dull. The states they seek are different, but both can induce flow.

I'm a satiation seeker. I like "down" highs (when I was using, my choices were alcohol, cannabis, Quaalude, and enough nitrous oxide that I'd fall off the sofa). I've descended at over 44mph, and you know what? It wasn't fun. It was terrifying.

I ride with somebody who regularly seeks to break his records on previous descents. I used to say, "Anybody can go fast," but I was wrong; I can't; not like he can. I don't know if he's a thrill-seeker (his satiation may just be different from mine), but anybody who's seen the two of us ride together, and who looks at us and thinks about it, can see we look for somewhat different things when we ride.

Some time ago, Tom H had a post on his blog about why we ride. In it, he had some glib talk about riding because we like to eat. And that's true. But there's way more to it than that. There have been attempts to describe it. Some are wretched, and some come close to hitting it (although I am always a little disappointed; there always seems to be a couple more things...).

Maybe all the bicycle posts on this blog are just an attempt to try to tell some of it.

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