The Art of Flow
Flow, the seamless glide concealing intricate detail, the unseen nose manual in a thirty–yard rock field...
Steve Jones looks into the unseen world of flow on a bike.
"I was already on pole...and I just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my team mate with the same car. And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel." Formula 1 racing legend Ayrton Senna, 1988 Monaco Grand Prix
DIRT ISSUE 131 - JANUARY 2013
Words by Steve Jones. Photos by Sterling Lorence
Carrying speed or flow is central to many things we do day to day. It underpins life at the very base levels, from chatting in a pub or around the table, to going on holiday. For example if ‘the beer flowed’ you can be sure to have had a good night, whereas if there was nothing but broken chat and a lightish bill, rest assured the night can’t have been carrying much speed.
Flow is sometimes confused with flying, or vice versa. For example “I flew through check–in", what you really meant was that you avoided any snags and moved without any stop–starts rather than actually taking off the ground before you took off. I guess “I carried a shit load of speed through check in" might be a better description, but the problem with this is that it was largely out of your control.
In discussing flow reference needs to be made to ‘flow theorists’ such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychology professor who hypothesized that to achieve flow you need to be ‘in the zone’, totally immersing yourself into the activity in which you are involved. He reckoned that flow was likely to occur during an activity that was a higher than average challenge and where the individual has above average skills. Csikszentmihalyi reckoned that people with very specific personalities might be better designed to achieve flow, he likened it to artists, a pianist in full flow, harnessing all emotions in the name of performance and learning. The ‘other dimension’ maybe that Senna talked of.
This is not about Csikszentmihalyi’s flow model but simply to recognise that everyone can find it to a certain extent.
Flow, the seamless glide concealing intricate detail, the unseen nose manual in a thirty–yard rock field. It’s that essential sentence you might well miss in the presence of comedian Eddie Izzard at full rattle as he sets off on a series of unpredictable turns and tangents, swerves and side alleys, somehow ending up where he was always heading. It comes in a breathless storm of words, without punctuation, without inhaling. Eddie Izzard maintains incredible flow through complex territory.
You could compare to World Cup masters Aaron Gwin or Sam Hill on a roll. Taking inside lines, glancing rocks, sidestepping roots out of reach of the naked eye. Hunters of grip, specialists of slide, masters of flow, both having reached their riding potential by approaching their art correctly. See, I doubt flow theorists like Csikszentmihalyi will ever study bar room conversations or map people as they shimmy around airports, but Senna? From the outside you could I suppose compare Hill’s run at Val di Sole in 2007 to Senna’s Monaco experience, that top racers can be identifiable with what Csikszentmihalyi describes.
And Izzard? Partly learned, his script is possibly similar to a pianist’s music sheet, but not quite, he’s a bit more like a jazz musician in that it requires an element of instinct and improvisation. Riding trails blind would be the jazz way whereas racing a track could take the learned and practiced concert pianist approach.
READING THE TERRAIN
The ground is something like a music sheet in many respects. In order to read music you need to know the individual notes, the beats, and you need to be able to read the notes in terms of length, timing, rhythm, and knowing you are being directed by what’s on the sheet. Interpreting in as much as how soft or hard, but the instructions are there for you. On a similar level you need to know and interpret the shape of ground and the timing to extract power from that. The ground is the beat, get it and it goes on, get out of beat and the piece fails. Improvisation is all about intuition. But you need to know a hell of a lot to get there. I’d say reading the terrain is as complex as reading music but an elemental aspect to flow. You know the score?
Critically this does not need to be chat about high level performers such as Hill or Izard or concert pianists, but there is a need to differentiate between being ‘in the pipe’ or ‘in the zone’ to the more basic idea of flow that we all might be able to recognize and hopefully unearth.
Yet flow is inexpressible. It’s partly instinct, partly a space in itself. Partly a path of least resistance within a landscape that breeds power in which linking sections becomes part of the interrelated bigger picture. Flow is not describable in words because it’s something ‘other’.
Greats seem to have time in any sport, on the ball, in a section. What gives them this time?
It’s not about isolated events. We are taught how to corner, how to manual, how to hit cambers and jumps. Lonely skills, shipwrecked in a sea of mud and rock, separated from reality desperately seeking inclusion. What we really need is continuity, linking one section to another in a seamless movement.
This isolation of ‘events’ can be seen at races even up to world level where there will be at least one rider capable of riding one section faster than anyone else including the winner. Indeed, I often I believe it’s many riders desire to hit that one corner sweetly, once in the day, once in a lifetime. But flow is about moving through the terrain communicating with the ground underneath – interacting, transferring power, generating power, bossing the hill…the entire hill. Scrap the structures on how to hit the one corner perfectly because there’s another hundred to follow.
Avoiding collisions, using and understanding the ground within the trail is a central part of the flow principle. Momentum is your friend in this respect. On a basic level it allows you to hit the high spots, reach the downslopes, hitting what to the untrained eye might be seen as trail minutiae, but to the rider looking for drive they’re key features in which speed can be gained or lost in a blink of an eye. Ever seen Gwinn nose manualling through a rock section? Hardly, because it takes place in a split second. See Peaty riding the braking bumps? Well actually no, he’s about two inches off the edge of the big holes. Is former World Champion Danny Hart concerned with hitting every root at right angles? No he’s in the air above them. Staying away from anything that takes pace out of the bike on the trail needs managing at the very least. It needs remembering that there are two points of contact. Sometimes a basic manual will suffice, often staying clear of both contact points (front and rear) is the best. Remember avoiding the roots at X will give you more speed at Y, that collisions add up and smooth can often be quicker than forcing it. For example, Peaty in practice pushes hard and gets a time, pushes harder and gets the same time.
It’s all about momentum. I think anyone can learn momentum, for it’s partly a mind-set. Yes, generating speed out of the terrain is at a higher level on the skill scale, but even my local pub landlord can ride a mean pump track. It depends on the terrain to a degree, for the severity of terrain will govern an individual’s ability to interpret, apply skill levels, generate drive and hold momentum. Again, avoiding the collisions can be taken to some dizzy heights, but that doesn’t mean we cannot all ride slightly off the main line in the name of momentum.>>
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So there we have three integral items then to carrying speed – of course pick at detail, but think about throwing away the structured technique book where events take place in isolation. Make your riding inclusive, think about reading and using the ground, avoiding collisions and momentum. Here’s a few more to ponder:
Calculating the best line down a hill. It’s well documented how Gwinn will use head cam footage to learn a track, it’s probably less known how Hill was able to hit the required pace within three runs having learned a track on foot, visualized and identified the line, linked the whole event together and then within those three runs hit the tempo needed to win an event. Thoroughly calculated, utterly mind blowing – digesting detail, analysing line speed (the old Dirt 1.04 track by the way). Knowing how much to take out of a track before it takes you, but above all, interpreting the terrain to get the path of least resistance and maximum power. Indeed many riders believe most hills have a maximum speed, an optimal line.
Applying your skill to a line, and holding the line. The top downhill racers have been able to learn elements from many disciplines to reach the finest levels, these include BMX, dirt jumping and general unseen trail riding. Many riders could hit a berm like Hill or Gwin, but it’s only when the terrain gets to extreme levels does the majesty of their skill unfold. They are the concert pianists. I saw it in Val di Sole this year. Aaron Gwin, three corners in, hitting a smooth arc where even second and third placed riders were hesitant and scruffy; one corner, probably quarter to half a second. Multiply that by forty corners and you have his winning margin. A quarter of a second IS visible.
Timing. A bit like hitting a ball in the sweet spot, generating power is all about the 3D geometry of bike, rider, terrain.
“How my gonna move without any movement?" Katy B
We’re told in text that we need to move our bodies, that perfect technique requires a certain position – steering with the hips, the core, heels down. This is partly untrue and nearly always confusing. The need to move comes through an increasing and often decreasing amount of forward movement. Riding off a two–foot high kerb is smoother at 15mph than 5mph, yet a fifty yard section of deep whoops involves less movement at 5mph than 30mph, and certainly less aggression. You can overcook movement big style.
More than this, you must not confuse or separate the search for grip and the search for centralised gravity. It’s all very much interlinked. Tyres need weighting as much as the body mass needs orientation in the line of flow.
Reading an unseen track requires experience. For many flow requires visualization, especially of what’s ahead. How can you find the line of least resistance if you don’t know where it is or what’s ahead? Personally I believe ‘flow’ in the sense of ‘being in the zone’ can be found quicker in such circumstances where you do not know what’s ahead of you. Contrary to this, I have spoken to many top racers (the concert pianists) who simply hate enduro events (the jazz musicians) where there has been no prior track walk. It’s certainly a skill in itself. Coming from a motorcycle trial background which constantly involved riding blind and often at speed in between sections, I feel totally comfortable in this situation, it heightens the awareness and offers up a challenge quite different to the somewhat safer world of downhill racing. I’m sure thousands will disagree.
The ability to get ‘loose’ on demand is a key state of mind. And you need to be able do it without ‘Dutch courage’. I believe you can carry a fair degree of speed in any situation given a reasonably confident mind-set, but maybe one of the reasons why only few people have won World Cups is due to the fact that they can sign in to ‘flow’ on a whim unaffected by outside distractions, hit their lines, able to flow and carry speed. In this respect the whole idea of ‘getting loose’ that’s often laughed at by some riders is not as stupid as it might first appear.
Csikszentmihalyi believes that a relaxed body position is a good sign of a person being in a state of flow similar maybe to what Senna described, similar to Hill in Val di Sole several years ago before he got decked by a bit of dirt. Similar to what Gwinn has been for many years. It cannot be a coincidence surely?
Confidence. Willpower. Are you comfortable enough to be hanging off a camber without having to think about it? Are you patient and confident with both order and chaos, mixed surfaces, mixed terrain root and rock, with water and mud?
Balance. The basic, without which you can forget everything else.
Vision. Don’t underestimate the need for clear eyesight – clear goggles.
Commitment and Risk. Carrying speed often involves risk. Hitting a root section flat out or stomping up and over it to get backside. Risk is a dimension, a measurement in itself, but I don’t think you need to go there to get the basics of this discussion. Each of us introduce risk at various levels because carrying speed is skill, it takes time to master and I think that’s partly why Peaty, Nico Vouilloz, Greg Minnaar, Gwin, Hill (arguably THE greatest riders) have it dialled better than most. That’s why I believe these guys bring less risk to their game and apply a more learned technique to generate speed from the ground. There could well be proximity of risk to riding speed with riders who have less experience.
Bike and bike set up. You cannot remove the bicycle from the equation. Having been lucky enough to ride countless versions of suspension design and shock absorber I fully believe that some bikes carry speed better than others. The ‘optimization’ that many companies talk about in their sales pitches being largely unfounded once taken out of the workshop. The world is full of ‘hung up’ bikes.>>
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I think you can learn to ride a bad bike, but I believe some riders will be at an advantage whilst many will carry an unnecessary weight around their necks (even if the bike is light). Gwin’s Trek is almost certainly part of his rise to the top, Minnaar’s in his reclaiming a World rainbow this season. A great bike/rider combination can generate lift and maintain support amidst the mess.
Eight inches of travel can hide no end of sins, and it is one of the most difficult to set up. I have come across few top racers who know what they want AND how to achieve it. The clever ones readily admit this and work closely with technicians. Suspension is an integral part of the dynamic and so to is sizing, why do you think road bikes are made to measure? Be fastidious about tyre pressures too.
Learn to feel and use ‘the pocket’ in a bike’s suspension (assuming it has one). Like two opposing magnets, use it as a platform to push off and sit within. It is the go–to point, the part that connects rider–bike–terrain.
The engine room is central to any continuity or your ability to link phases of riding together. No matter what line or bike set up, if your engine room is not up top scratch forget it. More often than not flow is something that starts from the your physical ability alone. A massive subject.
Breathing. Deep into a rock field or root forest it’s surprising how many riders forget to even keep the basics of life ticking over.
Practice. In as much as some things will rely on you pushing Gollum aside, removing doubt and fear, and…yes, many of us will never truly rid ourselves of those demons. Time on a bike counts for so, so much. It teaches you timing, balance, the search for grip, poise. Try something fresh.
Connect. Learn to connect, ride a pump track.
Competition. I’m not sure. I can say for certain that in a state of hangover or on a group ride unless I’m out in front then it’s most likely that I will never achieve flow. I think it requires a state of pressure or stress to engage into flow, but having said that, some of my best times (both literally and metaphorically) have been when the clock has not been ticking. Does it win you races? Who cares really?
Flow in mud, in typical British conditions? Yes, but many will opt for finding some grip first! The breakdown, keeping in and out of the contact patch. I recently read an article from a skilled cycle journalist saying that flats will no longer count at World Cups. This is clueless. As long as there’s mud and root there will always be flats. When Danny Hart won Champery he said he’d introduced a different style, but Champery was different in 2011, it was no 2007 track in which hardly anyone could stand up straight. True mud and root tests rarely exist these days. Champery 2011 was no such occasion.
The unknowns. Hill Val di Sole 2007.
My mate Jonny. He told me this carrying speed business is all well and good except “does it have any relevance?" I asked Jonny what he thought about flow. “Is flow really something most of us want? Well, grip is what most of us look for around here from September onwards, but yes our ability to find flow depends on the terrain."
It’s well recognised that flow exists for mountainbikers of all levels, it’s what we look for. But Jonny adds, “being on a pinned race run with everything going your way is not flow is to most of us, it’s not about competition."
Limits to flow. Using the ground. Extracting force and energy from the ground is a simple yet very difficult technique to practice and teach. Scarily, there are limits to the spatial awareness at large even within the top ten World Cup racers, and having witnessed first hand many of these riders’ ability to a) identify such places, and b) apply relevant technique to generate drive. In that respect I believe only few have mastered the art of concert pianist.
It’s all about connecting with the terrain and timing and that’s why very often a rider with local knowledge will throw in a good ride because he’s identified the hot spots. Except…I once lost 20 metres of track to Sam Hill over a 75 metre rock section I knew intimately, even though I was off the brakes and on his wheel entering the carnage. Could it be riding close to the fifth dimension? Maybe, it certainly involves every one of the things I’ve mentioned, plus instinct.
The ground to a mountainbike is like wind to a sailing boat in that can be used to generate lift and power. It requires reading and in this respect (as said before) the terrain is like a song sheet, but what does it feel like to get every note right? Well, even then you might well be technically perfect, but true musicianship is about technical ability and that ‘other’ thing.
Are there limits to flow on a certain track? Limits to speed? Maybe dirt jumping has an answer. Good BMX riders are masters of generating speed from the ground, for dirt jumpers it’s pretty much essential. Dirt jumps are an interesting example of flow theory, for the shape and speed is largely fixed. There is a speed and a shape to get the maximum out of that terrain. The only change is rider shape and bike. Too fast you over jump, too slow you case. Connection.
Video edits have a lot to answer for. Mixing brilliant flowing music with less than fluid riding creates a disconnect, raises expectation. I cannot imagine Ayrton had Lemmy from Motorhead in his ears entering Tabac at Monaco. Use them as motivation, but remember it’s only ever about riding two wheels in dirt, you cannot sync a track to a soundtrack, forget the music, learn to read the terrain in front of you.
REF: Csikszentmihalyi, M.: Abuhamdeh,S. &Nakumura, J. (2005) “Flow" in Ellliot, A, Handbook of Competence and Motivation, New York: The Guildford Press, pp 598-698