When you join the military, from your first induction in to the barracks to washing your genitals in front of a drill sergeant, every order is pre-empted with the word ‘GO!’ Or ‘GO! GO! GO!’ The idea being that when it comes to the crunch, that you need to run across mine-infested territory or jump from a plane or kill someone who’s dark skinned and happens to be sitting on a lot of oil, you won’t hesitate. The ‘GO! GO ! GO!’ has been so instilled in you, that you won’t think. You instinctively do. Which is so unlike real life.
I used to climb a bit when I was younger, never well, but I liked big classics on the sides of Welsh hills with a packed lunch and getting to smoke a rollie on the belay stops. In the hope of improving, I used to climb indoors most weeks in London with the dream of making my forays in to the hills that bit better.
To a degree it worked, I got a lot stronger and mentally it helped remove some of my fears of exposure to big falls. If you do it enough indoors the moves become automatic and you can remove from your mind (to a degree) the potential fall below.
This all worked until I started to learn and got strong enough to do dynos. A dyno In climbing turns is essentially throwing yourself up the rock face and grabbing the hold above you. Briefly you have to let go of the rock entirely.
I couldn’t do it at all. I knew I was strong enough but my brain would not allow it, I used to be there muscles tensed ready to go and my inner self a-quiver.
“Right, you’re going to go… NOW”
Nothing happened. My muscles pulled taught, my body responding to my instruction. But I was still firmly attached to the rock. My body was willing but my mind has said no. I eventually managed to do it by going earlier than I told my brain.
Does that make any sense? “I eventually managed to do it by going earlier than I told my brain.” Is a nonsense sentence but sometimes to do stuff we have to trick ourselves.
If you’ve ever pondered a line ahead: a roll-in, a drop-off or a gnarl of roots across your line and then pedaled furiously up to your nemesis only to find yourself yanking on the brakes, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
You want to go. You’re ready and prepared, you like a little risk but you’re not foolhardy, so how come one other part of your brain is disobeying you? Going back to the dyno example, I remember the day I managed to pull up, release and grab the hold above me very clearly. I’d played a trick on myself, on my own mind and it felt distinctly strange. My brain felt odd, the reality is you can’t actually trick your mind, your mind is your own, so who are you tricking? In riding though, we all use psychological crutches to get where we want to be. If it’s the five breaths to quieten yourself before a drop that you’ve been debating with yourself, or telling your aching oxygen-deprived body that it only has to get to that next tree up on the skyline before you’ll give it a break, we regularly try to fool the inner us to let our bodies play.
And I know I’m not alone. Chipps, I’m sure won’t mind me saying, is fairly air-phobic. During his trip to Spain he was told that they could get him to do a 3ft dropoff by the end of the week guaranteed. The line they used was designed so that once committed, you had to do the drop off, a promise guaranteed by a fait accompli: it involved riding down a trail and then turning off onto a ‘no way out’ downslope towards the drop. Once on the slope, there was no choice but to ride it. The first few goes, Chipps found he couldn’t make himself turn onto the downslope, so he tricked himself by counting to three and then going on ‘two’ (the obvious genius!). His tricked mind briefly let his body turn off towards the drop-in and on to the path of glory.
Technology hasn’t helped either. While suspension and geometry have improved to the point that ‘impossible’ ten years ago now seems within the grasp of anyone who wants to have a go, technology has also brought with it the brain’s first line of defence to protect your squishy outer from itself: Very Powerful Brakes.
Have you ever thought to yourself as you and your handlebars start to apex over the front wheel “Let go of the lever!” It only makes your fingers tighten more round the brake, Your brain’s safety system is
about to smash you in to the ground.
In fact my brain makes me crash a lot. My other brain, that is… The smooth-riding, brave, tech-riding part of my brain seems to have less control than my other brain. Slowing down approaching things where momentum would help. Deciding at the last minute at the top of transition, deciding that it doesn’t want to take off, being frightened of perfectly safe wet roots with the drop to the right. All nothing to do with me, but with it.
So I’m going to retrain myself. If you’re sharing a urinal and the man next to you shouts ‘GO!’, then I’m sorry, it’s probably me but it’s high time I took some control.
This article originally appeared in Singletrack Magazine issue 47.