Jerome Clementz takes an optimistic ride into the forgotten reaches of the cursed Balkan mountains. Words…
Skipping school and heading to the woods might get some kids a telling-off. Ina de Smet discovered it was exactly what her sons needed.
Words Ina de Smet Photography Nils Bussink
We’ve all had that feeling of being so immersed in an activity that everything else seemed to disappear, time became irrelevant, and all that mattered was what we were doing right there and then. We were totally lost in the moment, completely in the zone. Back in the 1970s, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi began to study this experience and called it the ‘flow state’ after many people he interviewed compared it to being carried away by a river. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow state is the key to happiness. People who experience the energised focus that comes with it also talk about a deep sense of enjoyment. This rather addictive yet highly sustainable state of mind is often described as elusive and hard to get into, with countless articles being written about how to attain it. For my sons Nathan and Ruben de Vaux, known on social media as the ‘Trailrippers’, it’s not so much getting into this state that’s the challenge – it’s controlling it, thanks to their neurodivergent brains.
We live in Machynlleth, Mid-Wales, a stone’s throw from Dyfi Bike Park. The boys stumbled across mountain biking almost by accident when we adopted a dog to support Ruben after he received his autism diagnosis at a young age. Not keen on walking, the boys started riding their bikes in the forest when taking the dog out for its exercise. It soon became apparent that both Nathan and Ruben had a natural talent for mountain biking. It brought them both so much joy that they would spend hours riding, with older brother Nathan, then eight years old, stating: “When I ride my bike, I feel alive.”
Life at that time wasn’t easy for the youngsters, or any of us. After we had experienced domestic abuse, it took six house moves in as many years before we were able to settle in Wales. By the age of ten, Nathan’s mental health was in crisis and it was mountain biking and trail building that got him through this dark period. When he was whizzing down a steep track, all he could think about was the trail and features ahead and all his worries disappeared – even if only for a short period of time. Going out in all weathers with his mattock and shovel helped him process a lot of upset and anger. Life can be very frustrating when you have no idea why you get things wrong a lot of the time. Over time, the happy hormones lingered, the competence in cycling grew and gradually Nathan became well again.
In the meantime, health professionals noticed Nathan’s obsession with mountain biking and trail building, as well as a difference in his interactions with people. In 2022, after years on a waiting list, prolonged by the pandemic, Nathan received a diagnosis of autism and ADHD. Having this confirmation was liberating; it finally made sense why so many areas of daily life were so challenging.
What is ‘neurodivergent?’
The term refers to having a brain that is wired slightly differently from the typically developing norm (hence ‘neurotypical‘). An estimated one in seven people in the UK are neurodivergent, with actual numbers likely much higher as many are undiagnosed. Examples of neurodivergent conditions are autism, ADHD, dyspraxia, dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome, and OCD. Terms that are sadly littered with negative words such as ‘disorder’, ‘dysfunction’, ‘deficit’. No wonder that there is a huge stigma attached to being neurodivergent.
We had already made lots of adaptations as a family to accommodate Ruben’s needs, but Nathan’s brain make-up is very different from Ruben’s and needs a totally different approach. Among the autistic community there is a phrase “If you have met one autistic person, you have met one autistic person” to indicate the huge diversity among autistic people. Before his diagnosis, Nathan may have been labelled ‘obnoxious’, ‘difficult’, ‘hyper’, ‘challenging’ and so on, but now we had a framework to understand his differences and difficulties. ADHD is about so much more than bouncy kids: executive functioning skills are impacted by deficiencies in neurotransmitters. This makes time management, working memory, prioritising, getting started, planning and staying focused much harder for someone with ADHD. Nathan’s diagnosis opened the door to a better understanding of why he can find social situations difficult. Why he often says things without a filter. Why time doesn’t make sense to him. Why he would arrive at Dyfi Bike Park only to realise he’d forgotten his gloves or shoes. As a family we went on a learning curve to understand everyone’s needs and strengths, learning to make a space for all three of us.
One of the things that has helped both boys, but especially Ruben, over the years, is the amount of effort we have put into learning to gauge and communicate where his stress and capacity levels are at. Some situations are very stressful, like attending the UCI Downhill World Championships at Nevis Range, but Ruben can choose to take part in this knowing that there are opportunities later to rest and refill the tank. Validating his needs while giving him the chance to push his boundaries in a safe way has helped him become the confident and capable young person he is today. This confidence helps both boys a lot with their racing as their mental game is rock solid. Together, we have found ways through the difficulties and capitalised on the advantages of brains that are wired differently.
Yes, you read that right: there are advantages to being neurodivergent. It’s not a coincidence that you find a higher number of people with ADHD among top athletes compared to the general population for instance. Impulsiveness isn’t great when you leave your mum’s van keys on a fence, but when you’re going at 30–40mph down a race track, the ability to make a split-second decision can mean the difference between a win or a DNF. A brain that specialises in 3D and visual learning (as is common in dyslexic people) may make reading difficult but can help to see race lines where others don’t. Both Nathan and Ruben have an incredible ability to remember every root and rock from just one track walk. Seeing the world differently can make social interactions hard for both boys, but is a great asset when it comes to problem-solving on the go. Faced with a broken derailleur and shifter at one of the Pearce rounds last year, Nathan adapted his 7-speed set-up to a single speed between race runs and went on to win the race.
Race weekends can also present challenges: with so many people, instructions and noise it can create more stimulation than the boys can handle. To cope with this we try to park in a quieter area of the race field, bring noise-cancelling headphones and build in times to hide away in the van to recharge. Mondays after a race weekend tend to be much-needed complete rest days.
Controlling the flow
Isn’t it said that you need 10,000 hours doing a particular activity before you truly master it? Autistic people have no problem spending all their time on their interests without ever getting bored. I’m not sure how anyone could get bored with mountain biking, but still. Having mountain biking as their special interest has meant Nathan and Ruben have spent a lot of time on their bikes. Every dog walk was a bike ride when they were younger. Every time we went shopping in town, they’d spend a few hours riding the pump track before or afterwards. Every weekend is spent on bikes, because bikes, simply put, are life.
All this adds up to extremely strong progression and serious bike skills. From discovering mountain bikes at 5 and 7 the boys, now 13 and almost 15, are riding with the pros – and keeping up. Ruben was 7 and rode a 20in bike when he was followed by Dan Atherton down ‘Race Track’ before Dyfi Bike Park even opened to the public. When the pros come to Machynlleth for training, Nathan loves to hop in the uplift with them and chase them down the tracks capturing close follow cam or flying high through the air with Brage Vestavik, Dennis Luffman, Bernard Kerr and others. Nathan and Ruben often seek out the ultra-steep off-piste tracks built by Dan in the area. It’s no surprise that they dream of racing Red Bull Hardline one day, although as their mum I’m not overly keen on that!
But it’s more than just time spent that has helped the boys’ progression. With minds that function best when following interests, reaching a state of flow seems easier for neurodivergent people. The theory of monotropism posits that autistic brains are pulled in strongly by a small number of interests to the exclusion of other tasks or activities. It explains a lot of difficulties faced by autistic people in social situations that require quickly shifting focus, or when we need to perform multiple tasks simultaneously in a loaded sensory environment (such as noisy or busy places). But research is also indicating strong links between monotropic minds and flow state. Deep diving into special interests, performing repetitive tasks and focusing attention on a single topic or activity, can bring about a flow state more easily.
It’s also a fallacy that ADHD people can’t focus. What they struggle with is controlling focus, especially on something that isn’t interesting to them (such as schoolwork…). Hyperfocus is the experience of deep and intense concentration on an activity to the point that everything else disappears. Sounds familiar? Yep, it’s very similar to flow state but not quite the same because ADHD-ers (and autistic people) in hyperfocus may lose themselves completely in activities that aren’t necessarily productive. They may forget about tasks that should take priority, or even forget to eat and drink. But it can be useful when completing big tasks in a short space of time. Like rebuilding kitchen cupboards in the camper, mere hours before setting off on a six-week trip…
There are lots of ways to help a neurodivergent person with organisation tasks. For instance, using see-through boxes for tools and spares means everything is visible from the outside. For an ADHD brain ‘out of sight’ becomes quite literally ‘out of mind’. If we don’t see something, we can completely forget it’s even there. Making things visible from the outside helps us remember we actually have pasta or snacks or gloves and elbow pads.
A laminated timetable for the week helps us visualise the days ahead, wipe off and start again when the week is over. A picture of a fully dressed downhill rider helps to remember all the things needed when packing for a day at the bike park. Nathan recently found a great hack to have all the kit he needed on race weekends: he prepares a clear plastic bag with all the kit needed for each day. Grab a bag in the morning and he won’t be rushing to find a variety of bits and bobs.
Setting alarms for various routine tasks such as taking medication, posting on Instagram, doing workouts, helps to remember these things even when you’re in hyperfocus mode.
Mountain biking has helped my boys with emotional regulation but has also been a vehicle to learn a whole range of skills. Academic learning within a school environment would simply not work for them but mountain biking provided the key and the opportunities to learn in different ways and shine. We have been very lucky to be able to choose a life of home education which allows the boys the freedom to learn in the way that suits their brains the best. From converting an old school bus into a race camper to travelling around Europe and making friends across language barriers, the boys and I lead no ordinary lives.
For Nathan and Ruben, going with the flow of their passion for mountain biking has brought a deep sense of accomplishment. What started as a coping mechanism for boring dog walks is now well and truly their way of being. A trail may be littered with obstacles, but there are many ways down it – the boys hope that by sharing their story others will see that life is much the same. You can be successful despite the barriers and you can excel as a result of being different. And perhaps in turn, others may come to a better understanding of neurodivergence, making those obstacles smaller for future generations.