Your Brain on Riding
Words - Cam McRae
Posted by firstname.lastname@example.org
March 4th, 2015
My early-onset fear of dementia made the click bait irresistible. It was probably something like “8 ways exercise crushes Alzheimer’s.” I wasn’t surprised to learn that moving our bodies can slow the graying of our gray matter, but there was one interesting point. Research suggests that making improvements in your activity of choice is essential; when you hit a plateau the benefit to your synapses and cortices also flatlines.
This got me thinking about riding bikes and how it might keep us sharp. But not just riding bikes, or just riding mountain bikes; riding trails that challenge us and make improvement essential.
When I was younger and even stupider my short attention span craved trails that were like video games; drops to flat, challenging skinnies, steeps that scared me. These were binary operations in that you attempted something or you didn’t, and you were successful or you weren’t. You can’t almost make a six footer to flat, or a skinny 8 feet off the deck, so the ride was evaluated with crude checks and crosses. Progress was hard won but easily measured. There were great rides or shitty ones but very few in between.
Pass or fail tests are less common now. There are still some moves I won’t try, when it feels like my brakes are mounted back to front. And there are awkward climbs that I only get half the time as well, but generally it’s feel and speed that leave the greatest impression. And it’s actually easier to determine the general trend than it used to be, as long as I’m riding challenging trails.
These days I experience a constant state of expansion and contraction. Returning from time off the bike, from injury or illness or weather, hits the reset button. Tech climbs I’d mastered can seem impossible. My timing is off, muscle memory gone and my lizard brain, sensing diminished capacity, slows me down further. But gradually, if all goes well, I remember how everything works and start to claw back. Returning to square one counts as improvement, if not progression, doesn’t it?
And improvement is the Holy Grail. What feels better than ramping up several rides in a row? Surprising yourself by nailing moves you had no idea you could make, or carrying speed where you normally flail. And best of all, beating your buddies to the bottom. On those days I begin dreaming about going pro mid ride, imagining a Red Bull sponsorship after winning Rampage (Aggy and the Claw hoisting me on their shoulders), signing autographs at Interbike – and then my rear wheel bounces off my helmet after I endo into a puddle.
A friend who works with Shimano recently explained the principle of Kaizen. The concept was actually brought to Japan by American business consultants after WWII and many think it factors into the success of companies like Toyota and Shimano. Kaizen literally means change for the better, but now the term, according to Wikipedia, “is typically applied to measures for implementing continuous improvement.” Small changes, piled on top of one another, that over time yield large results. We all want that don’t we?
I’ve found a few things that consistently blow me out of the riding doldrums. The easiest is a little off bike training. Yoga always produces results for me, especially when augmented by pushups and core work. Taking a lesson always pays huge lasting dividends and, if all else fails, I go back to hardtail school. Stupid bike tricks, like wheelie practice, track stands and balancing on curbs can fine tune our balance on the trail – the way juggling a ball helps soccer/football players score goals .
Kelly Sherbinen from Endless Biking, a guiding and instructional firm here on the Shore, gave me another key to Kaizen on the bike: “Sometimes you need to slow down to go faster. Focus on good technique and being dynamic on the bike, creating muscle memory. Then increase your speed and feel the magic happen.”
Ah, the magic! The intoxicating elixir of improvement that keeps us coming back to the bike. And wouldn’t it be a bonus if the focus and commitment required to get a little bit better, ride after ride, could counteract all those bumps to the head? One more reason to keep those cranks turning as long as the heart pumps and the lungs fill.