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Jury selection restarts today and I am still en route back down to Oakland. So rather than a recap of what is likely a carbon-copy process of the last round of jury selection and voir dire, here are some thoughts that stayed with me in the two weeks since the mistrial.
During the last round of testimony, whenever a new witness took the stand, one of the first questions asked by the prosecution was, “Why do you like mountain biking?”
It doesn’t seem like a tough question, but the answers seem to end up so broad or cliche they border on meaningless.
Why do you like mountain biking?
It’s a great workout.
Mountain biking is all of these things, but so is fire dancing. (I would think.) These answers aren’t specific enough to communicate to someone who doesn’t ride, or only rides on the road, exactly what the big deal is. Especially when it comes to single track.
There are, of course, many kinds of mountain biking and there’s a chance I don’t speak for you here. I base this only on many years sampling different kinds of mountain biking and doing my best to think honestly about the sport.
My favorite incomplete, cliche answer for why I mountain bike is that on the trail, everything extraneous disappears. Focused on navigating a rock section or leaning into a tight switchback, there isn’t any room for other problems, little or big. I wrote about this in an article on the McKenzie River Trail, I also found the complete mental blankness I experienced mid-skydive to be similar.
The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has spent his career writing about a related sensation, calling the sweet spot of complete absorption “flow.” Flow occurs when a task requires above-average skills but is neither too challenging nor too easy, with clear goals and immediate feedback that the participant is making progress.
Csikszentmihalyi once spoke of how a few hours of flow each week could compensate for other life problems and theorized that consistently finding flow in some form was possibly nothing less than the key to overall happiness.
Athletes (and artists) of all kinds speak of being in the “zone” or the “groove,” but I think flow is especially relevant to mountain biking. Generally, the only positive feedback that mountain bikers get is finding their bike skills able to navigate difficult terrain and overcome obstacles.
Excepting races, there’s no one to beat down the mountain. Without an energy drink sponsor, there probably isn’t a crew of judges ranking tricks. For most, the joy comes from measuring skills previous with skills current, multiplied by the difficulty of the trail.
At first, riding off-road and over small bumps is challenge enough, but for most riders, confidence soon catches up with the terrain and we’re no longer in that sweet spot, exceeding our comfort zone but not yet holding on for dear life.
You find “ooh” and “aah” somewhere between “uggh” and “aagh!”
We look for narrower, twisting trails because they seem faster, and search out slightly steeper, descents because they push us just beyond our comfort zone. This is, why night riding (and unicycling, for that matter) is getting so popular, you’re pushed to the edge of your skills at 7 mph.
There’s a cardiovascular challenge as well, with endorphin rushes and the like, but when it comes to the part of mountain biking that the riders I know honestly salivate over, flow is essentially the entire sport.
(To my knowledge, the term “flow trail” has no connection to the psychological term, but it’s not tough to tease out the parallels.)
And after a certain point, double track just doesn’t deliver the same kind of stimulus; the brain makes room for the day’s problems and you don’t get total absorption in the task of navigating the trail.
I’m not saying that this line of thinking has direct bearing on the trial, just that mountain biking is much more complicated and important than the cheap thrill it looks like. And that, on most trails, illegal or not, riders looking for a momentary escape from workaday stress far outnumber those riding for the joy of holding their middle finger aloft.
Chime in on the comments but please keep it civil. Caught a mistake? No doubt, this is going up fast and loose. Please let me know about it.
Have insight, wisdom or specific knowledge to contribute to the coverage? Let’s talk.