You don’t need your brain. It’s just a bike!

I decided not to ride my mountain bike today. Yesterday I had my second Covid 19 vaccination, the Oxford/Astrazeneca variety, and it’s left me feeling very tired. The first dose seemed to have no effect but today I’ve felt sleepy all day. That doesn’t mean that bikes haven’t been in my thoughts, though, so after a little engineering and forcing myself to cut some hedge to stem the boredom I sat down with a laptop and Googled “Mathematics and cycling”. Cutting edge entertainment! I read a couple of articles but was then steered to a fascinating piece by Keith Devlin, a noted mathematician and also a cycling fanatic. You could read the whole thing here……

He isn’t just looking at a cycling problem in the article but is finding similarities between solving a difficult, rock strewn climb on the bike and solving a mathematical problem. In the writing he mentions 2 parts of the brain which function rather differently. We have the Neocortex which is where we do our logical thinking. We may need time for this part of the brain to solve a problem but fortunately we also have the Amygdala. This is sometimes referred to as the reptilian brain and is a walnut sized area which is far more about instinct and the kind of rapid decisions which might save your life in times of peril.

He talks about splitting the difficult MTB ascent he was trying to conquer into smaller parts as you would do to solve a difficult maths problem. On my last ride that’s exactly what I did on a tortuous climb which has defeated me for years. Keith Devlin asserts that he was only focussing on the goal of each part of the climb and not consciously thinking about every stone. That sounds just like what I did recently. I knew that the first steep part was possible. I saw that the ground was smoother to the right of the trail after that and aimed for the end of this part before being forced onto very rough, rocky ground. I don’t really remember riding it. Maybe I’d switched off my Neocortex and performed on instinct using only my Amygdala? Whatever, I made it! I suppose I knew from the distant past that it was possible and perhaps if I’d thought more about it I’d have failed?

I remember hearing that a great motor racer, Sir Stirling Moss, found that after an accident involving a head injury that he knew as soon as he returned to the track that he couldn’t continue to race. He’d said he was having to think his way around rather than driving on instinct. I’d flatter myself that I’m big on riding on instinct which is why I find I can still be at or near the top of many segments on the app. Strava. Sometimes it may be through sheer bloody mindedness where I attack a climb in a manic way but on the descents it’s far less about your athletic performance. It’s just about getting that bike to the bottom as fast as possible. No rider has a massive physical advantage on a downhill so there must be ways to use your brain to get there quicker.

I’ve always used the training method of sessioning a downhill. By riding repeatedly in identical conditions you can correct any errors. Once you’ve corrected a mistake in your mind you don’t then need to think about it next time down. Your conscious thought may have solved the problem but now you’re running on instinct. Many racers in all kinds of disciplines use visualisation of a known section of, for instance, race track. I did this for years. Imagining myself riding a trail many times over so when I went back I knew what I needed to do. Sometimes I’d wait and think before setting off just to make sure my exact plan was in place. After this preparation you really don’t need to do much thinking, just let that Amygdala do it’s rapid and instinctive stuff. This could be the difference between the faster riders and the rest, using instinct much more than reasoned thought. An issue which often rears it’s head is how to avoid a rock or tree root which stops you dead when you hit it. Good advice is never to look at it. Look to the side and you won’t hit it. Instinct will guide you where you’re now looking.

I suppose that belief that you can succeed on a tough section often comes from not allowing the contemplative part of the brain too much leeway. If you think too much then you’ll find many ways to fail where instinct and focussing on the prize will get you through. I’m going to have a go at a tough climb which I beat last year. Clearly I can do it but failed recently due to a bad line choice. I have the correct line in my mind now and will just do it without considering any alternatives once I reach that part. I’ll let you know how I get on.

I should add that I have no qualifications to make any claim you’ve read above but a lifetime of mountain biking must mean something? Plus, due to feeling tired and overlooking our garden on a beautiful day, I’ve had a little time to think. Lets hope it hasn’t been too much time to think. I’ll try to rekindle that Amygdala next.

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