By Seb Kemp
I attempt to hurtle down an old familiar stretch of singletrack. I know the tempo of the trail, what’s over the blind crests and around each turn, but still how my tires play with the details of the route is something I have to be alert to. The web of roots seem to shift with each season, new rocks pop their head out from the dirt and duff, where the moisture is in the soil and how that changes the line I choose or how I might be pushed or pulled onto different lines. All of these small matters affects my decisions: where to place my weight, where to put pressure onto the bike or whether I should lift up and attempt to soar – momentarily – over the trail. One micro decision that leads to dozen more, then multipled the length of the trail; millions of adjustments and judgments but all the while the only line I am looking for is the one right in front of my tires, rushing towards me, underneath me as I endeavour to turn my periphery into a blur.
The struggle to make the right choices in life – the longer, tougher trail – evaporates while on the bicycle. The day to day chores, choices and decisions disappear and all there is is the fine line between speed and crashing. These rides focus my sight, sharpen my senses to the root, rock and turns but once it’s over and the hum of excitement from riding my bike fades from a triumphant accompaniment to a dull background bassline I’m yet again left facing the twists and turns, ups and downs of life. The ride aims my mind on my task, placing everything else well into the filing cabinet titled Momentarily Forgotten, but it’s always still there, the other stuff, the detritus of life that weighs me down or offers a challenge that can’t be overcome on a bicycle.
After the ride the fogginess of thought that comes from too many considerations and distractions might be cleansed and I can see clearly but eventually it comes back, a murky cloud of things to be done, menaces of life and needs forced upon me. Deadlines, jobs, relationships, responsibilities, bills to be paid, rent day, shopping lists, an oven that needs cleaning and thoughts of an impending global crisis fueled by too few taking too much…from the trivialities to the whopping monstrosities of a distant malaise, it all washes back onto me, like a sandy shoreline that has a mountain of waste brought ashore after the highest of tides. Sure, while navigating the terrain on bike I am clear-minded enough to have just the trail’s challenge as the only narrative that squeaks and barks in my consciousness, but afterwards I have to face the journey to be whole again; to become the person I am and meant to become.
The state of intense concentration that is a prerequisite of mountain biking is why I fell in love with it, but what has kept me partaking is how it provides me with an opportunity to execute my mastery of control. I can cut off everything around me, leave it all behind except for the trail and how I control my destiny down it each time. In everyday life – life away from the trail – we are alone, too, but there’s help, assistance and safeguards. Life remains mean and merciless, far more so than any trail and the risks of failure even grander, but there’s always a safety net of some sort or another. A helping hand that might reach out, a suit of cotton wool that shields us from disaster, and a bureaucratic system that may appear illogical in its logic but is ultimately mankind’s greatest form of defense against nature, ourselves and the insecurities that we conjure up in ours minds or have created from our own need for progression. We don’t have this while racing through the forest, padding only covers so much and absolute disaster waits with bated breath. And while we may have riding partners, people to follow down the trail, or to be towed into jumps, it all comes down to us, we are the only pilots and we choose how we move down the trail. No one can sit beside us and take the reins when things get hard.
Anywhere we can lay tire tracks is an opportunity to deliver ourselves from the custody of normal life. It’s here, in these moments on two wheels that we can assert our independence, sovereignty and become the master of our own universe. It’s here in these moments when the sides of the trail become a blur and only the speeding trail in front of us comes into sharp focus that we can truly make our own fate. It’s just the rider versus their judgment. The bike even disappears. We determine our success or failure, we challenge ourselves by testing our ability to move through that trail. It’s just us. The trail isn’t even the challenge or obstacle, it’s only how we re-imagine the shapes in front of us that determines the size of our own test. It’s not that biking is the only way to experience such autonomy but it feels like one of the few ways to become temporarily godlike.
[This piece originally appeared in Dirt Magazine issue #149, which can be downloaded or found HERE.