Postmodernism is a topic usually reserved for latte-sipping academics, first years on an intellectual ego adventure and all other forms of pretentious humans. It is thus surprising to write about it in a cycling blog. Or indeed, to write about the transgressive phenomenology in cycling discourse against the dominant metastructural paradigm of power. To translate that last sentence into something that is not an insult to the idea of language, this post will be about Flow.
But first, let’s start by talking about racing, because this post is about a racer and by a racer-boy.
Let’s deconstruct racing.
At its fundamental level, racing is dominated by the underlying metastructures of capitalist society: the supremacy of the quantifiable fact; the need for perpetual growth; the obsession with competition; the enforcement of forms of class relations through a hierarchy of expensive equipment, cyclical obsolescence of equipment; and an addiction to irrational fashion tastes and novelties so frequently betrayed in garish lycra and other forms of accessorisation.
Yes, loads of riders lining up on a boggy fireroad, jostling for position, pushing to the front no matter how far divorced their impression of their own ability is from reality, trying to look casual but deliberate on their multi-thousand dollar machines, and all for a little bike race through the woods.
If this wasn’t bad enough, then we had power meters and wattage. We raced away from the line, and quickly I realised I was lacking a few watts. I slotted into line and we raced through the flowing corners and sandy berms of the divine Coondoo trails, with Andrew Lloyd on my wheel. After a couple of laps, he must have noticed I was lacking in wattage, as he soon took the opportunity to streak away from me like I was standing still.
The positivist criterion of “wattage” is a reflection of the dominant ideologies of power. Post-enlightenment Western sentient beings have obsessed about power and domination over nature, attempting, as Adorno and Horkheimer describe, to de-mythologise and disenchant themselves from reality. “Knowledge is power” proclaimed Francis Bacon, one of the prescient luminaries of the so-called “enlightenment” – and the fanatical obsession over knowing power outputs is, in some form, an attempt to embrace this statement. Knowledge of your power can only lead to more power, as numerous coaches such as FTP training proclaim in regular publications. Indeed, this reflects the arguments of Adorno and Horkheimer. Quantifying and gaining knowledge of power output is a form of domination over the natural world of thoughts, feelings, emotions and para-conscious hallucinogenic experiences, not to mention demystifying the transcendental.
Lacking in wattage and going backwards, I began to experience a deep crisis of identity as a racer. How was I masculine with hairy legs? (indeed, Chocolate Foot had supplied all racers with razors in the pre-race bags). Grumpy and miserable, I rolled around for a few hours with dead legs, contemplating drinking beer and watching football instead, because apparently that’s what a sporty Australian should do to be a man.
Foucault and Derrida extended the analytical deconstructive paradigm by illuminating the role of sexuality in power, and indeed, the ideas they expounded find striking ground in the obsession with power. Although further analysis on the full discursive and dialectical significance of “social networking” is required, declaring power outputs on such discursive domains as Facebook, Twitter or Rotorburn is a form of masculine assertion akin to comparing income, sports cars, or – if removed from socially constructed euphemism – their penile lengths. The chauvinistic element of domination is an inextricable element of power analysis. Yet this testosterone-charged masculinity is tempered by both the androgynous and the homoerotic – with leg-shaving, weight analysis and manicuring all necessary components of the imagined community of “trained” cyclists. In many ways, this reflects the deep crisis of modern masculinity – striving to embrace its latent homoerotic and androgynous tendencies, while attempting to submerge them beneath a façade of chauvinistic domination.
I began to look for excuses. Yes, my ridiculously fast 9kg race bike was too heavy, and clearly I needed carbon wheels to shoot out of the corners faster. Or maybe I needed a training program to make my riding soulless, miserable but oh so much more serious. The dilemmas of the modern day racer.
In a similar way, VO2 max embodies the instrumental rationalisation of man as part of the machine. The body is modeled as a sequence of inputs and outputs with parameters that can be optimized through multi-dimensional constrained optimization analysis. In practice, the optimization is often unconstrained by the addition of new parameters, often in the form of hormones, homologous blood transfusions or erythropoietin microdosing. This is reinforced by various acronyms such as FTP (functional threshold power) and CTL (critical training load), which represent a form of abstraction and alienation of the self from the cycling experience. Indeed, the very act of creating an acronym entrenches this abstraction.
Then, three hours in, I was caught by Aaron “Bashie” Bashford, a converted downhiller who is a startlingly fast and super-skilled XC rider. While still a lycra-clad racer, he was rocking hi vis shoes and helmet so startlingly bright they make Pedal Power’s predilection for funky fluoros seem rather drab. Cornering behind the downhiller soon introduced a new concept into my head, and one which induced some intrinsic motivation, and indeed a paradigm shift for the race: flow.
This is contrasted with the progressive revolution towards a transgressive and hermeneutic phenomenological theory of training, which identifies the role of the self in performance and operates on fluid and continuous concepts of perceived exertion, the unquantifiable and eternal measure of pain, as well as the thoroughly profound experience of “pinning”, “shredding”, “ripping”, “smashing” or even “roosting”.
Ahh yes, Flow. I began to find the flow of Coondoo. Linking corners, off the brakes, drifting gently between the trees. Seeing the logic and order in a two wheeled universe. My laps times didn’t drop off and I relished each new corner. Ahh, flow.
One word that somehow encapsulates being both slow uphill and down, yet somehow feeling good about it. That has managed to distance itself from racing mentality and competitiveness, yet still see extraordinarily expensive bikes with surprising effect. Embracing a feeling that is somehow a fusion of the tangible and the ineffable – cornering a bike through drifty trails, through rockgardens, and all things wonderful in mountain biking.
Finally catching Andy after 3.5 hours of racing, I took a minute to catch my breath and think about the race ahead. Finding the flow of the trails, I began to lift the pace a little in the hope of getting a gap. Andy was marking the moves though, and traffic in the trails made the pace hard to lift.
It slowly occurred to me that the notion of Flow is somehow as exclusive and blinkered as the very paradigm it rebels against. It is somehow divorced from the act of pedalling. From the power of the climb. From the “earning of the turn”. It replaces the triumph of the climb and dancing on pedals with the awkward waiting in line and the mediocrity of the shuttle bus.
I was finding another flow – flow in the legs. Rhythm through the corners, and power on tap. I took a risk and attacked on the headwind fireroad. The move stuck, and it was time to embrace the cross country rider’s notion of flow.
There is another form of flow in pushing the pace, in judging the effort, in analysing and gauging the measure of exertion. Smacking the climb and holding pace over the top, and linking the corners breathlessly through the descents. Winding through the trees in the howling wind.
Riding your favourite section of trail, over and over.
And so, the laps wound by in a flurry of drifty corners, pedal strokes, and the glow of riding through the stunning forest. Coming towards the 7 hour mark, it was time to squeeze in one last lap and push for some late-race flow.
Although I was six seconds off my fastest lap, I had definite flow on that last lap. Pushing the pace after 7 hours, lifting the heart rate, and feeling light and fresh on the bike again to finish a long race with a win – that’s a more complete notion of Flow!
A big thanks to SCUM and Chocolate Foot for another fantastic race that helped hundreds find Flow. To Target Trek MTB team, for a rocket of a bike to find Flow on. I can’t wait for the next round at Awaba!