The personal website of Chris Coyier

Finding the Trail

I was talking with some random fellow adults one time and the subject of mountain biking came up. It was a kid’s birthday party. There was sheet cake. I had probably mentioned how I had broken my arms doing it a few years back (I’m fun at parties). One of them was pretty into it and quite a good mountain biker, and the other would do it, but wasn’t that into it. They didn’t find it that fun. They were trepidatious.

That’s exactly how I’ve always been at mountain biking: trepidatious. I just don’t have the glorious confidence that seems to be a key ingredient for being good at mountain biking and extracting enjoyment out of it.

Let the bike find the trail.

… they said. Don’t go slow and look down. Let the trail flow. Look forward.

I just can’t. My nerves take over, I second guess myself, I brake too hard, I can rarely get into a good flow. It essentially makes me a pretty bad mountain biker.

Not all hobbies are like this. I can be a nervous wreck following a recipe for cookies and ultimately make some good cookies.

I thought about that again with the whole Simone Biles “twisties” thing.

When gymnasts have the “twisties,” they lose control of their bodies as they spin through the air. Sometimes they twist when they hadn’t planned to. Other times they stop midway through as Biles did. And after experiencing the twisties once, it’s very difficult to forget. Instinct gets replaced by thought. Thought quickly leads to worry. Worry is difficult to escape.

I like bikes. I like being outside. I like riding bikes through the outside. But I was never good at mountain biking. It is challenging in a way where risk is involved literally everywhere. There are ramps, drops, tight turns, loose soil and sand, rocks to avoid or get over, and man-made objects to engage with, to name a few. These aren’t called “obstacles” or “things they should really clean up around here” — no, they are called features. They are the point of mountain biking. Getting past them is supposed to be challenging and fun. A trail without features is, to most, boring.

But to me, features are scary. They make me fall off my bike. They make me feel uncertain. They make me brake so hard I never really get into the flow of the trail. I’m nowhere near letting my “bike find the trail”. And of course, now I have that gnarly memory of a feature causing me to break both my arms. I’m not sure I’ll ever not have the mountain bike version of the twisties.

But hey, I can still ride my bike outside, just on more chill trails. I did a great gravel bike ride the other day. It had harrowing moments still, but all in all a lot more relaxed than mountain biking.

I’m not sad about it. I know what finding the trail is like, if I think of that as a metaphor in other hobbies. For instance, I just was on a 5-day camping trip with fellow old-time musicians. The whole point of it was music. We played music damn near every waking hour. A non-camping jam might go 2-3 hours, but camping, we were playing for 15 hours it felt like some days.

I’m not an incredible player, but I’m OK. I’m good enough that during long stints like this, where I’m playing a lot, I can really get into the music. No distractions. Fingers are warm. Brain is firing. I’m finding the trail of songs easily. Even songs I’ve never heard before even once I can find quickly, understand the patterns and structure of, and contribute to meaningfully right away. It’s a fantastic feeling that I’d like to chase as much as I can. Sadly there isn’t a lot of life stability in playing banjos in fields.

There is twisties in music too, unfortunately. They can hit anybody regardless of skill, just like they hit Simone on top of her game. I’m not the Simone Biles of anything, but I got them several times this past week. There is this dang song called Five Miles from Town that I just could not get in my head, even when I thought I was otherwise playing OK. I don’t think it’s a particularly crooked tune (a term used for songs that do weird things like have extra bars in unusual places), it’s just, as they say in old-time, squirrely. But even on a song you’ve played 5,000 times, you can just outright forget how the opening of the B part goes. Or have the lyrics of a tune evaporate from your mind.

The thing that connects it all is that it always seems to happen when you’re thinking too hard. You’re not just letting your fingers find the tune. You’re not just letting your body do what it knows how to do. You’re not letting the bike find the trail.