SSpots of Time

Phillip Barron
Originally published by BikeReader.

Sweet are those moments when all your skills converge and you clear a technical section with more grace than you thought possible. That’s what I call flow. Others call it groovin’ or dialed-in. “’Spots of time’ was the phrase Wordsworth used for such moments,” says Appalachian writer Ron Rash, “but the poet’s words were no better than mine because what I felt was beyond any words that had ever been used before. You need a new language.” I hope you’ve experienced what I’m talking about. It’s a rush like no other. In the mountain bike community, there are as many reasons to ride as there are riders. It took 15 years of mountain biking and the experience of single-speed mountain biking for me to realize explicitly what I’d known only implicitly all along: to me, finding flow is my reason to ride.

For Wordsworth, spots were key moments in his life; they formed remarkably vivid memories. He talks about the compression of time, the heightened senses, the feeling of being inside something important. He experienced spots most consistently in nature, and although many call his experiences mystical Wordsworth denied any supernatural element to these moments. Rather, they are about as grounded in this earth as you can get.

I ride to find that state of flow in the woods. This doesn’t mean that I ride slowly or on flat trails. There is a state of grace that a rider can achieve while riding over roots and rocks, through rollercoasters and bowls, over logs and logstacks, and all the while maintain speed. Flow is possible on a technical trail – it’s just harder to find. But, the difficulty reaching it is what makes it so rewarding. It’s about dabbing less, stepping out of the pedals as little as possible. It’s about accepting what comes around the corner. It’s about loving the challenge of the trail laid out before me.

In a state of flow I briefly forget that my bike and I are two separate things. I forget that I am a clumsy bi-ped who can’t move gracefully down a mountain without help. I forget that it shouldn’t be possible to travel this fast over roots, rocks, twists, and turns. I move so smoothly, so instinctively that it is difficult to say that I am responsible for my movements, since no deliberate act of will could fit so harmoniously into the environment. When in flow, I’m not totally in control of my actions. There’s something else going on, something more than me, a bike, and a path. It’s as though the three merge temporarily. Flow never lasts long – usually no longer than a few seconds at a time. But these moments, scattered throughout a two hour ride, convey a lifetime of experience.

The lifetime, the wisdom of these moments is what interests me most. Nietzsche took moments like these as evidence that the there is no end-point at which history is aiming. He knew, because he experienced moments of clarity where all the wisdom of eternity seemed within reach, that the present contains within it everything we need to find meaning in the world. “The world is complete and reaches its finality at each and every moment. What could ten more years teach that the past ten were unable to teach!” I don’t know about history’s aims or universal meanings, but I do know that the compression of time in these moments is something special.

These moments are wise in the sense that every spot of time or moment of flow has taught me something. I’ve learned some new skill or that I’m capable of something I’d not experienced before. Compressed time isn’t the same as time slowed down. Time slows down when you fall. You know you’ve lost your balance, you know you’re past that critical point where you could have caught yourself, you know you’re going to slam your shoulder into that rock. It all happens in slow motion, maybe because your mind is working twice as fast as normal.

Compressed time isn’t slow – if anything, it’s sped up. Maybe this is where we recover the time that slows down when we fall. Nor are spots of time or sessions of flow inevitable. When you fall, the crunch of the shoulder to the rock is inevitable; every thought that races through your mind before the crunch just delays what is guaranteed. Falling, no matter how drawn out, has a clear end. You see it coming.

But a spot of time is different; experiencing one is not guaranteed. Nor is it clear, while you’re in one, how long it will last or even whether it will end. When you’re in a spot of time, you aren’t conscious of anything else – not even the fact that you’re in it. You realize what just happened only when it’s all over.

More than irregular, spots of time are also elusive. I never experience one when I try to. I know I’m more likely to experience one in the saddle of my single-speed than in front of a glowing computer monitor, but that’s about it.

Before going single, I had my own ideas what to expect: tougher climbs; more cautious, thoughtful riding; keeping the momentum. What I wasn’t prepared for was how quickly I felt freed from thinking about speeds and gears. My first few single-speed rides were experiences in liberation. I was focusing on the trail, not on the bike. I’m very comfortable with my bike – I’ve had it for four years, I have probably 6,000 off-road miles on it, and I’ve ridden it up and down the East Coast. But as a single-speed is the first time that the bike moves like it is an extension of me and not just a machine I manipulate. As a geared bike, at best, I just manipulated it well. Now, before turns or hills, I spend my time picking my lines, not my gears. Keeping momentum on climbs is a challenge of a different sort, though not as difficult as I expected.

Some people insist that a spot of time is something experienced in stillness. That clarity is something you achieve through meditation, cross-legged on the floor staring at a candle flame. Maybe. Like Wordsworth and Rash, I meditate in motion. There is a stillness, a calm, within flow, but it is more spiritual than physical. The urge to mountain bike comes from the soul. Riding in the woods is a spiritual experience, but not a religious or even a mystical one. Like Wordsworth, I’ve found greater solace in staying firmly planted on dirt.

Standing on dirt with me, Norman Maclean says of the elusive nature of these moments that “poets talk about ‘spots of time,’ but it is really [fly] fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment. No one can tell what a spot of time is until suddenly the whole world is a fish and the fish is gone.”

Maclean, Norman. A River Runs Through It. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Untimely Meditations (Thoughts Out of Season Parts I and II). Translated by Anthony Ludovici and Adrian Collins.

Rash, Ron. Saints at the River: A Novel. New York : H. Holt, 2004.

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