Origin of Flow

The concept of Flow isn’t exactly new to Mountain biking. In fact, it’s a concept that has been applied to many facets of life. We say things are flowy, have good flow, we say we were flowing, and we tell people to go with the flow, but what do we mean exactly? Where did this concept come from, and when did it first enter the vernacular we use to describe our activities and lives? After a little research I found Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his work on ecstasy, the feeling, not the chemical and his research with composers. He broke it down very scientifically, and I found what he had to say resonated with my own experiences, and contradicted some concepts that have grown out of this very concept of what flow is.

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi explains that in his research the composers he came across expressed this concept again and again where his subjects described the music flowing out of them. Their sense of themselves disappeared, in fact their sense of physical existence melted away. A door had opened and their work flowed out of them, sense of time disappeared, difficult tasks seemed easy and they could “see” what they had to do, and could do it even if their task was difficult. Does this sound familiar?

He broke it down to this. The human brain can process 120 bits of information per second. A conversation with a person requires processing about 60 bits, and that’s why 2 people talking to you at the same time is about all you can understand. When you exceed that, you enter the flow state, or flow channel. You escape the control space in your brain and are forced to use your entire cognitive ability to perform the task at hand, and in the context of MTBVT, that task is riding trail.

Tennessee Trail Flow Photo: Knight Ide

Tennessee Trail Flow Photo: Knight Ide

It has occurred to me that as we attempt to create this Flow with purpose built trails, we have deviated from the very origins of the concept through a lack of understanding of where this feeling is derived. Erroneously, trail builders have decided that speed is flow, that smooth and wide is flow. That jumping is flow. That berms are flow. I contest that while these elements can put the rider in the flow state that can only happen with the right mix of features and velocity. If the trail is not requiring the processing of 120 bits of information per second, the rider is operating 100 percent in the control channel. It is not until we push that limit do we escape our conscious mind and open the door to the true flow state.

By buffing out and smoothing out tread, opening up sight lines, and eliminating the irregularities of a trail, we are minimizing the information we are having to process, and making it more difficult to achieve flow. We are requiring higher speeds, and maybe increasing the likelihood of serious injury on the “Flow” trails we build today. As compared to a trail like “Joe’s”, which to me epitomizes good flow, or Burning Spear, there is so much going on at any moment that, even at low speeds, a rider is processing changes in riding surface, friction coefficients, grades, direction change so rapidly that the flow state is maintained and the feeling of ecstasy is exaggerated.

Over-engineering of mountain bike trails does make it easier for riders to go fast. It may allow people to leave the ground with both wheels at the same time for the first time in control, but that, by the very definition, is not flow. A rider will achieve flow state on these trails by going faster and faster to accelerate the bits of information they are processing until their brain is slightly overwhelmed, then the magic happens and the door to the flow state will open. By designing more featured trails with more varied surfaces, turn shapes, and tread irregularity we would actually facilitate the transition from the control state to the flow state. While this may rob the beginner and intermediate riders that “Wind through the hair” experience, it will put them in Flow faster, and it will also allow expert riders to continually achieve Flow on the same trails at slightly higher speeds, but without reaching the kind of velocity where crashes get very serious. I hope this clicks with you. Please enjoy the TED talk on this subject. Happy riding.


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