05 January 2013

Archival Footage: Flow

The following post was originally published at FlagstaffBiking.org on June 29, 2004.

Ken often speaks in mumbled whispers. And I think he knows it.

Decades of cheap headphones, hanging out too close to over-loud concert speaker towers, as well as being a teen-aged drummer with dreams far bigger than my talent, have irreparably cost me some 10 percent of my hearing, so says the doc.

Chatting in the bike shop, with all the noise of cash registers, bad ‘80s music, and customers all around; or when he’s riding up-ahead of me; or when he’s on the telephone (even my answering machine struggles often with his tone and occasionally hangs up on him), I regularly cannot make sense of what Ken is saying. 

It's possible that it’s really not his fault; I’m about 50-percent convinced that it's the background noise that interferes with the way his voice flows to my damaged ears.

 On the other hand, he might just be messing with me.

The very-famous picture: Ken at Pearl Pass, CO, circa 1982
Among his old friends, Ken sometimes bears the awkward nickname, Crash. It’s really not a fair moniker. Anyone who’s ridden with Ken knows that there are few others who can handle a bike on single-track with the natural prowess that he brings to the task; to be honest, there are few who have been at it as long as he has.  But there are times, uncommonly inexplicable times, when it becomes quite obvious why Ken has been so labeled by his riding companions; no one can crash harder or faster than Ken, and, you can be certain, he will fall on his bad shoulder almost every time.

I have a theory. Ken, hands-down one of the most graceful riders I've ever followed, uphill or down, bafflingly crashes now and then for precisely the same reasons that make him so gifted: flow.

Flow isn’t normal riding. It’s not simply the ability to anticipate and react to the landscape, something most of us who ride master after a few years on the bike. To have flow, by definition (mine), a rider must also demonstrate an innate capability to capitalize on the terrain, to somehow make the terrain a truly expressive part of his or her riding experience.

It’s an art, really. The former sort of riding can be learned, at least to some degree. The latter type of riding, I think you’ve got to be born to it. That’s flow. And it’s a beautiful thing.

When Ken rides, I think he sees the ideal line, the ideal angle, the ideal approach, even when, at times, that ideal is not actually there and never will be. I think the very thing that makes him so smooth, his ability to see aspects of the trail that the rest of us can’t see, is the very thing that sometimes makes him crash. Because sometimes that ideal just isn't there even though, to Ken, it should be.

He does this when he skis, too.  Arguably with even more prowess, and certainly with far fewer falls, than when he rides.

It’s all-too rare to meet a person with flow. I’ve known a few others who, like Ken, can somehow make the trip up or down a hill into a thing of real, pure beauty. I enjoy riding on their wheels, watching them, imagining that I’m learning something as I attempt to emulate them. Because, truth is: I aspire to be like them.

But, as with almost all of my long-ago day-dreams, I’m learning to accept my destiny. I am, at best, a technician. I think I ride and ski well and, at times, given ideal circumstances, sometimes even really well.  I've got some skill.

But I don’t really have flow. Not like that. You’ve gotta be born with flow


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May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. -- Ed Abbey