In Praise of Complexity

I was thinking about what it takes to be good at cycling. Not the turning pedals bit. That takes training and dedication, stuff I’m not terribly interested in. I was thinking about freestyling, mountain biking and generally just styling.

What got me thinking was I heard the other day that all sport is essentially about striving for consistency. While that’s probably true for golf, for instance, I don’t think it applies to cycling. See with golf, just about any decent golfer can hit a golf ball just right, once in a while. But…do it 99 times out of 100 you’re a pro golfer with appropriate endorsements from Nike and your own range of brightly coloured polo shirts.

(While I appreciate they don’t wear plus fours any more golfers still need to do something about their wardrobe.)

Football, I was told last night, is about absorbing pressure. When two teams are similarly matched neither team will dominate an entire game. Absorbing pressure when you’re on the defensive, keeping composure and being ready to turn defense into offense is what marks a good team. Again, what applies to  football doesn’t necessarily apply to cycling.

What I find is, when I’m riding really well, I’m adding levels of complexity.

Here’s an example. I’m approaching an obstacle, I straighten up, get the bike level, get my braking done, and manoeuvre over the object. That’s me keeping it basic. Everything is done in order, one at a time.

Take it up a notch and you hit the same obstacle with a bit more speed, happy to wash it off as you go over. Then add another layer, go over with the bike cantered over so it’s setting up for the next turn. Up another notch, you’re on a rocky path and the suspension is going up and down, the bike is moving let and right and up and down, you lean the bike to set up for the corner and you hit the obstacle without braking, using it to wash off speed. Up another notch and you pre-jump or bunny hop the object. Or something. You get the idea.

You can keep adding layers of complexity to this scenario. If you’re riding really well you find your body doing things your brain can’t really comprehend, using lines that didn’t seem to exist, using braking to set-up angles that aren’t naturally apparent, or picking up the bike and floating over objects that normally have to be negotiated in other ways. I find at these moments making a metal note about how you did it doesn’t help. Next time I approach that object I’ll either make it look good or go back into gumby land, and there’s no telling in advance which it will be. One of the worst thing about having a ninja day (you know, where everything just flows and feels so natural) is knowing the next ride will be disappointing, stilted and slow in comparison.

I am of course talking about mountain biking. The same applies to styling on a fixie though.We all start with track stands. Then a one handed track stand. Then riding backwards. Then…well to be honest I stopped at track stands.

Trials riding has a similar background. You start with a track stand, then track stand next to an object. Then track stand, lifting back wheel onto object. Then suddenly you’re this guy:

Complexity is what makes sport interesting. It’s the reason I find it hard to watch either soccer of NRL. Soccer because there are too many layers of complexity I don’t fully comprehend. NRL because there are none. If you’ve watched NRL for ten minutes you pretty much know everything you need to know about that game. Complexity is what makes cricket so endlessly fascinating and the reason why people not familiar with the sport think it’s boring.

Complexity is what makes professional cycling so interesting to watch, and why I pretty much just watch the Tour de France and then hibernate from watching pro cycling for another year. The Tour de France has the layers of cycling — there’s a lot more going on in a peloton than is apparent to the untrained eye — but it also has the circus, the theatre, and (often) the farce that is the Tour de France. (The Tour also has something else, it has a narrative. That’s something few sports capture. The Olympics, while taking up two weeks of our lives every four years, has almost no narrative. The World Cup (soccer or rugby) can have a narrative of sorts. Truly great Ashes tours have a strong narrative. The narrative is one of the reasons you have to be consistent with your Tour viewing schedules. You might be able to watch NCIS out of order but the Tour should be consumed as it happens.)

The drug era was one of the Tour’s most interesting. The theatre of cycling was never better. The impossible break-aways. The vials uncovered by border guards. The petulant spats by cyclists. The sit ins and the go slows. Good sport is about more than what happens on the playing feel and in the 90s what happened off the field of play spilled into the contest in the most amusing ways. Some lamented this and turned their back on cycling (they say! did they ever really watch it anyway?) but for me the theatre just added a layer of interest. The fat guy who runs the Tour has always been an important fellow and during this drug era watching this guy look like a buffoon as he struggled with the conflicting interested of cyclists who were up to their eyes in drugs and demands to clean up from outside the sport was at least as interesting as watching guys turn peddles.

You don’t have to be a pro cyclist or Danny MacAskill to add complexity to your ride. The complexity is what makes cycling in traffic so interesting and those long boring rides in the country that people romanticize so very dull. Just negotiating your commute to work can engage you on so many levels. Route planning in the abstract, refined as you progress, changed on a whim, redirected by a man with a stop-go sign. The denser the traffic the more interesting. Once you get to the heart of a large city like Sydney or Melbourne every yard requires thought and forethought. There’s even a kind of poetry to it when it’s done well.

Though as you can tell from that movie there are few things that can slow up a cyclist like another cyclist. (That’s part of the problem with all those bike lanes springing up around Melbourne. That and all the pedestrians walking about aimlessly on them looking like the first victims of the zombie apocalypse.)

Perhaps the most convoluted decision you have to make in a car during a morning commute is which idiot to listen to on the radio. Riding a bike, on the other hand, engages on so many levels. I don’t want to fall back on trite cliches about chess (because to be honest the saying, “It’s like chess on…” is pretty stupid because nothing is like chess except chess) but it’s certainly more complex that driving in 50m spurts in stop-start traffic. In fact, if you even have any kind of music or radio in your ears while riding you’re probably not doing it right.

For some reason humans have a mechanism built in that gives us enjoyment when we master complex tasks. Simple tasks like turning on lights don’t trigger the mechanism. Complex tasks like a track stand bar spin do. Adding complexity also means adding pleasure. And it’s what we do. It’s essentially what makes cycling so much fun. 

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