Conditioned Reflexes

09.29.2010 | 12:20 pm

A Note from Fatty: The “Win an Orbea Orca with Shimano Di2 or a Trip to Ride for the Roses” contest is in full swing, with more than $23,000 $24,000 raised on my Austin LiveStrong Challenge page alone. And together, the five Team Fatties (Seattle, San Jose, Philly, Austin, NYC) have raised $434,342 so far this year. That’s awesome, but we have more to do. So, if you haven’t donated yet, please donate now. You might win a dream bike or a trip to join Team Fatty at the Ride for the Roses. The contest ends this Friday, so don’t delay!

This is going to be one of those “exception proves the rule” posts. Or if it doesn’t prove it, it at least illustrates it. Or emphasizes it. Something like that. I don’t know. Regardless, I shall now tell my “exception does something with the rule” story.

Last week, I had one of those moments where an appointment falls through, no new one takes its place, and — lo and behold — I happen to be near a mountain bike trail and have all my biking stuff nearby.

It was, essentially, one of those moments that give serendipity a good name.

Not wanting to tempt fate — which loves to fill my time with non-biking activities — I suited up, texted The Runner that I was “going to do a quick Hog Hollow” (a “quick” ride means, in this case, not that I would be riding quickly, but that I would be doing so immediately and would be back before she got home from work and therefore do not expect to have any brownie points deducted from my stash of accrued brownie points, if in fact I currently have any brownie points accrued).

Then I put my phone in my jersey pocket and was gone.

It was one of those rides that reminds me of why I love Autumn so much. The weather was cool, but not cold. The colors were changing. A brief-but-hard-rain the evening before had packed down the singletrack, making it grippy and fun.

Although, I noted, that same rain also washed some scree into new rows and piles on the Hog Hollow climb itself. (That’s foreshadowing, by the way.)

After about an hour (or so, I wasn’t counting) of excellence on Corner Canyon (Jacob’s Ladder to Ghost to Canyon Hollow to Rush to Clarks, for those of you who are locals), I began my descent from the saddle of Corner Canyon down Hog Hollow, heading home.

And then, about halfway down, I hit one of those new piles of scree. My front wheel washed out to the right and I went down on my left knee.

For those who have ridden with me when I’ve taken a fall and are therefore wondering: No, I did not scream. I only do that when others are around. As far as you know.

Instead, I stood up to start riding again.

Then I sat back down, as the wave of nausea hit.

I took a look at my knee. It didn’t look beautiful. It looked, in fact, as if someone had taken a rather jagged ice cream scooper to my knee and scooped off a deep, ragged chunk of skin.

I should’ve taken a picture. Really, I should have. Here’s one now — six days later — but it doesn’t really give you the full effect.

My Photo_32.jpg

So as I sat there, waiting for the pain to subside, I had a couple of thoughts:

  1. Really, all things considered, it’s amazing I get hurt only once in a while.
  2. I wanted to call Lisa and see if she would give me some sympathy over the phone.

So I called The Runner (I know, sometimes I call her Lisa, sometimes I call her The Runner; I don’t know why) and negotiated the tricky conversational waters of trying to get sympathy while still coming off as a tough guy, not as a crybaby.

I think I might have come off more on the crybaby side, if I’m were to be completely honest with myself. Which I’m not.

But I did get my sympathy, and that’s what counts.

Conditioned Reflexes

Later, after the oh-so-fun session of scrubbing and bandaging the knee, I spent a little bit of time thinking about the first observation I had had while staring and my new injury: it’s really amazing that — considering we ride fast on pavement or dirt and rocks and stuff — that cyclists really don’t crash very often.

And then I started thinking about the “why” of this, and I realized there are quite a few conditioned reflexes I use as a cyclist that I generally now take for granted. And chances are, you do to.

So I started to think about them:

  • Balancing: The very first conditioned reflex a cyclist learns is the act of remaining upright on a bike. When I think about it, it’s still amazing and crazily unintuitive: you’re straddling a tangle of bars and wheels, with only a couple-inch-square pair of rubber patches touching the ground at any point. And yet, you stay upright. And after a while, you stop even thinking about how you stay upright. You’re on a bike, riding along. Why wouldn’t you be upright?
  • Leaning: If I were asked how I steer my bike, I’d be tempted to say “with my handlebars.” But the truth is, except for at low speed, the the handlebars have almost nothing to do with it. You steer your bike by leaning. How much? How far? And to what degree in concert with a nudge against the handlebars? I couldn’t even explain. The truth is, I just look at a place and ride my bike toward it, with no conscious thought whatsoever about the complicated stew of balancing, steering and leaning my body is executing. And that’s for the best, I think, because if I had to make all those actions consciously, I’d almost certainly fall down.
  • Pedaling: Pedaling is like breathing. It can be conscious, where you think about every single stroke. But when you’re just cruising along, your legs just repeat the motion, endlessly and tirelessly. Until, of course, they don’t.
  • Shifting: I remember when I would have to think so hard about my front and rear derailleurs and the cogs up front and back and how pushing on one lever with my left hand to put the chain on a bigger gear would make pedaling harder, but pushing on a similar lever with my right hand to put the chain on a bigger gear would make pedaling harder. And I’d get so boggled. Plus there were the concerns about cross-chaining and mis-shifting. Now I don’t even think about shifting (and not just because I often ride a singlespeed, wise guy). When I’m climbing I — without even thinking about it — go to a gear for climbing. When I’m on the flats, I’m in a bigger gear. Without ever cross-chaining.
  • Braking: Sure, I consciously know the left hand lever is for my front brake and the right hand lever is for my back brake, and that most of my power is in the front brake but I shouldn’t lock it up or I’ll fly over the front. But when it comes time to stop or slow down, I just squeeze. Both hands a little different, both hands the right amount.
  • Not Braking: I’m really proud of this one. I’ve noticed several times in the past years that when I hit a loose spot or otherwise start to skid in a turn that I no longer grab more brake. Instead, I release the brakes. Without even thinking about how locked wheels don’t steer at all and if I want to not skid off the road, my wheels need to be turning. I just — now intuitively — do what was once upon a time incredibly counterintuitive: when losing control, I release the brakes.
  • Unclipping: Everyone pays for this conditioned reflex by falling over, still attached to the bike, at least once or twice. But now what was once a strange, unnatural action — twist your heel out if you want to get your foot off the pedal — is the most normal, natural motion in the world. A total, complete reflexive action.

And of course, my problem is that I have just the barebones set of cyclist conditioned reflexes. Someone with really great technical cycling skills would be able to tell you about others — dropping ledges, riding a wheelie, not falling down when they hit a pile of scree.

But hey, it’s nice to know the right half of my brain is doing at least some of the work.

PS: I recently posted about Ride the Divide, and even more recently got my own special Team Fatty Edition of the movie. Mike tells me there are more copies available. Click here for details and order yours today.

PPS: Did you know that before I started posting on, I posted this blog for a year and a half using MSN Spaces? Well, Microsoft recently announced that they’re canceling Spaces and made it easy to import all your Spaces content to WordPress. Which I did. The practical upshot is that my entire blog, from the first post on May 9, 2005, is now on this site.


  1. Comment by MattC | 09.29.2010 | 12:37 pm

    I find that when I start thinking about all the things I’m doing, and ESPECIALLY thinking about NOT crashing, that I crash more often. Often times I’ve thought about how far I’ve come on the Mt bike…which is brought to the forefront whenever you take a rookie out on a fav trail. All of a sudden I start to see the trail thru their eyes…and can’t help feeling rather proud of my hard-earned skills to easily clean what they are terrified of.

    And it’s the days when the stars and planets are aligned just right that I seem to find myself flowing on a trail, living in the moment, w/ nary a thought about the dangers or consequenses of crashing. And when it’s over is when the grandeur hits me of how awesome a ride that was. That’s what mt biking is all about. That, and comparing injuries and scars from the crashes, each one w/ it’s story. Getting hurt sucks but it’s also part of mt biking.

  2. Comment by Alison Wonderland | 09.29.2010 | 12:45 pm

    I’m with you on balancing, leaning and pedaling but then you lose me. I have much to work on.

  3. Comment by Dale | 09.29.2010 | 12:51 pm

    I still don’t have the “shifting” reflex down. I often find myself halfway up a climb only to realize I forgot to shift. You’d think I’d learn after having to stop and walk to my embarrassment.

    BTW, do you know if they have done the drawing for the bike giveaway on the Ride the Divide thing?

  4. Comment by Jennifer | 09.29.2010 | 1:29 pm

    Ouch! Knee injuries blow, particularly if you are inclined to walk upright, as so many humans are accustomed.

    There’s a viewing of Ride the Divide tonight in my town and I am very excited to see it.

  5. Comment by Mike Roadie | 09.29.2010 | 1:50 pm

    Is that like 7 stray hairs in the picture just above the wound? That’s worse than looking at the gash!

    Here we are in the midst of a Tropical Storm, so no riding (or cool temps) are immanent.

    Glad you were able to save the legacy posts for all posterity!!!

  6. Comment by Grayduncs | 09.29.2010 | 1:51 pm

    More amazing than the fact that you steer by leaning is that, before you start leaning, you actually turn the handlebars in the opposite direction. Just a little, most cyclist are not even aware that they do it, but that counter-steer is what then allows you to lean the right way to go round the corner.

  7. Comment by Jessica | 09.29.2010 | 1:51 pm

    You are right, you should have taken a pic when it happened. LOL Those are always the coolest memories. Like a little badge of honor. It always reminds me how amazing our bodies are.

    Thanks for sharing

  8. Comment by philip | 09.29.2010 | 2:06 pm

    Sunday morning ride I was cruising along took a turn wide and clipped a tree with the handle bars, amazingly as I flew across to the other side towards a tree over there on direct collision course I was able to use all reflexes with braking leaning unclipping (no shifting) so quickly that I slowed hard enough to turn and get back on the trail. Quite proud of myself for getting out of that with a mere scrape on my knuckles.

    Monday evening was riding the same trail along the same route and sadly clipped the same tree with the same handlebar. As I start to fly across the trail my reflexes were not up to par and ended up over steering and went down. Got a nice chainring tattoo and cut up elbow and bicep from that.

    Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.

  9. Comment by Jim Miller | 09.29.2010 | 2:20 pm

    Clipping out is a reflex…I better have that reflex checked out….I have a similar looking knee from a fall at the whopping speed of .02 mph in a parking lot at the start of a ride…..I did make it another 38 miles though

  10. Comment by Erik | 09.29.2010 | 2:49 pm

    You call that a scrape?

  11. Comment by dug | 09.29.2010 | 2:52 pm

    i can see the problem.

    you need a bottle of lotion.

  12. Comment by Chris | 09.29.2010 | 3:09 pm

    Here’s an experiment to test the Braking reflex. Learn to ride a bike at the age of 4 or 5. Make sure to do this in a former British Empire country where the front brake goes on the right hand side of the bike (just like a motorbike btw). Ride bike off and on for 32 years, give or take. Now move to the USA and buy new bikes where the front brake has been conveniently moved to the left hand side. Watch the confusion on said persons face when the back brake locks up at inopportune moments.
    I may be much a person, I can tell you that after 2.5 years I still have to remind myself “front brake left” before descending. When I need to stop suddenly (e.g. when a car pulls out in front of me), it’s still an exciting time guessing what will happen. Yes I could change them around, but each time I ride I remain optimistic that this will be the time that it all “clicks”.

  13. Comment by Sramtaro | 09.29.2010 | 3:38 pm

    I love the fact that you say, “with my left hand to put the chain on a bigger gear would make pedaling HARDER, but pushing on a similar lever with my right hand to put the chain on a bigger gear would make pedaling HARDER.” (caps mine) Don’t you know it’s always uphill both ways?

  14. Comment by Connie | 09.29.2010 | 3:40 pm

    I’ve developed a “protect the bike parts” reflex before I’ve mastered the unclipping reflex. We were finishing a ride, and were cruising home at slow speed. I heard something fall off Roger’s bike and, ready to be a hero (or being nosey), I slammed on my brakes to see what was up. Nice job stopping on a dime, but then my mind couldn’t grasp the next step. So, here I am in this momentary track stand (which I have no business doing) and I feel the bike going over to the right. But I realized I didn’t want to hit my derailers, so I pushed it to the left, tucked and tipped over…all while still clipped in. :-/

  15. Comment by allie | 09.29.2010 | 3:56 pm

    Is it just me, or does your site not work in Firefox? I just get a big black (with fades at sides) screen with ads and three links at the top: Archives, Blogroll and Top Posts. None of which open up anything with content showing.

    I usually view via RSS, but if I want to your page, I would use in Mozilla…hasn’t worked lately.

  16. Comment by Mark | 09.29.2010 | 4:34 pm

    Of the more painful crashes I’ve had since I got serious about this thing, only one was because of lack of conditioned reflex “skill” – I hit a guy’s wheel in a pace line. The others were never seen and suddenly I was lying on the ground wondering what the hell just happened. What reflexive action can I develop to “recover” in the nanosecond or so between the start of an unanticipated crash (or better, the nanosecond BEFORE the crash) and ground contact? Help me out here!

  17. Comment by GJ Jackie | 09.29.2010 | 5:22 pm

    I remember a reflex I had to get over when I was a beginner — looking directly at something I didn’t want to hit. Inevitably I would keep my eyes glued to that huge rock/tree/gap/cliff/etc. and ride right into it.

    Thank goodness we can condition our reflexes. Much less painful now.

  18. Comment by Philly Jen | 09.29.2010 | 7:18 pm

    Wow, that import from MSN Spaces is certainly a fun ride in the wayback-mobile. Though I do notice that it erased the self-selected usernames of anyone who did not sign in with Microsoft credentials (ah, the ill-fated Passport!), so we have a lot of “Unknown” commenters where giants like Al Maviva once trod.

  19. Comment by Bryan (not that one) | 09.29.2010 | 8:05 pm

    I’m surprised that I’m seeing an ad for Gatorade G Series Pro when I know Fatty exclusively uses CarboRocket.

  20. Comment by Mike | 09.29.2010 | 8:08 pm

    An interesting thought experiment then: If a Fatty falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? Hmmm… probably.

  21. Comment by theRunt | 09.29.2010 | 8:27 pm

    Ditto on the FireFox problem. It’s come and gone over the last week or so. I end up reading on my Droid. Like right now.

  22. Comment by Mayhemnsuz | 09.29.2010 | 8:56 pm

    I read on Firefox with no trouble but some slow-ish loading….

  23. Comment by NYCCarlos | 09.29.2010 | 8:59 pm

    I read on firefox daily (although I’m reading right now with safari…) without issue.

  24. Comment by Kathleen@ForgingAhead | 09.29.2010 | 9:47 pm

    Oh great, next time I’m on my bike I’ll no doubt start thinking about shifting, and braking, and turning and then I’ll fall over as I think about popping out of my pedals.

  25. Comment by LoPhat | 09.29.2010 | 10:42 pm

    Tegaderm is your friend.

  26. Comment by Stan Larrabee | 09.30.2010 | 1:31 am

    My wife (so she can remain anonymous I’ll just call her Blyth) and I ride the Hog Hollow trail to Corner Canyon quite a bit and never crash until the weather event you are speaking of. On Monday night we were coming down after a great ride on the trails and she had a nasty crash on the same type of gravely wash out that you described. By the time we got home her sock was drenched with blood. She ended up at AF Hospital getting 8 stitches in her knee. The doctors and nurses were so impressed.

    Be careful out there!!

  27. Comment by stu | 09.30.2010 | 2:46 am

    Interesting, as a Brit I hadn’t realised that your brakes were the wrong way round, what with also driving on the wrong side of the road you are determined to be different.

    PS – you should have probably photoshopped your wound to look more impressive to improve the chances of sympathy!

  28. Comment by Matthew | 09.30.2010 | 4:13 am

    Honestly, I didn’t even see the scab for a few seconds, just the bottom few inches of a really huge quadricep.

  29. Comment by Cyclin' Missy | 09.30.2010 | 5:51 am

    Thank goodness for developing those reflexes over time. It’s when I think too much that I crash – not usually the other way around.

  30. Comment by Road Bikes Man | 09.30.2010 | 6:10 am

    Oh dear – this looks awful, however, be thankful it’s not as bad as the huge scab I have on my right knee.

    And yes I did scream – because I’m a bit of a wimp unfortunately – and out of practice – bit of more than I can chew – silly fool!

    Anyway, get better soon – (He says crying to himself as he stretches his leg out too fast – ow)

  31. Comment by Franky | 09.30.2010 | 7:53 pm

    Yep, you just get used to the bike riding experience. So far I’ve fallen twice since switching to the clipless pedals. The first time I just forgot about them and the second time I unclipped on the wrong side.

    Now I need some advice: A few month ago I got my girlfriend a road bike with clipless pedals. Back then she was a bit uncomfortable using them, but after falling four times, hurting her knee really bad, she’s very nervous about getting back on the bike again. Her last fall was about 3 weeks ago and I could use some tips on how to help her getting over her fears before we are heading to Austin for the Team Fatty ride.


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