Chimp Training and the Gremlin of Steepness

Anyone who has ever been mountain biking with me has probably heard me talk about my chimp. The chimp talk all began back in 2015, in the run-up to the Plean CX race, when my friend Rob put on a series of cyclocross skills coaching sessions for a group of us. Back then, I was scared to even ride my bike down a gentle, grassy slope, and there was one very low point where I was so angry and frustrated with myself that I went for a bit of a cry in the car park. Rob spoke to me afterwards and asked if I had ever read The Chimp Paradox. Given that my default action when I want to learn something new is to read a book about it, I thought I’d give it a try.

Chimp in a box. Socks from Ride it Rad.

I found the book really helpful, despite finding the writing style a little cheesy. The premise is that the “chimp” is the primitive part of the brain, the bit responsible for the fight or flight response. The logical part of the brain, the “human”, cannot beat the chimp outright – it needs to tame the chimp or “box” it.

The third part of the brain detailed in the book is the “computer.” Both the human and the chimp can access the computer to find out information. Unhelpful information or beliefs are known as “gremlins.” (A summary of the Chimp Model can be found here.)

I had some serious gremlin issues. For example, I had a gremlin that said, “When the terrain gets steep, you will tumble over the handlebars and probably get really badly hurt.”

This gremlin meant that, every time I encountered a steep downhill on the mountain bike (or even off-road on the CX bike) my chimp brain would hear this gremlin and would take over, causing me to slam on the brakes (often followed by berating myself for my wimpiness, and in extreme cases swearing and crying). The Gremlin of Steepness is not my only gremlin, but it’s definitely the one that’s caused me the most grief over the last few years.

Over time, I have been working very carefully on replacing this gremlin with different information (what the book calls an “autopilot”). I’ve had coaching. I’ve become a coach. I had more coaching (I love being coached even more now – it allows me to improve my riding and learn from other coaches). I’ve read books (obviously). I’ve watched videos. I’ve done everything I can to learn how to be a better mountain biker, including how to ride down steep stuff. I’ve filled my computer brain with experiences of riding down steep stuff safely and successfully. I’ve developed a toolkit of things to do when I start to panic (Get low – check. Look ahead – check. Heavy feet, light hands – check).

Probably the thing that’s made the most difference is just to keep riding. Rather than constantly beat myself up over scary bits of trail, I rode in other places. Eventually, when I went back, those steep sections didn’t look as scary as I remembered. Sections of trail that used to scare me have become straightforward – even fun. Features that I used to walk down I’m now riding. And I’ve now got a bank of successes to draw on – I can tell myself “it’s just like riding trail X” or “that’s not as steep as trail Y, and I can ride that.”

Now, I’m not saying that I have completely defeated the Gremlin of Steepness, or that the chimp is permanently in its box. It varies on a day-to-day basis, depending on how I’m feeling and how I’ve been riding so far that day. I’m better at tackling Steepness on my mountain bike (with its more relaxed geometry and dropper seatpost) than my CX bike. But I have actually started to enjoy certain steep descents. And when I do encounter something that makes me stop and look, I know that I have the skills to figure it out and to ride it – if not today, then soon. And that means that more and more great trails are opening up to me.

I guess what it boils down to is habits – replacing that bad habit of slamming on the brakes every time the terrain gets steep with a good habit of riding confidently with good technique. It takes time, and perseverance, but it does work.

Riding a steep, rooty section at Innerleithen (credit: Janey Kennedy).

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