by Stan Purdum
“Be careful!” is usually the last thing my wife says to me as I head out for a bike ride, and she says it emphatically.
She often precedes that injunction with others, such as “Have a good ride,” or “Enjoy yourself,” but in the “Be careful,” I hear what’s unsaid: “I love you,” “I don’t want you to be hurt,” or even “I don’t want to lose you.” So I appreciate and welcome the encouragement to exercise care.
Of course, even without her urging, I want to avoid injury or crash when I ride, so perhaps I don’t actually need the extra warning. But such comments are part of the small talk of daily life that helps cement us together.
I’m also aware of how well my wife knows me, and thus, her “Be careful” could be translated as “Keep your mind on what you’re doing.” More than one of my bicycle-related injuries resulted from my failure to pay attention to the right things. Case in point: My most injurious crash occurred when I was fiddling with my odometer instead of watching where my bike was headed. I looked down for only a couple of seconds, but the result of the ensuing crash was a collarbone broken in three pieces that required surgery to repair. I still have the plates and screws in place. I was visiting a friend several states away from home when the crash occurred, and my wife had to fly in to drive me home.
Stage 7 of this year’s Tour de France offered an example of the danger of not keeping one’s mind on what one is doing while cycling. American rider Tejay van Garderen had to abandon the tour after falling heavily on his face and hand from a run-in with road sign on a traffic island during that stage. He later attributed the crash to “personal error” and said, “I was looking down at my bike because I saw something caught up in it, like a piece of paper, so I was looking down, and I hit a median. I have no one to blame but myself ….”
The problem is, we can’t really multitask. Jim Taylor, Ph.D., who teaches at the University of San Francisco and specializes in the psychology of sports, says that multitasking “is a myth that has been promulgated by the ‘technological-industrial complex’ to make overly scheduled and stressed-out people feel productive and efficient.”
Taylor goes on to say that multitasking is “only possible if two conditions are met: 1) at least one of the tasks is so well learned as to be automatic, meaning no focus or thought is necessary to engage in the task (e.g., walking or eating) and 2) they involve different types of brain processing. For example, you can read effectively while listening to classical music because reading comprehension and processing instrumental music engage different parts of the brain. However, your ability to retain information while reading and listening to music with lyrics declines significantly because both tasks activate the language center of the brain.” (See Taylor’s article on this subject here.)
We might think that riding a bike fits that “automatic” condition, but it does so only to a point. On the road, the threats to our well-being are ever changing and so we need to stay engaged as we pedal. Allowing our attention to wander increases the risk.
As I write that, I recall how often while riding I have solved problems related to my life in general, decided new courses of action and even pondered article ideas for RBR, all without crashing. But I also know that I have sometimes “come to” and realized that I don’t remember riding the last couple of miles, and occasionally I have discovered that I wasn’t sure which road I was on at that moment.
I welcome your thoughts about how you stay focused while riding. Feel free to add them to comments section below.
And when you head out for your next ride, be careful!