Tag Archives: PhD project

What mountain biking taught me about research

The summer is here and the weather is good, and I’m sitting inside with a minor injury, looking at my trusty Turner. I don’t pretend to be a pro or even an expert at mountain biking. I haven’t yet put in the requisite 8000 hours, and I don’t race. I don’t do downhill, and I don’t especially do endurance racing. I’m what you might call a recreational trail rider.

Nevertheless, I’m somewhat passionate about bikes and riding, as biking has brought me a lot of joy and also some fitness. Now that I have a break from riding, I got thinking what else you might learn from it. The following is a reflection on lessons about mountain biking and how do they apply more generally to research, project management and life. Just to be clear, I don’t want to ride in on my high horse and claim I know all that there is to know about any of those things. However, you need to start somewhere, and I’m here to share my reflections, which hopefully inspire someone.

You need to look ahead

Weren’t you told as a kid to watch where you’re going? This is also the first thing they tell you about mountain biking, is that you can’t keep staring your front wheel. Your bike follows your eyes, and you go where your eyes are fixed. Thus if you stare at your front wheel, you’ll end up bumping into everything and stalling constantly. If you look a bit further away, a couple of bike lengths, you have time to react and navigate between whatever obstacles.

Steve Peat knows where he’s headed. Image: Steel City Media/Dirt Mountain Bike Magazine

The same goes in research. The challenge is that you need to mind the details and get everything right, and a lot of people who are in academia love the process and enjoy immersing themselves in the topic. Even so, you need to also be aware where you are going, and where do you need to go. If it’s your PhD you need to be clear what needs to be delivered and when. After your PhD it’s harder when there necessarily isn’t anyone to tell you what to do and research. Then you need your own vision and research program to follow. Otherwise you end up milling around in the same comfort zone that you developed during your PhD and you never progress.

Pick your line and stick with it

However, blankly staring ahead doesn’t do much for you. You need to make choices how you ride the trail, and it’s called picking lines. If you just charge ahead towards the next whatever, you end up writing checks that your body or even the greatest superbike can’t cash. Especially when confronted with a tricky section of trail, you need to assess it, and pick a line you are going to ride. Take your time, assess your skill, the obstacles and the risk, and then make a decision.

Line choice is an art in itself, which nobody regrettably will teach you. There’s never just a one line, as what is preferable and possible depends on your riding style, skill, and daring. You can pick a smooth line that weaves between objectives, you can crush it and just hammer over and through, or you can pick up speed, hit it big and jump over. It all depends on your  skill, style and equipment. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it needs to satisficing. You know Greg Minnaar or Szymon Godziek would ride a different line, and in Szymon’s case would do a backflip somewhere in there, but you’re not quite there yet, so you pick your own line. And there’s no shame in walking a section, people won’t respect more you if you constantly go in way over your head and end up in trouble. Neither is the shame in sessioning the same section and trying various incrementally trickier lines. That’s the way you learn and broaden your comfort zone. Another point is that when you pick a line, you need to make a conscious decision to commit to that particular line. You can’t just jump to another line at will if you’re in the middle of things, often you need to commit through a section, otherwise you’re in trouble.

Once you’ve picked you need to stay confident and committed. The time to do risk assessment is when you pick the line, when you commit you need to focus on the line past the obstacles. Focusing on the (possible) obstacles beside the line will first of all undermine your confidence and commitment. Second, when your eyes and thought are focused on the obstacles, you start going towards them, not past them like you’re supposed to. This doesn’t mean you should be oblivious of actual dangers, but that you don’t dwell on all the little obstacles that you see.

You almost always have several lines, pick what suits you and follow through. Image: Mountain Bike Geezer

This relates to the first point. Once you have a vision where you need to go, you need to figure out a way to get there. That’s what picking lines is about, you need to decide given the information you have at your disposal, what is the acceptably safe way to get to where you know you want to be. Just like you break the trail into sections, you break your goals into sections. You know some sections are more hairy, you pay more attention, and others you breeze through, so you don’t. So you pay attention to picking the topic and approach, the field design, the analysis. At first, there may not be many trail sections and lines that you could just breeze through, but you ride more and session those hard sections, and you develop routines. Once you have more routine, you can more easily breeze through writing for example.

A more serious implication is that once you’ve chosen a research field, there’s a switching cost, that may be negligible in some cases and circumstances, or it can be tantamount to changing to a different kind of job altogether. This means that whenever you start working on a new topic, however interesting, you need to make a conscious assessment whether it takes you forward on the trail, sideways to another line, backwards, or to a different trail altogether. And after that assessment you need to commit and follow through.

Lastly, focus on the line, do not focus on the obstacles beside it. In real world this means focusing on the things that get you forward, not all the little ways that might enable you to fail at what you’re doing or trying to accomplish. In the middle of a PhD project is not the time to lose confidence. Also you can think it means that you need to cut the things that drag you down from your thoughts and from your life.

Sometimes you just have to power through

Which brings us to the next point. Some trails are just hard, they’re technical, steep, muddy, sandy, rocky or some combination of the above horror shows. You may well realize that you made a mistake in picking that double diamond trail in the local bike park. However, the middle of the downhill rock garden is not the place to have doubts. Even if you walk, you need to get down somehow. Or it has been raining and the last half of the trail is mud up to your break discs. Some time you just have to bit e the bullet and power through. Which doesn’t mean that you can’t learn from that experience. You learn how to ride in mud, you might be surprised how well you navigate rock gardens and how much you can turn that crank to get home. Whatever you do, you just need to keep a positive spirit; think of it as an adventure and a learning experience. Something to laugh about, when you get back. What definitely doesn’t help is being all gloomy about it. And this is also not the time to pass the blame. It may be your own fault, of someone gave you bad tip, but that’s irrelevant. You want to first get out of the woods safe and sound, and then start handing out blame if that needs to be done. And you may learn to recognize the signs of trouble beforehand, to avoid being in the same situation over again.

Sometimes it’s just like that. Image: Wikimedia Commons

So, also in life, some time you just find yourself in a bad project. Maybe the partners have some issues, maybe people change or the organization changes and suddenly they lose interest, maybe the project was badly specified to star with. Sometimes you just have to buck up and sit with it. This is your chance to e.g. learn negotiation skills, conflict management, and develop self-awareness. Whatever you do, don’t get stuck blaming yourself and others, take it as a learning experience and try to juice the lemon for what it’s worth. Afterwards though, it may be a good idea to have a little briefing by yourself, with a mentor, or the team and discuss what went well, what can be better, and what you can learn about all of it.

Keeping the momentum is paramount

Practically the second thing you’re told about mounting biking is that you need to keep the momentum. If you stall, you lose balance and you lose the ability to overcome obstacles. There’s a saying in Finnish, ‘speed covers mistakes’, which holds up to a point. If you don’t have the momentum, you get stuck on every rock and bog down every sand pit. If you can carry a decent amount of speed and momentum, you’ll be smoother, happier and faster. Another thing about momentum is that every time you break hard or let yourself come to standstill, you need to accelerate again, and that takes more energy than proceeding at a steady pace. This is not to say that you should be reckless and put the hammer down all the time. Nobody can do that. Choose your own pace you can do without burning yourself out or putting yourself into danger and carry that speed.

Greg Minnaar knows how to carry momentum through a rock garden Image: pinkbike.com

In research and other projects that has two implications. First, there’s a cost in changing tasks, so don’t jump between doing this and that if the tasks are not related so that there is a benefit doing them side by side. As a rule, when you start something, finish a logical chunk of whatever activity you’re doing before you set it aside. There’s even more cost to changing topics, so this goes double for those situations. Another is that it’s good to keep the pressure on a little bit, stay engaged in the substance and topic. If you set something aside and do something completely different, it’ll take reasonable time to get back up to speed and be productive.

You need to crest the hill

Which bring us to a more specific point. You know the feeling when you’re climbing a steep hill and you’re just about to bog down, when the gradient starts to let off and you feel a relief. This is where races are won and lost. Now is not the time to back down on the pedaling, but to change to a higher gear and let ‘er rip, because everyone else is tired as well so if you’re hard you can strike a sizable lead thanks to the tired confusion. Even if you don’t race, don’t just stop pedaling when you think you’re close to the top. It may feel comparatively flat, but chances are it just feels that way and if you lose your momentum and are forced to halt, you’re off to an uphill start when you’re already out of breath and your quads feel like they’re filled with infectious concrete. You’ll be smoother, happier, and faster if you crest the hill at a steady pace.

Wait for it, wait for it… Image: bicycleworld.tv

In research, especially in a PhD project, the major hills are finding the topic and writing the theoretical framework, field design, data collection and analysis, reporting findings and writing individual publications. All of them can make you wheeze, hate life, and doubt every decision you’ve made. And once you’re out of the woods, you are all happy and contended and just want to forget all about it. However, if you want to achieve things and go places, it’s not over ‘til the fat lady sings.

Many a good project has been ruined by losing drive just around a major delivery, be it milestone or final delivery. When your report is done and you save it and send it, it’s not the time to let go. The gradient is fading, so it’s time to strike, you need to publicize it, tweet about it, tell all the friends, shoehorn yourself into various conferences as a speaker to promote your work and so on. When all the stakeholders know about your work and their questions have been answered, then it’s time for a vacation. Unless you need to urgently submit an application for the next project, or ramp up another project.

You need to get back on the bike after a crash

If you ride, and don’t just cruise along, but ride with a meaning, you’ll crash. Sometime you’ll just make a bad judgment about a line, or you get a bit confident and overreach, or you’re tired and get sloppy, or you deliberately want to push the envelope. And when you do that, it’s likely some time you’ll crash. It’ll hurt. It might not be that bad physically, but it’ll hurt your pride and confidence easily.

About 1 ½ years ago I rode these steps or stairs that I had ridden several times before. I don’t know what happened, I had maybe a bit more speed than before, maybe the rebound setting was too slow or I just was sloppy and let my weight get too forward. In any case, I almost went over the bars and crashed on these stairs. I was lucky in the sense that I just got up, pulled the handlebar straight and continued. Of course I had a bruise the size of a plate in my thigh for falling on the lip of one of those stairs and some minor aches in the ribs, knee, and somewhere else, but basically it was nothing. However, the next time I rode to those stairs, I just couldn’t bring myself to ride them. It took several tries and a fair amount of ums and ahs before I could really rip down those particular stairs. One lesson is that when you do crash, you need to get your confidence back. To do that you need to get back up on that bike and back to riding, the sooner the better. Of course another is that when you take a bit of distance and find out what happened, was it too much speed, wrong steering input, bad call or whatever else that contributed to that situation, and that is called learning. You can use that later in similar situations to avoid getting into trouble.

Kelly McGarry’s bike after attempting a 70-foot gap in Red Bull Rampage 2014. Kelly walked away and hit that gap again the next day. Image: Red Bull

You’ll probably make a mistake and make a mess some time or another, at least if you’re doing anything half way ambitious. Or when you’re starting out as a researcher, receiving the first peer reviews can be an emotional four-line pile up in the afternoon traffic of your burgeoning research career. You need to bounce back like a jack-in-a-box. Whatever it is that happened, first thing is that you need to keep your head, then you need to contain whatever the damage is and prevent it from getting worse, then mop up. After that is over with, the thing is to find out what happened, learn from it and then move on doing what you need to do.

Stay centered and loose on the bike

This one of the more un-intuitive things about mountain biking. When things get hairy, you need to get mellow. If you’re all wound up, muscles tight and white knuckled, you’ll tire yourself out sooner, feed into your possible nervousness, and the bike will kick and buck you off the trail in a technical section. In stead you need to find a relaxed, centered position where you have a nice and firm grip on the handlebar and feet planted onto the pedals, and keep your center of gravity i.e. your hips above the bottom bracket. Once on the trail you need to maintain the position and let the bike move under you, and float with it, don’t fight it.

Keep it centered. Image: leelikesbikes.com

Off the bike the same applies, you don’t achieve things by being wound all tight all the time, or at least you make it harder on yourself and all the others around you. You end up snapping at people, running in circles, making panicky choices, exercising poor judgment, and tire yourself out easily. Work on being centered and relaxed ever which way works for you. You’ll be happier and more productive.

Keep on trying ,and you climb the hill eventually

Finally, I’ve mentioned sessioning above. Every trail tends to have that one hill which is steep, long, rooty, rocky and all of the above, and you watch in awe a club rider spiritedly grind her way up while pushing your bike up and think how is this even possible. Or you look at those North Shore –style skinnies and kickers and wonder who rides that, until you see someone manualing the skinnies and hitting the kicker and doing a superman. You know that rider started from scratch as well in the past, so now you know it’s possible for you as well. You just need to commit, learn the necessary technique with some help from more experienced riders and build confidence through practice. Wear whatever body armor you need to dare and build up to it nice and slow. However, there’s a rule of thumb that it isn’t wise try a line more than three consecutive unsuccessful attempts at a time, you’ll just learn the wrong thing. Try a few time, and if you don’t make it, move on and come back fresh another day.

Szymon Godziek doing World’s first tsunami backflip in a competition on a bicycle. You could be next. Image: riders.me

What this means is that don’t shy away from difficult things. You don’t understand a concept, read about it and work on it. You can’t figure out the data, take a look from different angle, bottom-up, different theoretical lens and so on. Just don’t give up just because it’s hard, that’s the way you learn. However, don’t break yourself either, running in circles endlessly is not the way. If you get too frustrated, set it aside and start afresh next day or get new perspectives and information, or get mentoring.

Care for your gear, and it’ll take care of you

Finally, there’s the equipment. Not to humanize equipment too much, taking care of your bike and other riding gear is the most often overlooked safety and comfort tip. There’s little that is so distracting as missed shifts of ghost shifting in tricky sections, or so dangerous than failed brakes. Depends where you ride, failing gear can put you in real and even life threatening danger. Starting right from the next street corner. Getting run over by a car may hinge on your bike’s brakes. Something as simple as washing the bike every now and then and inspecting the frame, the wheels, the brakes and shifting, and doing small maintenance gives you happy and safe rides. Same goes for helmets, glasses, pads and body armor. Keep them clean and check that they’re still in shape, and they will work better, longer and give you better time on the saddle.

Double checking the torque after fork service and before riding could have prevented this situation. Image: justbeforeimpact.com

Same goes for you, to remain effective and efficient, you need to take care of yourself. See that you get enough sleep, eat well, exercise, all that boring stuff. If at all possible, start before you turn 30. Above I mentioned staying relaxed on the bike. Find a way to relax and let go of research even for an hour or two every once in a while. Go out with friends who are not from work, spend some time with the family, go to a gallery, try a new sport.  It may help if you work on relaxation techniques, possibly meditation, and self-reflection. Some people tend to relax with alcohol, but as Homer Simpson put it, it may be the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems in one package, so I recommend trying something else in the way of relaxation.


So to summarize, what is really important, is to look where you’re going, focus on where you want to go, not where you don’t want to go, keep relaxed and centered, and keep the ball rolling faster or slower. And don’t give up. You have good riding day and bad days. Cherish the good rides and learn from the bad, and have fun with it.

And as said, I don’t claim to know everything about research or mountain biking, and I’m not the greatest at following my own advice. Nevertheless, I do my best ever day, and keep sessioning those lines, learning technique and expanding my comfort zone. And hopefully someday I too can jump a gap the size of a van and run a research group as well the leaders I’ve had the privilege to work for this far. And of course I hope you dear readers found some inspiration in this ramble.

Good riding and re-charcing this summer!

– Kalle