It’s just over a year since I started up the Bikes and Brains Blog and admittedly the posts have been a bit sporadic as I’ve juggled writing, organising the occasional evening, the day job, the riding, and the fluctuations in my own mental wellbeing. This is still a work in progress… it’s just that the progress is at a slower pace than I’d planned. What I’ve achieved so far is in no small part to those who have so generously contributed guest posts. I tip my hat to their willingness to write about their own experiences so honestly. I hope that reading these may have resonated with your own life, or perhaps given you some insight into the experiences of someone close to you. Feelings of isolation and loneliness are often unwelcome bedfellows to depression, anxiety, and the like. I hope that the feelings and thoughts in the posts here have lessened those a bit.
My warm thanks to: Jo McRae, Lesley Pinder, Emma Cooke, Mildred Locke, Graeme Willgress, Geoff Waugh, Anna Dingle, Robin Sheeran, and Stefan Puno for their posts. Also to Alex at Look Mum No Hands, Holly and colleagues at Rapha Manchester, and Krysia and co. at The Bristol Bike Project for hosting Bikes and Brains evenings. My gratitude to the contributors Adele Mitchell, Jools Walker, Bruce Karsten, Roann Ghosh, Tom Hill, Jules Sprake, Christine Evans, Eleanor Jaskowska, Ian Walker, Chris Taylor, and to Rebecca Charlton for providing hosting duties at LMNH.
If you ever want to contribute to the blog then give me a shout, or if you know someone who might like to please encourage them to get in contact (have a look at the ‘Submit a piece’ page for guidance). I’m also hoping to arrange more evenings in 2019 so keep an eye out. I’m happy to take suggestions for places to hold them.
I have mixed emotions about this time as one year slips into the next. Like many who are all too familiar with anxiety I find planning for the future somewhat… challenging. I also feel a slight sense of loss at those amazing moments I am leaving behind – the change of year seems to box those up, pushing them a little out of reach. Still, this temporal compartmentalisation does provide encouragement to move forward.
Whatever your 2018 has been, I hope that your 2019 will be more, better, perhaps just different. May the wind be at your back and the gradient in your favour. Best wishes, Sarah. London 31/12/18
Another guest post. This is from Stefan who is associated with bikestorage.co when he’s not on a bike. He contacted me a little while back to provide a piece for the blog. Here he talks of some of the fundamentals of how cycling can help eleviate anxiety and stress, as well as being of physical benefit. He talks of how cycling has helped him in a very personal capacity, and stirred remembrance of things past…
All images for this post are from Stefan and used with kind permission.
How Cycling Helped Me Beat The Blues
I have always tried to be mentally and physically fit, and exercise has been a very important part of my life. However, at once point, I started to suffer from anxiety and depression, which was brought on by work stress and a bad break up. This is when I discovered cycling, and it really helped. From this point, cycling was my main form of exercise, and it helped me manage my symptoms effectively, and improved my mental health so much. This is my personal story of how cycling helped me.
I first thought about cycling to control my anxiety when I read a blog on bikestorage.co, who strongly recommend cycling as a form of relaxation. They say that exercising regularly not only keeps you fresh and active, but it also minimizes the chances of developing diseases such as heart disease, arthritis, obesity and diabetes. It also appealed because, as a man in my 40s, it was something that was not too high impact.
I quickly found that has a lot of benefits: it is great for the muscles; it is low impact and therefore won’t leave you feeling exhausted and out of breath; it improves stamina and the best part is, as you get fit over time you can increase the intensity of your bicycle work to feel even more benefits. As I said other than the countless physical benefits of cycling, I also found it has a number of mental and psychological benefits too. For a start, cycling helped me to relax: long rides helped me to focus and I finally understood what people had been talking about when they mentioned Mindfulness. For the first time in years, I felt in the moment. All I knew was my feet on the pedals and the tires on the track. I felt at one with the world and with myself.
I started to read some evidence, wondering why cycling was having such a positive effect on my body and on my psyche. According to a study conducted by researchers at Clemson and the University of Pennsylvania in 2014, people who ride bikes to places are happier. Using the American Time Use Survey, researchers showed that on average the mood of those who cycle was far better than of car drivers or those who take trains or buses. I found my own feelings confirmed in this piece.
I also found that I experienced many other benefits. As I met with other cyclists and started to go on group rides, I understood that I was no alone: you can experience these benefits too if you take up cycling.
I had a stressful job, and going out every day for a bike ride helped clear my mind and reduce my stress.
Cycling for me is a little like eating a madeleine for Proust: it took me back to my childhood. I remembered the long rides with my friends and the sense of freedom and excitement.
I had heard about endorphins, but I never really understood until I took up cycling. Exercising causes your body to release endorphins, which are sometimes referred to as the happy hormones. The release of endorphins triggers an overall happy feeling in your body making you feel good mentally and physically. I felt a sense of wellbeing that I hadn’t in ages, almost like I had taken some sort of ‘wholesome drug’.
I also found my thinking was less foggy. Because of this, I was more productive in work, as I could think more clearly.
Cycling has been such a positive influence on my life. The physical benefits are perhaps obvious, but the benefits to my mental health and wellbeing were surprising to me, and may have surprised you when you were reading my story. I have found that cycling is a great way to relax your mind and it had helped me to fight anxiety and depression. I have also enjoyed reading the personal stories on Bikesandbrains, which is a great blog where people share their personal experiences of how cycling made a positive impact on their lives.
19th November is International Men’s Day. A good time to have a read about men and mental health. Here’s a good piece from Mental Health Foundation on some of the stats and issues around MH and seeking help for men of different age groups and socioeconomic backgrounds etc.
Featured header image taken by/used courtesy of Chihiro Sati Gilmore (03/11/18).
I’ve been remiss. It feels like a long time since I posted. I, like so many, have struggled a bit with the change of season and the darker evenings.
Work drains me and I find I have little energy to much in the evening. Mid-October, however, is when Turbobeat starts. On Tuesdays I switch from BMXings to go turbo-training with Elite Cycling in Crystal Palace, South London. It’s not too far from where I live to be a battle to leave the house again after work when it’s dark and cold. Proximity is key for me in terms of being able to sustain activities when it’s colder and greyer. What I’ve noticed particularly about these sessions is how I can pedal out the anxiety and stresses of the work day. It’s so physical I *have* to focus on what I’m doing. At the same time I only have to focus on pedalling. Coach Paul Mill prompts us when to change gear or cadence, build up heart rate, start and finish the reps. I don’t have to think much at all – just do. No decisions to make. Afterwards I’m tired but energised and satisfied. The data from the session gets sent shortly afterwards so you can get an idea of your improvements over the weeks. This training helps to keep my sanity over the winter.
I managed to get a cheeky BMXercise session in a few days ago too – my first experience of the Olympic track at Lee Valley Velo Park. It was fab – longer and a bit… sharper… than BMX Track London in Peckham. Full laps were knackering! Headwind on the first and third straight contributing. It was good to see some familiar faces from the Peckham women’s sessions over in East London along with coaches Jacks, Farran, and Silvi. Some of them have ridden a number of tracks around London. We’re particularly fortunate in South London – Greenwich, Brixton, Peckham, Merton, Norbury. Some of these aren’t able to offer evening sessions during the winter as they don’t have floodlights. The Olympic track was pretty amazing though – the view from the start hill is pretty amazing! I also nipped in to the velodrome for a coffee before the session – found a real suntrap of a seat looking SW across the park.
I surprised myself by being able to venture over to East London at the weekend. It helped that I’d already planned to meet a couple of people in town earlier to hand over a bike I’d sold. (And one of the women at the session kindly give me a lift back – thanks Pam!)
Usually I’d go out each Saturday for a ride into Kent for perhaps 2-3 hours. I haven’t done that for a few weeks. Partly because I’ve been out of London (family duties), partly weather, partly tiredness, partly aiming to do a nearby Park Run. It feels a bit strange not to do a regular Saturday ride – I am so much a creature of habit – but I’m gradually becoming ok with the changes I am making. Cycling will always come first though. I found myself looking at the t-shirts of some of the other runners and thinking, ‘why would I ever run 26 miles when I could cycle?’
Anyway, I digress. And I’m going to digress further.
Recently I joined Alex and Jenni of the Wheel Suckers Podcast to chat a little bit about Bikes and Brains, and my experience, and bikes. There were plenty of things I didn’t get around to saying but hopefully it will be diverting. It should be up on the site in the next few months.
Anxiety can sometimes interfere with my decision-making and I wrangled for too long recently over whether to go to turbo-training or meet friends for dinner. I find myself trying to make the ‘right’ decision. I want there to be a right decision. I’m still trying to convince myself that the decision you make can be just that… no right or wrong. Things then turn out as they turn out. I considered the level of regret I would feel if I didn’t go for dinner, also weighing up the mental effort it might require to travel there after a tiring day. In the end I chose dinner with my friends Marco and Grahame, and Grahame’s friend Charlie Kelly. Those of you who are bike nerds, or mountain bikers, or bike history buffs will know that Charlie (with Joe Breeze, Gary Fisher, and Tom Ritchey) basically invented mountain biking. Charlie is a lovely guy and the chat flowed easily. As you might imagine, he has some great stories to tell. He’s been over here doing talks and highlighting his book that came out in the UK last year – you might want to take a look yourself: Fat Tire Flyer . Safe to say that at the end of the evening I felt content with my decision to go to dinner. (I consciously avoided using the word ‘right’ in relation to my choice.)
Safe to say that at the end of the evening I felt content with my decision to go to dinner. (I consciously avoided using the word ‘right’ in relation to my choice.)
Do you have any routines, hints, or tips to get through the winter? Or ways to help decision-making? What particularly troubles you at this time of the year? Do give me a shout via the contact page (I could compile them into a list to share).
I’m happy to present another guest post. This one is by Robin Sheeran, a journalist from Belfast. He’s a member of King’s Moss CC and proudly wore the club’s blue-and-yellow jersey at the Gent-Wevelgem Cyclo Sportive this year.
Mental health, good or bad, is not just in the mind. Here, Robin writes of the frustration and worry before identifying the cause, and where he went from there.
There’s a long, echoing corridor at work and I’m hurrying along it to my desk when I notice a tiny numbness in my lip. I flick my tongue at it. It’s like the numbness you get after you’ve had an injection at the dentist, but much smaller.
It’s June. There’s a ton of work to get done before the summer. We’re working 12-hour shifts. My mum’s just been told her cancer is back and she’s not going to get better.
The days pass and my tiredness and frustration ramp up.
I’m round at my mum’s a lot. We’ve become more like old friends these days. I make the tea and we watch Pointless. We talk about the past. Her past and mine.
Then I jump back on my old bike and cycle home – it’s 10 minutes away.
The lip thing hasn’t gone away. I nibble on the numbness sometimes. And notice it’s spreads across the whole left side of the lip. It’s become a thing.
Then I’m lying in bed one night unable to sleep when I notice the roof of my mouth is numb – just the left side up to that little ridge line.
In the morning I have a raging headache and my left arm and leg feel a bit numb too.
It’s Sunday and my wife takes me to the out-of-hours doctor.
He advises me to go to A&E immediately. We need to check it’s not something “sinister”. I weep a bit in the car on the way to hospital.
Lying a curtained-off cubicle I can hear the doctor talking on the phone. He wants me to be seen urgently. I’m taken off for a scan. They don’t find anything.
We go on holiday for three weeks.
Hill walks, the heat and a visit to Vienna and, weirdly, it all kind of falls away, apart from the small numbness in the lip.
Then the day before I go back to work there’s a crisis.
I’m hit by a massive headache. It feels like a waterfall of blood gushing inside my skull.
I’m convinced I’m having a stroke and my wife calls the ambulance. By the time the crew arrives it’s worn off and I sit shamefacedly in the back of the ambulance watching the hedges spool by.
A young doctor half my age takes my details and I cry a bit. Then they tell me they want to keep me in overnight for observation and the neurologist will see me in the morning.
I’m put in a bed in a ward my mum’s been in a few times. An elderly, confused patient keeps us all awake that night calling loudly for her parents.
The neurologist listens to my story and diagnoses migraine brought on by stress.
I’ve to take three weeks off, and just to be on the safe side I’ll have an MRI scan.
So that’s how I come to be lying face up in this torpedo tube – face an inch or two from the curve of the metal pipe.
My broad frame fills the tube from side to side. I’m crammed in, but they’ve told me it’ll only take 20 minutes.
Suddenly 20 minutes seems a bloody long time. I can’t turn over even slightly. It’s OK I tell myself. But it’s not OK. I can’t move my arms. And I can’t move my legs. And I can barely move my head. And it hits me that I’m going to drown in here.
I press the panic button and the radiographer rushes in.
“Get me out, I want out!”
I feel ashamed. It’s a Sunday morning and I’ve wasted everyone’s time.
The next day I’m due back to work. I panic at my desk in the busy newsroom – end up weeping in someone’s office and escape by the back stairs.
Two weeks off this time.
I begin to take the old bike out in the country lanes. I’m so unfit the sheer struggle to get up the hills clears my head – all I can feel is my body fighting with itself.
I’m eased back into work and the cycling becomes more obsessive. The old hybrid doesn’t like the punishment so I buy a cheap road bike with terrifyingly skinny 23mm tyres.
I find there’s a process to this: get on the bike feeling wound up, hacked off about work, annoyed by the headwind, thoughts racing.
Then, 10 minutes in, the veil’s pulled back and I feel like I’m flying headfirst over the road, between the hedges and through the sound of the wind.
It’s most real when tearing downhill at 40 mph, crouched in the drops, knowing a change in the road surface, or an angry farmyard dog could prove catastrophic – yet my mind’s utterly clear.
It’s been three years now, with just one major relapse, but the bike thing just seems to work.
A more expensive bike followed, shedloads of kit and clothing, and this year a mad sportive escapade to Belgium.
But as therapies go its actually rather cheap. At least that’s what I tell myself.
– – – – – – – –
Looking back at the episode I still can’t escape feeling a little ashamed at not being able to cope. Maybe it’s to do with being a middle-aged man who wants to be strong for his family. And the cycling isn’t a cure-all. The following year I had a fairly major relapse. But the cycling also helps me to set targets. I’ve already surpassed last year’s mileage. Next year I’m hoping to do the Tour de Conamara and I’ve entered the ballot for the Prudential Ride London. Wish me luck!
– – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Robin kindly reminded me about the following 2017 study by researchers at the University of East London on cycling and middle-aged men. Something to see in context of the reported statistics of the high percentage of MA men who experience anxiety and depression. Over the last 4-5 years there have been alarming statistics on the high levels of depression amongst men in their 40s and 50s (and levels of suicide in men, generally speaking). A few articles suggested you’re middle-aged in your 30s which is something I’d question. I also came across a reference to ‘manxiety’ (I almost threw up on my Sidis at this appalling portmanteau).
Here are a couple of links that may prove informative and useful (alongside information on various mental health charities and organisations such as Mind, Mental Health Foundation, Rethink, Time to Change, and also NHS England).
We had a smashing response for the Bikes and Brains evening in Bristol back on 13th September with a great crowd of about 35-ish (I think!) in the workshop space at Bristol Bike Project. I’d been chatting with Krysia at BBP for some weeks before to get things set up. I’ve contributed a blog post for their site which gives a precis of the evening.
I’ve also been in contact with a few people who are planning to contribute a guest blog here – do drop a line if you’d like to add something regarding your personal experiences around cycling and mental health. World Mental Health Day is on Wednesday so there’ll be quite a bit in the news and on social about MH. I suspect it might be weighted to anxiety and depression, but covering other diagnoses such as PTSD, OCD, bipolar, psychosis and more.
It’s a good time to highlight MH and talk about it; I’ve been having a lot of conversations about managing the shift through Autumn and into Winter. A lot of us who experience anxiety and depression struggle with the change in seasons. There’s the lack of motivation and the urge to hibernate – it seems so much more diffcult to get out the front door and onto the bike. Or socialise. Or both. Or get out of bed.
I’ve said, flippantly, that I plan to get through the shorter days and darker evenings by exercising aggressively. I tend not to exercise at home – I find it going to a different space helps, certainly in terms of distraction. Visually there’s too much at home that can divert me, that I can decide is more pressing. If I go to the gym, or a yoga studio, I can compartmentalise the activity which means I focus on it. I also find paying for block bookings in advance usually gets me to a class because I don’t want to waste the money (though this seems not to have happened in terms of the gym over the hot summer months!). All this can get rather expensive… so I’m aiming to do a few Park Runs too.
I’ve said before that I find group turbo training sessions of hugh benefit during winter. Doing a quality hour of structured training on a weekday evening or two mean that I guilt-trip myself less if I don’t go out for several hours at the weekend. (Note to self and others who do the same – we need to look at being a bit kinder to ourselves!)
I think it’s very easy for many of us to fall into the habit of framing a ‘missed’ ride as a deficit in mileage – something that we have to try to ‘catch up’ on. Particularly if you are training for a particular event, or you’ve set yourself a regular, inflexible goal. We can forget that the goalposts can be moved, and that it’s not a failure, deficit, or lack of accomplishment when we do. It’s justa change. Maybe your change is more dramatic and involves much less time riding and more time doing other things. I’m playing with the idea of doing something more art based. If you can’t express yourself in one way why not express yourself in another…?
It’s also all very easy to say all this, and for me to write it. Giving advice to others I think was something I originally suggested was I was going to try to avoid! Whoops…). It is so much harder to follow the advice, particularly your own.
I’m not looking forward to the clocks changing. I think/am afraid that this winter is going to be a struggle. National and international news isn’t helping either. I’m torn between ignoring much of it yet wanting to say informed. If I’ve had a bad day I might be able to ride it out but ongoing situations that are waaaaay out of control of one individual is something very different!
My top tip, as ever, is to find something close to home that can provide both distraction and focus on a regular basis. Something which doesn’t use up lots of your physical and mental energy beforehand just getting to the venue, or getting yourself out of the door. And if there are days when that isn’t possible either… give yourself a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card. Add up the days when you do do something and don’t subtract the days when you don’t.
I will be *attempting* to take my own advice, though at this point I’m not sure to what level I’ll be able to do so. When the heating properly kicks it and it’s harder to leave a warm house it might be a different story (I’m hoping the milder weather hangs on a few weeks longer…).
For those of you in the London area who are considering coming to London Bike Kitchen’s WAGfest at the beginning of next year… I’ll be there and will be planning to do a bit of workshopping on this. More info in due course. If you’re not, or outside London, I’d still love to hear your thoughts on how to manage the colder, greyer weather. Do drop a line (perhaps I can compile them into a handy ‘Top Tips’ list for everyone).
I’m looking forward to presenting the third Bikes and Brains evening on Thursday 13th September. It’s being hosted by Bristol Bike Project – there’s more information on the event page on facebook.
I’ve been talking to Krysia and the folks at BBP over the last few months to find a date and to assemble a panel. I’m excited to say that the following people will be taking part next week:
Eleanor Jaskowska. El started cycling as a child in rural West Wales as a route to freedom. Things got out of hand gradually when she riding to offset the stress of doing a PhD. Three years later and she’s a weather-beaten long-distance rider and still not yet finished her PhD. El likes cake. She rides a long way to justify eating more cake.
Ian Walker. Ian has both a professional and personal interest in cycling. At work, he researches cycle safety and looks at how we can grow more use of clean, active travel in our society. Out of work, he is an ultra distance rider who recently won the North Cape 4000 race from Italy to the top of Norway.
Chris Taylor. Chris is the coordinator of The Social Cycle, a weekly workshop at The Bristol Bike Project which aims to tackle social isolation by providing the space for people to come together in a relaxed, friendly, nonjudgmental environment.
The BBP provides a valuable and empowering service for marginalised groups of people in the Bristol area whose lives could be improved by accessible, affordable and sustainable transportation. The organisation aims to provide an inclusive, vibrant and supportive workshop environment for volunteers and project users alike. Skill-sharing and independence is encouraged and promoted – new skills are learned in a way that is empowering for all. Bikes are diverted from potential landfill sites and/or working parts recycled which both lowers the demand for new parts and promotes the culture of reuse.
Have a look at this short film ‘Tea and Tinkering’ about about the BBP Social Cycle project. Just some of the amazing work BBP does.
If you’re in Bristol and can get to the Bristol Bike Project in City Road by 6pm please do come and join us! There’ll be a chance to continue chatting more informally afterwards at a nearby pub if you fancy it.
My mood definitely shifted along with the weather last week – an unwelcome sympatico. Though the constant high heat made office work a trial the drop in temperature and shifts to cloudy skies and showers left me feeling a bit despondent. A midweek evening meal out with a friend helped enormously. I had to work part of Saturday which interrupted my usual routine. I had planned to ride to Brighton on Sunday with my sister-in-law. I’d checked out a new route from South London to the coast which seemed to have a few quiet lanes.
On the morning I hit snooze a couple more times than planned. A grey morning, breezy too. I’d prepared my bottles and put aside a couple of energy bars to stick in my jersey pocket. I had a bit of fettling to do with the bike and left, what I thought, was enough time to do it before getting to our rendezvous point. I ended up running a few minutes late. My riding companion ran a bit late too and I waited nearly half and hour. I wondered whether she was late, or had an accident – I texted. I considered that she might have forgotten – something which would be highly unlikely. I wondered whether I had the energy to do the ride on my own, or would I just go back home and crawl back into bed?
I didn’t notice fully at the time how anxious I was – too busy weighing up all the various options. I was still deciding when my wheel buddy arrived (she’d had her own issues with closed roads and diversions on the way) and the intensity of worry faded away without my noticing. The magic of distraction.
We rolled out steadily, leaving the suburbs behind and climbed gradually up to the edge of the North Downs. We chatted all the way, both having a whinge about work and other frustrations. A guy sat on our wheels but at least did have the grace to thank us for the pull when he passed us. He seemed to run out of gas a little further on and we passed him again. For those familiar with the area – Layhams, Clarks, Gangers, Tandridge to start off with.
I’ve been registering my ability to worry about EVERYTHING. Well, most things. Or lots of them, anyway. When I’ve taken responsibility for a route it’ll be about that. Or time. Or my bike. Or not having the right layers. Though I’ve started using one of the larger Podsac saddle bags which allows for more space without hassle on my lighter road bike.
Anyway, much of the time the worrying proves to be ‘unnecessary’ – entropy. Then the relief. Though by that time the energy has already been wasted. I’m still learning to recognise when it’s happening and actually do something about it. A work in process/progress.
Anyway – as per usual, once the climb up to the edge of London was done, and the legs warmed up I became more forward looking and focused on where we were going.
We had a headwind all the way, except for on top of the South Downs where it became a blustery crosswind and we were fighting the bikes. The new route was a little more… uppy-downy than my usual one and there were some short sections of busy road, but there were long runs down quiet lanes where we could ride side by side and chat.
It was a humid, sticky day – we didn’t really cool down when we stopped. It wasn’t too bad climbing up Ditchling Beacon – a few cars. Much to my surprise the ice cream van wasn’t in the car park when we reached the top – too rainy and windy to expect much in the way of trade that day. Visibility was pretty poor too. No chest-expanding views to the north or the south. A fellow rider said, “Like a pilgrimage but with no cathedral at the end.” I did mention there was usually an ice cream van in the car park… “A cathedral of a sort.” Did feel a bit meh.
Once both of us were at the top we put on a layer and it was head down across the top of the Beacon to Hollingbury where there’s a nasty left-right junction across a very busy road to negotiate. I always worry about being able to get back into my pedal quick enough to push off and position myself in time – the cars come up fast behind you.
We rolled (slowly! Headwind….) down into Brighton. The plan was my meet my sister for lunch. Familiar awful tarmac around part the Steine, though some had been relaid and it was lovely and smooth. No rain in Brighton. Just fish and chips and ice cream. My sister had driven down so there was the unusual luxury of a ride home.
The day felt like a salutary reminder of how lack of motivation can be a block, but be one you can fight through. I feel so much better for the exercise, the satisfaction of having ridden, the company on the road. It was also great that we settled on a pub in a very unhurried way. Even the ride, though at a good steady pace, was not pushed – 4hrs riding, but 5hrs with stops.
It’s so easy to hear and say things regarding motivation – how you need to push through the unwillingness, the initial lack of energy. So hard to do sometimes – particularly if there isn’t anyone on hand to counter your doubts. This was one of the, apparently regular, reminders I need that I can overcome the ‘meh’ and turn it into something of value (thus also avoiding the trap of guilting myself for *not* going out).
I confess I’m a little concerned about the Autumn and Winter. Committing myself to exercise I don’t feel I can easily ignore, or cancel, will be the way to manage. Turbobeat again for me. Maybe gym. And a push to get myself out if the sun isn’t shining and the enthusiasm reserves seem to be dwindling.
Anna Dingle, who wrote the last guest blog post, also rode to Brighton on Sunday. We must have only just missed each other as we worked out afterwards that we were at Ditchling Beacon around the same time, and also on the seafront at Brighton. I briefly reflected on how great it would have been to cross paths. It was, however, just good to learn about it via the wonders of social media. Anna, we should actually go for a ride together sometime…
It’s been a little while since I’ve posted – life has got in the way. Also… lots of cycling. I did Ride London this year (did a recce ride in the blazing sun and was actually kinda relieved to ride in cooler, if much wetter, conditions on the day) . I’ve also been down the BMX track, and been trying out vintage, repro, and other bikes with friends. I now know how to ride a penny farthing! I’ve ridden a tall bike (though needed a bit of assistance to get on), zipped around on an Abici, fought with a 1880s velocipede (it steered me rather than the other way around), and tried out a Sociable, Dandy Charger, a rover, Hirondelles, and a mini penny. All great fun (except perhaps the velocipede – I wasn’t so keen on that!).
Anyway, this has left me pondering on the relationship of machine and rider, also how that affects the level of enjoyment. These musings bring me neatly on to my next guest post from a old and very dear friend of mine, Anna Dingle. Some of you will recognise some of the experiences of cycling in London, though many of Anna’s comments will naturally strike a chord wherever you are based.
I have wanted to write a piece for this blog for a while but have put it off. It’s something that I do as I sometimes think others won’t be interested in what I have to say. It’s a bit how I was about getting on a bike and giving cycling a go.
8 years ago, I had my third child. Soon after, I went back to work full time whilst my husband became a stay at home dad to look after our 3 kids. I worked all the hours god sent, getting home late and missing out on family time. Importantly, although, I didn’t realise at the time, I had cut exercise out of my life which had always been a huge part of my life. This, also without me realising, had a hugely detrimental effect on my mental health over time. Work stress caused me to lose my identity. I was successful in my job but it wasn’t enough. I was a mother to 3 kids but I suffered immensely with the guilt of never being there for them. More than anything, though, I wasn’t looking after myself both mentally and physically. So where does cycling fit into all of this I hear you ask?
I went to the doctor and broke down. They prescribed anti depressants and a course of CBT. I also found myself a private counsellor to talk through the problems I was facing. The counsellor asked me what was missing in my life that used to be there. I thought I had everything I needed; a fantastic husband, 3 great kids and a supportive extended family and a successful career. There was one thing missing and that was exercise.
I was a hockey player from the age of 14 playing up to regional level and had played all my adult life but I stopped when I had my 3rd child. I had also been a swimmer, competing up to county level. I used to run for fitness and had stopped that too. I no longer did any exercise and I missed it enormously. I was 2 stone over weight and craved that need to have presence of mind and freedom that exercise brings. Most importantly I needed to try and improve my mental as well as physical health. So what could I do to change that situation?
I looked at my day and realised commuting time was dead time when you work full time. I decided that I could some how cycle to work. My journey to work is 13.2 miles one way (I know that now as I cycle it most days that I work) from South Woodford in East London to Sloane Square in South West London. I bought myself a Boardman hybrid. I decided to ride to Blackhorse Road and get the tube the rest of the way to work and see how I went. I locked my bike up outside the tube. I had bought some big arse locks, thinking my bike would be safe. I did my first ride to the station, proud that I was I had done it. I locked my bike up safely and boarded the tube to work. 9 hours later I was looking forward to my ride home. I came out of the tube and my bike wasn’t there. It had been stolen on its first day of locking it up. They left the mudguard and that was it. I was so cross as I boarded the bus in my cycling gear to go home. I was cross about my bike being stolen but I was more cross that my plan for getting healthy again had been scuppered.
Not to be deterred, I pulled myself together and got a fold up Dahon bike with the insurance money from my claim for my stolen Boardman. I started cycling to Blackhorse Road again. I would fold up my trusty Dahon, and make the journey to Pimlico on the Victoria Line and then cycle to Sloane Square when I got off. I found it hard to start with but was determined not to give up as I started very quickly to see and feel the benefits of cycling for both my mental and physical health. I was happier and more relaxed on my commute and didn’t think about the day ahead or the day I had left behind.
After several months of doing my journey on the Dahon, I wanted to challenge myself further with my cycling. I inherited some money and decided to get myself a road bike. I decided I could cycle the whole journey to Sloane Square. I bought myself a Trek Lexa. I loved the bike as soon as I rode her. I don’t know if bikes have a gender but the Lexa was always female to me. It may sound daft but the Lexa was key to my mental health recovery. I couldn’t have done it without her. I decided that I would do my journey one way on one day and then ride it home the next. A 26 mile round trip just seemed too daunting to start with and I physically wasn’t fit enough. I got myself a rack and pannier and gave it a go. I was nervous to start with as riding in central London is something else. One thing it teaches you, though, is to be assertive with your riding and most importantly to be present. Pay attention, don’t do anything stupid and ride like you are invisible. That was the best advice my husband gave me. He has been a cyclist for many years. It was good advice and I haven’t looked back.
Cycling has changed my life in a enormously positive way. I used to dread getting on a bike when I was younger and I didn’t get ‘it’. I totally get it now. I love getting up and out on my commute at just after 6am whatever the weather (unless it’s absolutely pissing down!). I love the cold mornings in winter and the sensation of finally feeling my fingers as I get to Stratford High Street. I love when the seasons finally change and I see the sun finally peeping out behind the Houses of Parliament on the end of my winter rides along the embankment. I love trying to get through Victoria Park as the dark nights draw in and they are going to close the gates. I then love it again on long summer days when I can finally ride through Victoria Park again And I love how I have seen London’s cycle route provision change over the last 6 years that I have been commuting on my bike to the point where 80% of my route is now on designated cycleways. I won’t lie, it’s not all rosey and I have had near misses with cars and other cyclists. Mostly, it is a very positive experience and has had an enormous impact on my life.
I have lost 2 stone from cycling and now have a resting heart rate of around 42bpm. Those are the positive physical affects. Mentally, I have had plenty of wobbles but in general I am less anxious than I was and I keep that black dog at bay. I still see a counsellor and practice mindfulness regularly. But I can definitely say that cycling has changed me and my mental health in a very positive way. Cycle commuting saved my life when I was in a very dark place. It helped me believe that I had a purpose, even if it was only getting from A to B. Some days that would be my only achievement but it mattered,,, and it still matters to me. I don’t commute everyday as I work part time but I do it twice a week (52 miles in total).
It has lead onto me finding my feet again with exercise. I have gone on to become a triathlete using my old swimming skills, my new found cycling skills and putting one foot in front of the other. In the last 6 years I have done the Pru 100, multiple triathlons, half marathons, 10km runs and a half Ironman. I just completed a 35 mile ride in Suffolk with friends and am doing the Pru 46 in a couple of weeks time. I regularly ride out into Essex and in September I am taking part in the Rat Race Coast to Coast which is a run, cycle and kayak event covering 105 miles from Inverness to Glencoe over 2 days.
Cycling has helped me to be me again, to find my place again back in the world and to just be present. I wouldn’t be without my Cube Axial and my new Pinnacle adventure bike. As for my much loved Trek Lexa and my Dahon, I recently sold them on to new owners. The Lexa was hard to part with as she really helped with my healing, but she has gone to a good home that I was happy to send her on too. That may sound daft but she was an important part of my life.
I packed up my aired tent and put all my camping equipment into a tin trunk. The action seemed to conclude the 10-day cycletouring holiday even though I arrived back in London on Thursday morning, just over a week ago. It was a discomforting shift from wide open landscapes and swaying train to rush hour Euston Station. Back to reality.
I’m pretty new to cycletouring, only having done a week in mid/south Wales last year. I’m not the World’s Most Happy Camper either and there’s a great deal which is out of my comfort zone. I’ve been deliberately trying to push myself out of it on occasions, but it can be a struggle and there can be a tangeable shift in enjoyment levels.
I was anxious about my ability to do the distance on a heavy touring bike with rear and front panniers; I’m cycle-fit but I didn’t think I was cycletouring fit. My road bike I can lift with one finger. The loaded tourer I can only just lift at all – it was probably around 25-30kg with the four panniers, tent on the top of the rack, top tube bag, and full water bottles.
My friend Kat and I got the (surpisingly busy) sleeper up to Inverness on a mid-June Sunday evening. I slept rather fitfully, woken by the squeaking of the carriage, and the light. A cup of tea and some brioche brought from London helped get us moving. From the station it was straight up a hill to Velocity cafe/workshop for coffee and breakfast. Freshly-fuelled we headed out of Inverness following the Sustrans Route 7 but took a B and other quieter roads southeast towards the Cairngorms National Park. For much of the way the route follows the A9 but alongside – in some areas there are few other options. We were following the 7 map backwards – it reads from Glasgow to Inverness – and assessing the gradient diagrams. Some sections seemed particularly spiky but a closer look at the scale revealed there was nothing to be alarmed by, just parts that would require more effort. There was a headwind too, of course. The first stop I recall was at Tomatin. Home to a solid viaduct, village store (bought biscuits) and public loos (handy). The Stochd climb we had been slightly wary of transpired to be barely a climb at all, though for a time we found ourselves wondering whether it might appear around the next curve. There was a brief stop at Carrbridge to admire the Pack Horse Bridge before a lovely off-road trail through a tree-dotted heathland north of Aviemore. At least, I think it was Aviemore, it’s all rather blurred now. I remember we went under a bridge with a burn culverted alongisde the path. Then a slope to our lunch stop (we’d bought things at a local supermarket on the edge of a rather modern and soulless housing estate a short distance away). I think we sat near some visitor centre to eat. It was cloudy, generally, rather windy, with a few spots of rain. Not bad for Scotland.
Feshiebridge, Insh, and on. There was a community-owned bridge that we crossed somewhere around here. Quiet roads but we were occasionally overtaken by a car. They almost all overtook with care, plenty of room, and cars coming towards us on narrow lanes usually stopped and waited for us to pass. Heaven. One car stopped and the driver asked us whether we were heading towards Kingussie. We were. He told us the bridge was closed and advised us on an alternative route. We pressed on with his directions in mind pass the abandoned Ruthven Barracks. Shortly after we came across two cyclists paused by the side of the road. They’d come from Kingussie and we able to let us know that, in fact, the bridge was open. We reached the main road and took refuge from the wind in an audax hotel (a bus stop, for those not familiar with the parlance) whilst we perused accomodation options.
I admit, the prospect of not having accomodation booked in advance was something I found a little concerning though being in the company of a seasoned cycle-tourer put me at ease. Last year on my first ever cycle-tour, in Wales, I planned the route and booked some places ahead. I remember feeling anxiety about changes, or cancellations, or not doing the planned distance, and wanting every thing to go right. I’m not always great with sudden change – I get a bit stuck on the things that aren’t happening, my ability to see beyond them is lessened. On other occasions it’s not a problem. It frustrates me that my brain can be so fickle and inconstant. There are times I’d like to be able to rely on my own mind more.
We identified a bunkhouse 2-3 miles away in Newtonmore. It couldn’t have been smoother – we arrived, put our names on the list, and went on in as instructed. One of the owners appeared shortly after and welcomed us in. It was quiet – only one other person. We freshened up and went in search of beer. Then curry. Finding these were as straightforward as the bunkhouse.
I slept better that night.
The bunkhouse provided some breakfast things and we set off early into another cloudy, breezy, and fresh morning. Over the nine days we travelled from Newtonmore to Killin, Killin to Glasgow (where we were joined by Tal), Glasgow to Edinburgh, Edinburgh to St. Andrews, St. Andrews to Montrose, Montrose to (near) Aberdeen, (near) Aberdeen to Banff, Banff to Elgin, and then back to Inverness.
The first day was just getting the legs into gear. For me it was also about developing a sense of a relatively new bike and its handling (never having ridden with front panniers before). As the days went on the weather improved, the dramatic landscape and technical off-road gravel climbs of the Highlands (*sotto voce* Aberrr-foooyle! Dryyymennn!) gave way to seemingly benign canal paths, then to coastal paths and inland ‘undulating’ lanes. The timing of the food stops improved over the days – many picnics of oatcakes, houmous, veg and fruit, fresh bread, nuts, and crisps. So many pictures of wonderful lunch venues. In between there was always an emergency satsuma in the back pocket too.
Inverness to Glasgow was covered in three days – the second two each around 80 miles and the last few miles on those days were tough. One day was racing a forecast for rain, the next a canal and Clydeside route that seemed to keep on going. After that a new dynamic with three of us and shorter mileage at a different pace with stops for castles and distilleries. There was a mix of camping and hostels. It was only the last evening that finding accomodation was more of an issue but a place was eventually found.
The change of pace and landscape affected me greatly. The coast and the canals, the rolling countryside all provided wonderful views and a range of gradients, but there was something about the push of the long days and wilder landscape of the Highlands that I found particularly enriching. Some of it was in the way the landscape reminded me of mid-Wales, of which I am very fond – Cambrians, Elan Valley, and the Aberystwyth mountain road. Around the Loch Tay area, unexpectedly, pushing harder and with the slightly more changeable weather I felt more reward. The uphills always paid back with downhills (though it was often the other way around).
The Glasgow to Edinburgh canal section (Route 754), which shoud have been the most straightforward and a pleasant, flat recovery day ended up having the most drama for me. Shortly before the Falkirk Wheel a wasp flew behind my cycling glasses and I narrowly avoided going into the shallow ravine next to the canal. In trying to control the bike and in the panic to get it away from my face my front wheel slammed against a concrete kerb lining the edge of the path and the wheel buckled. The bike limped on the next 2-3 miles to the Wheel with lots of noise and rising panic for me. We lunched and I searched for bike shops. Borrowing the bike I’d lent to Tal (who had joined Kat and me in Glasgow), I rode the mile or so uphill with the front wheel strapped to my back. Thank heavens for Greenrig Cycles! One of the mechanics managed to make my wheel rideable enough for the next 30 miles to Edinburgh. Then, whilst riding back the bolt on the QR lever worked its way loose and I had no way of securing the wheel again. It this point I had a quiet meltdown. I had had the foresight to bring a small container of random bolts, spacers, and bolts. With an additional bolt from Kat I managed to fix the wheel on tight. The rest of journey the spent watching the wheel for movement and I winced at every section of cobbles we hit under bridges and particularly the long, barely lit section, we rode on the east side of Falkirk. I was not the best company that afternoon but as the miles went on the anger at the bike, myself, bad luck, or something I hadn’t prepared for slowly gave way to being pissed off, then a bit upset. Whilst at Falkirk I had identified an Edinburgh bike shop that was open until 8pm. They’d have a look at the wheel, and if nothing could be done sell me a new one. I imagined having to wait for a repair, of a new one being expensive, of having to post a wheel back to myself… all sorts of things. I wanted to ride faster. Then it seemed too late to find a station to get to Edinburgh sooner. I found myself wanting to plough on – less complicated than introducing a new plan at that stage with added variables. Just pedal on until Edinburgh. Get to the bike shop.
And thank you The Bicycle Works! We arrived with half and hour to spare. One of the guys there looked over the wheel, confirmed it was done for, hooked a new one down from the rafters, and transferred my disc brake, tyre, and tube. I winced again as my dynamo hub was cut out of the old wheel so I could take it with me. I felt palpable relief as we rode away towards our accomodation for the night. I’m not sure whether I managed better as I was with other people or whether I would have been more focused and practical and less bloody emotional about it if I had been on my own. I know I disappear inside myself at times. You can spend a lot of time in your head when cycle-touring. I think I’m too new to this to consider whether that’s good for me, bad, or just is. I suspect the latter. I feel I need a way to speed my way past the difficulties, not to linger on them and waste time wishing things were different or that plans have changed. MacGyvering the wheel to ride to Edinburgh was simple in comparison to levelling out my feelings about everything that day. I found anxiety hinders my ability to be practical. I end up dithering and indecisive, and I worry it looks like laziness from the outside when others are being dynamic.
I wonder whether the whole wheel issue threw me off a bit for the remaining days. I found a certain solice on the tougher uphill sections – forcing the Genesis forward with its load occupied my thoughts and body – most other considerations fell away. All this pushed the sporadic and violent waves of loneliness to one side and I felt part of something. I found something meditative and mutual in the rising gradient – us all breathing hard, the equality of the uphill push, the song of unseen meadow birds, the occasional glimpse of poppies, the fields of barley.
It was this feeling I revisited on the final day of our tour and the run back to Inverness that seemed to last forever in the 30deg heat and exposed open countryside. Route 1 was amazing for most of the way but in the last 10-15 miles seemed to go unnecessarily off-piste and more inland and up than we liked after 10 days of riding. At one point we were riding in the opposite direction and that just seemed wrong. We slogged up a mean hillside in the blazing sun, stopping in a patch of treeshade at the top. A local chap commented on the hill, said we had the good bit to come. I thought he meant a downhill. I like downhills. But no, apparently there was more up and the up was harder than the up we’d already pushed. Time was creeping onwards and Inverness seemed to be a long way away. We double-backed to a B-road which wasn’t so bad traffic-wise. I slid into ‘get it done’ mode, as I had on the run into Killin and to Glasgow at the beginning of the tour (and in a way I found I couldn’t do into Edinburgh). I dropped down to a low gear and tapped out as constant a rhythm as I could up onto Culloden Moor, stopping at one point just so we had a chance to take on water in the shade of a tree. Once at the top of the Moor it was pretty much all downhill into Inverness and the views across Moray Firth were stunning, even in the heat haze.
I often wonder in regards to the ability to suffer. I can do it if needed, but does the tendency show itself when it isn’t necessary? I tend to see the ‘just keep going forward’ as a negative aspect in terms of depression – it’s the ability to run yourself into the ground, to keeping going until you simply can’t any longer. That doesn’t seem so healthy. Yet, within various cycling scenarios as elsewhere, the characteristic can be useful. Would I have pushed on with such gusto if we hadn’t had to get to Inverness for the sleeper? Probably. I tend to attack hills these days in a way I didn’t used to. I don’t even notice that change coming about. Maybe it’s just with my increasing fitness over the last year. What I do know is that I could have continued on. My legs felt strong. There were other parts, however, that were starting to grumble – wrists, heel, feet knees occasionally too.
No doubt part (most?) of the desire to keeping riding was precisely because it was the final day. Reality was looming. We coasted down into town and Kat led us to the Hootenanny where the celebratory End of Tour Pint was bought. Then over the road for pizza, another Black Isle pint and a spot of admiration at our ridiculous Scottish cycling tan lines. The station was a short roll away. The bikes were stored, bags went in berths. We freshened up, popped into the bar for a G&T (me and Tal) but I think we were all flagging a bit and bed was not slow to come after than. I watched as the train passed the places we ridden through a week or so before, and saw the Highlands seep into the distance. I slept so well.
Mixed feelings waking up the following morning as we were somewhere north of Milton Keynes. After Culloden Moor rush hour Euston Station was noisy, smelly, alarming, and fairly unwelcome. We parted ways here and I lost count of the close passes I had on my way to south London. I hadn’t expected the return to be *quite* so jarring. I haven’t been bouncing off the walls of the office at work this time though, as I did last year. It’s been more a ache and yearning, looking through photographs and nudging memories to the fore to savour them once again. I need to dial down Teh Wistful. Haven’t cracked open any of the whiskey I bought yet though…
Reading this back my writing seems to imply that the holiday was emotionally and mentally tough much of the time. Not so, and I’ve only written about a small portion ofthe experience here. The things that troubled me by no means lessened the amazing, positive memories. Loch Garry and nearby hillsides being revealed by the sun as the shadows retreated downwards, the heart-swelling sight of Loch Venachar with small exposed pebbly, wind-lapped beaches, discovering the village of Dull was twinned with Boring in Colorado, seeing the Falkirk Wheel, rolling up and down and round through Tentsmuir Forest, spotting red squirrels, the night the bunnies raided our food stores, the off-route episode over a golf course, all the marvellous bridges we crossed, Highland coos, chip shop chips, the late evening sunset on the beach at Banff, the 9.30am tour and tasting at one of the distilleries… all these shared and appreciated by my fellow wheelwomen. moments I will treasure even when new ones have been forged. Someone pay me to do this and I’d ride around the country for months.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for staying with me! I’ve restrained myself from going into each day in detail because, let’s face it, we’ve all got other stuff to do. For me it’s been a bit indulgent, and another chance to relive some of the experiences now that I’m back at work and the sense of freedom has dissipated. I hope that some of you found a little recognition in some of the things I experienced or, heck, find yourself tempted to do a bit of touring yourself if you haven’t before!
A few thank yous: to Kat, and to Tal, natch. To the random driver who gave us all the info about the Kingussie bridge even though it wasn’t necessary, to Greenrig Cycles for making my wheel true enough to get to Edinburgh, to Cycle Works in that city for sorting me out with a new wheel so close to closing, to Michael and Emma for the accomodation and chat near Edinburgh, to the patient drivers, and finally to the remarkable weather!
My hands and stomach look as though they come from two completely different people.
I leave you with a top tip: if you find yourself near Elgin do visit the Glen Moray distillery. Their Classic port-casked offering is quite lovely.