Return from Scotland cycletouring

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.

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The Tour de Fer ready to go

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.

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Carrbridge – Pack Horse Bridge. Bike – Kat’s

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.

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Some blue skies, even on the first day

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.

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Imagine lots of this. With more gravel. And more up.

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).

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The Falkirk Wheel

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.

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A lane, somewhere between Burtisland and Kirkcaldy

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.

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Heading towards Inverness from Culloden Moor

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…

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Be still my beating heart…

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.

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Banff sunset – around 10.45pm

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!

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Route 1

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!

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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.

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Those occasions when everything falls into place…

I’ve focused a lot on some of the negatives around cycling, those times where mental ill-health gets in the way. I, and several of my friends, have talked about anxiety surrounding racing, our abilities, our motivation levels, the worth of taking part at all. Those of you who have been to a Bikes and Brains evening will know I find some of the overly motivational images about cycling rather irritating. ‘You can never be unhappy whilst riding a bike!’ Actually, yes, you fecking can.

Recently, however, going out on the bike *did* make everything better. More than better, to the point of not really wanting it to end. (Does anyone else feel torn between their sense of loss and their future-fear? I’m presuming it isn’t just me…). Anyway, given that it’s World Bike Day I thought I’d offer up something rather more positive. A day when riding makes ALL the difference.

Last Bank Holiday weekend it was my birthday and I’d lined up lots of things to do, places to go, people to meet up with – it was great. The high point of the weekend was definitely the ride from Crystal Palace to Eastbourne with my friends Kat and Shibby. I’d identified a route, large sections of which I’d ridden before – though that didn’t stop me worrying about the potential traffic on the busier sections. I work very visually and aside from looking at the map I checked out one or two areas on Streetview to get a visual on some of the junctions I wasn’t familiar with. There were some stops plans but with a certain flexibility to them, depending on how we were feeling, how the time was going, and so on. I finally managed to tear myself away from the map and stop fannying about with the route.

We set off about 9.30 and rolled down the hill from Crystal Palace (South East London). It was promising to be a warm day but there was mist around  and the sky was off-white rather than blue. The first gradual pull up to the ridge out of London took about 45 mins and helped to get the legs warmed up. Once I reach the top of that ridge I always feel a sense of release. There’s something about being at that elevation, well out of the city (though being able to look back upon it) which I find very freeing.

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Me and Shibby in the lanes. Image courtesy of Kat.

The sun has appeared by the time we took the fast downhill (local SE Ldn cyclists will be familiar with Titsey Hill!) which took us towards Limpsfield and quieter lanes. The temperature was beginning to rise and there was a brief stop for wardrobe adjustment before heading towards Edenbridge, Hartfield, and the Ashdown Forest. I grew up in Sussex but I hadn’t discovered the delights of doing miles back then, it was just thrashing around the local BMX track with my mate. Cycling has given me a whole different appreciation of the landscape in which I spent my formative years, and it heightens my awareness to those familiar(ish) surroundings.

The climb up to the Ashdown is a bit of a slog, and we were all starting to feel in need of snacks. There were a few other cyclists toiling up the grind but the road was pretty quiet in terms of motor traffic. I found myself getting a bit stressed on one of the busier sections before Hartfield and wondered whether Kat and Shibby were finding it as unsettling as I. I wished that I hadn’t plotted in some of the B-roads. Still, I silently reasoned with myself, there wasn’t a huge choice of alternative routes. I did find myself getting a little weighed down by the responsibility I placed on myself for leading. I’m still getting used to the fact that sometimes I need to calm the fuck down a bit and not agonise over the details in my head so much. Easier said than done though.

We pulled in to Kings Standing Car Park and walked across the gravel to a copse. Kat stretched. I touched my toes and yelped, having twanged something in the back of my leg a few days earlier. Shibby produced a picnic from a Tardis-esque Carradice. We plonked ourselves down on a bench, swinging our legs and taking in the greenery, and the warm breeze. Also taking in, most importantly, the sandwiches.

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Yes, the ice cream van was there.

Our water bottles were due for a re-fill so once sustenance was consumed headed back to the road. I looked briefly at the ice cream van. We rolled off the Ashdown and into Maresfield. We pulled in to a pub I’d stopped at once before and sat in the baking sun admiring our bikes and necking a fizzy drink. The barwoman kindly topped up our water.  A little section of busier road before heading off into quiet lanes where we could ride alongside each other and chat again. These lanes carried us to Glynde where the Englishness was so over the top we nearly choked on bunting. There was even a cricket match on the green with players in their whites, rubbing their balls on their legs.

This idyll got abruptly interrupted by the A27 but fortunately we reached the turn for Charleston Farmhouse pretty quickly. Initial planning hadn’t allowed for the Charleston Literary Festival but this added to the buzz. There was even cycle-parking by the VIP car park! We did a circuit of the walled garden where festival-goers were sitting and sketching and reading before we headed for the tea marquee. Tea Marquee. Drinking tea, eating a scone, under an apple tree, at Charleston. Oh my god shut up.

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Charleston florals

Then it was off back down the A27 a few yards and into Middle Farm which holds the National Collection of Cider and Perry. Yes, it does. When it comes to being able to taste perry, cider, fruit liquors, mead, and the like… Middle Farm has l’embarras de richesses. We were rather restrained by all accounts but did exit the building with liquid enough to accompany the evening repast.

Then the last ten miles or so to Eastbourne. The first few followed the Cuckmere Valley – we climbed a little onto the southern side by Litlington and were rewarded with blissful views across the landscape, a slight heat haze, the river lazily making its way towards the sea a little further south.

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Kat and Shibby in the lanes

There was a possibility of wild swimming in the meanders at Seven Sisters Country Park but with Eastbourne only six miles away it seemed a bit daft to stop. From Exceat it’s pretty much all up. Well, some downs too but three significant climbs on the A-road, the last being a real grind – Type 2 fun, as Kat said. The headwind added to the effort one called upon tired legs to exert but the skies were still blue and the sea only then a roll down into the town.

“I can’t wait to get my shoes off!”

Eastbourne is known-turf for Shibby so he took over the leading on the last section and got us to through the Old Town and to the sea front. We inveigled a passerby to take a shot of all three of us before heading on eastwards along the front to a suitable swimming spot. We dragged our bikes across the pebbles, changed and had a somewhat bracing but very refreshing dip in choppy waters. We dragged ourselves out of the water and did that walk you might expect people to do back up over a pebbly beach.

“I can’t wait to get my shoes back on!”

Dry(ish) and dressed we hauled the bikes over the beach. More effort this time, tiredness and hunger starting to factor in. As I lifted my leg over the top tube there was an unmistakable groan. We had the invitation of Shibby’s parents to stop off at their place while they were away. Shibby fixed superb G&T’s and left to prepare some fab food whilst Kat and I went into minor paroxysms of bliss on a padded swing seat with drinks in hand. My word, that felt good after being on a saddle all day!

We ate in the garden and sampled the cider before Shibby led Kat and me back to the station for our train. Cue lots of tired and happy chat about the day.

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Proof that we made it to Eastbourne. Image courtesy of Shibby.

This was the first warm, sunny, all-day ride I’ve done with friends in some time – then I remembered how bloody long the winter seemd to go on for. My ride to Brighton with Jules (who spoke at the Manchester Bikes and Brains event) a few weeks before was fab but the weather hadn’t quite yet turned and we cooled down quite quickly when we stopped. This ride was the first which promised warm temperatures all day. It was one of those which seemed to go on forever – getting back to London that evening it felt as though I’d been away for days.

I’ve been trying to think of all the elements that contribute to an amazing day like this but I think it’s much more than I’ve identified. I was quietly delighted at how my initial worries slipped away as the miles went on. There was great company, hot and sunny weather, beautiful landscape, the random few spots of rain from a lone cloud in an otherwise blue sky, wonderfully quiet roads, being conscious of much birdsong, evenly-matched riding, journey punctuated by visits, not having to wear a multitude of layers, a coastal finish and swim, the simple pleasure of food, the healthy tiredness afterwards. The awareness of all this makes the day, being able to appreciate it and being part of the landscape for a few hours. I do like a solo ride and sometimes that’s what I need. On this occasion, perhaps more than anything else, it was the shared experience of it all, and being content in the knowledge that others have enjoyed it with you and you with them.

My thanks to Kat and Shibby for their excellent company and being part of one of those rides that enriches mind, body, and soul.

 

World Bike Day

My piece on the ReThink site for WBD

The Ashdown Forest

Charleston

Middle Farm

 

 

 

Guest Post 6: Geoff Waugh

Quite a few of you might know Geoff from a whole host of cycle events, particuarly off-road. If not you may at least be familiar with his work. I first met him when he was snapping at the Beastway Mtb Summer Series over ten years ago when the races were still taking place at the old Eastway Cycle Circuit (a site later developed into the Olympic Park). I asked whether he might contribute something to BikesandBrains and he was kind enough to agree. The piece below captures some experiences and feelings that will be all too familiar to many of us. It can be so hard to actually type this stuff out though, and just as tough reading back over it. My thanks to Geoff for being able to set thoughts down and to allow me to publish them here.

 

Can You See the Real Me?

I’ve just read a piece about how depression can make a person push their nearest and dearest away. I didn’t really need to read it; I am it. I’ve watched as my friends have dwindled over the years and I know it is because I have been acerbic, unresponsive, downright rude, probably. The hardest part is that I see it happening but feel it is pointless to try and explain. Morning’s are often the hardest time for a depressive and often that is the time someone might call me on their way to work. The only time they might have. The sentiment is felt but I am monosyllabic. I struggle to find any coherent words because my brain has been scrambled. It is not prepared. They think I don’t care. I don’t explain. It must be hard to empathise.

In a room of my oldest friends it can be a struggle to find conversation. It didn’t used to be that way and the confusion sets the mind reeling. What has happened? From a person who was seen as the life and soul it is a weird change. And perhaps this is the reason why I chose to ride alone 90% of the time. A large group tends to encourage conversation – isn’t that the point? – but can leave me with feelings of bewilderment. I have plenty to say but no words. The negative feeling is ‘what is the point of riding with others and not sharing the pleasure?’ Going to a pub post ride seems the Worst Thing in The World. Trying to concentrate on conversations with all the added distraction of background noise? I can’t handle it. I go ‘depressive deaf’. The thought process spirals downwards and invitations are dodged.

Actually, I now realise nothing has suddenly happened. No overnight change. The issue has been there for longer than I care to think of and when I do I can see the signs. Depression and anxiety feed off each other. As a younger person I hid behind the mask of an extrovert. “You’re so funny, you should be on stage.” “You’re so laid back.” That kind of stuff. Easy to deal with as a youth. Getting older makes it a different deal. Work suffers. You look inwards more. Being introverted is not the best state for a freelance who’s work relies on being social, ‘networking’ in the modern parlance. But there is still something that drags us from under the covers. The drive to create, to feel ‘normal’. Have a few words with the postman, the coffee barista, the supermarket checkout. Or use the self service on bad days, the days when it feels like a thick black treacle has been injected into our mind and sleep is the best possible option.

I used to ride a road bike a fair bit, but as my mind grew more addled, I found it wasn’t distracting enough. You can pedal away the miles and look at all the pretty flowers and puffy clouds, but your mind is still engaged. Trying to get one over on you. So I went back to mountain bikes. Riding my mtb in areas that demand all attention be placed on controlling the situation. Or face the consequences.

I seek out woods and trails where I have to concentrate to continue. I look for places where I have to scan the terrain for places to put my wheels to retain momentum and thus equilibrium. Here the brain is fully locked into the act of riding and not playing those other shit games on me. I believe all riding is now for my mental health and not necessarily my physical welfare. That is a spin off benefit. If I get my mind to motivate my body to ride it’s a winner. It doesn’t always happen, but I am grateful for the days it does.

And then there’s work. I see photographers building friendships with riders, but I prefer to record events from the sidelines. More like photographing a football game. When was the last time you saw a snapper walk up to Ronaldo for a chat? This can make me appear standoffish and it can hamper productivity and opportunities down the line. I know that. And that is depressing.

But when I am deep in the moments of making images I am always free from the black dog. I think only of the subjects, the angles, the light – the technicalities that some days come easier than words. Like my brain has dispensed with cables and gone wireless shifting.

I have realised that many more of us are getting through life with issues that are all but invisible and very hard to translate, to even come to a point of talking about, than we – or at least I, thought. ‘Odd’ behaviour could be for a very different reason than we think. Personally, there are way more layers to talk about. But it must be the right place and time. And to the right person. There are people who understand. Until then I will get out, hopefully in the sunshine, and sweat out an mtb adventure. I’ll be alone so I can stop when I wish to listen to the birdsong, the streams and the trees. I love you, but it’s my call.

 

To view a portion of Geoff’s considerable portfolio of stills, videos, and blog entries have a look at:

https://www.waughphotos.com/index

https://geoffwaugh.exposure.co/

Guest Post 5: Graeme Willgress

The piece below has reposted with the permissions of Graeme Willgress and Anna Hughes and extend grateful thanks to you both. Anna was kind enough to contact me on Twitter to offer stories that she had collected for her book, Pedal Power: inspirational stories from the world of cycling, which was published in 2017. Graeme’s story was one of those featured.

This is a story about Graeme Willgress, a cyclist who has suffered complex mental issues throughout his adult life. Cycling opened the door to a long, slow process of recovery, and has enhanced Graeme’s life in many ways since he re-discovered it in his forties. He writes about his experiences at his website, http://riding2recovery.com, and in his three published books. This story is written by author Anna Hughes, and appears in her book ‘Pedal Power: inspirational stories from the world of cycling’.

‘Three years ago, I couldn’t imagine cycling anywhere. Today, I can’t imagine not cycling everywhere.’

Graeme Willgress was an active child, excelling at sports and enjoying the outdoor life, but he suffered a mental breakdown at the age of 17 as a result of low self-esteem, anxiety, and being put down by teachers and his tyrannical father. As he bottled up his experiences and his anger, his adult life became dogged by panic attacks, extreme anxiety and bouts of depression. With two marriages behind him and multiple house moves, he rarely felt settled. In his forties he suffered another horrendous breakdown, exacerbated by losing his mother, father and sister – all within three years. Things had reached boiling point.

Graeme shut himself away in his caravan. It was impossible to leave – simply going to the shops was a Herculean task. Graeme felt stigmatised by his local community, separated from his family and friends, and completely isolated from the world.

After a chance meeting with some touring cyclists, he remembered how much he had enjoyed riding in the past, thinking back to happier times mountain biking in Snowdonia as a student; despite the physical effort, he’d found it calming.

So Graeme set out to see if he could recapture some of that tranquillity. He purchased a bicycle and, after a 20-year gap, began to ride again. His first ride was a physically demanding 10 miles through the hills of West Devon; a struggle with low fitness and an unsuitable bike. ‘By the time I got to my house I was completely exhausted… but there was a big smile. I felt I’d achieved something.’

He began going for longer rides – things wouldn’t always go smoothly, but steadily he built up the miles and the strength.

‘Once I began to cycle I entered a new world… I never felt bad when out on the bike.’

Cycling enabled Graeme to begin reconnecting with people. He could turn up at a cycling cafe and just be a cyclist; he could leave his house behind and be free in the world. Becoming a Sustrans ranger for his local stretch of National Cycle Network gave him focus and new friends.

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An idea that had lingered in the back of his mind was fighting its way forward: what if he could take a longer ride, a challenging ride, for multiple days? He lived near the sea, and his work with Sustrans had shown him how many coastal cycle paths there were. What if he could ride around the whole thing? The thought thrilled and terrified him in equal measure. Could he do it? Ideas became plans and, with the encouragement of his therapist, Graeme set in motion what would be an incredible journey: Ride2Recovery, which would take him around the coast of mainland Britain. It would be a substantial ride of multiple months but, crucially, without needing to cross the sea. ‘The coastline was the limit of what my mind could cope with. I couldn’t stretch that boundary any further.’

In 2011, two years after Graeme had conceived of Ride2Recovery, he left his home in Hatherleigh with Irene the bike, Trevor the trailer and enough kit to keep him going for four months. He had completed a few shorter rides in preparation for the challenge that lay ahead. He had also set up a fundraising site for Sustrans, started a blog, and received the nod from his doctor and therapist. Tears rolled down his face as he rolled away from home.

For the next four months, Graeme took it one day at a time. He learned to listen to his body and his mind, to go when it was good and rest when it wasn’t. By the end of the first month he was calm, open, stable and, above all, happy. He kept a daily travel diary and discovered a passion for writing, which would help him in the healing process. He returned from his trip having cycled 4,000 miles around the coast of England, Scotland and Wales, but having gone a whole lot further in his steps to recovery.

Since that ride, Graeme has completed two more Ride2Recovery adventures, cycling 2,500 miles along the Atlantic coast from Land’s End to John o’Groats, via Ireland, the Outer Hebrides and Shetland. Significantly, the journey involved a flight to Ireland and a ferry to Shetland – modes of transport that had once induced panic attacks and would have been inconceivable only a few years before. His second ride was to France, his first journey in a non-English speaking country for over ten years.

Graeme still battles with poor mental health, and episodes of depression and anxiety. But cycling has transformed his life, making his illness manageable, and things he once thought were beyond him are now possible thanks to his wheels.

‘Every time I ride I smile and every time I smile I get a little better.’

Further reading:

‘Pedal Power: inspirational stories from the world of cycling’ – Anna Hughes (https://summersdale.com/sd-author/anna-hughes/)

‘Riding2Recovery: a journey within a journey’

‘Riding2Recovery: all around the ragged edges’

‘Serenity and Storm’ – all by Graeme Willgress (http://www.riding2recovery.com/my-books/)

Contacts:

Anna on Twitter

Graeme on Twitter

Mental Health Awareness Week 2018

So Mental Health Awareness Week is coming to an end and the focus has been on stress. Something we can all understand whether we have other clinically diagnosed issues or not. It’s been a bit close to home for me just at the moment – hence why the blog posts have been a little intermittent of late.

Mind have been focusing on mental health in the workplace – a subject which employers are starting to take on board. Common sense really, even if purely from a financial perspective. Mentally healthy staff will take fewer sick days, be more productive, be less likely to move on quickly and an employer will benefit from a knowledgeable and experienced workforce. I’m generalising of course, but the evidence backs this up.

Here are a few articles if you’re interested in a bit of further reading:

From the Work Foundation

Depression and Finding a Job (Blurt)

Guardian article on cost to the economy

Business in the Community – MH in the workplace

Time to Change – your rights

I was having a few chats with people on Bikes and Brains Twitter about how working in cycling can interplay with using the bike as a de-stress device and a way of trying to mitigate the effects of stress/anxiety/depression/delete as appropriate. Is it possible to divide work-bike from non-work bike? How hard is it (or not) to work on your own bike if you’ve spent all day working on other peoples? Do you have structured ways of approaching it to enable you to compartmentalize the activities? Or is it not an issue? Are you a ride leader? Do you separate your work/personal rides or not, change cycling disciplines?

I did trial bringing the bike into my work life to offer rides to a depression/anxiety group I was facilitating but I had reservations as it was very personal to my own mental health and considered it may have been a Venn Diagram Too Far. In the end the interest at the time was low that I was justified in not pursuing it further. I am however looking at creating ‘Bikes and Brains’ rides – something around 30-40 miles perhaps, at conversational pace (definitely not chewing the bars and breathing out of your arse speed!). The idea would be to have a space to chat about things whilst riding which isn’t as potentially anxiety-inducing as talking face-to-face. You wouldn’t, however, feel that you *need* to talk if you didn’t want to. I’m thinking something once a month.

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If you’d be interested in something of the sort do drop me a line here or on Twitter. It might have to be a London-based thing to begin with but if you’d be willing to host a Bikes and Brains ride where you are give me a shout. I can coordinate things if necessary, even if I can’t zip around the country hosting them in person (not at the moment anyway!).

In terms of pieces on the blog I’d like to invite contributions not only from riders or those for whom riding is the focus but those working within the bike industry. Work in a bike shop? Frame-builder? Cycling media? Your thoughts on the subject are just as valued. Writing can be presented anonymously if you prefer. The only person who would have an email address and name would be me. I will never pass on your details to anyone else or add you to a mailing list. You can ask me to assign a name to the piece if you would like, add social media links if you wish, but equally you can just use a pseudonym, just a first name, or whatever you prefer.

 

 

 

 

Something a bit different

I’ve been considering a bit more about suicidality.

 

Writing the blog post made me think about things for a while and how alien that state of mind is when you feel ok. Also, how all those questions that get asked by others (friends, family, colleagues, etc.) in an attempt to understand can be at odds with the thoughts around the desire to take your own life. I think that if you are at the point where that appears to be the only answer or way out the idea that you are able to think of the impact on those around you simply doesn’t register in many cases. If someone has made a firm decision then perhaps there is a sense of release.

I’ve been send a poem. The contributor worked with someone who took his own life, and did it a way which ensured there was no chance of the attempt not succeeding. The contributor described to me how they thought John was getting better, less depressed. What seems to have happened is that he’d stopped caring and was able to outwardly display an improved state having made up his mind on the course of action. We talked of, rather than ‘weakness’ at no longer feeling able to face life, the strength it might take to make such an irreversible decision such as he did. The poem is a tribute to him.

 

ALTITUDE – for John
Like the cyclist down the descent,
Air Brushing, adrenalin rushing,
Lover of life..
We met at the bottom when you were trying to turn the bend,
recover from the crash,
and finding your feet you climbed back on,
put one foot in front of the other,
pedal stroke after pedal stroke,
rhythmically tapping out your struggle,
never ending road,
ever upward,
Holding on, and hoping, Soul Searching,
You pressed on, on your journey,
Glimpsing the view through the trees,
You met with fellow travellers,
Soul seekers,
and with sunshine burning, exposed and yearning,
you dug deeper,
creeping ever onward..
You kept on climbing and the road became rockier,
rugged, craggy and desolate,
where you were going became shrouded in a mountain mist,
cool on your skin, moistening,
and exhausted from the effort of reaching the summit,
This time, with great courage,
you let go of the bars…
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Spring, ‘countryside appreciation’ riding, overdoing things…

I went out on the summer bike for the first time in 2018 at the weekend.  I almost thought I’d worn too many layers it was so mild. Even a week ago you could sense winter had slipped into spring – you could smell it in the air even before taking in the cherry blossom and the primroses.

I may have mentioned this before but as I’ve got older I found myself being more affected by the changes in seasons; the change of clocks in October brings a need to steel myself for the few months ahead. By the time the clocks go forward in March the daffodils are showing, snowdrops have been out, and the return of colour to the landscape brings the promise of warmer days.

As previously written, this winter I’ve done more non-bike exercise and been more sociable – these things seemed to have made the shorter days more bearable. This is particularly true of those occasions when I’ve not had enough motivation or energy to get out on the bike. I’m more guided by weather that I was years ago and see no reason to go out riding around Kent for hours in the pissing rain. I’m a bit more cautious about freezing weather too – I’m more careful on the icy days. I guess I have in mind that, generally speaking, it takes longer to recover from injury as you get older. I try not to let it completely dictate my riding though. I went out during that recent cold snap in the snow. Rather paid for it though.

I have a tendency to keep riding when I’m under the weather with coughs and colds – to the point where it slows my recovery. I find myself getting annoyed by the break in routine. Which makes me wonder if I now rely on the cycling just a little too much. I’ve ended up getting with chest infections in the past. As with many people, I’m great at giving advice about this sort of thing to others but not so great at taking it myself. Occasionally a clubmate will give me a stern look and that helps.

Many people who experience depression have a tendency towards unrealistically high standards, and pushing themselves too far. I am certainly guilty of this. I keep going and going until my body and mind force me to stop – this has meant depression, or physical illness, or exhaustion. I see depression as the mind’s way of restraining you, limiting you, so you can only do the basics. Usually at this point you are physically run down too. Then you have no motivation, little or no ability to get out on the bike. Which makes you feel more guilty/desperate/frustrated/unfit/isolated/underachieving.*

*delete as appropriate

Depression (and anxiety and so on) isn’t all in the mind – if you experience it you’ll know how it massive the physical impact is. In past personal episodes I’ve noticed not just the lack of energy but also how my body closes off to the world around me. My shoulders have rounded, I’ve looked downwards much more, I’ve had lots of tension headaches from holding my shoulders up around my ears. I think there’s evidence (must find it) regarding our perception of colour during depression. Many people experience life ‘greying out’ along with lack of highs and lows in emotion

Anyhow, I’ve gone on a bit of a tangent. Back to motivation.

I went to the Look Mum No Hands ‘Letting Ourselves Go’ evening hosted by Adele Mitchell a couple of days back and was really impressed at the range of riders in the audience – from those touring countries to those using the bike as daily transport. I was also really impressed at several of the women who brought up the subject of mental health in front of a large audience. It’s fab when people feel able to do that. The more this happens the more we can normalise the discussion of mh. A Good Thing.

But I’ve gone on another tangent. So much stuff to say!

To bring things back to where I started… today’s ride. I went out a bit later than I normally would but not because I was procrastinating. I just did something different. I’d replaced the chainrings, cassette, and chain on the summer bike and planned a short ride to make sure everything was as it should be. Partly it was the mild weather, some sun here and there, but it was also the switch from a heavy winter bike with mudguards, pannier rack (my winter bike is also my commuter atm) onto a super light, stiff and responsive race bike that meant I ended up being out for over 3 hrs. I was a bit concerned that the chainrings I’d put on would mean that my legs would complain greatly on the hills but, to my surprise, this was not the case. The joy of Storck gets me at this time every year – I’ve had it for about 12 years now and it’s just a lovely ride. I picked up a puncture but the temperature was such that there was no danger of cooling down significantly as I replaced the inner. And a local cat wandered over to have a brief chat and that pleased me.

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Lack of motivation can be a bastard. Many of us will be set in riding routines and ‘lost’ ride can weigh heavily – miles not ridden, calories not burned, training for an event not going to plan, etc. etc. It’s very easy to slip into a very narrow vista of your time on the bike and it’s worthwhile to step back and see that in the grander scheme of things not getting out on the bike sometimes isn’t a huge deal if you ride regularly – even if it rankles like crazy. Sometimes you can push yourself and get a positive result, but there will be other times when it just isn’t going to happen. And that’s ok actually. If you really, REALLY don’t want to go out riding, then maybe just don’t. Try it another day when you find it easier.

I find that if I can push myself out that in the majority of cases I’ll be so glad I did. Very occasionally I’ll get back having dragged myself around the countryside for 2-3 hours wondering why the hell I bothered and my head will be as busy as before. If you feel that too try to remember that *you got out on the bike*. You got outside and did it, and that’s worth noting.

Like many cyclists I’m looking forward to more riding wearing fewer layers and being able to sense the sun’s warmth on me. I’m also going to try and do a few more rides that are ‘I’ll see how I get on’ rides, rather than having a set goal. Countryside Appreciation rides. Who knows, I might even stop for a pub lunch one day. I have a pub already in mind, tbh…

 

 

Now/then – ageing and comparisons of fitness

I’m fitter than have been for a long time – recent flu aside – but I find it difficult to not to look back at times when I was fitter and stronger still. A couple of achievements which I have particularly rated within my humble personal palmares have been on my mind recently. Ten years ago I did Paris-Roubaix (the VC Roubaix one in June). At that point it was one of the two hardest rides I’d ever done and I was still new to distance cycling. I was too tired on the day to fully appreciate sweeping around the banking after being shaken to shit over a total of nearly 50km of cobbles but the cobble that was my prize is one of my most treasured and well-earned trophies. Five years ago I participated in the Good Friday Meeting at a bitterly cold Herne Hill Velodrome and though I didn’t finish anywhere notable in the Scratch Race I managed a brief, doomed, solo breakaway for a couple of laps. I remember the split second decision to bolt round on the inside when the rest of the field was watching each other up on the banking. There have been very few occasions when things seemed to click and I took advantage of a moment like that.

I was out riding in Kent with a couple of clubmates a few days back. Struggling a bit up a climb I commented on how I some years back I would have done the same ride on a singlespeed. I remember the pleasure of feeling that strong. Like many who experience depression I have a habit of being backward-looking, a tendency to mourn times past. Anxiety is often characterised by a few of the future. It’s a bugger when you experience both. Riding the same lanes on a regular basis I find engagement in taking in the change and lack of change. The daffodils are out, the snow drops have gone. The teapot is still in the hedge on Skid Hill Road. A Very British Flytipping.

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Over the past year or so I’ve thought a great deal about what I want from cycling. I wondered whether I might enter a crit race again but I find that racing does not sit well with me now. I’m happy pitching myself against myself rather than others. As I get older I find that endurance suits me both physically and mentally. I had my first experience of touring last year – it was a quiet revelation. I find that even 2-3 hours out in Kent on a Saturday can feel like being away from the house for much longer than that, such is the effect being geographically distant from sources of stress and anxiety. With touring it was so much more. There were moments of joy, extreme tiredness, sharp emotion, hungry, contentment, pleasure, and more. The sheer headspace to digest the experience was almost a luxury. When I returned to work the following week I was bouncing off the walls for days. Shortly after I did my last track event at Herne Hill – in fact, I think I only stayed in for one complete race, pulling myself out of the others a few laps in. It felt like a whole host of smaller dilemmas that had been at the back of my mind galvanised into a decision.

Never say never, but I don’t think I have the time or sense of commitment to race again. There are too many other things I want to do. During the summer I spend Tuesday evenings thrashing around Peckham BMX track. The coach was encouraging us to race. I admit I was tempted but I came to the conclusion that I wanted to do it for fun, as a different type of riding, as a social thing.

I started doing sportives and audaxes quite soon after I started regular club riding around 2006-7 and they were events I used to challenge myself as I got stronger. Then there was knee surgery after being knocked off by a car when riding to work, after that a shattered collarbone. I’ve begun to understand why people bang on about physical ailments as this get older; they can start to dictate so much. I think I imagined that I was going to get back to my earlier fitness after all this but I’ve been reluctantly and slowly accepting that I’m not going to be able to do quite what I could when I was in my early thirties.

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I think I’m actually starting to look forward a bit more or, at the very least, starting to put fewer unrealistic expectations on myself. Tricky when you’ve been doing it most of your life though. Despite illness and stress at work I’ve found this winter easier to get through that many of late. I think it’s a combination of gym visits and being way more social. Stress leaves me physical tired but I’ve managed to keep up the exercise (the comfort of routine) but also the social side of life. Aside from the bike, nothing improves my mood like a few hours with a good friend. There have been many events (small and large) that I’ve looked forward to, and more to come. I think I’ve managed to disrupt the cycle of stress, tiredness, and solitude that can so often become self-perpetuating.

I’ll be doing a ride with the couple of friends at the end of the month, I’m one of the marshals on Tweed Run in May, and off for more cycle touring in June. Before all that I’m looking forward to Letting Ourselves Go at Look Mum No Hands. I’m hoping there might be some other women whose experiences in regards to cycling and ageing might be similar to my own. It’s not all about feeling loss of youth though! I’ve never stopped thinking or saying, “WEEEEEEEEEE!” as I belt downhill so fast my vision blurs from my eyes watering. If there’s anyone out there who wants to offer a guest blog entry on risk-taking…

 

Featured image by Aodan Higgins.

When life is too much

A heads-up – a lot about suicidality in this post.

I followed the Sport Relief challenge of Zoe Ball recently as I’m sure a fair few of you reading this may have done. The documentary that came out of it was, I thought, a really important piece in terms of highlighting some of the issues around male depression and suicide but also the difficulty of how to support someone going through depression.

I’ve been thinking about how to explain how all the usual logic and reason goes out of the window when you are suicidal. When I’ve been at my lowest I’ve had plenty of thoughts about death. I presume this to be a given – or at least very common – with depression. There’s a whole range of thoughts that can be loosely termed ‘suicidal’ from vague ideas of wanting things to end to actively making plans and being a danger to yourself. Often when severely depressed I’ve had a very disconnected thoughts about not wanting to exist, anything to stop the feelings of misery. These involve no sense or desire to take things further. Usually at this point the accompanying cognitive dysfunction is such that actually making some kind of decision around taking my own life is pretty much impossible. I wonder whether this is an element of brain’s self-defence and self-survival. I can’t do anything but keep dragging myself forward as anything else would involve too much cognitive processing.

I thought Tom Hill’s piece in Singletrack was great. Suicidality and suicidal ideation can be one of the toughest things to talk about. It’s not something that one can casually drop into conversation! I guess the fear of how the listener is going to react is a biiiiig part of it. Tom described heading out on a ride with a pocket full of painkillers. I didn’t *quite* get to that point but it did start stockpiling paracetamol and was considering where and when I might take my own life. This was over twenty years ago and the first time I experienced depression. I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t seek help, I didn’t talk specifically to anyone about it – all the frustration, anger, desperation, and everything else was turned inward. I can’t remember every detail any more but the most significant element which allowed me to get through this time was the offer from my oldest friend to come and stay at her house for a couple of months. Being able to put distance between me and the physical centres of my problems made all the difference.

At the time I saw a grim humour when I, in the process of buying painkillers from different shops and unable to buy the same type in all, found myself wondering whether it was a good idea to mix them all. I think it even occured to me to think of whether it would cause issues for paramedics if I was found. Perhaps my anxiety got in the way of actually taking my own life. I remember debating about the site – somewhere where I wouldn’t be disturbed but also where I might not lie undiscovered for days and days. I even thought about who I would like to leave some of my belongings to.

I think became adept at shutting down conversations I didn’t want to have, but simultaneously being desperate for someone to put me on the spot and force the feelings out of me and respond to my silent screaming. I was sure that people must know that something wasn’t right with me but I have also come to realise how accomplished you can become at hiding your feelings. It can take a very aware person to read the signs. Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have know where to go for help and I don’t think those around me would have able to suggest anything either. It didn’t even occur to me that what I was going through was depression. Depression happened to other people. During the last twenty years it’s become so much easier to find help, find information, have conversations about mental health.

I’m very aware that it’s a bit easier for me to have these conversations than it is for many other people. It’s become normal since I started working in mental health. It’s still a bit of a step to talk about such extreme states of being though. I’ve only mentioned this to two or three people before and never written about it so I hope this all makes some kind of sense.

I’ve not reached this point since. The next time depression hit, around six years later, I actually went to my GP and had a difficult conversation about needing help. It felt like a breakthrough… and it was. It was a huge relief to verbally communicate the feelings I’d been having. Talking; seems like a most simple thing but is usually the hardest. There have been a few moments over the years that have been a few markers of forward movement such as this in turns of my personal dealings with depression. I dislike the word ‘journey’ in this context, it sounds too trite to me. Talking did and does make all the difference, but I know how hard it can be to get even to that point.

‘Discovering’ cycling in 2003 has changed my life. I wouldn’t ever say that cycling saved my life but it has, since then, been a major part of staving off and coping with low mood. More than this, it has brought me physical and emotional highs I never would have experienced otherwise. It’s given me a focus to my personal life, and an increased social circle, and a sense of comradery with other riders.

I was planning a last paragraph with added gravitas but I think I’ll just leave it there.

 

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