It’s cycling but not as we know it… : Guest Post by Lilith and Abi

Alas, the Bikes and Brains evening pencilled in for Wedsnesday 20th May at Look Mum No Hands was not to be after all. Lilith Cooper and Abigail Melton (@gearsforqueers) had kindly agreed to travel down from Scotland for the evening to contribute. Here, for the time being, are some thoughts provided by Lilith on current life, and how they are working, biking, coping under COVID-19 restrictions.

I suspect quite a few of us will recognise the cognitive dysfunction that comes with anxiety. I often see it most obviously in my diminished decision-making processes and generalised detachment from my usual, everyday experiences. The most severe it’s ever been was when I was depressed. Somebody asked me whether I’d like a coffee or a tea and I quite honestly couldn’t say. You may have experienced a bit of a brain fog or found yourself being overwhelmed at the sheer volume of online resources and information available at the moment. I certainly have, and have needed to limit my social media interactions a bit – and go easy on the zoom meetings!

Lilith and Abigail’s book, Gears for Queers, is due out in a couple of weeks and there would have been various associated events happening around this time. If you’re a tourer or not, this is definitely a volume to get your hands on. It’s a really honest account of negotiating a journey with the challenges presented by fitness and mental illness, alongside the practical difficulties encountered when riding across borders, languages, and cultures. Thinking back on my own, rather limited, experience of touring I can’t help but be impressed by their fortitude and persistence.

 

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Abi and I are in a really privileged position at the moment – we’re together, in a flat in Kirkcaldy with access to a small (admittedly mostly gravel) garden, on a quiet estate surrounded by woodland. I’m still working – although my job promoting cycling to students and staff at Fife College has changed significantly since the college’s temporary closure – and any money we’ve lost from freelance work has been balanced by a significant deduction in our outgoings (turns out our monthly spending was like 50% trains!) Most of our family lives down in the East of England, so we’re used to communicating over distance.

Anxiety has always been a constant presence in both of our lives. The situation provides a constant hum that we can tune in and out of, but that puts us pretty much at capacity as soon as we wake up. Any additional sources of anxiety on top of this just overwhelms us. One thing my anxiety affects is my processing power – imagine a computer with loads of tabs open and programs running: it’s going to run a little slower than usual doing the same tasks. I’m slower to understand what’s being said, I’m slower to figure out visual information, I’m slower to make sense of the physical information my body is feeding back to me and I’m slower to figure out what’s happening in a social situation – particularly one where the rules are being constantly written and rewritten. All this makes riding my bike harder, and when riding my bike involves navigating busy roads, or unusually congested shared use paths, it becomes an overwhelming prospect. I’ve been volunteering at the Kirkcaldy Foodbank, which has seen a huge increase in use in the last month. It’s an hours walk away, or a 20 minute cycle, and I’ve been trying to ride there each week. Until last week that was the most either of us were cycling.

On Friday I took my bike on laps of our estate. It was a shift in perception, I guess. As a transport cyclist, cycling for exercise seems an odd choice – not many people take the bus for the joy of it? But the whole estate is stacked on a hill and I figured if I do hill intervals when running why not on my bike? It wasn’t the thrill of a cycle tour, and I still got stressed/bored, but it did help dissipate some of the anxious energy that buzzes through my limbs all the time at the moment.

At a time when it feels like everyone is getting on their bikes (Kirkcaldy saw a 30% increase in people cycling recently), and as the publication date for our book all about cycle touring looms (June 4th!) it feels strange to admit that we haven’t really been cycling. But, we don’t believe that you earn the right to call yourself a cyclist with a certain number of miles, a certain bike, a cadence, a jersey. We’re still cyclists, we just don’t have anywhere to go, right now.

 

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Gears for Queers is published on 4th June. Pick up your copy of the memoir from  Sandstone Press.

Ride? Not Ride? Can’t Ride? Biscuits.

Yes, it’s Mental Health Awareness Week. More than ever we need to pay attention to what’s going on in our heads. We’re all trying to find our way through this as best as we can, riding the pitching waves of energy, dips in mood, shifting sleep patterns, lack of focus, and altered diet. Oh, the biscuits I’ve eaten over the last two months…

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I had planned to hold another Bikes and Brains evening at Look Mum No Hands in East London on Wednesday. I’m currently hoping that we might reschedule for sometime in the autumn, perhaps around World Mental Health Day. Around this time it can be a particularly pertinent to talk about what’s going on in your bonce; many of us struggle with the shift of seasons and the colder, shorter, darker days of winter. As mentioned before, I throw myself into more intense periods of exercise as a coping mechanism. I’ve been using the same approach to COVID-19 and filled my days with turbo, yoga, weights, and made the most of the permitted exercise window by running and the occasional short ride. To begin with I was very conscious of riding short, familiar routes, with a more casual approach than I’m used to – consciously minimising risk. Possibly unnecessary, but I did it anyway. After a slightly longer ride this weekend I realised that I’d thrown that caution to the wind somewhat and charged around the Kent lanes with abandon.

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Reading various forum posts it seems that many of us have been unsure how far and long to ride for. Several weeks ago many people took the 1hr exercise per day as an absolute though it just seems to have been a rather casual suggestion by Gove at one of the daily briefings. Some pointed out that solo rides carried negligible risk in transmitting the virus as long as the rider was completely self-supported. I’ve seen a few people doing relaxed laps of my local park instead of venturing further a-field. Zwift has seen a lot of action but I’ve heard from several people who don’t have the ability to turbo in a flat, have no balcony or garden, and are feeling a bit stuck. Hopefully the more recent slight relaxing of restrictions, as confused as they were, have come as a relief of sorts. Some of us have had to channel our energies into other activities. I seem to be one of the few people who hasn’t made any bread.

I’ve been relying on exercise to get me through to such an extent that i’ve found myself a litlte anxious about returning to work in the future and not being able to fit in as much physical activity that I am now. My brain will always find things to worry about. This last week it’s been about whether I should have planned an online version of Bikes and Brains instead. It didn’t even occur to me until quite late on however and I was loathe to pressure participants with a tight time frame. The most significant factor, however, is the tiredness that I (and so many of us!) have been feeling from so much online interaction. SO. MANY. ZOOM. MEETINGS. I prefer to be there in person, to be able to sense the atmosphere, read the body language. I find digital meetings to be very… flat.

Generally my mood has been good but I’ve been bookmarking the hints and tips from charities such as Mind and Anxiety UK so they are close at hand if I need them. It’s experimenting to see what works for you – be it yoga, Headspace, reading, gardening, baking. Whatever gives your mind a break. I’ve been a bit more unsettled for the last week or so – mainly related to frustration with the government; the gaslighting, the lying, the incompetence, the casual cruelty. Frustration at having our lives in the hands of those who make no secret of regarding us as small and inconsequential things. I had a full-on rant prepared in my head but, fortunately, it has dissapated. I can’t rule out it appearing on here later on though.

Paul Mill at Elite Cycling has been running three turbo sessions a week to raise money for Shelter (timely given the recent indications that the government is quietly withdrawing COVID-19-related support for the homeless). Over the next two weeks sessions are by donation to Shelter with a mammoth 6-hour session which you can ride some (or all!) of on 31st May. If you fancy some proper coached training have a look here. I’m doing the evening sessions, by Thursday I need the HIIT session to pedal out my anger at the government. Paul, being *very* enthusiastic has just added three 7am slots Mon/Weds/Fri for those who prefer their training to be of the early kind. I definitely do not.

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The other, MAJOR, news is all the carving out of space for physically-distanced walking, cycling, scooting etc. that has happened in the last two weeks in cities around the country. After much dragging of heal many councils have decided to move on road narrowing and closures to faciliate non-motorised travel. Part of me doesn’t want to get *too* excited but, well, things are starting to look pretty good in London and elsewhere. There are some obviously new riders on the roads and more to come. I think some of us will have to remember to be patient and to pass on our knowledge and experience where appropriate. I include myself in this.

Here in London LCC has been doing sterling work on behalf of the capital’s cyclists. The various Borough Groups have been working hard to push for improvements within their areas and also feeding back on changes made to the LCC HQ. Early days, but I’m hoping we’ll experience many more London streets in the future that are bike-friendlier and bike-safe. I’m holding on to the positives.

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When I haven’t been aggressively exercising or eating biscuits, I contributed a short piece to the excellent Sporting Heads project which values exercise beyond the physical benefits. For me, and many I’ve spoken to, riding is a great deal about the ability to explore the natural world, to be *in* it rather than to pass through it. You may have an interest in Isabel Hardman’s recently published work, The Natural Health Service . Yes, I do declare an interest as I communicated with Isabel when she was writing the book. Lots of contributions from professionals and those of us with lived experience. Much more besides cycling. I’ve only recently acquired a copy. I’ll write a bit once I’ve read it.

I’ve run out of steam now so I’ll round up. If you would like a read a bit more about MHAW2020 have a look here -> Mental Health Foundation

My best wishes to you all, and I hope you are managing in the current uncertain times. S

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Inevitable COVID-19 Post… (Part 2: Benefits for Cycling)

Many of us have been relying on the bike during this time to keep our mental wellbeing on an even keel. Fortunately, in the UK we have not had to manage the lockdown restrictions that countries such as Spain and Italy have had. Many of us are concerned  Many of us are concerned about what might happen if further restrictions were to be implemented though, at the time of writing, there haven’t been any suggestions that is going happen. Not knowing for sure what is going to happen is one of the issues…

Some of us, such as myself, could resort to a turbo trainer if necessary though those who aren’t fortunate enough to have a balcony, garage, or a floor solid enough not to enrage the downstairs neighbours are at a disadvantage. A few people I know are currently looking into alternative exercise which can take place at home with the minimum of equipment. Others are considering what other activities they may be able to divert their attentions to – baking, crafting, artwork and so on.

When we are spending so much time confined the benefits of access to open space are quite clear. With limitations on movement many people have been making the most of the chances they have. Certainly I have exercised consistantly much more over the last few weeks that I have done in a long, long time. Unsurprisingly, many of us are heading to local parks and other green spaces as temporary respite from the indoor life.

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The underlying tension and anxiety can emerge in confrontation – with cross words and threats traded as people struggle to practice physical distancing. It’s all to easy to respond with frustration to those in the vicinity when we cannot change the wider situation we find ourselves in. There has been, perhaps predictably, a flurry of negative press directed towards runners and cyclists. Access to outdoor space shouldn’t be considered a luxury, or an indulgence – it is all too necessary, particularly for building mental and physical resilience .

More space, not less, needs to be opened up for public use so that people can exercise and travel in accordance with distancing measures. What has been made clear is that many of our streets are unsuited to application of the 2m guidance. Many pavements are much narrower than 200cm, parked vehicles force pedestrians out into the road, street furniture makes it tricky to move around others and stay out of the street. The absurdity of allocating so much of our public space to private vehicles is clear. Given how much traffic levels have dropped it makes perfect sense to filter some streets to allow access and exercise to take place safely. Predictably, the lower traffic volume has led to some appalling incidents of speeding, though I’ve been heartened by the police responses around London and the South-East that I have read.

There are growing calls to prioritise space for those on foot or bike and several countries (Germany, New Zealand) have already created temporary cycling lanes. With the lower levels of motor raffic is it so simple to reallocate space. Over the last few days there have been signs of movement here in the UK too with Brighton and Hove Council making moves to follow. There have also been calls to open up golf courses and other privately owned open spaces though there seems to be little overall movement on this in the absence of any nationwide instruction by the government.

Higher pollution levels have been linked to higher COVID-19 death rates – all the more reason to minimise motor traffic during the pandemic. Many key workers are turning to bikes to avoid the cramped spaces of public transport – the bike is an ideal way to remain distanced. Bike shops have been permitted to remain open – a sign that cycling is being recognised as a valid transport option and isn’t just for leisure/exercise use. I rode through central London the day that the COVID-19 restrictions came into place. What struck me was how much more relaxed I was. The the background tension and anxiety I always feel when riding in town had fallen away.  The palpable difference surprised even me. I could ride through Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar and Parliament Squares without constantly second-guessing driver behaviour, fear of close passes, or enduring the exhaust emissions. I took my time but with the reduced traffic my journey didn’t take any longer. I observed the city, noticing architecture and took in the fleeting vistas between the buildings. I was more present, and my ride more mindful. I wasn’t just getting from A to B, I was enjoying the journey and arrived back home with a sense of satisfaction and equilibrium. Fear of injury and reluctance to place oneself into environments considered as dangerous is one of the most significant factors that prevents people from riding yet there is evidence that cycling in fact reduces stress levels. Have look at this BMJ article in relation to commuting and perceived safety and related blog post by Discerning Cyclist.

Pollution levels have dropped, skies are clearer, birdsong seems more evident without the constant drone of traffic. Nature becomes emboldened when we allow our dominance to wane a little. We have a glimpse of a world that could be. It is unrealistic to expect the current situation to become permanent but it does indicate how quickly our surroundings can improve when we make considerable changes. Also how we can dramatically change our habits when we’re forced to. Hopefully we can keep this in the forefront of our minds beyond COVID-19 in regards to the climate crisis. In the meantime, I am hopeful that some of the positives in relation to cycling as a means of transport will persist. More people on bikes is safer for everyone. Protected space for cycling encourages the more reticent to ride. The numbers of people using dedicated cycle space in London and across the country shows this admirably .

Cycling is demonstrating its versatility once again. Use a bike for personal transport, use it for deliveries (Pedal Me!), use it for exercise, use it to stay mobile and distant from others, use it to boost mental wellbeing. Some companies and organisations in London (and in many other places, I have no doubt) are already discussing a change to future working practices with more chances to work flexibly and from home. Will the modal shift towards cycling be sustained or will people begin to feel more confident about using public transport once again? Will changes in working practices noticeably ease congestion on the buses, tube, trains and the roads?  (the likely shift in working practices  am keeping my fingers crossed that London and the UK won’t continue to drag its heels in providing more widespread cycle provision. In the light of the obvious benefits of bike riding during COVID-19 restrictions I am hoping that we can convert any temporary improvements into permanent ones. I’m not as unrealistic as to desires that post-COVID-19 streets will be as enjoyable to ride as those during the travel restrictions but if they are than they were… it’s something.

 

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[NB. I’m London-based so my comments will inevitably be London-centric though many of the points above are equally applicable elsewhere. There’s an excellent summary of cycling/COVID-19 points in this piece by LCC which worth a read, and summarises things in a superior way to my thoughts here.]

 

The Inevitable COVID-19 Post… (Part 1: the personal stuff)

How is everyone doing? I hope you are managing to stay as balanced as you can in these strange and difficult times.

I have approached the physical isolation restrictions in the same way that I approach winter – aggressive exercise. Also yoga. I am fortunate in that I have a sizeable public park nearby in which to walk and run. I haven’t cycled there yet, but took the opportunity for a couple of short road rides near to home last weekend to make the most of the sunshine and blossom. I was conscious of venturing a bit further from home than of late but kept to roads I knew while avoiding the routes out of the suburbs that are the most popular with local riders. Pedalling to the edges of Kent and back into London was, frankly, joyous – I haven’t felt happier in recent weeks. Otherwise there is turbo. My usual Turbobeat group sessions have, as so many others, gone online. A fitness app connects heart rate of individuals to a shared screen which pretty much replicates the display in the usual classes. Though, my landlady’s garage lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.

 

 

A shout out to Paul Mill of Elite Cycling here. He’s running these classes three times a week (Tues-Thurs) until the end of May with no charges. Come and join us! All he asks is that you donate to Shelter via his JustGiving page. It also has all his contact information so you can drop a line to find out the Zoom meeting link and Spark app details – you need a turbo and a HRM. At the time of writing he’s managed to raise nearly £2k. If you have a bluetooth monitor you can see your HR onscreen but if not you can self-regulate that in accordance with Paul’s instructions as I do. Great structured sets and a way to raise funds for some of those most in need during the current pandemic.

There is no right or wrong way to react in the current situation. We do what we can. Perhaps we stick to what we usually do when things get tough, perhaps we try to adapt. Bake sourdough or don’t bake sourdough. Sit around in your pants or don’t sit around in your pants. I have sat back a little from social media though as I found I was becoming rather overwhelmed by the sheer output of organisations shifting so much information into the digital realm. I still make time for the all-important cute animal videos though. Plenty of people have commented on how repeated online interactions, and in particular group meetings, leave them unusually tired by the end of the day. Here’s just one comment on some of the reasons why that might be.

The courses of therapy I’ve attended have underlined trying to approach things with an investigative air, with a curiosity. This seems to help me – when I remember to do it! Also, attempting to be present, as Mindfulness encourages. When we cannot say for sure what the future will bring it can help to focus more on the short term. Running and turbo does that for me too – the physical effort needed keeps my train of thought on a short track. Mens sana in corpore sano.

 

 

We won’t all react the same way, or the way we expect. As someone for whom anxiety is a regular companion I thought I might find this situation far more stressful than I have. I’m not alone, however, in finding that I am much happier and relaxed now than I’ve been for many, many weeks. A new normal with certain boundaries removes some of the vagaries of life, some of the previous ‘obligations’ no longer apply. For me, the fact that I currently do not have to attend regular appointments with my Universal Credit Work Commitments Advisor has been a palpable relief. I am fortunate that I have been in the system for several months and do not have to apply along with tens of thousands of others. Life feels as if it’s on pause, yet I can still do some of the activities that mean the most to me. For others, it might be a struggle to get through each day without the usual structure of work and all the social interactions that accompany it. For me, being at home recently and job-hunting has meant I’ve been fairly isolated anyway. It’s not such a huge shift in my life. It is, of course, a very different situation when you *can’t* do certain things rather than when you *don’t*. Like some others, I’ve done more exercise recently than I usually do because I feel the need to make the most of the chance I have. I do worry a little what might happen if further restrictions were put in place… and then try to remind myself that all this too shall pass.

How are you coping? Or not? Has your relationship with the bike changed during this period? Drop me a line via the contact page and let me know. Perhaps we can all share some of the things that have helped us, and those that haven’t. I feel the change of season is a boon. It might seem unfair to be inside working when the sun is out and the temperature is mild though I, for one, feel the situation would be much harder if we still had the storms and rain of earlier in the year. My flat might begin to feel a bit like a prison if the rain was beating down on the windows. To complement the physical exertions I have been more attentive of the natural world; a spot of Hanami (the flowering cherry outside my window is coming into bloom), visiting the goslings by the lake in the park, listening to birdsong. These are reminders of both permanence and fluctuation. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

 

 

Active And Not Moving

 

For the first time in years I’ve not been riding regularly at the weekend. My usual winter turbo sessions are in place – two sessions a week keeps my mood higher than it would be otherwise. I’ve ridden three, perhaps four, times out on my usual roads out of London and into Kent since I was made redundant at the end of September.

I think there was a certain element of… not guilt, exactly… but a sense of shift in the structure of my cycling year. I was conscious of not riding but became more at ease with it as time went on. Turbo gave me an ‘excuse’ of sorts. If I’d been made redundant in the spring or summer it might have been a different story. There has been a new beam inserted into the structure however – running.

I started in the gym a couple of years ago and not having run since my school days it was rather a trial. Six or so months later I tried my first Park Run. I’ve been going to these fairly regularly over the past eighteen months and even that has taken a little while to adapt to. Saturday was Bike Day. So Bike Day became Sunday. Latterly it hasn’t been any particular day.

Earlier this year I starting running on my own, sometimes in addition to Park Run, sometimes as a substitution. The maximum distance I run is around 8km. It brings different fitness, new physical experiences. Not all of these good. Old injuries groan and whine with the impact of the tarmac. I am much more conscious of my unequal leg length. What it is, however, is time efficient. My world has changed shape, perhaps shrunk a little – you see so much more of the world on a bike than on foot.

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When I first left work I felt a sense of relief despite the circumstances. I hadn’t been happy for a long, long time. A palpable lifting of the weight on my shoulders left me emboldened and optimistic. I had more energy, I visited friends and went out in the evening because I wasn’t too exhausted from the daily grind. Some freelance work brought in a little though two thirds ended up getting wiped out by Universal Credit.

The tasks the Universal Credit demands of you are overwhelmingly performative. I attend appointments for the sake of attending appointments. If I don’t they have a ready excuse to sanction me. My ‘work commitments advisor’ is someone who views my job hunting efforts like an examiner running down a sheet of answers and determinedly marking a large cross next to each one. He undermines my self-esteem and self-confidence and sets my anxiety spiralling. For two days after my last appointment my stomach pitched and rolled with worry. Compared with many of the people who walk through the door of the local job centre I am privileged. I am not one missed payment away from homelessness. I do not have to decide whether I heat my home or I eat. The amount I receive is the equivalent of around 60% of my previous monthly earnings however. Low level panic sometimes finds me looking around for possessions I can sell – I’ve already marked two bikes that I could let go, maybe three.

Without regular work I’ve lost my focus. My perfectionism slows my form-filling to the extent that every personal statement is squeezing blood from a stone. Tortuous process of tweaking, copy and pasting, deleting and redrafting. Universal Credit doesn’t care about quality, it cares about quantity. My advisor shows no interest or care that I am trying to increase my likelihood of securing an interview by submitting the very best application I can muster – he wants to see that I’ve applied for whatever he considers the appropriate amount of jobs to be. He’s already injected a vague air of menace by informing me that there is only a certain amount of time they ‘allow’ you to look for suitable jobs before, presumably, they expect you to except any old shit for the sake of it. He looks over his glasses at me with the air of someone who presumes everyone sitting in front of him is out to cheat the system. It’s belittling and makes the whole situation worse. I wonder whether all the other work commitments advisors are like him and designed by UC training to grind the applicants down. Or perhaps he just can’t be arsed and doesn’t care. All I know is that his attitude has a tangible negative impact on my efforts to find work.

Most of my periods of depression have been associated with work. It’s important to me that I can work to a high standard, though this often morphs into the desire to reach standards above and beyond those I can realistically achieve in the situation. The thought of being forced into a job that makes me miserable and that offers no intellectual sustanence merely for the sake of having employment initiates a deep-seated knawing horror. I know too well how this would impact upon my mental health. Against this backdrop I do my best to function but I am unsettled and nervous. There are so many things I could do, but where do I start? I procrastinate knowingly, putting off the To Do list because I am overwhelmed by its length. The procrastination makes it worse, of course. This will mean nothing to my UC advisor who has offered nothing in the way of positive and helpful suggestions to aid me in my hunt for employment. Just thick, marker pen crosses against what I *have* done. Not Good Enough. It’s crushing for someone who struggles to subdue perfectionism.

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webcomicname.com – Alex Norris

I fantasise about leaving everything behind, starting again somewhere and somehow. Shedding my old life and beginning anew. Discarding current obligations like a threadbare coat and walking towards the horizon. It is only a fantasy… though an apparently important one it seems. I ride to the job centre. The return journey feels like an escape. I attempt to push my frustration and anger out over the hills of South London in the short ride home. I’m beginning to wonder that I’m deliberately avoiding longer rides because the urge not to return might wash over me, pulling me out into the flood plains and beyond to the limits of the land itself. Rather than finding my equilibrium through riding I’m rather afraid it might slip from me completely. Turbo is safe, fixed, familiar. It is structure, it is predictable and reliable. I see the same faces, undertake familiar efforts, receive the predicted email with my stats afterwards. I cling to the routine and use it to mark the days.

Even when I’m not working on job applications I’m thinking about them. Or thinking about working on them. Obligations, both real and perceived, cause my shoulders to rise and fall. I try to syphon off small moments of calm in the morning taking my time over breakfast, making a second cup of tea. It feels like a swindle. I’m just putting off the inevitable worry about job-hunting again. It’ll still be there after I’ve drained the mug.

Everything feels up in the air. It’s as though I’m waiting for something to happen, not expecting but hoping. When The Thing happens I presume I can relax, and move forward. For now I’m in stasis, active but not moving. I Am Turbo.

 

 


 

In other news, I have a contribution in an upcoming anthology on bike-related MH recovery/management. Edited by Olivia Sagan and James Withey, it will be similar to their earlier publication The Recovery Letters. More details in due course.

I’ve also been in contact with Isabel Hardman over the last year or so and some of my comments will feature in her forthcoming book, The Natural Health Service which will be published in April.

I was contacted by Lilith from @gearsforqueers via the B&B twitter account. They have kindly arranged for me to be sent an advance copy of their and Abi’s upcoming book on touring and its effects on legs and head. As someone who only starting touring recently I’ve found myself chuckling with understanding at some of the thoughts and feelings that cropping up for them both, as well as some of the shared analogies. Due to be published in June by Sandstone Press if you fancy getting your mitts on a copy.

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Cycling is sanity… part 2

Well, things have been a bit interesting since last I posted. In short, I was made redundant. The contract for the peer and social support project I coordinated was terminated, the funding cut. I had a feeling it was coming, there had been a pretty dramatic reduction in funding a few years ago, and it never fills you with confidence when contracts are only a year, or 6 months at a time.

When I first got the news my anxiety went into overdrive – I spent the following week or so constantly nauseous with it. I was sure I was going to give myself an ulcer. Then, after a few of the formalities, when I was able to see how long my settlement would last it got a bit easier. Facts help. Tangibility. Something solid with work with.

There was a slump in physical activity – so much to get my head around trying to draw the project (which had been going since 2012) to a close in less than a month. I was on holiday for a week too during this time – a family get-together which is a long-standing tradition. I skipped bmx, I was out of town and not near any park runs, I was drained from worry. The last few weeks at work where incredibly busy. This seemed rather perverse to me at the time. One leaving do (with the therapists who I’ve been working alongside), then a week in Wales. Usually I have the bike with me but not this time. I made do with coastal walking and a run along the local beaches. Then back to London, a leaving do with my clients. Then… done.

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Tenby. My second home. Kinda.

I felt a huge sense of relief, much larger than I expected. That’s when I came to fully appreciated just how stressed (consistently!) I’ve been over the past 2-3 years. This probably shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did.

So I’ve been reflective. Soooo reflective. I’ve been considering how started warming to the idea of riding, and how it was a rather soft entry to the world of cycling. Truth is, and I might have already written about this but I can’t remember and I can’t be arsed to check, it was the social side and the community spirit which brought me back to the Eastway Cycle Circuit in East London again and again during the summer of 2003.

The Beastway Summer Mountain Bike Series at Eastway was a warm environment within which I grew to love riding. And that was without participating in the races themselves. Actually, I did one and it both nearly killed me and brought the revelation that I Could Do Stuff I Thought I Couldn’t. With a bit of encouragement, that was. Aside from that you would have found me setting up the course, at the sign-on desk, and at the finish line as part of the lap-scoring team week after week. The Beastway sign-on desk was where I first encountered Grayson Perry. He was up for the Turner Prize that year but when I met him it was before the results had been announced. It was not a surprise that we didn’t see him after that as he was very much in demand, to say the least! I think a fair few people who know his ceramic work are unaware of the significance of cycling to his life.

I caught a notice of an event with him next Thursday (24th Oct). Some of my London readers might be interested as it promises to be a fab evening in Grayson’s company. I’m gutted I can’t make it as I’ll be out of town. Someone go and let me know what it was like! I’m presuming there’ll be a bit of everything – mental health, pottery, gender identity, but maily about the joys of both pootling about and thrashing about on a bike. There are still some tickets left so grab one while you can.

 

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Tickets are £18.50-£22.50 and you can give the box office a ring on 020 7739 6176 or visit the venue site and book online.

 

Meanwhile I’ll be off to Spain for a few days (though back before the 31st *stares*). This trip, also without bike (feels weird), has been planned for sometime – it’s been great to have it to look forward to whilst going through all the redundancy nonsense. Some of you may remember that I visited Anna Glowinski out in Spain back in March, and I’ll be heading back there again. With the clocks changing the end of next week it feels like a good time to be heading somewhere warmer and coastal. Sea breezes always sweep the cobwebs away.

In the meantime, while I’m job-searching, the landscape stutters from last throes of vibrancy to more muted tones in the inescapable forwards slip of the seasons I will be employing my usual tactic of AGGRESSIVE EXERCISE™ to see out the winter months. More on this in due course. (Spoiler: lots of group turbo training. I bloody love it.)

 

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Catching up with the changing seasons

Having a bit of a moment. No blogging for ages then two at once. Sort of. Forgive my laxity of late.

January and February felt a bit tough going. I had a few slumps and at one point felt miserable enough to seriously consider going back on anti-depressants again after a break of two years. Twice weekly turbo sessions and park runs kept my physical fitness up and helped to split the period into manageable chunks – for the most part. I tried to get a ride of 35-ish miles in on Sundays too, though ‘allowed’ myself the odd weekend off. A dear friend of mine who’d been away for a while arrived back in London in January – their company had been missed and I was cheered by being able to catch up again. But the short days were a struggle, and the grey cloudy days were a struggle. I found myself searching for every little sign that spring was on the way and I even felt something akin to relief when the daffodils and snowdrops emerged from slumber. Then the crocuses.

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I’ve not been hibernating though, despite the occasional urge to do just that (I’m sure many of you are all too familiar with that feeling).

Back in January I was invited by Club Peloton to speak at their evening event in Surrey Quays – discussion around cycling, mental health, and the workplace. Evidence shows that those who cycle to work are generally more productive, happier, more energised, than people who don’t. They’re also healthier both physically and mentally, take fewer sick days. It’s worth a company providing for those staff who cycle – secure parking, bike to work scheme, showers etc. It all benefits the workplace in the long run. I was on a panel of three, alongside Rachel Morris and other guy – we inhabit different cycling worlds and it was interesting to discover our differing opinions on certain subjects, as well as our similarities.

I managed to fit in a week away at the end of March (something to look forward to!) in Southern Spain, staying with the lovely Anna Glowinski. Anna went through some very tough times last year with fibromyalgia which, at one point, made her so ill she was considering how to live her life beyond cycling. We had some great chats about managing your mental health or not when you can’t do the activity you love so much and which is such a huge part of your life. My own wellbeing was very much boosted by a week in warmer (if not exactly hot) climes and the sheer bliss of being able to ride day after day in a amazing landscape without having to consider the daily grind of work and usual responsibilities.

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Casares, the Costas near Gibraltar.

 

A week after that was the London Bike Show and Danielle of Casquette had asked me whether I’d take part in a panel discussion with Molly Weaver and Josie Perry around cycling and depression. I was glad to participate and the whole Casquette Live stage at LBS was great; engaged audiences, wide variety of topics, and a chance to chat to many other amazing cycling women. Again, we on the panel approached our subject from differing angles and were able to complement each other – Josie as a sports psychologist, Molly as a pro rider, and me as an experienced rider and mental health worker.

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I’ve been talking, too, to Bella Velo, the SW London-based women’s cycling network regarding an upcoming evening panel discussion on cycling and mental health which takes place on Thursday. (Links in the previous blog post).

I’ve mentioned in the past about trying to find alternative ways to benefit from riding when I have become disillusioned with my riding. For a while I wasn’t fit enough to find any satisfaction in racing and even training rides with my club felt too much of a push. I ended up riding alone so as not to compare my fitness unfavourably with that of my friends. I did feel a bit unsatisfied with my cycling for a while until a spell of sick leave led to joining a gym and, for the first time out of choice, undertaking Some Running. There were other factors too but taking up other exercise helped me get my fitness back. That I was signed off work was key – there’s no way I could have exercised the amount I did each week whilst working 9-5 and being stressed from work. After months slow slide into exhaustion I began to feel more emboldened – my confidence in the abilities of my own body gradually seeped back. I’d forgotten how long it can take for this to happen. As it did, however, I started trying new things or revisiting activities I’d participated in in the past. Aside from the riding I went dancing once. My dreams of Strictly are entirely imaginary though. I’m shit at formal and structured dancing. Still, I did it and that was WAY out of my comfort zone. I also nourished my mind and visited galleries and museums. I’ve always been a passionate advocate of feeding ones intellect, drinking up new knowledge with the thirst of a desert island castaway discovering a source of fresh water. As an aside, I’m currently taking part in a series of workshops at a local museum to help develop a wellbeing resource – so many possibilities here to get the old grey matter bogling. But I digress. I’ve rediscovered bmx-ing in the last 2-3 years, tried touring (I’m a late bloomer!), and played around on penny farthings, velocipedes, rovers, sociables, tall bikes, and more. I’m currently having pangs for some off-road too – tempted to find a cheap mtb that I can thrash a few trails on. The current N+1 situation is more like N+5; a penny, mbt, Brompton, gravel bike, BMX… Last Autumn I acquired a Velocino, which is ridiculous and fun. Perfect for marshalling the Tweed Run recently. My outfit was made by the wonderful Kat Jungnickel from Dashing Tweeds material.

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It’s a ridiculous bike

 

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Kat made both her own outfit and mine

If there is a tip of sorts to be taken from all this, I guess, it would be that if for any reason you find that you have fallen out of love with the specific riding that you are doing… try another type. Try riding without any set goals other than just to ride. The Countryside Appreciation Ride generally does the trick for me and especially around this time of the year. The recent warm weather in the South of England during Easter was a gift – I spent a significant part of it barrelling around Sussex, Surrey, and Kent ecstatically yelping at the glory of the bluebells. Once I even alarmed some walkers emerging from a woodland path with a yelled “AW WOW!” as I descended from the ridge down towards Pilgrims Way and Otford. I can see the headline now –

WHOOPING BLUEBELL DEATH CYCLIST MAULS INNOCENT HIKERS.

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Anyway, it’s time to get down the BMX track again – a number of the London tracks have dedicated women only coached sessions and I attend one SE London regularly during the middle of the year. The ages range from early 20s to mid 50s. It’s a great workout, it’s social, and it’s fun. There’s an initiative from Access Sport called BMXercise aimed at getting women on the bike. It’s a bit different to some sessions out there but I can thoroughly recommend them. I’ve attended a couple at the Lee Valley VeloPark in East London. The Olympic track is definitely more technical than my local (though they have dropped the height of the start ramp since 2012!) but there’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of learning to handle the lumps, bumps, and jumps that have been ridden on by the likes of Shanaze Read even if one can’t pretend to be as accomplished as her on 20″ wheels. I’m still excited I’ve properly learned to bunny hop… and have the scar to prove it.

What are your bikes plans for the summer? Do you have any particular goals set or is the joy of cycling in warm weather and not wearing ALL THE LAYERS enough of a plan to bring you joy?

 

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MHAW, 13th-19th May

Many of you will have detected a rise in the articles on mental health recently in the run-up to Mental Health Awareness Week which commenced today.

I had just hit publish on a post but it seems to have been eaten mid-update or my wifi dropped out or something. I’m trying not to be too frustrated about losing text I’ve spent the some hours coaxing into a timely piece on MHAW, body image, an upcoming series of programmes on MH and an event run by Bella Velo on Thursday 16th in SW London. Forgive me if this post seems a little brief in places. I may go back and pad out paragraphs again as I remember what I wrote originally.

So, this year MHAW is focused on body image. I think this may be very relevant for many of us, particularly perhaps those of us who came to cycling later in life may have experienced significance physical changes and become fitter and healthier that we have ever been. There have been various ‘cycling changed my life’ stories that have focused on weight loss but what happens when these gains slip away with injury, illness, pregnancy, or changing life commitments? How do we adjust to the changes in our own body image and sense of self? How do we manage when our peers seem so much stronger and how often do we unhelpfully compare ourselves to them? How can we direct our energies when we can’t get on the bike at all? I spoke to Anna Glowinski recently about her fibromyalgia and how it interferred with her life – more on this in due course.

Those of you who have attended a Bikes and Brains evening event or who have been reading the blog for awhile will know I’m not a fan of simplistic motivational cycling posters. Cycling is not a cure, it is a great tool, a practical coping mechanism, sometimes a crutch, perhaps even an obsession. If you wish to move forward you need to look at the Why? What’s behind it all? Working on self-awareness and (know thyself!) will prepare you for next time. Great if cycling has a considerable therapeutic impact but… it isn’t therapy. Having said this, I had a group turbo session a few days ago after a few stressful days at work and the intense physical effort of 15 x 30 sec pushes, with 1:30 recovery absolutely hit the spot in terms of turning my mood around. I’m also a bit fan of accessing counselling, therapy, mindfulness, yoga, or whatever helps you get to know yourself and better help you manage mental ill health. Mental health awareness of self.

 

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This week there is a series of three programmes on BBC1 to coincide with MHAW, the first one on anxiety with Nadiya Hussian, with subsequent ones with David Harewood on psychosis and Alastair Campbell on depression. I see the value in those with a platform highlighting this issues. I think it’s helpful to be reminded that we *really* aren’t alone and many other people have similar experiences. I’m all for activities beyond just awareness though, and trying to do something practical whether supporting people close to us or more generally through support services. I think I’ve said before that it’s pretty easy for me to talk about my mental health, I’ve been doing since before I started working in mental health, but I’m all to aware that this is not a given for everyone. Hence why I’ve been hosting the Bikes and Brains evenings IRL. Re the BBC focus on MH this week,  I think the first programme in the series was the one I was interviewed for about 18 months ago. It was my understanding that Miranda Hart was attached to the project but it seems that Nadiya Hussain has stepped in since. I don’t know whether I made the final edit but I’ll be watching regardless!

I’ve been chatting to Bella Velo in preparation for their evening event on Thursday in SW London. There’s a great line up and the evening is hosted by Adele Mitchell. It’s open to everyone, not just Bella Velo members so if you can make it to Richmond on the evening of 16th May please come and join us…

 

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Awareness is not enough…

ADD YOUR VOICE… You may not be able to make the Bella Velo evening but you can always write a guest post for Bikes and Brains! There’s a page on submitting a piece (with a few guidelines) but if you have any questions you can always drop me a line through the contact page or on Twitter @bikesandbrains if you prefer. I’m happy to chat about how your particular experiences might be represented. Did cycling come first, and then mental health issues appear later on? Did you take up cycling as part of recovery from depression? Do you find that anxiety gets in the way of achieving what you want to achieve? Does pedalling relieve the symptoms of OCD or PTSD? Is the bike more of an all-round wellbeing thing for you? Are you and ultra-distance rider who endures intense lows after a race? Is the bike a way of facing your issues or escaping from them?

On the blog I’m hoping to build up a kind of Library of Experiences, if you will, to being able to record how cycling can interact with mental health and vice versa. It’s also to be able to provide moments of recognition; that others can read and know that others travelled similar paths. Some may wish to highlight what they’ve learnt along the way, raise the issues that have arisen. If you have concerns about having your name searchably associated with the blog I can publish your piece anonymously – you can identify yourself as much or as little as you are comfortable with.

 

The cycling social circle

Some of you may have read the interview with Jools Walker in the Observer yesterday. I’m proud to know Jools and she was kind enough to be part of the first Bikes and Brains evening at Look Mum No Hands about 18 months ago. Do check out her blog if you haven’t yet. Also, look out for her book which is published in about ten days! Exciting! It covers, amongst other things, her depression and her love for the bicycle. I’m looking forward to getting my mitts on a copy 🙂

 

Club Peloton – Bikes, Brains, and the Workplace

It’s taken me awhile to get my arse into gear and thump out another post but here goes. I was contacted a short time ago by Neil Webster who was putting together and event for Club Peloton – a grant-making charity that’s been going for over a decade, and that focuses on using the bike to network within the property industry. Neil was proposing an event for members that focused on cycling and mental health and how that might link benefits in the workplace. Neil kindly hosted and introduced the panel as well as highlighting some relevant conclusions drawn from Club Peloton members on the subject of the evening.

The event took place a week or so ago on a cold evening in British Land’s Canada Water venue (I appreciated the soup and sourdough on offer!). My Cohorts-in-Speech for the evening were Paralympian, Rachel Morris MBE and Richard Lord of Equipe Cycle Coaching. I think we had an interesting diversity of experiences between us – with mental health providing the overlap in the Venn diagram.

A survey that was sent out to members in advance of the event provided some context for the evening and some thoughts from attendees on how their use of the bike for transport had a beneficial effect on their work patterns. A substantial 60% of those polled thought that they arrived at work more energised than they would otherwise and felt that they were more productive from having cycled in. All those who returned the survey felt that exercise eased depression or low mood. Probably not a surprise to many of us cyclists but, in this context, it was satisfying to see the trends reiterated so firmly.

I’d love to see more workplaces embracing this kind of event as part of the ongoing process to normalise discussions of mental health. Some large companies are starting initiiatives to support the mental health of their employees. From a purely economic perspective it makes sense (a ‘no brainer’, if you will). A more supported workforce is a happier workforce, is likely to be a more loyal one, a more coherent one. Individuals will stay longer, be more productive, take fewer days of sick leave. We spend so much of our lives at work – looking at factors that improve or sustain wellbeing in the workplace should, in my opinion, be standard. An organisation *is* its workforce. Businesses can work at offering more flexible working, work environment changes, support options such as employee helplines and access to counselling/therapy, be willing to embrace reasonable adjustments. It’s not all up to the individual to build up their own resilience and tolerance; businesses and organisation need to be willing to examine their own culture/practice and be willing to modify where there are structures in place which negatively affect staff.

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Squirrel! (We were actually looking at the results of the attendee survey)

Thursday is Time to Talk Day – a great opportunity to get together with colleagues over a cuppa and have a chat about how your head is – whether that be good, bad, or fair-to-middling. When we are asked how we are we so often default to ‘fine, thanks’ even when we are far from it. This might be for various reasons – we don’t want to talk to that specific person, we don’t want to talk in that environment, we shut down the conversation because we don’t want to talk at all. Why not make time to have those chats, to not be alarmed by people sharing sensitive subjects, to allow space for people to show a bit of emotion?

During the Q&A one attendee to the Club Peloton event asked about the signs that someone was struggling and how one might help. Sometimes it might not be clear to the individual themselves what is happening, especially if its something they haven’t gone through before. We described some of our own experiences. I notice that I’m becoming more withdrawn. I socialise less, and when I do it takes much more energy. My sleep patterns can be interrupted, or I might sleep through the night and wake still feeling exhausted. There are usually very visible physical signs of my mental health taking a slide. Lower energy levels can mean my diet takes a downturn too as I have less energy to prepare meals and less interest in what I’m eating. Then I have less energy because I’m not eating properly. I can feel much more on edge emotionally, smaller things can upset in a way they wouldn’t do normally. I experience a sense of ‘greying out’ when life seems to have less colour (I take fewer photos when this happens and notice my instagram output drops!). A salient point which I neglected to mention is that if you are concerned that someone might be having a tough time don’t be afraid to ask them. Sometimes being there, listening, and small acts of support can be incredibly valuable. Don’t try and fix someone. Ask them what they would like to happen. They might not know but it’s a good place to start. Perhaps ask questions that have few possible answers – anxiety and low mood can squash decision-making and too many choices can seem overwhelming. Sometimes taking charge can be useful – ask the individual whether they would prefer if you made a choice for them. One of my friends announced that we were going to a cafe for tea and cake and chat – and no arguments! I was happy to oblige. When I’m at this stage it’s not as simple as just going out for a bike ride to make it all better – it will take much more to get out of the front door and the ride also will be much more of a physical effort because I’m so drained.

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What practical steps can be take within the worksplace? Facilitating access to Mental Health First Aid Training is one. An additional approach is training for managers in how to support those colleagues with lived experience of MH issues. Mental health workplaces are equally playing catch-up – just because MH is the focus of the business or organisation it isn’t a given that there will be a higher level of support in place. Where resources are tight there canbe a tendency to focus on the clients over those who provide the service. Setting up a LEN (Lived Experience Network) can be of huge benefit in terms of staff peer support and a resource for employers to draw on order to develop focused and effective services for employees.

Aside from that, there is the option of going to your GP, contacting psychological therapies services, taking medication. Personally I’d go for any and all of these (and have done). Some people prefer not to take medication, perhaps opting for yoga, Mindfulness, mediation, exercise, gardening, and so on. It can take a little while to discover what works for you. I’d say keep an open mind and read up about tried and tested approaches.

Read a bit more on the Club Peloton evening in the fab write-up in Velocity Magazine. Images of the event used here are by kind permission of David Taylor, editor of Velocity Magazine. Aside from the t-shirt design pic which I nabbed from Neil Webster . Here are a few other relevant links which may pique your interest…

Mental health in the workplace – Time to Change

Economic and Social Cost – Mental Health Foundation

Mental Health FIrst Aid – MHFA England

Resources – Mental Health At Work

Time to Talk Day 2019 – Time to Change

Possible colour perception alterations in depressives – Harvard

Psychological Therapies Services – NHS

Wellbeing boost from cycling or walking to work – NICE

A Year On…

A Brief Look Back

 

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.

 

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The inevitable best nine of 2018; bikes, rides, and… other stuff.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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