The Ride of your Life.
by Nick Moore
The link between cycling and mental health has been recognised since the sport’s very earliest days.
The first true modern bicycle, the Rover Safety, rolled onto the road in 1885. Just 11 years later, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, no less, was moved to write in an article for Scientific American:
‘When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking’.
What he was really talking about, of course, was mindfulness: being entirely present, fully engaged with where you are and what you’re doing at that precise instant – and nothing else.
More than a century on, the bicycle remains a supremely effective, enjoyable and human way to maintain what the Roman poet Juvenal famously termed mens sana in corpore sano – a healthy mind in a healthy body.
“So whatever it consists of, your ride today will be enough. You don’t need to call it anything, get dressed up, pin on a number, record every detail, set a personal best or receive a free goody bag at the end. Nor do you need to film it in order to make it real. All that matters is that you were there.”
Unlike most other sports and activities, cycling is something you can take part in entirely at your own pace, alone or in company, and without any element of competition.
It requires little by way of specialist equipment, and no particular physical gifts.
There are no membership fees, no opening hours, no minimum commitment, and you can do it right from your own front door, any time of day (or night) all year round, whatever the weather. It is always there when you need it.
“By accepting whatever the elements throw at us, we grow as cyclists, and as people. It also helps us forge a deeper bond with the bicycle – as true partners, not just fair-weather friends.”
From a purely physiological perspective, riding a bike produces feel-good chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, endorphins and cannabinoids in the brain.
Regular riding also helps keep hormones like adrenaline and cortisol in check, reducing your stress levels and enabling you to deal with anxiety more easily.
Scientists still don’t fully understand the mechanisms involved – but they and countless cyclists know beyond doubt that it works.
Unlike medical professionals, partners or therapists, the bicycle is a machine, so it is entirely neutral, impartial and non-judgemental.
The fact that it simply ‘is’ can help us simply ‘be’, too. As it has no moods and requires no appointment, the bike stands ready to help us with whatever is on our mind at any given time.
We have no need for doctors or pharmaceuticals: we can be our own physician, and write our own, entirely natural prescription.
“The bike doesn’t care, the mind whispers, so why should we? Hence there is always the temptation to push that little bit harder, go that little bit further. To do so mindfully is to find that precise point of balance between what we can do, and what we just can’t.”
Sometimes, that will be nothing more than a gentle spin around the block to settle the dust of a hectic day.
At other times, it might be an all-day marathon, a one-for-the-ages epic in a biblical downpour, or simply going full-bore for ten miles and leaving it all on the road.
The bike doesn’t mind. And if you don’t require it at all for a day, or a week, or half a lifetime, it’s happy to wait patiently until you do.
What’s more, quite apart from riding, almost every aspect of cycling can become a meditation.
Getting ready for a ride has its own rituals that switch us unconsciously from civilian to cyclist: a mental shift of gears, so to speak, in which we make a transition from one energy state to another; from the potential to the kinetic.
Making some basic pre-flight checks reconnects us physically and spiritually, elevating the bike from passive, servile machine to equal partner in the coming enterprise.
When we get home, giving the bike a quick rub-down, re-lube and once-over is a chance to decompress and gather our thoughts before re-entering ‘Real Life’.
Even a roadside puncture can be an opportunity for learning and growth, whether you fix it yourself or fall back on the kindness of strangers.
“Dealing with a puncture restores a sense of self-reliance and self-sufficiency we’re rapidly losing in today’s hi-tech world.”
The bike is all things to all people, and will be whatever you want and need it to be.
For many of us, it represents freedom: an escape from home, work, the phone and the inbox – a chance to drop out of time, regain our anonymity and disappear for a while.
It is about reconnecting with feelings, physical sensations and the world around us, confronting fears and limits, overcoming challenges and becoming self-reliant and independent – all fundamental to our mental wellbeing.
It allows us to recapture a sense of childlike wonder, turn back the clock to simpler, more innocent days; to be in nature, and gain new insights into the physical laws that shape our universe and our place within it.
“To be mindful is to identify, accept and understand what’s under our wheels right now. It is also to recapture the magic we knew and believed in as children. And how many things in our busy, rational lives can promise us a miracle like that?”
The awareness we develop on the bike can help us to detach ourselves from desire, regain perspective, escape entrenched thought patterns and view ourselves and the world more objectively.
It’s raining. It’s cold. This hill is steep. The bike is working normally. No value judgments, no good or bad, right or wrong. The moment is sufficient unto itself.
Enjoy the ride!
Nick Moore is a cyclist and cycling journalist.
His new book, Mindful Thoughts for Cyclists (which is quoted in this post), is published by Leaping Hare Press and is available now.