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24 Jul 2023

Cycling for SANE – Ride London Essex 100

At the end of May this year I was one of a number of riders taking part in this event to raise money for SANE and as I live a long way from London joined the Ride London Facebook group to help me get organised for the day. That Facebook group and all of the worries about the event which people were sharing reminded me of the many cycling things I now take for granted and that wasn’t the case back in 2009 when I first thought about getting back on a bicycle.

Approaching 40, with a busy family and work life, I look back at a poor work-life balance which had impacted heavily on my fitness, stress was taking a toll on my physical and mental health. I needed to do something.

A bike I’d bought 20+ years earlier was sat buried in a shed and needed some ‘tlc’ before it was going anywhere, but it felt good sorting it out ready to go out. My first ride was short, being honest, a breathless experience. How had I become so unfit? (Or was it the bike?)

Soap operas saved me, or rather they were a perfect time to grab some ‘me time’ and try to do something about my fitness. Over weeks and months I did get fitter, could ride further and no longer felt quite so embarrassed every time I got to a hill.

But, the benefits of exercise on physical fitness are easy to see, what was less obvious to me was how it was benefitting me in other ways. I was taking back some time for me, which felt great and that ‘soap time’ cycling wasn’t impacting on my family too much either. A win-win!

After 6 months or so I joined a cycling club, a little nerve wracking on my old bike, recently back to cycling in the cheapest kit I could find. I shouldn’t have worried. There was always someone happy to ride at my pace, encourage me when things got tough, help with punctures and chat along the way. Cycling really can be a great social way of taking exercise.

I got to see new places, met some new people and actually made a few friends. Oh, those hills, they were now becoming friends too. They were a challenge if I wanted a tough workout, or something to rage at after a stressful day, they never complained and I always felt better!

My rides had become workouts on occasions, rather than just rides, I’d now got cycling as my exercise regime. It was really good knowing I’d got that to look forward to either with new friends in a club or exploring on my own. It started to amaze me how many ‘strangers’ I’d meet out on a ride who would wave and smile, ride along for a chat, or stop and help if you needed it.

For me cycling was great, I could fit it with everything else going on in my life, eventually a more modern bike was purchased and cycling became my thing.

I can ride and think things through, somehow the problems seem smaller when I get home. I’ve learned a bit about training and fitness and over the years put more effort into planning my cycling time, both when it can be done and what I’ll be doing. For me, if I plan my exercise time a week ahead I find it much easier to actually do it, I’ve set the time aside ready..

Eventually I got an indoor trainer which my bike could sit on so I could more easily keep to my routine during the winter months and maybe get a little stronger, but I’d never really realised how much I needed something to help me get through those dark winter months.

Indoors I was safe, could catch up on music, podcasts, films anything really and it really made it easier to keep to my good exercise habit. I’m not a massive tech fan, but in the end I had to give online training a try, a free trial of Zwift later and I suddenly found a whole online community of indoor cyclists. Sometimes there was chat via message apps, but increasingly via voice apps.

Then COVID and those seemingly endless lockdowns, a testing time for all of us. I kept to the rules, cycled when and where I could, made increasing use of the online training and even joined an online cycle training club. There was so much support within that group, looking out for each other, encouraging each other, celebrating achievements together both cycling and in other areas of our lives. Those people I’d never physically met at that point really helped lock down to feel so much less isolating.

Over the years my weekly cycling time has increased as I’ve focussed more on my fitness and doing something I enjoy. Oddly, in spite of that training plan and a still busy work life, stress is much less of an issue for me. A better balance, I think has helped me focus on what is important to me, on occasions that may be cycling, but more importantly my (very) patient wife, my family, my friends and those around me.

The years of consistent exercise on my bike have made me fitter and it’s become a routine part of my week where I’m doing something I enjoy (routine seems to help me keep going with exercise). It’s my ‘time out’ mentally as well as physically, it’s taken me to places I’d never have seen, not just little café’s in the UK, but when abroad it’s given me confidence in spite of poor language skills to go out and explore small villages away from the busy tourist areas when on holiday overseas.

I’ve met so many fantastic people some in passing, some who are now good friends. It’s also made me realise there’s many good people out there, generous with their time and who want to help, but one or two who want to challenge. There are many cycling challenges out there and I didn’t expect to do any when I first ventured back onto a bike, but I’ve been out on my own, with groups, I’ve ridden on the front of tandems as part of a visually impaired group, been on a velodrome track and have gained the confidence to join a charity ride like Ride London without knowing anyone.

There’s increasing amounts of research which suggests physical exercise benefits our mental health, some attempt to explain why it feels good at the time or afterwards, I’ll leave that for the experts, but it seems to have worked for me.

There’s lots of information on the British Cycling website, club finder, introductory rides etc if you want to give it a try. If you’ve comments or questions, please leave them in the comment box.

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