What is it about cycling that makes it such a good tool to use for those of us whose minds play games with them on a regular basis? I can only give my opinion and experiences, so here goes.
When I was first ill, I felt pinned in my house. Why? I was prone to sudden and extreme outbursts of tears and raw emotion that I didn’t want to display to the outside world. I was desperately hanging in there, trying to manage my life well enough to avoid being sectioned. I think there was part of me that thought the less people knew about my breakdown, the better it was for me.
The one thing I did regularly, other than drinking too much beer, was to take a walk every day. A trip around the block would take me to the base of Dartmoor where I could sit and let my mind express itself without fear of being found out. My walks helped me hold myself together a little more than if I had just sat at home. The change of scenery and occasional person to talk to aided my cause by giving my life a little normality. These walks gradually deteriorated as the cartilage in my left knee grew more and more troublesome.
The physiotherapist said it was all in my mind, as was the back pain I suffered at the time. She was wrong, and a lucky meeting with a new doctor saw it diagnosed and operated on before you could say boo to a goose. I had to revisit the operating theatre for a second operation after a setback involving a motorbike (see my first book: Riding2Recovery: A journey within a journey.) After the second operation my knee recovered quickly and was fully functional again.
I had forgotten this state. I could walk without pain and ride my motorcycle with joyous abandon. When I returned from Scotland, land of inspiration and peace, I bought a basic cycle from Halfords in their autumn sale. I hadn’t done any serious cycling for many, many years but now felt like the right time. I would have done anything at that point to help break up days full of tears and the huge waves of emotion that crashed on my shores, threatening to drown me.
Local roads and traffic were beyond my ability to concentrate, So I began by trawling online for places to go. I knew nothing of Sustrans, finding them through Devon County Council’s website and its excellent ‘where to cycle’ pages. The Tarka Trail, Camel Trail and Granite Way stood out like shining jewels. Not only were they traffic free but there were cafes and people, orchards and sculpture. Perhaps more than any of that, they weren’t hilly in too many places, not like the lanes around where I live in Devon.
I remember clearly riding to East Yarde that first time. It hurt. My muscles didn’t want to be stressed in any way. My mind however, was the opposite, singing out loud with the joy of having found something soulful that I could manage to do. Without traffic I could amble, stop without a thought, recover as needed and go as slowly as I desired. I didn’t see anybody that first day, but I did meet the (then) owner of the Orchard Café which I came to love. David was a cycle enthusiast, and that was enough to make me listen to his stories and encourage me to keep trying.
Away from the roads, where our senses are attacked by the growling thunder of lorries and the zipping closeness of cars, there is silence broken only by the sounds of wildlife, the weather, and tyres crackling over the trail’s gritty surface. Just a mile or two out I stopped dead in my tracks, astonished by the beauty and peace of the trees, through which the trail weaved a crooked path. Roads demolish our countryside to go where they wish and for our convenience. Trails embrace the environment and use it to open our eyes to where we are and how astounding this planet is. That is a part of their attraction.
What with looking where I was going, pedalling and generally taking in what surrounded me, I began to relax my mind and steer it away, just for moments, from the battle raging within it. At some point I began to notice my surroundings: the birds, the breeze, the sun’s warmth and the flora. It wasn’t all joy. My legs hurt, my breathing was poor, and my undercarriage had gone numb in protest at being placed on such an inadequate seating place.
Somewhere in that dusty, quietly rumbling silence I knew I had found something special, something to explore and something to develop. I was remembering joys of times past spent touring and mountain biking, and I wanted to get back there again. When I finished and returned to my car it felt odd, as though I shouldn’t be driving it. It almost spoiled going out, having to get back into a box and return home in it on the very lanes I didn’t want to ride along. The road and traffic seemed to shout at me after the peaceful solitude of the trail. Such was the magic of Sustrans work and Devon County Councils belief, a creation of enormous importance, almost hidden from view unless you went in search of it. Hidden treasure amongst the Devonshire hills. Gold where I thought there was none.
Once home I buzzed and ached in equal measure. The next day I could hardly walk I was so unfit. A small but glowing part of the previous day’s ride stayed with me, encouraging me to get out again when I felt able. It wasn’t a tectonic shift. Nor was it a cure for my ills. It was something I had stumbled across that was leading to a new and gentler lifestyle and pathway than the previous choices I had made.
Around 80% of the population live within three kilometres of the National Cycle Network. Just think about that for a moment. We are being offered freedom on a plate, a place where we can leave our cars behind and make short and long journeys by cycle. It will only get better, if we all join in and insist it is needed.
It isn’t perfect. There are some impassable barriers for those with mobility problems. We need to learn to trust in our decisions of open usage, not hide the trails away in fear that some mad person on a moped will wreak havoc upon the dog walkers and leisure cyclists. We need to encourage people onto it and open their eyes to this precious resource. Most people have no idea who is behind the trails. Sustrans are not allowed to advertise blatantly along the trails that they helped to develop. So they remain a secret when we should all be shouting their name from the roof tops. That’s why I fundraised for Sustrans on my Round Britain ride in 2011.
Cycles are not very demanding or expensive, and they don’t need money or skill to keep safely trundling along. They are simple devices that take us to simple places. Cycling on traffic-free trails allows our minds to be still, to look out and explore what surrounds us. You can ride as far or near as you like. As fast or slow as you desire. You can stop when you want, explore every single thing that catches your attention. You can give back to local businesses and communities by using the cafes, shops, sights and public houses you come across on the journey.
Somebody recently asked if cycling could be the saving grace of our National Health Service. In some places, like Bristol, people like me, with ongoing, long-term mental health issues are given funding to take part in cycle projects. They learn to cycle, to take care of their bikes and to meet others and take part in our communities again. This has to more cost effective than leaving us to find our own way, doesn’t it?
It’s our choice at the end of the day. If we want these assets to be available, we must speak out about the benefits from having them. It’s changed my life, cycling, discovering the National Cycle Network and being a Sustrans volunteer. How about you?
Until next time……………….