In common with, it seems, just about everyone else in the country, I have been doing a lot of cycling recently. It’s been a good way to cope with the many challenges of the COVID-19 lockdown.
Don’t get me wrong; I am in the immensely privileged position of having a nice house with a garden, a husband and dog to keep me company, and a job I can do (in a very weird and awkward way) from the kitchen table. Lockdown has undoubtedly been a lot harder on many, many people. But this is just my reflection on cycling and how it has been a massive support to my mental health during this time.
I read the news of a wave of deaths and lockdowns spreading across Europe with a horrified fascination. On 20th March (later than I expected, to be honest) schools moved to remote learning and I was sent home for the foreseeable future, to teach via Google Classroom from my kitchen. On Sunday 22nd March, Chris and I went for a ride. I had just picked up my road bike from Roots Cycles after Marty had serviced it and built me some gorgeous new wheels.
It was an unseasonably beautiful day. I remember we rode into Perthshire and I didn’t want the ride to end. Seeing the lockdowns in continental Europe, with cycling banned, I was fairly convinced this would be our last outdoor ride for a long time. I was full of a horrible anxiety, a sense of something awful bearing down on us. That ride felt like a moment of grace before the coming storm.
The following day the lockdown was announced, but with one exception that gave me a sliver of hope – we were still allowed out for an hour a day to exercise! I still opted for the turbo quite a lot (I even joined Zwift) but there are a couple of loops on quiet roads that you can do from our house that take about an hour.
I was angry a lot at the start of lockdown. Angry at the world, at politicians, at people who seemed to be breaking the lockdown rules. Angry because people were dying, absolutely everything had been cancelled, my Mum and my sister were hundreds of miles away and I had no prospect of seeing either of them. But cycling helped. After a pedal the anger would subside and largely be replaced by profound gratitude that I was able to ride, to get outside and go much further from my home in just an hour than everyone out on their daily walks. I felt that little bit more free.
For the first 6 weeks or so I stuck to the turbo and the road bike. There was a lot of talk of not overburdening the NHS, and I was irrationally afraid of falling off my mountain bike. But I knew the bluebells were coming out in the woods on Park of Keir, and one morning I set out at 7am to find them. It was another perfect ride, like that one back in March, where everything was just beautiful. I saw I think one other person, several deer and a red squirrel. And the bluebells.
Again, I felt I’d regained a small piece of freedom.
Then the one hour restriction was lifted. There was only one place I wanted to ride: the Duke’s Pass. Still less than 20 miles from home, but it’s set in the beautiful Trossachs. I’ve ridden in Mallorca, the French and Italian Alps, and the Duke’s is still one of my favourite road rides in the world. People still weren’t supposed to drive except for essential travel, so the roads belonged to the cyclists. And there were lots of them! Yes, there were the usual roadies in Lycra (like us), but that day – and many times during lockdown – we saw families out with small children, people on all sorts of bikes, just out enjoying the fresh air and, hopefully, finding that peace and freedom that we were chasing.
One thing that I’ve really come to appreciate is the excellent roads, trails and gravel tracks that we have within easy pedalling distance of where we live. One weekend Chris took me up a hill that he had explored previously – from the top we were only about an hour from our house, but it felt so far away, so new, a real adventure.
We spent time discovering new roads, heading into Perthshire and taking tiny back roads we had never ridden before. We explored the new gravel tracks that go over Sheriffmuir to Menstrie. We rode from Langside through Glen Artney to Callander on the cross bikes, which we had been meaning to do for literally years. I headed up Dumyat on the moutain bike, more or less on impulse, met some other riders at the top and suddenly had a whole new group of biking friends.
Now lockdown is gradually easing and soon we will be able to go further afield. Trail centres will be re-opening. Who knows, we might even be able to get away for a few days. Maybe even see family down south.
Lockdown hasn’t all been easy. In a way, I’ve quite enjoyed the simplicity of it – eat, sleep, work, ride bike. But I have felt constrained, anxious about how far I’m allowed to go, how long I’m allowed to be out, how many risks I ought to be taking. And I still get angry.
Cycling has made this bearable. Cyclists as a whole have been in such a privileged position, to be able to venture further afield; and those of us who are lucky enough to live in areas with great roads and trails even more so. Cycling has given me the headspace to calm down, to be able to take a wider perspective, and to be able to support friends, family and colleagues. In short, it’s made me a better person – in fact, that applies to life, not just lockdown.