What I Think About When I Think About Cycling



Click… click… the cleats on my shoes sink into the pedals, my fingers wrap round the leather handlebar tape and my backside kisses the saddle: man and bicycle as one, rolling down the lane. Here is the calming familiarity; this is my window on the world.

I check what I’m carrying: spare tube, pump, tyre lever and a £20 note. There are a few decisions to make – where will I ride today? How strong am I feeling? How long before anyone notices I’ve gone? – and then the conscious is allowed to slowly fade.

By Rob Penn

Monday 22nd January 2018 

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Layers of anxiety are peeled away. First, the distracting, daily trivia – did I pay the electricity bill? What time is my train tomorrow? Should I tweet about this? – is dissolved. Then I progress to the bigger picture – what will my next book be about? Are my daughters happy at school? Can the Euro survive? After an hour of steady pedalling, this too dissipates… to nothing.

There is some pain, of course, but as the pros like to say, suffering is optional and crucially, the brain has an antidote: endorphins - neuro-chemicals more potent than Prozac, which suppress pain and induce a feeling of wellbeing. Melancholy is incompatible with cycling. As the American poet Diane Ackerman wrote: ‘When I’m on a bicycle the world is breaking someone else’s heart.’

I ride a bike for many reasons: to get to work, sometimes for work, to keep fit, to bathe in air and sunshine, to travel and to go shopping. But mostly, I ride to escape: I ride for the silence; I ride to empty my brain; I ride for the void. Random thoughts do fall into this void – a line of poetry, an overheard comment, a photograph from the newspaper – but they are like snowflakes falling on water. After a couple of hours in the saddle, I’m mentally far, far away. Sometimes, I get home and I can’t even recall my route. On the bike, my brain switches off, and re-charges.

Exercise is good for our brains. Deep down, we know this intuitively. It’s why we collar boisterous children and say: ‘Go outside and play.’ It’s why there is a ‘break’, in the playground, mid-morning at school. It’s why, when I can’t complete a sentence let alone a chapter, I hop on my bike. It’s why, when I come home from a frustrating day of meetings and kick the dog, my wife says: ‘Go for a ride. Go now!’

Nonetheless, it’s reassuring that scientific research into the subject concurs with our experiences. Neuroscientists now recognize that exercise is not only good for our general health; it’s good for our grey matter too. Studies show that taking exercise can improve all manner of cognitive functions: it aids concentration and problem solving skills; it quells anxiety, reduces stress and diminishes the risk of depression; it can even increase the capacity of the memory. Among older people, exercise can help avoid disorders like dementia as well as other forms of neurodegeneration. It’s known to help children who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. That’s quite a list of rewards, for a simple spin down the road on your bike.

The constant physical exertion and the minute, technical movements that engage your loaf (albeit subconsciously if you ride regularly) place cycling in the premier league of brain training physical activities, along with swimming and running. If you’ve ever experienced a moment of freedom on a bicycle; if you’ve ever taken flight from the world to the rhythm of two spinning wheels, or felt the resurgence of hope pedalling to the top of a hill; if you have ever, just once, sat on a bicycle with a singing heart and felt like an ordinary man touching the gods, then you instinctively know this.

It’s All About the Bike: the Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels by Robert Penn is published by Particular Books.

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