A few months back I had a bad ride.
I wasn’t injured or abused. I didn’t crash, fall off, or get an ill-timed puncture. It just felt…bad. It was one of those rides where it felt like every single car was trying to intimidate me as they passed. As if that was their one moment to make their feelings known — “you don’t belong,” they were saying “get out of my space.” Every close pass felt like a punishment for some wrongdoing I had committed just by existing.
I had a bad ride, but that’s not what this entry is about (though if you want to read about it, you can do so here). This is about what happened next.
What happened next is that I stopped riding my bike.
It wasn’t a conscious decision. I didn’t lock the bike shed that afternoon safe in the knowledge that my love affair with cycling was over once and for all. The thought “I won’t be doing that again,” never crossed my mind. But the next time the opportunity came to ride my bike, I decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. I figured if I just walked to the library instead then I wouldn’t have to steel myself for the journey. And then I kept making that decision over, and over, and over again until I realised it had been more than a month since I’d been for a ride. And at that point, getting back on it all of a sudden seemed like A Big Deal.
This experience, like most of the ones I’ve had on my bike, isn’t unique to me. Since I’ve started talking about cycling I’ve heard countless stories from folks who gave it a go for a while but gave up after one-too-many near misses. In a Guardian story highlighting the 10 things that stop people from cycling, seven of the reasons were related to the roads being too dangerous — either because of drivers or design. I wasn’t alone, but this wasn’t a comfort either. I didn’t want to be part of the churn — one of many would-be cyclists bullied off the roads by possessive drivers. I wanted to get back on my bike.
So I asked for help.
As I’ve come to expect from the cycling community, people were extremely helpful and generous with their time and responses. I was overwhelmed with offers from potential cycling companions willing to come out and join me for my first time back on the bike. The advice they gave was kind and smart and consistent. Here’s what the experts had to say:
Give it time
This was the one, perhaps for obvious reasons, that I was most drawn to. It’s Winter, it’s rainy, it’s cold, it’s lockdown — I have nowhere I need to be. The incentives to cycle are few and far between, and that’s okay. Those suggesting this approach reminded me that I was under no obligation to cycle, and that one day, when the sun is shining and I have somewhere I want to be, I’ll get on my bike and head out without thinking.
Take it slow
By far this was the most common piece of advice. To go for a slow, leisurely ride somewhere quiet and beautiful — away from cars, from people and from any sense of danger. This gives you the opportunity to remember what’s so great about cycling in the first place — the freedom, the connection to nature, the opportunity for spontaneity.
Those who know me well know I’m a big fan of temptation bundling — the act of motivating yourself by combining something you really want with something you really don’t want to do — like saying you can watch the season finale of the Queen’s Gambit once and only once you’ve hoovered the flat. Well, the same can work to get you back on your bike. Think of something you really love — like a particular park, cinema, coffee shop, whatever it is — and tell yourself you can only go there by bike. Soon enough, the temptation will be stronger than the fear.
I collected all of this advice, I made a plan to go for an early morning ride along the Thames Path — away from cars and too many tourists. And then the morning came when it was time to go and I…didn’t. The risk still felt too high, the reward too small. So my bike stayed locked up in the bike shed and I stayed locked up in my apartment, feeling sad and sorry for myself.
Then one day, last week, I needed to go to the shop. It was my last week at work and I was feeling ever so slightly overwhelmed by the length of my to-do list. But, also, I had ambitious plans for a homemade hamper for my secret santa giftee and to do that I needed to go to the shop.
“Shall we cycle it then?” my boyfriend said, when I lamented how little time I had before my next meeting.
Before I knew what I was doing, my key was in the bike shed door. My bike was out. I was on it. I was riding on Tulse Hill, the main road I live on, and cars were passing me but I was fine. I took a right turn across two lanes of traffic. I weaved through narrow residential streets. I got to the shop. Everything was fine. I was back on my bike.
Since then, I’ve ridden again, this time on my own. It doesn’t feel as carefree as it did before my bad ride, but I can tell that one day soon it’s going to. I can tell that every time I take out my bike is going to be a little bit easier until it’s the easiest thing in the world again — until it’s exciting and freeing and adventurous and fun.
And I know that there will be bad rides in my future. And I know that some of those rides will make me feel like cycling is not for me. But now I also know that those feelings will pass. That one day, I’ll get on my bike and I’ll go and I’ll be okay. Just like the impatient drivers revving their engines behind me, that feeling too shall pass. I’m a cyclist now, and that’s not going to change.