Cycling to beat the ‘black dog’: another benefit of riding
Here is an eclectic sequence of thoughts cobbled together to try and offer some reminders about why cycling is good for the mind.
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Riding and happiness…
– By Rob Arnold
Yesterday began with feelings of frustration about the administration of cycling. That can happen a lot to anyone who follows our sport.
I woke up in the morning and let my fingers do the talking on Facebook with an obtuse mini rant. It was meant to be just a quick quip, a statement about how PR should be about public relations, not pettiness.
The reaction was steady throughout the day, especially considering nothing was actually said and essentially I was having a whinge. People read things into it and responded with their own sense of frustration.
What’s that saying? A problem shared is a problem halved? Something like that… and, for me – and some others in the conversation – it seemed to work.
It got a discussion going and by the end of the day I’d moved on from what initially annoyed me.
Inevitably we move on and realise there’s little we can do about bureaucrats and their ways. We get back on the bike and realise there’s good in our sport.
In the morning I was frustrated and a little agitated. But when I got home, I spent some time on the home trainer and pedalled out my irritation and cleared my mind. The bike’s a great tool for transport but it’s also good for the soul.
Today, Friday, began early. Unable to sleep, I got out of bed and the aim was to go for another ride, out on the road on a bright spring morning in Sydney. Instead I checked messages from overnight and one of the replies to my Facebook rant caught my attention.
“Hey team,” writes Kate Zarifeh. “It is mental health week this week. Got any features on any cyclists who have battled the black dog and come out the other side, or something similar? Could be a good read to hear how exercise helps with mood, as we know it does. And besides, riding a bike is enough to put anyone in a fab mood for the day.”
Her comment is concluded with a smiley face. 🙂
It’s better to start things that way.
Instead of being frustrated and irritated about something I’ve got little control over, it got me thinking about one of the many benefits of cycling.
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The art of pedalling
It’s not common for me to find myself in front of the TV these days (too many things to do, too little time to do it… etc) but this week I found myself watching ABC2 before going to bed.
Wednesday evening: ‘Man Up’ with Gus Worland.
Thursday evening: ‘Felicity’s Mental Mission’.
I tuned into each mid-show but both programs had a key theme: looking after your mind by being open and honest about emotions. Both are absolutely worth watching.
The shows talk about mental health. They explore the concepts of depression, anxiety, frustration, and more. And both Gus and Felicity present their take on a tender topic in a way that reminds us to look at the good and the bad and all else in between, and to see things in context.
If you find yourself frustrated, try to do something about it. And, ideally, do something that helps you overcome your frustration.
For me, time on the bike allows me to escape. It often puts me in a “fab mood”.
The art of pedalling is a strange thing. It’s so easy to do and it opens up the world, offering so many benefits I find it difficult to paraphrase all I get out of my cycling time.
I’m often reminded of different rides and why they are special to me. These memories serve me well and even on days I don’t get to ride, I find thoughts of previous adventures help put me in a good mood.
Here’s an example…
Just after my youngest son turned five, we did a 50km ride together. We smiled the whole way. We talked. We travelled. We didn’t notice the distance we covered… and eventually I realised how far from home we were so I asked him, “Aren’t you a little tired?”
“No Dad. It’s easy. You just push down on the pedal and the other one comes up. It’s not tiring, it’s fun.”
Riding serves many benefits and one of them is it tends to help me overcome frustrations. But it is also fun.
On the bike I’m focused on myriad things while also clearing my mind.
Of course we concentrate on traffic or our speed or those around us. We think about where we’re going, where we’ve been, what we’re doing and what we’re yet to do. We can talk or fall silent. We can open up or close down. We can exercise and go places, or we can simply idle away the hours going nowhere on the home trainer.
I’ve ridden for most of my life and cycling is a pivotal part of the person I have become. And it’s easy for me to say that, as Zarifeh suggests, “exercise helps with mood”.
Therapy by stealth
I’m sure many riders could offer an anecdote or two in response to Zarifeh’s comment about why cycling is good for mental health.
An interview with Mat Rogers is one I reference often when considering the benefits of bike riding.
“I just fell in love with riding,” said the former international rugby (league and union) player.
“I love the solitude of it. I love the fact that I can just jump on my bike and go riding for five hours and just enjoy the peace and quiet.”
We’ve all experienced that sense of satisfaction from a solo ride. But Rogers also recognises what else cycling offers: shoulder-to-shoulder conversation.
“There’s something about being shoulder-to-shoulder with someone and communicating as opposed to being face-to-face. I honestly think people communicate better. There’s got to be a study done on it.
Herein lies an answer to a question many of us have asked: what is it about cycling that brings people together and makes them happier?
“I think if they did some studies on it,” continues Rogers, “they would find they communicate more shoulder-to-shoulder. I’m sure of it. They’re not intimidated by someone looking at them.
This is a concept I’ve raised repeatedly since hearing it because, frankly, it’s something that turns riding into therapy. And it does so by stealth. Before we even know it, we’ve opened up with others and explained frustration or elation or perhaps even blurted out something that’s been bottled up. Once that’s done, we can get on with our day and feel a little more liberated.
My discussion with Rogers a couple of years ago came the week after my youngest son rode a bike on his own for the first time. We’ve ridden a lot since then and, for me, cycling time with my kids is the best moment of each week.
Riding is a joy to do and it’s one of the things that allows me to set my frustrations aside while I appreciate how lucky I really am.
There’s another sequence from the discussion with Rogers I’m sure Zarifeh would appreciate…
The bike, I say to Mat, brings [family] together, doesn’t it?
“It does!” Rogers replies. “As a family, there’s a connection. We take the dog for a run and the kids ride. Or I’m riding with the dog on a leash and they’re there with me. It’s just a fun thing to do together.”
And for our cycling families.
“When we go out riding, some of the conversations I have with blokes that I barely even know are amazing!
“I think that blokes in a cycling bunch would be the least depressed of any group of men because they get stuff off their chest, they talk, and they don’t feel like they’re getting looked down on or judged because there’s no one looking at them going, ‘Oh you should have…’
“Call it my crazy way of lookin’ at things but that’s how I see it.”
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The Facebook comment from Zarifeh reminded me to stop focusing on my frustrations with the administration and bureaucracy of cycling and get back to more interesting matters, like thinking about the good rather than the bad.
This has been a year of lessons for me. And one of the key things I’ve taken from a new friendship formed through cycling is to consider the good and (strive to) ignore the bad. Mark Ferguson demonstrated to me how easy this can be.
We met late in Melbourne in March, did an interview, realised we had a few things in common, and we eventually flew to Europe at the end of June to cover the Tour de France together.
Hopefully some of you have seen the ‘Vlogs’ Mark makes for his YouTube channel, Cycling Maven. (If you haven’t, try and find a moment. You might enjoy it.)
Until the evening before we met, I’d not seen an episode of Cycling Maven. But Mark and I spoke on the phone and he told me, “It’s just me and a camera and it’s a bit of fun.”
“There’s some cycling to it, but the main theme of my vlogs is to be optimistic.”
Consider that again: “be optimistic”. It’s a key concept.
So much of the social media world is about snide commentary and negative sentiment: it’s so easy to complain and people have the option of sharing their frustration so they seize the moment and vent whenever something upsets them. But Ferguson tries to take another approach. Even when something bad happens, his commentary in the Cycling Maven clips have an optimistic slant.
It only takes a few episodes and, once you’ve watched them, you realise you’re upbeat at the end.
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Although months have passed since our big loop around France I’ve often thought about it. There’s one grab from the hours of footage that stands out.
On our last day on the road, Mark talks about his morning in our hotel breakfast room in Grenoble.
“This hotel we’re staying in isn’t actually too bad,” he says, “they’ve got fruit – which is off-the-chart. I’m loving it!”
He holds up a banana.
He continues his commentary: “The wallpaper’s not amazing but it’s actually a pretty good hotel.”
The feedback from Cycling Maven viewers is generally strong. And the community vibe that’s grown from Ferguson’s optimism is great.
One comment from that Vlog for stage 21 comes to mind when I think about all the trivial things we can whinge about.
“Fruit – ‘off the chart’? This guy is easy to please…”
Of course the banana is a beautiful thing. It’s a bit of fruit that’s packaged perfectly by nature; it provides nutrients and sustenance – and it’s delicious. Whether or not you consider it to be “off-the-chart” (ie. very good) is all relative. And this is the point I’m trying to make.
Our approach to each day is what can make the difference.
There was frustration on Thursday but Friday feels a bit better. The weekend is just around the corner. There is some riding in our plans and some shoulder-to-shoulder conversations are bound to enlighten me. A little bit of exercise is sure to lift my spirits. The company of my kids – and whoever else we happen to see on our adventures around town – will remind me that for all the petty frustrations in life, I’m actually a very lucky man.
And, once again, I’ll tell myself how good it is to be a bike rider.
Ignore the mundane wallpaper and focus on the fruit.
– By Rob Arnold