Heaven and hell

The bicycle is an intrinsically social vehicle, so it is not surprising we are hearing stories of recreational cyclists struggling to maintain the proper distance we are daily implored will help in the fight against COVID-19.

The only club I sort of belong to, whose raison d’être is to gather in London in a large group every month to roll down to the coast, of course cancelled all scheduled rides until further notice. Up and down the country, other clubs have similarly entered a period of suspended animation.

Meanwhile, cyclists gather on social media to judge what’s necessary and what isn’t (that century a month challenge probably isn’t), split infinite hairs (does coasting count as exercise?), agonise over the possibility of a further lockdown, and in the case of those of us admittedly not in it purely for the exercise, fervently hope to be saved from the hell of a turbo-trainer.

The roads where I live out in the country have never been quieter, a kind of heaven even as the NHS enters hell. Daily I see entire families, children with helmets strapped faithfully tight, venturing where previously only us “serious” cyclists had dared ride. Even the local A-road has become as alluring as it should by all rights normally be thanks to the gorgeous Sussex weald it cuts through. The silver lining to the virus is tarnishing up quite green. This too shall pass.

The bike shed has achieved a particular significance. Long a bolthole for the MAMIL, it has found poignant utility in relationships where locked down familiarity is in danger of breeding contempt.

On a recent outing I met Simon at work in his, having spied him through the open door and being close enough for a conversation yet responsibly far away. He was working on a scythe, of all things, having just removed the blade because the curvy handle apparently makes it dangerous if you don’t know your way around one (I forgot to ask if he was expecting company).

His wasn’t a mamil cave, but it was clearly his refuge for labours of love in this time of corona. We got on great: the virus has expanded my social contacts list, if nothing else. He invited me for dinner with him and his wife “When all this is over.”

“This”, in addition to being a global emergency, has also affected me in a very personal way due to the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder I suffer from. I was an expert at washing my hands from a young age, frequently scrubbing them until they were raw and bloody in a fruitless effort to cleanse myself of imagined guilt. It took a long time to disabuse myself of that notion; seeing helpful how to videos has been grimly amusing.

“When I was anxious and depressed, cycling put me on the road to happiness, wrote Charles Graham-Dixon. As a fellow sufferer of panic attacks, cycling has undoubtedly been a tonic for my mental health. Though I fear having my daily rides taken away from me, I’ve otherwise been strangely calm in the midst of the global panic attack. Perhaps having suffered numberless bouts of inner turmoil has somewhat immunised me.

My compulsion to ride doesn’t, I think, stem from my condition, the worst symptoms of which are thankfully under control; unless all us cyclists are a bit OCD.

Academic Rachel Aldred,* in her study On the outside: constructing cycling citizenship, describes the cyclist as “The self-caring citizen”. Cycling provides “the freedom to both look after oneself and participate in society.” We can participate best by keeping our distance. Later, there will be time to once again come together.

* She of Killing the iPod Zombie Cyclist Myth


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