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Cycling Somewhere Better

Cycling Somewhere Better

It happens easily, almost by stealth. Giving that bit extra to work one week becomes the norm next week. I started catching colds that I don’t usually get. I needed to feel strong, clear and happy again. I decided to ride my bike, writes Gail Rehbein.

If you’re a baby boomer born in Australia, there’s a very good chance that you rode a bike to school. It’s also likely that you have fond memories of it. I certainly do. Learning to ride my bike as a child was an early rite of passage into independence and freedom. My legs propelled me. I could move fast or slow. I didn’t have to rely on anyone else to get places. And that feeling still lives with me.

Every time I’m wheeling along on my bike and the air is rushing past my face, that feeling of freedom lives again. Sometimes,
I could almost throw my arms up in the air and say ‘hey look Mum, no hands’. But because I’m older, I know that – unless I pick just the right moment with my body balanced in just the right position and the concrete, bitumen or sand that I’m riding on is just the right smoothness – it would usually end in a wobbly, ungraceful crash.

So I resist the temptation and I ride like
an adult. Outwardly that is. On the inside, I’m feeling the unrestrained joy of eight-year-old me.

When I decided to experiment with riding my bike more and using my car less, I wanted this feeling of freedom and independence and joy to touch my life. And it did. My decision turned into a year-long experiment to ride through the seasons and to write stories to understand and share the experience.

I rediscovered why riding my bike feels pretty good. I like the freedom it gives me when the cars are banked up behind each other, moving nowhere and I fly past on two wheels leaving the car sitters to listen to drive-time radio. I like how I can take shortcuts through parks and under canopies of leafy trees. I like how my senses are brought alive by the sights, sounds and scents of outside. I don’t even mind if it rains. Is that strange? If I’m bare of inspiration or need to sort through a problem, I go for a ride. It clears my mind, lifts my spirit, and helps me change gears to be somewhere better.

I ride for fun: to the beach, to cafes, out to dinner, to parties, to poetry nights, and to explore new places. I ride for function too: cycling to buy the groceries, vote in elections, return books to the library and go to meetings. And all this adds up to more kilometres than I’d expected.

Simply riding around the neighbourhood, I might ride 15 or 16kms across two or three small journeys. I find that quite amazing. In swapping the car for my bike for these brief journeys, I’m exercising without even trying! My bicycle riding has become incidental exercise.

Incidental exercise is the type that happens as you go about your living – walking around the shops, cleaning, gardening, and using stairs instead of an elevator or escalator. In my case, it’s riding my bicycle as transport. In a typical week, I make nine bicycle journeys across six days, totalling about 70kms. Some journeys are as short at 1.4kms return, while others might be as far as 2kms.

Usually, it amounts to about five hours pedalling time each week. That’s five hours of incidental exercise. And that makes me happy. You see, the World Health Organisation suggests moderate intensity physical activity for at least 2.5 hours each week, which is about thirty minutes, five times a week. Choosing to move around my neighbourhood on my bike allows me to achieve that.

When I began my bicycle experiment in December 2014, I realised it carried several motivations. One was to save some money. Another was to make me fitter. I had no specific measurable goal for either. I just knew that both would be likely outcomes. Ones I would enjoy and value.

Early in my year of cycling, I wasn’t paying much attention to changes in my fitness. That’s because I was so focused on changing my lifestyle to ride my bicycle instead of taking the car. My focus was on deciding where I could and couldn’t ride; and if I was leaning towards not riding, was I being wise or was I being a wimp. However, as the choice to ride my bike became normal for me, I began to notice changes in my body and mind.

And this is what I noticed:

– Riding uphill is easier – I’m less puffed and less daunted when facing a hill climb.

– My legs are more toned; they feel stronger. I can carry larger loads in
my panniers.

– My mind becomes clearer after a bike ride.

– I sleep better; and

– I have more energy and feel more physically capable.

But I’ve also noticed that with more riding, different muscles tighten. My shoulder (trapezius) muscles became tighter and uncomfortable. I’m told this is a common issue for bicycle riders. So with some help from my local bike mechanic, the position of my bike’s seat and handlebars were adjusted to make my riding position more upright. Plus, I remind myself to relax my shoulders when I’m riding.

As well, a few twinges crept into my knee. After a visit to my physiotherapist, I learnt that my thigh muscles (quadriceps), which play a key role in stabilising the knee, had shortened. This is also common amongst bicycle riders. It was remedied with some stretches – which, for me, involve some regular yoga poses to lengthen those muscles.

With a year of cycling completed and another underway, the changes in my well-being continue to surprise and delight me.

It seems all this pedalling is leading me somewhere better. Being well – in body and in mind – has become easier because riding my bike brings me exercise that is incidental to living. The adult in me loves that. And as you can imagine, eight-year-old me is even happier!

Gail is a bicycle-riding writer who has a knack for guiding people through change. This article is an extract from her forthcoming book about her bicycle project. To discover more about Gail and cycling through change, head to:


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Alana Lowes

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  • I’ve been following Gail’s journeys for the past year and feel exhilerated just reading each post. I’ve learned so much about her part of the world, so very far from my own in the US and I look forward to this year’s travels with Gail. Wonderful article and I hope to see more from her at The Retiree. Clare Sweeney