Give Us Hills, Not Pills

If you’re feeling blue, you could do worse than get on a bike

Original image: Keith Johnson/Pixabay

I FELT that I had to cycle yesterday morning: even though I was tired from riding the day before, and my bad knee was sore. Even though it was 9.30am on Monday and I ought to be working.

I was feeling moderately bad, mentally. The excitement of my birthday week and the weekend that followed it had dissipated and left me with a bad case of the Monday blues.

There’s something about the mess of a Monday – Sunday’s unwashed dishes, the pile of washing in the basket, unread emails piling up in my inbox all weekend – that unmans me, and makes me want to run away from my life.

I caught myself ruminating that maybe now that I’d reached 55, I should stop there and end it all because I’d reached the end of my usefulness. I thought about how my brother and I don’t talk and how it was probably my fault…

Then, just after I set off, I saw a pensioner and told myself: “You live like a pensioner. You don’t have the energy or the discipline to live a full life. All you’re fit for is staying at home and pottering around until you die.”

As I said, I wasn’t having a great day. But the longer I cycled, the more forgiving of myself I became.

I began to notice how many people there were outside, exercising on a Monday morning, just like me.

When I looked at these other people jogging, walking, riding or lunging, I thought that what they were doing was a difficult and praiseworthy thing: looking after their fitness and their mental health.

And then I wondered if this thought should apply to me, as well.

I didn’t see many other cyclists to begin with, but by the time I got to Richmond Park, there were hordes of them.

We’re all on a bike because we need to be”

Of course, it was mainly MAMILs like me on road bikes, but there were also older ladies in thick hiking jackets on upright things you’d use for shopping, a couple of serious-looking wheelchair athletes, and even a little group of lads on Boris Bikes who’d somehow made it up Dark Hill…

I started counting all the people on bicycles, reaching 120 by the time I was half way round the park, when I thought: “They can’t all be people who work at the weekends and can only exercise now.

“They must be bunking off like me, because they’ve got a bad dose of Monday-it-is, or lockdown blues, or pandemic fatigue.

“We’re all on a bike, riding round this great big green space, because we need to be.”

When I went past a not particularly athletic-looking girl on a sit-up bike who was just about to tackle the park’s toughest incline, I finally accepted that it wasn’t weird, or lazy, or pathetic to be riding my bike.

Instead, I thought: “We’re all prescribing ourselves hills.”

Sometimes, I need a break from thinking about my failings”

Of course, lots of people persist in thinking that cycling is a waste of time – particularly those who like to crack wise at the poor, cliched MAMIL.

Even more serious thinkers – like the writer Matt Rudd* – suspect that a sudden interest in cycling and running can be just a way to stay busy, and avoid thinking more deeply about what it is that ails us.

“The classic response in midlife to a sort of vague sense of unease is to go and buy all the lycra in a cycling shop, or take up some sport… so you’re doing,” Rudd told The Richard Nicholls Podcast recently.

“(But) … that’s just blocking for me. That’s blocking out… thinking about how you’re really feeling.”

Up to a point, I’d agree with Rudd: I often go cycling to block out unhappy thoughts, because when I’m down, I’m almost constantly ruminating about how inadequate or unhappy I am.

But that’s not to say I’ve refused to engage with my problems – I’ve tried medication, had years and years of therapy, and I’m always looking for new ways to live more happily.

It’s just that – sometimes, often – I need to take a break from thinking about my failings, and create a space for more positive feelings.

If you’re struggling with low self-esteem, you could do worse than ride up a hill”

In fact, if you’re struggling with low self-esteem, depression, or a myriad of other psychological issues, I reckon that you could do worse than ride up a hill.

Back in the park, my legs were stiffening up and I doubted that I’d make it up the long Queen’s Road slope.

But without really thinking about it, I started to use one of the mind tricks that work for me when I’m cycling – techniques that I’ve picked up a lot more intuitively than meditation, or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.  

I made the challenge of the incline seem smaller by cutting it into manageable chunks of effort – first counting 100 pedal pushes with my right leg and then 100 with my left.

By the time I’d done this just twice more, I was already at the top, thinking: “Oh, that’s done then. It wasn’t as bad as I thought”.

Speeding down Sawyer’s Hill, I felt a lovely little glow of achievement. For the first time in a while, I knew for certain that I wasn’t useless.

Then, leaving the park at the Roehampton exit, I tempoed up the slope through the Alton Estate and stopped at a red light, breathing heavily.

“Is that good?” I asked myself. “Is it? Is it?”

“It’s good,” I had to admit.

After that, I rode home, had a shower, iced my knee, and got some work done.

But without the bike, without the hills, I think I’d have lost the whole day.

* Rudd’s Man Down: Why Men Are Unhappy and What We Can Do About It is out now

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