Man Multiplied by Machine

In the first of a mini-series about cycling, theshit50s talks bikes and better mental health

Original images: Richard Reid and Clker Free Vector Images/Pixabay

RIDING MY BIKE is keeping me sane at the moment.

We’ve been going out several times a week lately – my bike and I. Usually early in the morning, before the winds get up, and in gaps between the rain showers that are making this second lockdown Spring tooth-grindingly disappointing.

Often, when we start off, I’m not feeling very strong – either mentally, or physically.

I’ll be anxious, or hungover, or both. But I go, anyway, because I know that 30 or 40 kilometres of riding will reset me in a way that a night’s sleep often can’t. I’ve learned that simply focusing on the road, and climbing a few stiff-ish hills, will settle me down enough to handle the day.

What also helps is that the bike feels kind. Cycling is much more forgiving exercise than running, which was always my go-to anxiety cure until recently. 

But, now I’m struggling with injury and my overall fitness, running doesn’t flow for me like it used to.

The broadcaster Max Rushden wrote a column about jogging recently that described exactly how jerky and laboured my own running style has become: “less fluid movement, more a set of individual competed actions. Land. Stop. Lift leg. Stop. Repeat.”

But I don’t have this problem when I’m cycling: instead of having to fight my body when I run, the bike co-operates with me.

When I’m not strong, the efficiency of my bike is sweet relief”

When I’m not feeling strong, the sheer efficiency of my light road bike, cogs and cleats – and the way we can suddenly pick up pace together, gobbling up hills and ramps –  is  a sweet relief. 

Often, after a long or challenging ride, I find myself patting my bike’s saddle or handlebars thankfully. I’m always grateful to it for sticking with me, and for helping me achieve feats and distances that would otherwise have been unthinkable.

Experiencing cycling mishaps – from the tears when I struggled to fix a puncture in the old days, to carrying my bike across a river after getting hopelessly lost abroad, or having to break a mangled chain with a rock 35 miles from home – has also taught me that everything will probably be all right in the end.

Now I’m also moderately competent at fixing my bike, and always ride with the right tools and spares, I believe that nothing will go too badly wrong whenever I’m cycling. Which is no bad thing for someone with a lifetime of depression…

If you keep turning the pedals, you can get through stuff”

Louise Minchin

The BBC presenter and ultra-triathlete Louise Minchin spoke recently about the links between cycling and better mental health on the Geraint Thomas Cycling Club podcast.

“For me, that ability to get from one place and go very, very far, just on your own two legs, is immensely empowering,” she said.

“When I’m cycling, I’m just thinking about what I’m doing. I’m not worrying about work: it takes me into a completely different space of freedom.”

Minchin said that building up from a six-mile commute on a hybrid bike to racing in hilly ultra-triathlons had also made her “mentally really resilient.”

“You learn resilience, and you learn determination,” she added. “And you learn that, when you’re in a sticky situation, if you just keep going, just keep on turning the pedals, you can get through stuff.”

Half-human, half bike”

In this time of great anxiety, and in an anxious life like mine, knowing I’ll get through stuff with my bike always gives me a welcome feeling of comfort and certainty. I take strength from knowing that – in unfamiliar countryside, or at the bottom of a steep hill – the bike is always working for me.

In his engaging essay Cycleogeography, Jon Day uses the phrase ‘Cartesian Centaurs’ to describe the intimate relationship between man and bicycle – implying that the cyclist is part of a dual entity that is half-human, half-bike.

“It’s a cliché that the bike, of all tools, can become an extension of the body, but it is nonetheless true for that,” Day writes.

“At the dawn of the cycling era the strange logic of the bicycle – the way in which cycling creates a prosthetic relation between person and machine – was seized upon in particular by Futurist and modernist writers and artists.

“For these writers… people didn’t ride bicycles, bicycles rode people. The bike was a symbol of Man multiplied by machine.”

To me, the ‘Man multiplied by machine’ argument says almost everything about my relationship with my bicycle. But I don’t see it as superior to me, or somehow in command.

My bike is friendlier than that – an instrument that helps me to be a more effective person, both physically and mentally, on or off it.

Sometimes, it’s a helping hand or a friend, and even a brilliant kind of therapist that makes me better than I could ever be without it.

Best £800 I ever spent.

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