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Cycling During the Pandemic: “Alone but Connected”

By Megan Flottorp

We talk a lot about how special the cycling community is and the numerous benefits it can have on mental health. Although some cycling circles are still pegged with a reputation of elitism or snobbery, we know that as more and more people discover the joy of two wheels, the diversity and openness of our community continues to grow and develop in wonderful ways. This also means that more new cyclists are reaping the benefits of their new hobby each day—and that is definitely something to celebrate. 

Being part of a supportive and dynamic collective is undoubtedly a huge part of what makes cycling such a valuable tool for good mental health. A critical component of how people keep themselves healthy and happy—the pandemic has only solidified this connection further. With many forms of exercise becoming impossible or impractical during lockdowns and subsequent restriction—cycling was an activity we’ve been able to do, both alone and with others, throughout. Along with quieter roads, better air quality, and more free time, it is largely cycling’s accessibility that has fuelled the sport’s recent boom. People needed, and continue to need, an escape and a chance to clear their heads. For many, cycling is the answer.

Woman cycling
When we have the chance to connect with nature on our own terms, we focus less on our existence as autonomous and responsible individuals (and all the stress and worry that can carry), and we start to see how we fit into the bigger picture. © Profimedia

Staying connected 

The fact that cycling could safely be done in pairs or groups was a crucial element that has offered positive mental health benefits since the pandemic took hold in early 2020. Those who had the opportunity to cycle with others reported being grateful for being connected with the group and immersed within the environment while still respecting health and safety guidelines. The concept of ‘alone but connected’ while cycling within groups became an essential tool for many to maintain positive mental health while they navigated the obstacles posed by lockdowns, restriction, and widespread fear and uncertainty.

The value of community 

It is now well understood that community is critical to our overall wellbeing—so it is no surprise that the decline of our connectedness is coming while mental health issues are on the rise. As reported in a survey by MentalHealth.org, which took place nine months into the Covid-19 restrictions (late November), 24% of UK adults said they had feelings of loneliness in the “previous two weeks”. Loneliness levels were higher in young people, unemployed people, full-time students, and single parents in each wave of the survey, which has tracked the nation’s mental health since March.

This is a significant portion of the population, and it reflects the fact that, being social creatures, our instinct is to find strength in numbers. Beyond our immediate small circle of friends and family, our health and happiness are inextricably linked with our broader connections. We need to feel included in larger social circles, too.

Friends cycling
Even though many cycling events and races have had to be cancelled due to the pandemic, there was also an opportunity for new communities to form. © Profimedia

Processing a new reality together

In the context of an unprecedented crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, communities are especially vital sources of support. They provide collective situations to explore shared identity and solidarity that help contribute to supportive, prosocial responses to the hardship being experienced. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a global health crisis capable of exerting a heavy toll on the mental health of many while imposing unwelcome levels of social disconnection. Cycling has provided an antidote to this for many and has given people a topic to bond over when so much of the identity-forming aspects of our lives were inaccessible.

Connecting over mental health 

A central feature of a community is also that it is characterised as a group of people who share an identity-forming narrative. Thus, in addition to sharing the label of a cyclist and being able to bond over an appreciation for carbon-frames and a well-appointed kit—many cyclists turn to their bike to overcome personal and emotional challenges. Understandably, they are eager to connect with others for whom cycling plays the same role. You’re dealing with a group of people who share a story that is so important to them that it defines an aspect of who they are.

As outlined in a PubMed study, “those people build the shared story archetypes (characters) of that community into their sense of themselves; they build the history of those communities into their own personal history; they see the world through the lens of those shared stories.”

Connecting over the role cycling has played in helping to overcome adversity or challenges has been a fundamental part of how people form friendships in the cycling community. From participating in cycling fundraisers or using a bike to attend a social justice initiative, cycling is deeply tied to how many riders express their most valued beliefs and ideas.

Friends Cycling
After being cooped up inside for a year and a half, people are eager to reconnect with the sense of adventure and freedom that many have felt sorely lacking while we endeavoured to stay home (and stay positive) during these challenging times. © Profimedia

How the cycling community has blossomed during the pandemic

Even though many cycling events and races have had to be cancelled due to the pandemic, there was also an opportunity for new communities to form. The Social Distance Cycling Club is one such example. As defined on the group’s page:

“The whole purpose of this group is to encourage each other to get outside and ride a bike in a safe, appropriate, socially distant way or to pedal indoors. When you get outside and pedal in the fresh air or cycle indoors, please, share a post with a pic, the location and some encouragement! Pedal on!”

And the group had blossomed tremendously, growing to almost 8,000 members since it was created at the beginning of the pandemic. There are dozens of posts weekly where people offer support, ask questions, and form connections.  As the recent reflection of one member, Annie S., reads, “I love cycling and love the friendships I’ve made through it even more! (Not to say the health benefits!) It’s a win/win/win for me!”

Ultimately, it is safe to say that the power of riding together and supporting one another really cannot be overstated. So, as we venture into the new normal, we look forward to seeing all the new ways that cyclists will continue to lift each other up and building this blossoming community!