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Anxiety and cycling: What really happens isn't on Strava...

I was around five miles from home but I didn’t know whether I would make it back. I was at the roadside on a grass verge, hunched down low beside my bike peddles and struggling to breathe. Every breath was accompanied by pain, my chest was tight and I was trying to stop myself from making this stupid wheezing sound before someone else came by and I made a show of myself. J had ridden on, not because he wanted to leave me but because I’d asked him to. I didn’t want to spoil his ride. I knew he’d be waiting somewhere down the road but for this moment I needed to be alone. This ride had been not more than ten miles, one of those ‘quick blasts’ that cyclists often refer to when riding short distances. This ride was yesterday, and tomorrow we’re supposed to be doing an endurance ride of a much longer distance. That’s going to be a barrel of laughs isn’t it..





This was not the blog post I’d planned to share today, but sometimes, I think that when we’re struggling it helps to press pause, stop and reflect, even if that means other things need to wait. A few months ago I wrote about how cycling has been an absolute game changer for my mental health and J’s too. How it had been my choice over returning to the therapy room. But I’ll be honest, in recent weeks I’ve been struggling. Almost every ride we’ve done has been accompanied by moments like yesterday. Pacing up climbs, flying on straights and hitting PRs shaking, at times, in tears of adrenaline. I don’t know why it’s become like this. Cycling has always been a sanctuary. Seeing the world on two wheels, covering so much ground and finding new places that are not readily accessible by car or foot, it’s like no other. It’s beautiful. Not to mention the health benefits that it brings.


Before sitting down to write this morning, I spent some time reading other people’s blogs, stories and experiences about cycling with anxiety. A lot resonated. Yet what seemed to be a common theme were anxiety responses to traumatic events, near misses with cars, crashes when descending at high speeds or in adverse weather. Those things are understandable, there is a direct cause for the anxiety. Yet none of these things have happened to me (touch wood). This fire has ignited from nowhere.


I started to write about this yesterday, I drafted a thread on Twitter which was later discarded. Not many of us want to openly share that we’re struggling and those who do are perhaps insulated by the online communities they are a part of where sharing such struggles are normal. The essence of the thread was sharing my thoughts about Strava and what it does to me when out on the road. Many of us use Strava, this is not going to launch into an anti-Strava narrative, but what I will say is that like social media and other ‘social’ orientated digital spaces, the same problems can occur. I don’t have a very social Strava, just a handful of followers and the odd kudos here and there. Both me and J use it mainly to track our fitness activities and for the most part it’s brilliant. If you were to look at my rides on Strava over recent weeks you wouldn’t see the panic attacks that framed them. According to Strava my average speed is increasing, I’m hitting PRs, getting closer to a QOM on some segments. Smashing it mate, yeah. Except, the shaking stops by the roadside, getting home in a haze of adrenaline, the red mist and that internal roar when you know that you just need to shave a few seconds off that segment and the wind is in your favour. What really happens isn't on Strava.




(The thread I drafted yesterday)


Perhaps this is why cycling has become this unhinged experience of late. I’ll be honest, aside from riding, I seem to be so stressed all of the time. I’m continuously on edge worrying about all the things that have happened, could happen, might happen, etc. Whatever I’m carrying inside is evidently coming out on the bike. That part makes sense. I’ve always found that whatever you’re feeling, good or bad, it’s going to come out eventually when you’re doing something that gives you a release. For both me and J, that’s fitness. We’ve been on many hikes and rides, coming home in a daze from the conversations that we’ve ended up having while out there. There’s just something about physical exertion that frees you in this way.


When it comes to Strava, the obvious solution would be to stop using it, but let’s be honest, Strava is fun. Taking a QOM and hitting PRs are only a part of that. The other thing that some people have suggested is that perhaps these panic attacks aren’t anxiety and are actually caused by EIB or more commonly known as exercise-induced asthma. I’m on that, booked in with the GP next month to rule it out, but what doesn’t fit is that when I jog, power walk or do any other form of cardio I don’t struggle to breathe. It’s just the bike.


Whatever this wave of panic is, it may have started on the bike but I’ll be sure that it ends there too. I’m not losing my head to this, nor am I going to stop getting out for rides. This world is wild enough, the panic attacks I can handle, but I’m not losing this. Cycling has been our world since the days of lockdowns, it doesn’t end here.


So tomorrow, it’s going to be a long one if all goes to plan. I’m not going to lie, a part of me is dreading it because I know that there will be lots of us out with the weather being so good, and I really don’t want to have a panic attack, at least not a public one, ‘Oh she’s a bit puffed out’ kind of thing. No thanks. Realistically, I know we’ll be fine, the great thing about cycling is that there’s always another road that can be taken if the original route doesn’t work out. That and longer rides are actually far more chilled. You have more time to settle into them and there’s just something about riding longer distances that allows you the space to mellow. As your muscles warm up and begin to tire, I find that’s when you start to give less of a shit about all of the head stuff. The emphasis is less on PRs and more on the overall aim of getting from one place to another powered by your legs and pure will. It’s been a while since we last did this, in fact, not since our loch ride in Scotland last month. Everything since has been quick flits and zone four delights.


So perhaps tomorrow’s ride is exactly what we both need to reset. Something different with a gentler pace, less of a race and space to mellow out on some longer miles. Whether you're a cyclist or not, I think the same principle applies to other things too. We all need space in this wild world. Anxiety hits hard and so many of us live with it as well as hiding it from the wider world. But I will say this, whether you're puffed out like me on a roadside in Wales or sitting out late somewhere else in the world, your worries may be different to mine but you're not alone. There's no shame in admitting the times when we're struggling. Better rides will come.


A black and white image of a bike in a field.


 

Life is wild enough before we even venture out of the door. That's why me and J seek quiet places and share our stories about them. We all need an escape from this world.


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