Zen And The Art Of Mindful Bike Riding
Illustration by Mr Marcos Montiel
Judging by the big grin on his face, Mr Niyi Osiyemi’s ride to work is the best part of his day. He’s hard to miss when he rolls up, what with the flash of Rapha pink and the Bluetooth speaker. “Music gets me in the zone,” he says. “Especially on long rides when fatigue starts to creep in.” He also notes that it means pedestrians can hear him coming. “Mornings are usually bass-heavy house music to get me pumped for the day.” To cool down, he listens to Mr Sam Cooke. “Think of it as a spin class, but in a real-life setting.”
You’re unlikely to find Osiyemi in a gym – he says he’s not a fan. His commute to work, however, is “a great way to get energised for the day and decompress on the ride home. My bike is my main form of transport. I ride everywhere when possible. I once jumped out of a slow-moving Uber and decided to ride to a wedding on a Lime [hire] bike to avoid being late – tux and all.”
You’ve probably encountered people like Osiyemi – or me for that matter (guilty) – who cannot stop talking up cycling, and the health benefits, both physical and mental, that it offers. Like CrossFitters, crypto bros and vegans, you’ll know you’re with a cyclist within minutes of meeting them, as if the form-fitting clothing wasn’t a giveaway. Although, in my defence, I’ve had to nod along through a lot of train-delay chat with colleagues, and I’ve only got good things to say about riding. At least, most of the time.
“Cycling is my yoga, my Zen time,” Osiyemi says. But there is a but. “I have been riding (and driving) in London for about 15 years, so consider myself fairly experienced, but there are times when I still find some drivers – and cyclists – pull dangerous stunts that can make me feel unsafe.
“My most recent incident was when a driver saw me coming down the road and still decided to pull out, which forced me to brake sharply to avoid slamming into his side. This left me feeling quite angry. Luckily, in this instance, the driver apologised, so I felt less shaken. He was aware that he was in the wrong.”
“Cycling is my yoga, my Zen time. It’s a great way to get energised for the day and decompress on the ride home”
This isn’t always the case. Despite UK police reports suggesting that drivers are at fault in some 60 to 75 per cent of incidents also involving cyclists, not every motorist is so quick to accept responsibility. Osiyemi says that he finds this “infuriating”, especially when they turn out to be one of those “weird anti-cyclist” road users. “I tend to lose my composure when I encounter the odd ‘You do not pay road tax’ driver who does not seem to realise that they literally almost killed me,” he says.
For reference, no one in the UK has paid “road tax” since the 1930s; I pay car tax, or vehicle excise duty, for my car. And while I’ve not heard this one in a while, I have been told, “Sorry, didn’t see you, mate,” a good few times having been cut off by a car turning left. (And there’s me, in my reflective neon-orange bike gear, with my 200-lumen bike light still blinking.)
“I analyse the incident afterward to see what I could have done to keep myself safer for next time and let it go,” Osiyemi says. “I don’t want these incidents to rob me of this priceless joy.”
Here’s another thing that cyclists will tell you: cycling can put you in an almost meditative state, until it doesn’t. But up until that too-close call (any drivers still reading, 1.5m is the minimum safe passing distance), while riding a bike, all thoughts melt away.
Counterintuitively, it is precisely because of all the work our brains have to do while cycling that those unwanted thoughts are switched off. “There’s activity in the parts of the brain associated with movement – balance, coordination. Anatomically, this includes our motor cortex and cerebellum,” says London-based sports psychologist Dr Victor Thompson. “The brain is also regulating our breathing, circulation and heart to serve the demands of cycling. The planning parts will be active as we decide on and follow a route. On a continuous basis, it will be responding to features along our path, deciding if we need to make adjustments, such as to slow down when spot a hazard.
“A combination of the effects of exercising and being away from life stresses will help to give an emotionally calming experience,” he adds. “Unless the rider feels other dominant emotions due to life on or off the bike.”
So, what happens when we have a narrow miss? “Your threat centre, or amygdala, kicks off,” Dr Thompson says. “This mobilises your brain and body to survive – through fight, flight or freezing.”
You’re vulnerable on a bike, hence recent changes to the Highway Code to better protect pedestrians and cyclists (and pedestrians from cyclists). As for why cyclists can seem unreasonably angry in an accident, basic biological instincts often take over.
“Cycling is a great sport, but like any sport, it’s important to think about it holistically”
If you do find yourself in an incident, don’t let it ruin your ride. “Take a slow deeper breath or two, to help your body settle,” Dr Thompson says. “Tell yourself that the situation has passed. That you are fine. Move your attention onto something else, rather than replaying the situation. Later, when you feel your normal calmness, or when you get to your destination, consider if there is any learning that you can take from the situation, to reduce the chance of a risky future incident. Then move on with your day.”
It should be reiterated that the health benefits of cycling outweigh any risk by some margin. Despite the perception of security that the metal shell of a car can give a driver, research suggests you’re safer on a bike. And while the roads are only getting more jammed, conditions for cyclists are constantly improving.
“I think cycling in London is definitely more relaxed and safer than it was a decade ago – although there is, obviously, still a long way to go,” says Mr Peter Walker, a political (and cycling) correspondent for The Guardian and author of The Miracle Pill. “In part, it’s down to better road infrastructure, and in part it’s because drivers are more careful. I don’t think they’re necessarily more sympathetic, just more used to cyclists – the much-noted safety in numbers effect.”
Despite this, bikes are still in the minority on our city roads. And to some, cycling can still seem like an “alien subculture”, says Mr Kunle Babawale, “a historically male-dominated sport with clubs viewed as exclusive and elitist” – and that’s before you even get to the aforementioned safety implications. It was this that led him to set up the community group Cycle Together with his sister, Biola.
“Those who want to cycle feel shut out of cycling and it takes them an inordinate amount of courage to set foot in a cycling club,” Babawale says. “We want to change this. Cycling is for everyone, and we want to celebrate and elevate the vibrant diversity that exists in cycling. Our mission is to get more communities that are marginalised in sport, cycling.”
Cycle Together also offers guidance on basic bike maintenance and advice for better riding, but really it is the feeling of belonging that motivates many members. “We aim to address loneliness and isolation, improve mental health, as well as empower people to introduce exercise into their weekly routine,” Babawale says. “Cycling gives you an opportunity to meet new people and build connections.”
To further build confidence, Babawale suggests getting off the road entirely. “There are cycling disciplines which mean you do not have to share space with cars,” he says. “Gravel, mountain biking and track are great examples.”
Or even think beyond the bike entirely. “I am a big advocate for strength training,” he says. “Cycling is a great sport, but like any sport, it’s important to think about it holistically. Doing strength training helps retain muscle volume, so that you can ride fast and strong. It also protects against injury. When done properly, it helps [tackle] muscle imbalances that could be exacerbated by cycling. Yoga and Pilates are also great for helping strengthen core muscles.”
No matter how inclusive they are, club bike rides aren’t for everyone. “Cycling has always been a very personal pursuit for me,” Niyi Osiyemi says. “As soon as I get on the saddle, I tend to ignore everything else and just live in my world. I try to avoid group rides for this exact reason. It is one of the joys of the cycle community, but just not for me. I want to be alone or sometimes with my best buds.”
However you get from A to B, the important bit is to be. To be present and be safe. And for the latter, also be seen.