This summer excruciating shin splints (from running) left me increasingly frustrated by a lack of activity (and an intense desire to indulge in junk food). I needed to get outside and do something, but given my responsibilities, travelling to the Southern Hemisphere to do what I love (snowboarding) was never an option. So I joined a local velo ride and although I found myself struggling a long way off the back for the entire duration my love of cycling returned full force.
Cycling isn’t new to me but neither is it ‘something I do’. As a child I dragged friends on long rides and searched for BMX tracks with my brother. I’ve cycled to work, ridden around remote parts of China and tootled along with the locals in Holland. But a nasty fall put me off my cycling: the cuts became infected, my hand swelled up and I took antibiotics ‘not suitable during pregnancy’. Unbeknownst to me I was pregnant and the shock when I found out instilled an irrational fear.
The psychology of cycling is immense. In my book I explore how Tyler Hamilton, a man from an honest background, was drawn into drugs through the extraordinarily strong influence of cycling. But I’m not going to cover everything here; instead I’m just going to talk about ‘Me and My Bike!’
Why do I love my bike?
- Happy Memories
Cycling evokes memories of times with my Dad, brother and friends, venturing into different places, talking about a multitude of things. These memories make me feel good. This may seem obvious but has only recently been backed by science. A study published by the University of Liverpool showed that positive memories lead to positive emotions, which in turn increases mental well-being and physical health.
There’s something about the friendship that forms through cycling that’s incredibly strong. Exploring new places, chatting with no distractions, the bonding experience of getting out of tricky spots, all relate to our more primitive emotions, mirroring the activity of our ancestors. This evokes strong attachments in the emotional parts of our brain.
When I was ‘little’ my bike meant I could get about without having to depend on anyone, providing a sense of freedom, independence and a means to explore.
Cycling brings another form of freedom too; the feeling of wind in our hair and the elements on our skin (cheesy as it sounds) connects our more basic emotions with the world around us. It takes us away from the unnatural confines of a car or train literally allowing our brain to function more naturally in the world it evolved for.
Flow is defined as “Complete absorption in what one does…..where experience seamlessly unfolds from moment to moment…an intense and focused concentration on what one is doing in the present moment.” Csíkszentmihályi
When we’re in a state of ‘flow’ we let go of self-consciousness, feel completely in control and lose sense of time. For me this happens when I’m cycling. Given it’s the basis from which Positive Psychologists claim all happiness stems, it’s no wonder I love my bike.
Most children get excited about a new bike; I know plenty of adults who do as well, but for me cycling goes beyond this. I have a ‘Sensation Seeking’ personality.
As a kid I climbed the highest trees, swung off the most dangerous rope drops and skied down the hairiest black runs. I travelled the world alone: surfing, skiing and snowboarding along the way. But now I live in England: a married life with two kids, a dog and a company to run, which doesn’t fit well with this part of my personality.
Research shows that with a higher dopaminergic activity in a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, Sensation Seekers have a greater need to find novel and intense experiences. When this isn’t expressed through positive means, like sport and exploration, it can result in gambling, drug and alcohol addiction. For those like myself who manage to steer away from the darker side, we are left with a flatness, an unfulfilled biological need.
My job helps: making critical judgements on senior leaders, meeting potential successors to Russian oligarchs, public speaking are all novel and intense – but these lack the physical edge found in extreme sports. I am weirdly thrilled at being pummelled by a wave or screaming down a mountain on a piece of wood.
I’m lucky that I take the occasional trip to snowboard with friends, one of whom wisely steered me in the direction of cycling. It seems obvious, my husband had suggested it a million times, yet I hadn’t realised. As a psychologist we are often the last to diagnose what’s best for ourselves (and as a wife, the last to listen to my husband). Right under my nose, what I had developed a fear of could actually provide me with that long sought after release: the adrenalin rush of a fast descent, the concentration to not fall off round a sharp bend, the reward of an amazing view at the top of a hill climb.
So in short I am excited to have a ‘not so new’ pursuit – It’s Me (and any friends who wish to join me) and My Bike!
P.S. As always comments are welcomed so please do share your thoughts…………..thank you!
Links and References
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2014). Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology: The Collected Works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Holden,N., Kelly, J., Welford, M., Taylor, P.J. (2016). Emotional response to a therapeutic technique: The social Broad Minded Affective Coping. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice.
Roberts, P. (2006) “Risk.” Psychology Today.
Pickering, A.D. & Gray, J.A. (1999) The neuroscience of personality: Theory and Research.