Cycling and writing

April 12, 2017 at 2:45 am | Posted in Cycling - health benefits, cycling - mental benefits, depression, Living creatively, writers' health | Leave a comment
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A people-centred society

Riding a bicycle regularly has measurable benefits for your body and immeasurable ones for your brain and creativity. In my last blog I hinted at these benefits and in this one I have the space to expand on some of the glorious results of swapping four wheels for two, and I don’t mean the kind with the internal combustion engine attached. I mean the kind that relies on human muscle power.

That muscle power is the key to the benefits. Cycling improves the strength, tone and flexibility of muscles and sluices synovial fluid through the hip, knee and ankle joints, which eases arthritis. Pumping oxygen through the bloodstream enhances your energy, expands brain capacity and improves your complexion.

Cycling also helps you to lose weight and maintain that loss. Someone said, ‘bikes burn fat and save money; cars burn money and save fat.’ Hopping on the scales after a few weeks of cycling might be disappointing but that’s because you’ll build up muscle, and muscle weighs more than fat. A better indication is looking in the mirror or the way your clothes start feeling comfortably loose.

And Lycra is not compulsory. Writer Lynne Sloman believes that cycling in ordinary clothes is the sign of a civilised city. Sloman’s Car Sick (Green Books, 2006) is a beautifully written account of why and how we need to move away from a car-centred to a people-centred society. (Amusing to read on the back cover that she lives in rural Wales, without a car.)

Cycling is not an extreme sport. It’s a method of transport like any other except that it is cheap, healthy and sustainable for both the cyclist and the planet.

By then it was too late …

I’m drifting close to the smugness that many cyclists are famous for. Sadly, I have no right to moral superiority myself because I was only forced into cycling by poverty. If I’d had the money I’d have bought a car and been just like everyone else.

But after my first degree I fell into two years of unemployment. When I did get a job it was badly paid, and so were most of the jobs (writing, editing, researching) that came after that one. I shovelled most of my money into paying off my Lyneham flat (in the days when flats – sorry, “apartments” – were very rare in Canberra – hard to imagine now); then with no mortgage any more, I could have saved for a car.

But by then it was too late – over the years I’d seen my body get fit and my leg muscles become strong, toned and defined. I’d felt the euphoria of energetic good health and of riding dreamily under the chestnuts and London plane trees lining the bike paths, past the white cockatoos and galahs feeding on the grass.

I can’t pretend I’d have survived Canberra’s winters without my Scottish duffle coat and wool gloves, but it was also by pedalling fast to make myself warm, while surviving summers were a matter of wearing what I liked and pedalling slowly, creating my own cool breeze. Canberra’s mostly flat and it doesn’t usually rain much here – ideal for cycling. For those living in places hilly or rainy or otherwise inhospitable to cycling, the health benefits are the same if you use a stationary bike indoors. (You won’t see the white cockatoos but maybe you could watch David Attenborough.)

During those years of cycling I’d got used to figuring out work problems on the way there and releasing tension pedalling home. I didn’t want to sit in traffic and get stressed by crazy ute drivers. If I wanted to get to somewhere too far away I could use public transport, and with Canberra’s illogical, inefficient, meandering bus routes I could get a lot of reading done.

Of course life became more complicated and I share a car now, and get from A to B by a mixture of it, public transport and the bike, roughly one-third each. It’s easier for me because I’m fit already from decades of cycling when I had no access to a car but what I share with everyone is the fact that the vast majority of our trips (in the UK, the US and Australia) are less than five miles – three miles in the US, according to some American surveys. Just riding that distance three times a week will make you fit and create a big difference to your overall health.

If Tess had ridden a bicycle …

You’d think that because of the rhythm and the quiet, contemplative state of cycling (in the right conditions, separated from noisy, smelly traffic and safe from those terrifying, testosterone-fuelled ute-drivers) there would be more cycling writers. Maybe there are but I couldn’t find many who write directly about it.

In my first novel (Full House, Simon & Schuster, 1993) I did, and the gentle daily rhythm of riding infused the rhythm of the prose. Conditions (a large country town full of trees yet with cinemas and restaurants) described in it have gone, and Canberra is like everywhere else now, full of traffic and concrete blocks of flats. But the old separated bike paths are still here, and two or three years ago they finally put lights along them so you can cycle safely at night.

H. G. Wells (1866-1946) was a fan of bicycles, writing: ‘Cycling paths will abound in Utopia’. Of course working class characters in novels of that time rode bicycles, like in D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. If Thomas Hardy had given Tess in Tess of the D’Urbervilles a bicycle she’d have been cycling home that fateful night she wouldn’t have been exhausted or on foot and would never have been raped by Alec. Tess could have had some chance of a happy future with Angel Clare, the man she loved (even if readers can see he was hypocritical). But then we’d never have had that novel, and I can’t see that Thomas Hardy was constitutionally capable of writing a novel with a happy ending.

My friend Sally gave me Dervla Murphy’s Wheels within Wheels: The making of a traveller, which was a wonderful book. Murphy has cycled through places like Siberia, Laos, Cuba and Rwanda, and writes compellingly about her adventures.

Dervla Murphy came to fame after writing Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle (1965). Known as the first lady of Irish cycling, Murphy is in her eighties now and still travels by bike around the world. She’s passionate about conservation and beer.

Her website quotes, ‘Dervla Murphy is that rare traveller who can make the world seem both wider and more intimate.’ All that experience riding through so many countries led her to believe: ‘Most people in the world are helpful and trustworthy.’ (Independent March 2012)

Gliding and swooping your way to creativity

There are academic books on cycling, of course, such as Zack Furness’ One Less Car: Bicycling and the politics of automobility (Temple Uni. Press, 2010) but normal people won’t voluntarily read books sprinkled with ugly phrases like ‘spatiotemporal trajectories’.

Roger Deakin (1943-2006) was incapable of writing an ugly phrase. His premature death caused me some heartbreak, and I didn’t even know him. But when you read someone’s books, you feel as if you do. Deakin compared cycling with swimming in Waterlog, a fascinating story about how the author rediscovered Britain afresh by swimming through its seas, rivers, lakes, fens, pools, and even moats and canals.

He writes: ‘The whole quality of cycling is akin to swimming; the economy of effort, the defiance of gravity, the dancing rhythm, and the general need to keep moving, lest you sink or topple. As modes of propulsion, both could safely be classified as environmentally friendly. I enjoy the gliding, swooping motion of the bike as I enjoy the grace of swimming.’ (Roger Deakin. Waterlog, p. 257)

Alon Raab’s essay, ‘Wheels of Fire: Writers on Bicycles’ in World Literature Today, September 2012 – has more about cycling writers. More writers should cycle since it boosts brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNT), a protein responsible for regulating stress and refreshing the brain.

Cycling is conducive to creativity because it’s a wordless activity. (If you’re on the stationary bike, make the mellifluous David Attenborough mute.) When you’ve been writing for a few hours it’s beneficial to have a break – and even more beneficial to have a wordless break. Not the newspaper or a book, a film or TV, but a word-free activity is best. Walking or running, swimming or cycling are perfect. It’s the wordless occupation that will set your mind to work on what you’re writing and generate creative ideas.

Cycling improves the way the brain works by making several important structures bigger so you can think faster, remember more and feel happier. It improves integrity and density of the white matter in the brain and speeds up brain connections. It helps build new cells in the hippocampus. It also boosts blood flow and oxygen to the brain, which wards off Alzheimer’s disease and makes the immune cells more active so that they fight off infection.

So with all these benefits, what are you waiting for? Grab life by the handlebars and get going!

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