Graeme Willgress is 51 years old, with a lifelong passion for the outdoors. A Teacher by profession, with a Sports Science degree, and is the sole perpetrator of this years 4000+ mile Round Britain-Ride2Recovery. This is his journey to begin to overcome serious mental health problems. Returning to cycling after 20 years, Graeme is building a new life around this rediscovered passion for cycling, traveling, writing and life. Follow Graeme as he prepares for his first expedition at www.graemewillgress.com and Facebook Round BritainRide2Recovery
After almost twenty years I’ve started cycling again.
Why such a big gap? What has changed in that time?
Well, many things happen in life. When I got to seventeen, all the usual stuff began. Girls, climbing, beer, driving, houses, marriage, children and a career all followed in succession.
That wasn't what really stopped me though.
In the 1980’s and 90’s, Southampton, on the South Coast of the UK, was a City, and a City that was growing fast–with a housing boom of mammoth proportions. Infrastructure, outside of motorways, could hardly cope with the new level of traffic.
Car drivers didn't like cyclist (some things never change), especially as we cyclists were quicker getting from A to B in the rush hour. There were no cycle lanes to speak of, and I found myself on the blunt end of at least two cars, and a caravan that the driver forgot he was towing! Add to that, that off-road riding was nearly impossible in the wet due to the clay soils.
I was disillusioned to say the least. It was easier to forget cycling and go windsurfing and paragliding, so I did.
Contrast that to last year. I was cycling into the heart of Bristol, a major UK city–and a cycling city too. I was heading for North Wales and got off route. The map I was using had an information box smack over where I was!
So, without a map, I headed in what I thought was the right direction. Big mistake? The road was narrow, steep, bendy and very, very busy. I switched to "˜red alert' mode. The cars approaching me slowed, took their time, driving wide past me. I couldn't believe it. No horn honks or rude gestures. What was going on?
Further along, I saw a cycle sign saying "˜…Greenway'. I turned onto it, just wanting to escape the road. For several miles, I followed the tarmac cycle route, through forests, parks, valleys, residential estates, and popped out in the middle of Bristol by a big signpost offering a choice of further routes to a variety of places.
This type of riding didn't exist when I was previously cycling. I felt like a First-Class citizen, not a Second-Class one.
I headed to the center of Bristol, popping out right in the middle by the old dockland area. I hadn't had to think about cars at all, and was surrounded by cafes of every type. It felt really, really good.
Where have these routes come from and why? A charity called Sustrans (sustainable transport) set out 15 years ago to build a National Cycle Network. So far, they have built 12000 miles of Network, of which over 4000 miles are traffic free, the rest being routed on quiet lanes and residential areas.
They actively encourage cycling to schools and commuting, by creating links from housing areas to train stations, schools, bus stations etc. This, they say, gives us the choice over whether to get the car out or not, and given this choice, many choose not to drive. Most new major projects now include provision for cyclists with cycle specific bridges, lanes, even roundabouts.
On my return to cycling, I also discovered the world of folding bikes from Dahon, Brompton, and Bike Friday etc.
I was amazed you can buy a bike that enables you to ride to the station, fold it and walk on to the train or bus. On arrival at your destination you can unfold it, and ride the cycle-ways to work ( certainly in London and other UK cities). If you're lucky you can then fold it and walk up to the office where it lives by your desk whilst you take a shower. You can even catch the train and, in London, pick up a "˜Boris Bike', a bike-share scheme.
What then prompted my return to cycling after so long? Frankly, it was poor mental health. I've had many bumps and knocks from the extreme sports I used to do. I've also suffered a lot of trauma. Deaths and accidents abound in flying and climbing, and one of these left me with a crushed spinal vertebrae.
Time healed these physical injuries, but not the mental health. A series of depression-based illnesses over my adult life came to a head when I suffered a major breakdown nearly six years ago. I could write reams about this, but this is not the place. During this time, I learned to slow down (having no other choice). Gone was the teaching career, house, partner, money, decent car etc. Gone also were both my parents and my sister.
It took several years to even begin to settle, let alone build a new life, but it did happen, slowly. My big sports motorbike was traded for a Harley, and then my Harley was traded for a bicycle!
My damaged knee had two operations to mend it and I was mobile again. As I began to get less tired, I exercised more and began to ride. I bought one of the aforementioned Dahon road bikes and began to cycle. My self esteem was boosted as was my physical and mental well-being.
I could ride somewhere knowing I could catch a bus back again if I felt rubbish. I could ride on traffic-free trails without the worry of cars, and I could talk to whoever I wished and build social relationships again. A new world of acceptance and infrastructure for cyclists helped make this possible.
More importantly, on these routes, cafes had sprung up all over the place making it easy to stop and refresh, look at the scenery etc. Cycling has come in from the cold and is no longer the preserve of a few die-hards as it was perhaps previously perceived
As people's lives become more sedentary, health professionals are pushing for governments to encourage active lifestyles. Cycling is part of this. It is fun, healthy and can be enjoyed by anybody. Other organizations support cycling in the UK, the CTC (Cyclist Touring Club, which is the oldest) and Cycle Britain to name a couple.
The introduction of many long distance routes and day trails as well as Mountain Bike Parks have brought many people, and a lot business, into the South West where I live. This is essential in a work-starved area of rural England. Cyclists have big appetites and all need somewhere to stop overnight, as well as take on the occasional repair.
I've seen old cyclists, families, cyclists with considerable disabilities, horse riders, walkers etc, all enjoying my local Sustrans Trail. I now work as a volunteer for Sustrans and my ride this year will rely on many routes on their National Cycle Network. I'm so impressed I will be raising funds for them during the ride, which I will write more about in a future article.
This is how far we have come in just twenty years. As more and more people begin to consider the changes we need to make to help this beautiful planet, the easier it will become to herald cycling in as a great way to travel, commute and spend our leisure time.
I for one, are excited to see many bike shops doing well. You can buy so many different types of cycles now. It's almost too much choice, Touring, Mountain Biking, Expedition, Folding, Road, Race, Audax, Sportif, but to name a few. Perhaps we have "never had it so good." We still have a long way to go in my opinion, but I like to think it will get even better.