Lots of people who ride bikes, including me, don’t necessarily see themselves as “cyclists”. We don’t wear lycra or have those fancy shoes that clip into the pedals. We don’t ride high-tech bikes that are so light you can lift them onto the roof of a car with a fingertip. Nevertheless, we have a trusted pushy in the shed and enjoy the experience of getting out and giving it a pedal around the lake with friends or down to the local coffee shop.
While I don’t call myself as a cyclist, I do love riding, and I’ve passed many happy hours pedalling around the lake on my e-bike on my way to and from work. However, until recently, I had yet to venture into recreational or social cycling, and did nearly all my riding on my own.
At the beginning of this year, I started working at Pedal Power ACT, Canberra’s largest cycling organisation, and this was when I realised just what a “gumby” cyclist I really was. Up until that point I’d been pretty proud of myself for having managed a 25 km e-bike commute until I heard some of our volunteers, many of whom were well into retirement, happily chatting about “short” 20 km rides, and “relaxing” trans-European bike tours. Soon after, on a stinking hot 35-degree day at the Big Canberra Bike Ride, I watched the tired but ecstatic faces of riders crossing the finish line after 120 km of cycling. The final rider that day was one of Pedal Power’s most stalwart volunteers, a septuagenarian cyclist who had volunteered to support and coach the tail-end of riders over the line. He looked like he’d just been for a brisk walk around the block. Who were these people and where did they get all this energy? Does cycling have some kind of magical health-giving properties?
I am not alone in asking this question. Researchers in public health are paying attention to the seemingly remarkable vitality of cyclists, and their studies are coming up with some pretty compelling results. A 2018 study by the University of Birmingham found that people in their 70s and 80s who regularly cycle have immune systems of people in their 20s. A 2017 study in the British Medical Journal found that regular cycling cuts the risk of death from all causes by more than 40 per cent, and cuts the risk of cancer and heart disease by 45 per cent. So remarkable are the results that it’s not uncommon for the term “miracle pill” to be bandied about when describing the multiple health effects of regular cycling.
No wonder these cycling types all look so healthy! I realised there was a lot more to this cycling caper than I had so far experienced as a solitary commuter rider. It was time to take it to the next level. So when the chance came up to join the New Horizons course, I jumped at the opportunity. New Horizons is Pedal Power’s nine-week skills development program which is made up of a combination of bike skills workshops and rides on shared bike paths and quiet roads.
The course is led by accredited cycle coaches and experienced cyclists, supported by a team of passionate volunteers. The volunteers are the heart and soul of the program, giving up their time to share their love of cycling and welcome new riders into the cycling community.
Most of them are previous participants in the course, including coordinator Wendy Studman.
“I used to ride as a child and rode to work in my 20’s after my husband-to-be gave me a bike for my birthday,” said Wendy. “We used to ride together a lot but I stopped when the children came along. Then in my 50s I started riding again when I did New Horizons.”
“It gave me a lot of confidence as a rider, and I made some terrific friendships. I am still cycling with people I did the course with and we have a lot of fun riding around Canberra. There’s such a fantastic camaraderie between riders. I started volunteering as a way of giving back, and it’s led me to further my interest in coaching. I am now going to coach a kid’s class which I’m really excited about!”
The practical workshops cover basic bike maintenance skills like how to clean your bike properly, changing the back tyre, and what tools to carry on your bike for basic roadside repairs. The rides focus on skills like emergency braking and communicating with other riders in a group, essential skills for social riding on roads or shared paths. One of the biggest take-home lessons for me was learning the correct technique for getting on a bike. Who knew I’d been doing it wrong for 40 years and there was an alternative to wobbling all over the place?
One of the things that I enjoyed about the course was the community of riders that has been built, with past participants signing up to volunteer at subsequent courses, and regularly riding together around Canberra. Former participant Mary Barr is now an active volunteer and champion for New Horizons.
“The course has connected me with regular Pedal Power rides and a crop of new friends,” said Mary. “This year I’m cycling in Italy with a group of Canberra friends and last year we rode in France. A year before that, I was just a beginner.”
The first ride we did was a short 30-minute pedal along the lake path, each week building up to longer rides as we gained fitness and confidence, and finishing with two 50 km rides. Our last ride was a loop from the Arboretum to out near Hall and back on a wet and windy six-degree morning in the middle of winter. To be honest, I would rather have stayed at home, but I’d made a commitment to be there, and felt I had no choice but to show up! It wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had on a bike but it was memorable, and as we laughed and warmed our freezing hands around our coffees at the Gold Creek cafe, I got a strong sense of the bond that’s created when people share a common hardship, or support each other to achieve a personal challenge.
So while I still love the solitude of my cycle commute, I have also discovered the joy of riding with friends, thanks to New Horizons. And it makes me happy to know that on every other day of the week in Canberra, there are a bunch of Pedal Power riders out enjoying each other’s company, cycling around our beautiful city. And if anyone asks me if I want to go for a short 20 km bike ride, I’m in!
Pedal Power’s New Horizons course starts on 10 and 11 October. For more information go to the Pedal Power website.
Laura Stuart is the Communications Manager at Pedal Power ACT, Canberra’s largest cycling organisation.