Minutes from leaving the house, everything starts to flow. My headlight opens the roads as the neighbourhood sleeps. One car passes me before stopping at a house to throw a newspaper on the doorstep. The brisk morning air is fresh, clean, after a night of rest, yet to be churned up by the city traffic. I feel its coolness against my cheeks and its life in my lungs. Through the houses, I cut down a bike path, into the park and then onto a trail. Dead leaves crackle under my wheels. Illuminated by my headlamp, I dodge tree branches as they reach out like arms into the path. My speed increases with my breath and cadence. I find a rhythm, and settle in as the morning light rises, turning the darkness into greys and then colours. A rabbit scurries across the path towards the river which cascades and eddies as it carries the city’s run-off to the lake. With my phone notifications turned off, and without a computer on my handlebars that has me chasing numbers, I can slide into deep thought.
A bike ride can help us relax, focus our thoughts, dissipate anxiety and build confidence. We can find serenity, as our breath falls in sync with our pedal stroke and our heart thumps in a rhythm with our effort. With our senses fully engaged, we can absorb the environment and find a deeper connection with our bodies. In doing so, a flow state is found.
With a phone in our pockets, a tweet on our minds, a photo that needs to be taken and then shared, our thoughts are invaded and broken into smaller bits. Sports are a mindful escape if we stay immersed in the moment and focus.
Over a decade ago, when social media started to consume our online world, I signed up. Out riding through the countryside in Spain, carrying my phone, I noticed a change in my thought process. No longer was I as deeply immersed in the environment. I began to see the world through tweets and snapshots. Wandering thoughts which might have become essays, or even books, were truncated into tweets. And, then it was Instagram, and even Strava, which can easily turn rides into races, as many are obsessed with chasing segments. Heavily documented in recent years, the dopamine hits we receive with every like and follow on platforms designed to addict, can quickly turn a ride that can have a positive effect on our mental health into a negative.
Of course, online social platforms and the metrics they provide have their positive aspects, as they create communities, encourage participation, help discover routes and can be training tools. The aspects that have been integrated into the platforms to retain constant engagement and generate profit for the service providers are those that addict us, create anxiety and turn lives into one of constant competition.
At the velodrome, I watch as my son and his clubmates prepare themselves for their events. The races are short and successive as they’ll race repeatedly throughout a meet. All track events require an intense level of concentration, whether they are timed individual races or mass start bunch events, focus is required to both perform, as a lapse can lose the race, or worse, cause a crash. Often, between the races, the kids would reach for their phones, scroll, punch at keys and then resume their warmups. As with most of us, their attention span has been eroded by their phones.
The focus they required to race was constantly interrupted by notifications and the addiction to check for updates. On average, after looking at a phone our brains require 23 minutes to reset and refocus on a task. The kids are now aware of the distraction and how it might affect their performance, so they tuck their phones in their bags, resist the urge to check, and focus on their races.
Track cyclists are not allowed to have cycle-computers or any timing devices on their handlebars for safety reasons. As a result, riders are required to pace themselves both in training and racing, a skill that has a significant influence on performance both on the track and road. Pacing requires the cyclist to learn to listen to their body, find their limit, and learn how to dose their energy over the distance of the event. In events which are often won by hundreds of a second, a momentary lapse in focus, which causes the pace to fluctuate, will lose the race.
On the road, most cyclists have become reliant on their tracking devices to determine effort level and pace. Without a computer on their bars, they are lost. The devices have positively changed the sport and have greatly improved our understanding and the quality of training, yet learning how to pace and listen to your body is a skill that many no longer learn, and watching the kids develop that skill on the track, I realize how influential it is across most cycling disciplines.
Our kids commute to school daily by bike. Initially, we encouraged them to ride for health and environmental reasons, even when their morning lethargy had them asking for a drive. But, that all changed when our eldest child was writing grade 8 exams. During the stretch of exams, they rode each day, but then, on a rainy day, we drove them. As they sat down to write the exam, they had trouble focusing, taking them a few more minutes to settle in. In the end, the exam didn’t go as well as hoped. Aware of the positive effect the bike commute has on their mindset, they have ridden to school everyday since the exam, regardless of weather. They realize that a quiet uninterrupted ride in the fresh air, helps them focus and relax before class, and improves the day.
As in all aspects of our modern lives, we need to learn to understand the addictions our devices create, when to put them away, and to stave off the percussive dopamine hits the phone produces so we can benefit from the prolonged joy and calm of a long quiet ride in the countryside.