I was ready for the big ride.
I’d had the lessons. I’d received the encouragement. I’d checked my bike.
Then it all went a bit wrong.
Maybe that’s a slight over-exaggeration. The beginning of my first solo ride was smooth, but the last 15 minutes left me feeling defeated, nervous and, quite frankly, pissed off. As human beings, we place so much more emphasis on negatives over positives, so I ended the two-hour round trip feeling as if I was back to square one: A terrified cyclist.
According to a recent study, there are fewer cyclists on the road than ever before because of one main factor: fear. Six out of 10 adults believe it is too dangerous to cycle on the road, and women are far more likely than men to be put off by the amount of traffic or the condition of road surfaces.
Let’s talk a bit about fear. Fear was without a doubt the reason I couldn’t bring myself to head out on a long cycle alone last year. Fear was the reason I got off my bike to cross the traffic lights with pedestrians. Fear was the exact reason why my bike lay dormant in my dining room for months on end without even seeing the outside world. And now I’m slowly realising that it’s not a feeling that can go away overnight, despite the hours you put into building your confidence.
For my first big ride, my goal was to cycle to Richmond in London, which has a beautiful park. I’d cycled around the park once before, but had put my bike on a train to get there. This time I was going to cycle the whole way.
I put it into Google maps. 53 minutes. I can handle that.
12.15: I set off. I slyly have the sat nav on my phone positioned face up in my basket so I can glance down to see where I am going. My phone keeps flipping up and over when I go over bumps in the road. This is not a reliable way of directing myself.
12.30: The first part of this ride is through a busy town but, despite being full of cars, I feel confident about where I’m going and proud I have committed. The route takes me off the main road, along a river and meanders through more secluded residential areas. I genuinely smile to myself that I’m out here, on roads I’ve never cycled on my own. It’s easy so far.
12.52: I pull over to remind myself of the route and see I only have 15 minutes left until destination. The final stretch is a long road without any turns and it even has a separate cycle path. I have one small hiccup as I cycle into the busier town (turning right at traffic lights, my nightmare).
1.07: I made it. Under the time. I park my bike up and take a photo of it because I am THAT proud that it’s reached this far.
3.15: It’s time to head back. If I don’t leave now, I will be cycling back in the dark (not ready for that), so I gulp down my coffee and get back on the road. I familiarise myself with the route (my phone battery is dying), it looks slightly different to the way I came but I don’t think too much into it.
3.30: I’m back on the long road with a separate cycle lane (hallelujah) and I feel content. I’m on my longest solo ride yet and I’m probably only around 35 minutes from home.
3.45: I hit a stumbling block. I get lost on a weird windy route through a town called Wandsworth, and get really frustrated. I’m only about 20 minutes from my house so I sort of recognise the roads, but don’t know how to get home. My phone is dead because the sat nav drained the battery. I pull over, make a decision on where to go, and carry on. This is not fun.
3.50: I pull over and stop for the second time. I’ve just cycled up a huge hill for absolutely no reason and need to cycle back down it again. I still don’t know which way to go and it’s getting dark.
3.52: I get back on the main road. It’s the right road, I recognise it from a bus route. It’s just a big, busy, huge ‘A’ road and it’s terrifying. There are so many cars whizzing past me. I don’t want to be on my bike anymore. I’m a good hours’ walk from home. I can’t get on a bus.
3.55 - I feel exposed and vulnerable so I slowly pull into a bus stop not realising that the (insanely quiet) bus behind me is also pulling in. I hear the wheels break and turn around as it is a mere metre or so behind me. I apologise and lug my bike onto the pavement. I pause.
4.00: I suck it up, and get back on the big road. I patiently wait behind the huge queue up to the traffic lights because I’m too nervous to overtake. Within five minutes I’m back on a route I know. That carefree feeling I had earlier has gone. I’m not enjoying the cycle anymore.
4.17: I walk in the door to my flat, lift my heavy bike back up the stairs and fall flat on my bed. Rather than excitedly telling my family and friends about my cycle, I keep quiet.
The next morning, I have a new perspective. I am so much more focused on the 13 odd miles I cycled that I loved, rather than the five I hated. I tell friends, they congratulate me. I speak to a friend about the distressing route home, he agrees even he wouldn’t want to cycle that route.
I didn’t have an easy ride and I didn’t finish it with confidence. But I also didn’t walk, I didn’t get on a train, and I didn’t give up.
Fear isn’t going to go away over night, and I guess that’s a tough lesson to learn.