Mobilizing Community Through the Power of Cycling

By Eric Lindsay
Social Connectedness Fellow 2018

There you sit atop the grassy hill. Your vision narrows and the world seems to stop. The birds no longer chirp, the trees no longer sway. It is just you, your bike, and gravity. The slope below pitches precipitously like the steep slopes of Everest; your mind races playing out your probable fate.  Surely, you will die. But, from the bottom of the hill, a smile and wave; now, somehow, you feel brave. You grip the handlebars, raise your feet, suck in your gut, and away you go. The wind whips your face as you careen down the hill. As you reach the bottom, as the hill mellows out, the world lets out its breath and comes alive once more.  The birds chirp, the trees sway, and the sun shines brightly. Free from fear and invigorated by freedom you cry, ‘Mommy, Mommy, can I go again?’

Learning to ride a bike is a transcendental experience; one that opens the door to innumerable social opportunities. Aside from walking, cycling is often our first brush with autonomy, granting us the opportunity to ‘choose our own path’. Furthermore, it can also be a catalyst for social connection and a dynamic tool in combating social isolation.   

As an activity, cycling affords numerous benefits. It is not only good for the environment but it is also beneficial for our health. Cycling is a low-impact sport, can improve mental well-being, and can even prevent disease. A study by Celis-Morales, et al. in 2017 found that cycle commuters were 52% less likely to die of heart disease. Moreover, the Government of Queensland found that an individual cyclist produces 1500 kg fewer greenhouse gases than a non-cyclist. By cycling, we are afforded more time to expand our social and spatial networks. Quite simply, cycling creates opportunity.

The opportunity created by cycling manifests itself both physically and socially. Physically, cyclists have a heightened degree of geographic competence. Cyclists are not as burdened as their car-driving counterparts and are thus better able to access sites and services across the city. Cycling allows the individual to expand their spatial networks and to more readily engage with their environment (i.e. health services, social groups, activities, etc.); thus, creating the potential for social connection. Likewise, cycling removes the individual from the impersonal confines of the car and into a dynamic and cooperative environment. Even while riding alone, the experience of sharing the road with other cyclists can reinforce a sense of belonging. In effect, cycling places the individual within a wider, worldwide community of cyclists.

While cycling can come across as a solitary sport—a sport for health-conscious commuters or an exercise akin to cardiovascular torture— it has the potential for community-building and fostering belonging. The cycling community looks out for its members. For example, in Copenhagen, avid cyclist Ole Kassow and Cycling Without Age are reconnecting older persons with their environment via cycling. Represented in 37 countries worldwide, Cycling Without Age has given rides to over 50,000 older persons and has facilitated the creation of new, mutually beneficial intergenerational relationships.

Likewise, in Camrose, Alberta, a similar program called ‘Life Cycle’ helps connect generations and individuals to their wider environment. The city’s public library also operates a ‘Book Bike’, which is essentially a rolling library that allows people of all ages to more easily connect with public services.

Across the pond in London, a cycling club that started out of Queen Mary’s Women’s Hostel is helping homeless women regain independence. Mentored by instructors from Westminster Council’s training team, many women are learning to ride for the first time or improve upon previous ability. One woman states that because of the program, she is “…now able to explore [the] city’s parks and green spaces on [her] bike.” In effect, the cycling program is helping the women of Queen Mary’s to increase their confidence, gain autonomy, and re-build their sense of agency.  

The benefits accrued from cycling are innumerable and the worldwide community is ever-growing. So, if you haven’t already, why not get started today? Click here to find a club near you! If you are already out riding, consider riding for a cause with thousands of other individuals in the Ride to Conquer Cancer, or challenge yourself and compete in North America’s largest Gran Fondo. Whatever you choose to do, the cycling community will be waiting with open arms.