All about the bike: what happens when cycling becomes an ‘obsessive passion’

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If you’re reading this there’s every chance you love riding your bike. You might even be a little bit obsessed with cycling. But at what point does a passion for cycling become a problem? Psychologist Dr Justin Coulson ponders this question and considers what new psychology research suggests about the internal conflicts we can feel when cycling starts to take over our lives.

There have been times in my life where cycling has almost become my god. It ruled my decisions about when I slept, how much time I spent at work, when my family saw me, what I ate, and even what I did on holidays. If the family was going somewhere for the day, I’d leave early and ride there, meeting my wife and kids at our destination. My wife is patient, but I certainly tested those limits on such occasions.

My mates and I created the Sparrow’s Fart Cycle Club – named because our rides were so early we were home before the sparrows farted! With families, work, and other commitments, riding during daylight hours was nearly impossible, so our crew would meet at 4.15am two mornings each week to ride. (They still do – but I’ve let it go.)

The thing is, I’m not training for the WorldTour. I’m a pretty average nearly-40 year-old club cyclist (who isn’t even competing at the moment). But … cycling is a passion. It’s something I discovered about seven years ago and it completely absorbed me. My life became about nothing but my bike. But is this healthy?

We all know that cycling can be an incredibly time-demanding sport. While ergo sessions can get us by, most of us love being on our bikes with our mates, clocking up the k’s on a training ride, or if we have time, telling everyone how good we are during the post-ride coffee.

Yet while we’re checking our Garmin to see if we’ve hit the 100km yet, or gazing at our power output, heart rate, and cadence, many of us have that little voice in the back of our heads saying, “You really need to get home and see the family.” Or, “if you don’t get that work deadline sorted, the bottom’s going to drop out of that project.”

Harmonious passion vs obsessive passion

As cyclists, are we harmoniously passionate? Or obsessively passionate? Both passions come from a love of the activity, but they lead to different outcomes.

Research tells us that when we are harmoniously passionate, we engage in cycling willingly, with a sense of volition. We do it because we choose to. This kind of passion is linked to positive emotions, and increased life satisfaction. It is this passion that is linked with flow – a powerful pathway to happiness.

Then there’s obsessive passion. This refers to that seemingly uncontrollable urge to ride. It’s the “I need to, I have to” feeling we get. This kind of passion is associated with internal conflict, and negative emotional outcomes (such as feelings of shame or guilt) and life satisfaction outcomes, often even while we ride our bike!

The emotions we experience during the activity are one thing. Research also tells us that how we feel after cycling is associated with either harmonious or obsessive passion. We continue to feel good long after our ride when our cycling obsession is harmonious. We tend to feel conflicted or even annoyed when our passion is obsessive.

And those who are obsessive tend to make some decisions that, in the cold light of day, aren’t particularly wise. The Sparrow’s commitment is arguably along those lines. So too is the obsessive Montreal cyclists who ride in temperatures well below -15 degrees C, according to this study from 2003 (see study 3, page 763).

What the research tells us

New research has been published in Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, investigating the internal conflict we experience when ‘the bike’ starts to rule our lives at the expense of other important priorities.

In the study, just under 1,000 cyclists (with a mean age of approximately 42 years) were asked questions about how much they ride, how much they wish they could ride, and how much they ought to ride. They were quizzed on their “passion” and the degree to which they felt “dependent” on physical activity in their lives.

Results showed that the greater a cyclist’s obsession with cycling, the more intra-personal conflict they felt when it came to their chosen activity. When cycling was viewed as a harmonious passion, cyclists didn’t seem to have the same internal fight going on.

Interestingly, the results also showed that individuals who were obsessive also had a high level of exercise dependence, while the more harmoniously passionate cyclists saw exercise as a supplement to a well-balanced life, rather than a “need to, have to” daily ingredient.

What it all means

Cycling requires a lot of us – particularly if we are driven to accomplish goals (like winning the B-grade club race on the weekend). We have our “ideal” (train 16-20 hours a week), our “ought” (train six hours a week), and the conflict between the two. Then there’s the additional pressure of family, work, and so on. It’s this pressure – usually resulting from an obsessive, rather than harmonious passion – that we put on ourselves that impacts our satisfaction and wellbeing.

If we want to genuinely enjoy our cycling – and have our cycling contribute to our overall life wellbeing – a harmonious passion approach will work best. Ride, by all means. But the research suggests we’ll enjoy it more (and life more) when we recognise our limits, set goals consistent with our capacity, and put the most important things first.

Are you guilty of putting cycling ahead of other priorities in your life? What was the result? And what made you reprioritise (if indeed you did)?


About the author

Dr Justin Coulson speaks to professionals and parents about positivity – at work, at home, in life. He and his wife are the parents of six children. He rides less than he used to – and he’s finally ok with that. You can read more of his work at his website and you can connect with him on Facebook and on Twitter.

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