The healing power of a simple bike ride

A ride to quiet the mind was the best gift I could have given myself.

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I look at the smooth asphalt underneath my wheels and see the sun try to break through the clouds. My wheels make that comforting whoosh sound and my bike is without a single creak. It’s one of those little joys every bike rider will appreciate. I chose to ride in the afternoon because the mornings are still very cold. The trees are still empty apart from the oak trees that desperately cling to last year’s dead leaves. Isn’t nature the perfect metaphor for life? The tendency to hold on to the old while you wait for a new unknown to come along? 

I think of what is good in this world and cherish the peace I feel in my heart on this quiet stretch of road on a Wednesday in March. It’s good to know that my body and mind still have the ability to calm down. I need to try and remember this when panic rages; need to remember that panic is not forever. I can make it stop. 

Villes sur Auzon is the start place of the Gorges de la Nesque. In the background, Mont Ventoux lies covered in clouds.

The Gorges de la Nesque is a road that runs from Villes sur Auzon to Sault, one of the three start places of the Mont Ventoux climb. The climb to the top of the Ventoux is still closed as temperatures up there are below freezing. Even at the restaurant at Chalet Reynard, at 1,200 m (3,940 ft), it’s still barely above 0 ºC. Staying down here to enjoy the early sunshine of a new spring is good enough. 

The Gorges de la Nesque tops out at 737 m. It’s 18.4 km long and an average gradient of 2.3%; a total climb of 423 metres. It takes me just over an hour. It’s not a hard climb but it’s one I love because I can do it with relative ease and enjoy it. It climbs in the beginning, becomes flat and even descends in the middle and gets steeper at the end. It has bumps and smooth surfaces. 

This climb is the story of my life in the past year and I am sure you will recognize it too. We all climb mountains and we all fall off sometimes. It’s how fast we get back up that makes the difference.

The sun rises above Mont Ventoux on a cold March morning.

About a year ago the world started to get to me. One year of COVID. We were in lockdown again in the Netherlands and only gradually were we climbing out. Things had changed since the first lockdowns. Fear had turned to anger. Society became more divided than ever before. I tend to avoid conflict, so all the anger made my shoulders feel heavy.

My heart started pounding at the weirdest moments of the day and the night. A deep fear of choking overcame me and made it impossible to think of anything else than dying in that moment. Getting COVID myself exacerbated that feeling. Usually, the attacks happened when I was alone. I always thought about how no one would find me in time if I died on the spot.

Panic attacks are deeply irrational but they are all-consuming when you have one.

The first corner where my dad leaves to go Strava hunting.

I ride on to the first corner where my dad, who is 69 but weighs 30 kg less than me, usually rides away from me. Turning 70 this year he is always in a hurry because who knows how long he will still be healthy enough. I smile at the memory of seeing him disappear into the distance when we ride in France together and feel blessed to still have my parents in my life. In May we will ride this road together again when we come back to stay at Camping Le Ventoux, where my mum makes omelettes for us.

Today I am alone but I have the campsite owner on speed dial. I am not afraid that something will happen to me on this desolate stretch of road but I am not the world’s best bike handler and if something does happen and I crash or have a mechanical it’s good to have back-up. 

I try not to clasp the handlebars too hard, and try not to watch the numbers on my computer. I set out for this solo 75 km ride around the Gorges to be mindful and to relish this opportunity to ride the mountain by myself. I reflect on what has been and what will be.

The road swerves around a canyon with the impressive Mont Ventoux always in the background.

I was here last September. Fears were raging through me every moment of the day. I was afraid to climb stairs because I would be out of breath at the top. I was afraid of going to the supermarket where dizziness suddenly came over me. I was afraid to commentate races because panic struck in the final of every stage. I was afraid to meet new people. Afraid to interview riders. I was afraid of living.

As I pedal on to that turn where the Mont Ventoux looms in the distance, I wonder what I was afraid of and why. But that’s anxiety for you – you don’t understand it, you are ashamed of your irrational fears, and yet they are the most real thing in your life at that moment.

The Gorges de la Nesque was made by a tiny little stream over many, many years. One little stream did all this; changed the scenery all by itself. It is small but it proved powerful. This place has seen war arrive and peace come. It’s always been here, biding its time, and now it sees the world continue at an ever-more-frantic pace. This knowledge gives me perspective. Nature often does because it has no fear. It just is. 

I pass the little house of a local beekeeper. The blue hives outside are waiting for the new spring to arrive, for the new flowers to bloom, for another circle of life to begin. This is the hardest part of the climb but I know I can do this. It’s amazing what the body can do when the mind is quiet. There is no cell reception here but I have my Spotify playlist helping me forward. 

The lavender plants, so characteristic of the Provence region, are still in winter mode.

Around the corner, towards the few tunnels that indicate the end of the climb, I again see the slopes of Mont Ventoux in the distance. There is blue on the horizon but it’s overcast where I ride. That blue sky is something to long for, a situation that seems better than the place you are now. But in cycling you have to live in the moment.

You have to deal with the circumstances that you are in right now: rain, headwinds, hills, or tricky descents. You have to deal with that moment and not with what is 20-30 km ahead of you. One step at a time, one pedal stroke closer to the blue skies. This is as mindful as it can be and I am trying to enjoy every moment despite all that happens around me.

The world is void of blue skies at the moment. There is a war in Ukraine, a forgotten one in Yemen, food crises and starvation loom for many millions of people, and the ever-increasing pace of climate change enhances the feeling of impending doom. It’s hard not to be swept along in this current of negativity, to forget about the good in the world.

As I ride my bike here all by myself in this gorgeous part of the world I think of the people of Ukraine carrying their children, their dogs and cats to safety. What they could bring with them is what matters most. I think of what matters most to me. It’s not what I own, the things I bought, or the money I earned. It’s the people I love and who love me.

During this hour of riding many thoughts cross my mind. I think of what is wonderful in the world, like that woman playing piano at a train station in Lviv, Ukraine. She didn’t play a sad song when fleeing her home, leaving everything behind. No, she played ‘What a Wonderful World’ by Louis Armstrong. 

Like her I desperately want to see the good in the world right now because it’s the bad we see on the news day by day. It’s the good we need as balance right now. 

And no, it won’t all be plain sailing and the anxiety won’t be gone from my life. Once I eliminate one trigger there will be new ones. There will be hard times, disappointments, pain, and hardship. There will be more wars and more suffering that I can’t do anything about. I will feel hopeless again, unseen, and panicked. 

But despite all this, I feel peaceful on this simple bike ride on a Wednesday morning in the south of France. It’s good to know that the bike still has that power to quiet my mind, to show me that panic has a starting point but an end station as well.

I feel a deep sense of belonging on this bike and on this road. It’s a good feeling. For a few hours the bad in the world seems far away. This is the place I needed to be at this moment and that’s one of the greatest gifts I could have given myself right now.

That cycling smile.

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