Let your fear subside: A ride through anxiety

Cycling was always my safe space, a refuge from my anxiety. When that changed, I knew I needed to face the fear.

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For a long while I was doing really, really well. My anxiety always lingered in the background but it didn’t hamper my day-to-day life like it did in 2021. Until October 4th. 

Normally it is not that clear what triggers an episode of anxiety, but in this case, it’s a very specific date, because this time the cause was very clear. 

I was riding my bike on a narrow river dyke. We have many of those where I live in the west of the Netherlands. Behind me, I heard a van approaching and moved as far right as I could, braking instinctively at the same time. The driver steered well around me but before his trailer could pass, he had already begun steering back across. The trailer clipped me, leaving a hole in my jersey and a hole in my arm. By some minor miracle I stayed upright, and rode the final 15 kilometres back home. 

That might have been the end of it, but sadly, it wasn’t. A seed was planted in my head and I felt that familiar build of anxiety. 

So here we are –  another story about my anxiety. 

When I rode again, I saw cars approaching and, in my mind, they were coming straight at me. In the past, cycling has been a relief from anxiety and panic, a safe space where I wasn’t afraid. But this latest bout of anxiety was uniquely troubling – the very act of cycling induced panic. My haven had been taken away from me. 

This was a very bad situation and I knew I needed to do something about it, but that’s easier said than done. You can only learn how to navigate around anxiety, but when you’re in the midst of the storm you’re buffeted by it. Luckily, I had a holiday to take my mind off things for a while.

I travel to Lanzarote every year. The roads are amazing, the gradients on the climbs rather mellow and the temperatures are always good. There are a lot of cyclists on the island and Spanish law dictates that riders should be overtaken with at least one and a half metres of space. In my experience, it’s a really safe place to ride. A good place to find the fun back in riding. But there was one ‘but’.

There is hardly any rain on Lanzarote, but there is always wind. Always. If you’re lucky, it’s a mere 15-20 km/h (9-12 mph), but more often it’s double that. And it can be scary – especially when it’s a crosswind. So, there was a certain inevitability in the fact that I’d get hit by the wind, on a very fast downhill. And it scared the hell out of me. 

My anxiety is always about what if-scenarios, and they are usually quite fatalistic. If I crash, I break something. If I crash, I know I will never ride a bike again. Yes, my mind raises the stakes that high for every simple bike ride, but I ride nonetheless, because I need it so much. Even through the fear.

The first descent of the week was a very straight one toward the northern coast. The wind came from the east and pushed my front wheel sideways. I let out a scream. My body froze. I stopped and looked at the remainder of the road down to the coast. It was so beautiful, but all I saw was more danger, more wind. 

I sighed. What could I do? I had to ride this road. I couldn’t just stand here on the roadside and wait. And wait for what, exactly? Less fear? A rescue mission? I clicked back in and picked up speed, in the drops for more stability but with my hands firmly on the brakes. 

I wasn’t even pedalling, but my heart rate soared. My hands cramped up as I pulled the brakes. Despite all the force I was applying, the brakes were eerily silent. The road was wide and my speed crept up again – up, up to 45 km/h, before I brought it back down to 40 km/h. I tried to control my breathing and tell myself out loud that I can do this. A mantra. I can trust my bike. I can trust my wheels. I have done this before. I can do it again. 

I made it to the beach at Caleta de Famara, trembling from this scary experience. My husband was there waiting for me, and I could have jumped in the car and go back to the hotel then and there, but for some reason, I knew I needed to continue.

Fear is a weird thing. We need it to survive – if we were never afraid, we’d be dead in no time. But too much fear means there is nothing left to live for. Staying inside and avoiding the world is what my anxious brain deems to be the safest course. But that’s surviving, not ‘living’. 

I had to face my fears and continue riding until the next descent. If I didn’t – fatalistic as it may sound – I knew it would be the last ride I’d do. 

The biggest and fastest descent on each of my rides on the island is the road back from Tías to Puerto del Carmen where the hotel is. Three years ago, pre-anxiety, I once reached 72.1 km/h there. It seems like a ridiculous thing now, but I vividly remember the feeling of control I felt that day. 

I still have the same bike skills, the same bike. What has changed is in my head – only in my head. To get that feeling of control back became my driving goal. 

To the descent. I managed to let the brakes go, let the bike do its thing and let the ride empty my head. I still felt the wind claw at my front wheel, but rather than my body being locked up I eased myself into it, moving with the wind and my bike. My heart rate, which spikes and hammers in the midst of an anxiety attack, even dropped below the 100 beats per minute mark. 

‘Just stay where you are, let your fear subside, just stay where you are, if there’s nothing to hide’ is a lyric from one of my favorite Pendulum songs, and that’s what I’ve been trying to teach myself on the bike again since that incident on October 4th. Every descent, every ride, every climb is another small victory – another little building block back to more confidence. This week of riding was not as liberating as it usually is, but big steps were taken. 

This is not another sob story about panic attacks and anxiety, but a kind of triumph. Writing this makes me realize that I should never let fear take over my life, no matter how debilitating it sometimes feels. Riding teaches me – and maybe you as well – that we are incredibly vulnerable, but even in that vulnerability, our strength is that we ride because it’s the best thing.

I know what riding a bike gives me, but we all have our own reasons to ride. For me it’s for the little victories I win for myself. I ride to beat myself, to beat my head and my self-doubt. I ride to teach myself time and time again that I am stronger than my mind wants me to think. Much stronger than that.

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