This article was published in 2018, in Magazine 141.
How to keep on cycling when you’re 8 months’ pregnant
I’m now eight and a bit months pregnant and I’ve been cycling all the way through this pregnancy. I’d say that I am a fairly average Cambridge cyclist; I commute about three miles across Cambridge to work on a hybrid bike and a few times a week I cycle my toddler to activities around the city in the cargo bike. It has been an easy decision to keep cycling – it’s still the most convenient way to get around Cambridge and I find it much easier than walking. Some fairly typical pregnancy pelvic pain means a ten-minute walk to the shops is more than enough at the moment but cycling tends even to ease the pain so I can get much further. I’m no expert but that tends to be the advice during pregnancy – keep going with your usual activities but if it’s starting to hurt, do take advice.
The thing I notice most is that I don’t have as much lung capacity. It’s not so much of a problem cycling myself on my commute but getting the cargo bike and toddler up Madingley Rise or over a bridge does leave me out of puff! Having said that, the more upright cycling position on the cargo bike does help, and both the bikes have dropped frames meaning that I can still get my increasingly unwieldy self on and off with a measure of dignity. I would also say that having a good wide, comfortable saddle is an absolute must.
How to keep on cycling when you’re older
Retirement is a great time to take up cycling for pleasure and the members of the U3AC Cycling Club are fine demonstrators of the health benefits of doing so. Many of us are well into our 70s or even 80s, but that doesn’t stop us enjoying this form of fresh air, exercise and company. A surprising number who join the club with cumbersome, old shopping bikes are inspired to invest in new bikes.
Being well into our 70s or 80s doesn’t stop us enjoying cycling for pleasure
We do tend to be fair-weather cyclists, so rain, strong winds and ice see rides cancelled, but Cambridge is lucky in its climate and even in the winter there are usually plenty of fair days.
Cambridge is an excellent cycling centre for other reasons: gradients are kind, it is small enough to get out into the countryside very easily, and there are plenty of trains going north, south and east to extend our range. Thank goodness for accommodating train managers – long may they reign.
Two of the most popular activities are twice-yearly parties and short summer breaks away from Cambridge – often taking advantage of Sustrans’ excellent long-distance routes. Cyclists are very good at socialising, something also demonstrated by the leisurely refreshment breaks that each ride includes.
How to keep on cycling when you suffer from chronic pain
Chronic, invisible pain. It’s awful. From the outside, everything looks fine so most people would never guess that on the inside, it hurts! This kind of pain is often hard to diagnose. Often leading to assumptions of hypochondria or exaggeration, including by the very person who might be suffering from the pain, rarely does it seem possible that there is any kind of treatment that can help. For many people, their chronic pain can affect their mobility and can lead to further emotional pain caused by isolation and added health issues owing to inactivity.
For the last ten years, I have lived with almost constant discomfort, leading up to what can at times be quite severe pain and sometimes being practically unable to move. I know many people suffer worse pain, but I think mine is still a story worth telling, in the hope that sharing it makes it a little easier for those who may have it even worse. I hope it also helps the people who make our transport infrastructure decisions to understand that cycling truly can be a mobility aid for those who cannot walk and drive, allowing people the freedom of movement that others can easily take for granted.
Ten years ago, I was the fittest I had ever been. I was regularly running distances of 10km and had just completed a charity cycle ride of 210km (in one day). I was also working and travelling a lot, often carrying a heavy backpack and sitting awkwardly at makeshift desks and regularly hunched over a laptop for more than 12 hours a day (this is the life of a management consultant!). All of a sudden, something invisible broke. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t run 100m, I could no longer cycle 5km to the office without pain, walking hurt, sitting at a desk for any period of time was agony and driving a car for more than ten minutes was impossible. Standing still, moving, lying down, everything led to shooting pain through my knee and hip, sometimes all the way from my foot to my neck. So I took myself off to the physiotherapist and thought a few weeks of treatment should get me back to normal. From the physio, I went to the podiatrist then to the rheumatologist then to the osteopath then to the acupuncturist and then to the knee surgeon and on and on to whoever I was recommended to see next – but still with no explanation for my pain and no relief. The only result was an empty bank account. Meanwhile, the pain continued to get worse.
So here I was, still in my 20s, unable to walk, stand, sit, sleep, swim, run, dance, drive or cycle without pain. This was incredibly difficult for someone who had always been so active. One of the worst moments was probably hiking in one of the most beautiful places in the world, Patagonia, and not even remembering the scenery because every, single, step was torture.
It wasn’t until I moved to Cambridge that things started to improve. This was the first time that I encountered the upright style of cycling. It’s so normal here, but until recently you would never have seen a Dutch-style, sit-up-and-beg type of bicycle in Australia. I decided that trying one of these bikes, and taking it slow, just might be possible for me. And it was! Amazingly, I could cycle further than I had in such a long time without pain. Convinced this was the answer, I then upgraded to a real Dutch bike that was even more upright which led to even more positive results. On this bike, I was able to cycle the Reach Ride without needing to take any kind of pain relief, something that just wasn’t possible a few years before. I even used my Dutch bike to tour around the Netherlands, easily cycling more than 50km a day.
Despite the improvements in my cycling, I still cannot drive comfortably and even being a passenger in a car for more than half an hour produces intense nerve pain. I try to keep up my walking, but too often I get caught out too far away from home and in too much pain to make it back, so I don’t like to rely on this for regular commuting.
I can’t imagine living somewhere other than Cambridge and not being able to cycle everywhere I need to go. I don’t think I could cope with the pain of having to drive every day, especially if I had a long or unreliable commute. Public transport is better than driving, but still often results in pain if I need to stand up (I’m unlikely to be offered a seat as I don’t look like someone in pain) or if I am forced to sit in an uncomfortable position. One of the things I love about my work with Camcycle is that I regularly need to cycle to meetings during the day: this gets me away from the desk and moving which is a great relief.
Recently, with renewed confidence from my cycling, I started working with a sports therapist (Craig Hardingham at Injury Active Cambridge). After a year of weekly sessions, I do seem to be seeing further improvement. Perhaps tempting fate, I’ve now purchased a touring bike. I recently had a bike-fitting session with Perfect Condition in Cambridge, which was really interesting. I needed a new seat post to allow me to set my seat two inches back to accommodate my longer-than-average femurs and to put my knees and feet at the proper angles. The improvement in my riding comfort is substantial, and I wonder what might have been different if I had had a decent bike fitting all those years ago. I have also changed the handlebars on my bike to be more upright and natural; in fact, I think I might raise them even higher again. I’m constantly told drop handlebars will be more aerodynamic and more this that and the other, but the fact is, my back can’t cope with it. So I’ll take the headwind and the slower ride and enjoy a pain-free ride and a better view of the scenery instead. Cycle touring is so appealing to me because I can’t go on long hikes and I can’t bear the idea of spending long hours in a car. Cycling really is the only pain-free way for me to travel. On a trip to the Netherlands with my new touring bike this year, I was able to cycle a previously unimaginable 100km a day, and I can’t wait for more adventures next year.
So for those who think that cycling is only for the fit and able, I say ‘please think again’. Cycling is often one of the few enablers for those of us who are not so fit and able. My story is one of many and is a fairly mild story too. There are people with more significant mobility issues than mine who benefit greatly from cycling. I am lucky in that I am usually able to deal with the odd spot of difficult infrastructure. I am strong enough to lift my bike over obstacles and up stairs. But many are not. Many also need to use adapted cycles and tricycles which so much cycling infrastructure still fails to accommodate. For many users of these cycles, the alternative option is sitting isolated at home, so we should be doing everything we can to help them get out of the house and remain a part of our community. The e-bike is a brilliant revolution as well and something that I am keeping in mind should I eventually find that I just can’t keep up cycling without a little more help. If needed, an e-bike would allow me to continue cycling with my husband and my friends rather than opting-out like I need to do whenever they go on other adventures like hiking.
For those who think cycling isn’t for them, I ask that you have another go. Try a new style of bike and play around with the fit, the handlebars and the saddle. The difference that can be made to your riding comfort is significant. If you are still in pain and if you can afford it, I also encourage you to keep trying to find the right professional to help you, but don’t waste your time and money on anyone who isn’t taking your pain and your goals seriously.
Right now, as I am writing this article, the familiar pain is creeping along my hip and knee, I’ve been sitting here too long. Luckily, it’s time to get up and get on my bike so I can cycle to a meeting in town, a journey which means a blissful 20 minutes without pain. Every day I am so grateful to live in a place where this is possible, and it is one of the main reasons I am so motivated to help others have the same freedom of movement through cycling.
Roxanne De Beaux