Cycle commuters are the happiest commuters – but I’m not there yet

A great research titbit from the ever excellent Bike Portland made me realise now is the time to share my Bike to Work problem. “Cycling Commuters are happiest” whizzed round Twitter last week.

Graph of “commute well-being” from a presentation poster by Oliver Smith, Portland State University

This is exaggerated by the fact that those most likely to moan about cyclists are the least happy – lone car drivers. Great for the promotion of cycling and we all knew it really, didn’t we? (And does it confirm the stereotype that all cyclists are just that little bit smug about their transport choice!)

But currently I am not happy with my bike to work. I am seeking a special set of conditions that make my ride “Just so”.

The scene is set by my first week of living in Belgium. I realise that in the ECF office as in much of Europe I am also a much rarer beast than in the UK, while I am a daily cyclist I also have roots in sport, most of my colleagues here are largely transport cyclists and while the daily commute is a great thing to do (and thereby should make them happier) it is just a commute, to be done as efficiently and quickly as possible. One of my colleagues expressed her confusion about my travelling habits because on my second week after moving I rode 24km to the office, appearing as a sweaty mess and heading off to the local gym for a shower. “But” she said, “you have just paid for your season ticket on the train, why ride all that way?”

Automatically I gave her the same answer I have been giving for nearly 20 years. “Oh, it keeps me fit, keeps my weight down and it sets me up for going out with a local cycling club when I get a bit fitter”.

But in in hindsight I realise that my stock answer just isn’t true anymore. While I value the fitness what I miss more than anything else what I need is a ride where I can settle to a steady rhythm and then completely disengage my brain from the process of riding. Over 10 years of my last commuting route in England there were numerous occasions when I would arrive at the work bike sheds and realise that I had no recollection whatsoever of the last hour.

What happened in that missing hour was like a piece of mental magic. I sort, order, conjure and create until the most difficult of problems began to rearrange themselves into manageable form. So many presentations, speeches, projects and problems sorted themselves during those rides that I rely on those moments for my mental wellbeing. And the reverse is true, without the necessary therapeutic hour my mind becomes crowded and even my sleep can be interrupted by the competing threads.

My trusty commuting bike is also built to meet these objectives. Recovered from scrap the Giant Granite is a rigid mountain bike frame with drop bars added for road riding and my favoured Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres so I am never going to be troubled by punctures. But neither am I going to be troubled by the need for speed, add a couple of full panniers and I slow myself down enough to ensure I don’t get to work too quickly. (Oh and by the way it is deliberately ugly, dirty and distressed to deter thieves – honest)Mountain bike converted to road

There is all sorts of medical evidence that exercise reduces stress and people who walk and cycle to work arrive more productive and alert, I am sure I am getting the benefit of all those things on my ride. But I can get many of those by riding the 5km to the station too or on a weekend ride. What matters on my long commute is that the riding itself is completely automatic for just the right period of time.

Brussels Belgium Chemin Des TumuliiSo why I am not happy with my Belgian ride yet? The distance is about right – I can finesse the route to get my favoured 90 minutes and fitness will certainly come, there are five hills of varying sizes which I can charge up if I want to. And it has the makings of a great combination. First 8km on quiet country roads while the traffic volumes are low. Then into Foret de Soignes where I have about 9km on forest tracks and car free service roads before the final 7km is a zigzag though the southern suburbs Watermael-Boitsfort and Etterbeek to the EU district at Schumann.

I have a horrible feeling that this ride is just too diverse. I have to think too much. When I get to Brussels I am not yet confident enough to ride without full concentration. The forest tracks are actually in excellent condition but not enough to relax during periods of falling leaves, rain, snow and ice. I am begging for a dry spell when I can try just cruising.

Just maybe the conditions, travelling away and spells of illness mean I am just being too impatient, I haven’t done the ride enough to make it automatic, to switch off completely. Maybe a bit of route fettling will see me right, but something has to give. Wouldn’t it be a cruel irony if I have got myself this beautiful route and I find myself heading back to the typical horrible cycle lanes by the main road so I can create the cycle commute I need for my well-being?

Let’s end with a reminder of how great it could be ……… I live in hope.Brussels

7 thoughts on “Cycle commuters are the happiest commuters – but I’m not there yet

  1. Hope you find a place maybe that is located to a more optimal route. A bike route that is perfectly mindless doesn’t exist:

    I have only a 20 min. bike ride on a flat route. Last winter, I fell cycling slowly on a bike path with black ice. So one is never completely “safe”.

    Forested areas are great except for the winter with ice and snow. It is too much thinking even with bike tire studs.


    • Thanks Jean. I can agree that maybe no mode of transport can be entirely safe but I certainly know that a regular route should become relaxing rather than taxing. And yes, ice changes everything.


  2. I’ve never thought of cycle commuting this way. But I did have the similar experience: usually when heading back home at night, especially riding the long pavement along the Dnieper’s embankment. Thanks for the post, Kevin!


  3. Kevin, this is one of the most constructive statements about regular cycling that I have seen. The three-mile commute that I did for many years was not long enough for me to settle into that mode, but other regular rides that I have done over the years–rides of an hour or more over familiar routes–have given me that time for mental rearranging. This is a function of cycling that the literature, both on cycling and on travel, simply does not bring up.


    • Thanks Keith. I don’t know how unique my experience is, but of course there are not so many cyclists trying to ride for over an hour.

      Except maybe the Danes, they cycle commute further than anyone else in Europe on average and they always come out high in well-being surveys. Must ask my Danish friends.


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