Does Cycling Help With Grief & Loss?; Or, Why I Missed Sea Otter 2016

Does cycling help with the grieving process?

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Photo by Cathy Baird

Sea Otter 2016. The races, the pros, the gear. So glorious. Months of anticipation, training, and preparation. All of my plans set.

But sometimes life–well, death, actually–gets in the way of plans. Just days before my annual pilgrimage to Sea Otter, a close family member passed on. And somehow, all the excitement of press meetings, scoping new gear, and joining the other roadies flying along the Laguna Seca track just faded. Basic black replaced my bright lycra kit. The bikes went back into the spare room. And the hours of unfolding asphalt ahead now promised a much more somber ritual.

Funeral preparations are slow. Sitting in the hushed and varied dining rooms, halls, and chapel, I often heard, “Sorry you had to miss your big weekend in Monterey.” But former plans barely entered my mind–filtered by the new contemplation of loss and a few opening lines from T.S. Eliot poems.

But, like an Eliot-driven sled ride, the draw to kit up and throw a leg over my bike grew stronger as the preparations dragged on. I coveted the idea of the road. Where no one stops to ask, “Are you ok?” unless you’ve picked up some new road rash.

And it all motivated me to share my version of last weekend with you. Because I think bikes are good for dealing with pain, or grief, or emotional stress. Hopefully, you’ll find this article useful. If not, no worries. I don’t do well with “serious” either.

Cycling Through Grief

Let me preface my article here. I’m not a doctor. I’m not giving you advice. Instead, I’m going to list out a few ways that I’ve used bicycling to help get me through the rough patches in life. I’ve done the research, and that’s at the end of my article–look through the peer-review journals for a good time (OK, not really). The research does, indeed, hint at the idea that exercise aids in the grieving process. Maybe it doesn’t get you from denial to acceptance directly, but it can give you a sense of purpose. A sense of direction.

Healthy Coping

  1. Bike riding is my coping mechanism. I’m going to assume that bikes make you happy. They make me happy. And research shows the definite connection between well-being and exercise. On my bike, I can concentrate on my power output, or I can concentrate on the impact my father has had on my life. I can focus on Strava segments, or I can focus on how my grandmother’s hard upbringing made her a fierce and independent woman. Either way, bikes give me options: leave sadness on the road and gain motivation. A better prospect than fetal-positioned cry sessions with Netflix in the background.
  2. It gets me out with friends. More than binge-watching TV, I like people. I like cycling because it’s truly a group sport. Heading out on a five-hour ride with a spouse or best friend is serious bonding time, and hanging in with a pack can remind you that you’re not alone in any of this stuff. All of those other people there on their fancy carbon or their muscle-sculpting steel have difficulty in their own lives. And they’re just happy to be on bikes too.
  3. Motivation makes me faster. Although hitting the road with a group promises a good time, cycling solo builds character. There’s no one to make an excuse to–just myself. And when that feeling strikes that a loved one is watching me from unknown skyscapes as I struggle up a climb, I can remind myself to be thankful for the ability to ride. I know. It’s corny. I’ll never be a truly great poet.
  4. It keeps me outta trouble. I don’t have many vices–although Cherry Coke is my great nemesis–cycling gives me a reason to steer clear of them (well, that and religion). No drugs. No alcohol. No creepy relationships. Cycling is a constant reminder of purpose. I purpose to be faster next year. I want to make the podium at Sea Otter. I want to watch my progress in training plans. Racing, training, writing, and learning everything bikes is what drives me. What keeps me from that dark siren call.
  5. Remembering is essential. I do have the fear of forgetting. The tenor of his voice. The color of her smile. The rhythm of the pedals seems to sharpen memory. And I can see them again. It’s almost like a great, cathartic, super-power. Cycling does that for me.
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Well, that’s me. What has cycling done for you? Send me a message, or comment below. Happy riding everyone, and I hope to see you at Sea Otter 2017.

 


Some light reading that was used in the construction of this article:
Crone, Diane, and Helen Guy. “I Know It is Only Exercise, but to Me It is Something That Keeps Me Going: A Qualitative Approach to Understanding Mental Health Service Users’ Experiences of Sports Therapy.” International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, 17.3 (2008): 197-207.
Gorczynski, Paul. “Sport and Physical Activity for Mental Health.” Mental Health and Physical Activity, 3.2 (2010): 102-103.
Svansdottir, E, S Gestsdottir, KT Magnusson, S Arngrimsson, T Sveinsson, A Arnarsson, and E Johansson. “Effect of Physical Health and Sports Participation in Adolescence on Mental Well-Being in Young Adulthood.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 46.5 (2014): 219.
Ten Have, M, R De Graaf, and K Monshouwer. “For Better Mental Health, Be Active.” Journal of   Sport & Exercise Psychology, 34.1 (2012): 151.
Oh, and T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” Give it a read.
*Disclaimer: I’m no doctor. Always seek help from a licensed medical professional to develop a plan for recovery from any mental or physical difficulties.
Photo by Cathy Baird

About Bek 298 Articles

SLO Cyclist’s chief editor and recovering road snob, Bek makes sure everything runs smoothly around here. She’s also the one who reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously–unless it involves black socks. Black socks are always serious.

6 Comments

  1. My father was an avid cyclist completing 100 mile rides every other month or so for a few years before passing away from a rapid onset brain disease at age 62. I purchased a higher end carbon fiber bike a few years ago to hopefully become a cyclist myself and begin riding with him. The army kept me busy and constantly moving and we never shared a long ride. Its been five months since his death and I completed my first group ride of 42 miles this past weekend. Around mile 30 I became a little emotional and felt closer to him than I had in several months. The emotion pushed me to survive the last hard push with the group. Thanks for your article. I can’t wait until next weekend’s ride.

    • Thanks so much for sharing, Steven. It’s great to know that many of us share a similar mindset when it comes to dealing with the most difficult challenges in our lives.

  2. I’m several days removed from the sudden and unexpected loss of my father. Three to be exact. Though it feels like just hours ago that everything happened. Despite sustained 30mph gusts and a “feels like 19” forecast, my wife urged me to get out and get to it this morning. After kitting up in all my absolute best and swapping the daily beater for the Sunday racer – I dunno, perhaps as a tribute to Dad – I almost bailed. Almost. I encountered your words above randomly over pre-ride PB&J and they proved to be the last kick I needed. I’m half way into what’s been a pretty somber and slow ride this far (stopping to watch planes take off at DCA, listening to wind whistle off sailboat masts at Daingerfield, fighting stiff headies while circling the Jefferson at the Tidal Basin, throwing a nod to Arlington Cemetary after not being able to bring myself to a proper stop-through) I didn’t feel as good as I hoped to feel. Barely a couple sips into mid-ride espresso, I decided to check back here to validate your sentiment. To your credit, so far everything you reflected you shared above has proved spot-on. Though Strava may not say so (heart rate monitors don’t measure this kind of pain – at least not that I know of), let me be clear in stating that by the end of today’s ride my “Suffer Score” will be tantamount to “epic.” Yet despite all that, I know I’ll definitely be just a little better having put myself through it. And even just a little better, is better.

    • Well put, Marc. Thanks for sharing this, and I’m so happy it helped give you some motivation to get out and ride. These times are never easy, but at least we can find small solace in our sport. Take care!

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