I started cycling, lost weight and the diabetes disappeared

It's National Bike Week, so take up cycling for health, fitness and fun

Some of the cyclists who took part in Bike to Work Lunchtime Cycle which started from Grand Canal Square, Dublin through the city, the 5km spin was promoting safe cycling, fun way to get about and a healthy and stress free way to travel. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill

Some of the cyclists who took part in Bike to Work Lunchtime Cycle which started from Grand Canal Square, Dublin through the city, the 5km spin was promoting safe cycling, fun way to get about and a healthy and stress free way to travel. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

“Yuh still holdin’ me up, Daddy?” I yelled over my shoulder, as dusk fell on a Belfast park. “Uh-huh,” came a faint reply. Peeking behind, I realised, with a surge of exhilaration, that I was on my own and that Daddy’s economy with the truth had eased me through one of life’s rites of passage: learning to ride a bike.

And what better time to discover the joys of cycling than during Ireland’s National Bike Week, which takes place from June 10th to June 18th. Perhaps, having attended Cycling Ireland’s recent Bike Fest on June 11th, you’re keen to experience life on two wheels, and Cycling Ireland’s communications officer Heather Boyle is especially keen to share with The Irish Times some biking benefits.

Benefits of cycling

“Socially,” she says, “cycling offers great opportunities to meet like-minded people from all walks of life. With over 400 cycling clubs in the country, there’s bound to be a group for you. Cycling offers something to everyone: from adrenalin-fuelled racing to social touring, to a head-clearing cycle home after a hard day’s work.”

And Boyle reminds me that Ireland has some of the most beautiful country roads in the world, with relatively low levels of traffic: “On the bike,” she enthuses, “you see the country at a slower pace and from a different perspective. And from an environmental point of view cycling’s a zero-emission activity, so while enjoying its health and fun benefits, you’re also helping reduce our carbon footprint.”

Cycling and health

The health benefits conferred by cycling are probably best explained by a leading surgeon for whom pedal power proved life-changing. Prof Chris Oliver who is on Twitter @CyclingSurgeon, is the professor of physical activity for health at the University of Edinburgh, and consultant orthopaedic surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. “I cycled as a schoolboy,” Oliver told The Irish Times, “and as a medical student, I rode all over London. But later I became obese, weighed over 28 stone, developed Type 2 diabetes and couldn’t cycle. However, I underwent gastric band surgery and got fit again; so fit that in 2013, I rode 3,500 miles across US from Los Angeles to Boston. The Type 2 diabetes disappeared when I lost weight.”

Ryan Quinn (11) from Lucan, National BMX Champion two years running. Photograph: Dave Meehan
Ryan Quinn (11) from Lucan, National BMX Champion two years running. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Regular cycling, says Oliver, is a great way to increase longevity: “Middle-aged people who cycle regularly typically enjoy the fitness level of someone 10 years younger, and gain two years in life expectancy; and cycling, combined with a healthy diet, helps control weight and lower the risk of diabetes. It raises the metabolic rate, builds muscle, burns body fat, and is a comfortable form of exercise which you can vary and build up slowly. A daily half-hour bike ride burns nearly five kilograms of fat over a year.”

Oliver also notes that cycling can reduce one’s risk of contracting cardiovascular disease, with regular cycling stimulating heart, lungs and circulation, reducing the risk of stroke, high blood pressure and heart attack: “In addition, exercise reduces your risk of colon and breast cancer, and research has found cycling reduces the risk of bowel cancer.” For bones and joints, he says, cycling improves co-ordination, strength and balance and may help prevent falls and fractures: “Being low-impact, with little stress on joints, cycling is an ideal form of exercise for osteoarthritis. Around 70 per cent of body weight goes through the saddle and handlebars instead of your ankles; and the bigger you are, the more important that is!”

As for mental health, “Conditions like depression, stress and anxiety,” explains Oliver, “can be reduced by regular cycling. This is due to the effects of the exercise, producing endorphins, and because riding a bike can bring great enjoyment.”

Boyle agrees: “The mental health benefits are phenomenal, as highlighted, for example, by the huge support for Ireland’s annual Cycle Against Suicide event, which took place from April 23rd to May 6th this year, and whose message was ‘It’s okay not to feel okay; and it’s absolutely okay to ask for help’.”

 With Cycling Ireland – the country’s national governing body for cycling – boasting a membership of over 29,000, which has grown by 720 per cent over the last decade, it is clear that the benefits conferred by cycling on all age groups, from primary schoolchildren to retirees, are being enjoyed by increasing numbers of people.

So come on; get on your bike and start cycling: it’s a life-enriching experience.

Great places to cycle

Waterford Greenway: Ireland’s longest greenway was officially opened on the March 25th with 46km of a dedicated cycling and walking trail along the old railway line. The trail stretches from Waterford City to Dungarvan, taking in 11 bridges, three viaducts and a 400m tunnel, and the route is a mix of coastal and inland section.

Cyclists on the Waterford Greenway, the longest off-road walking and cycling experience in Ireland. See visitwaterfordgreenway.com for more information
Cyclists on the Waterford Greenway, the longest off-road walking and cycling experience in Ireland. See visitwaterfordgreenway.com for more information

The Great Dublin Bike Ride: This is the only Dublin City-based leisure cycle; it offers a closed-road tour of Dublin City and County, and is on September 24th.

Dublin Cycling Campaign organised the Liffey Cycleway family cycle from Phoenix Park down the North Quays to the Point Village in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Dublin Cycling Campaign organised the Liffey Cycleway family cycle from Phoenix Park down the North Quays to the Point Village in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The Sport Ireland Cycle Series: This is a five-cycle series; you can do as many events as you like of the five that are on offer, with a variety of distances and routes that take in some of the best roads in Ireland like the Wild Atlantic Way, Copper Coast Drive, the Burren and the Ring of Beara.

Ring of Kerry: This is one of Ireland’s most scenic routes, the jewel in the crown of Kerry’s world-renowned wondrous landscape. You can tackle it at your own pace at any time of year, or you could join the 10,000 cyclists up for one of Ireland’s best loved challenges on the July 1st, 2017.

The Gran Fondo Giro d’Italia Northern Ireland: This takes cyclists around some of the spectacular countryside of Northern Ireland’s east coast, following similar routes to those taken by the professionals when the Giro d’Italia visited Ireland in 2014.

The “Mizmal”: Prof Oliver says, “Next year, I’m planning to ride the ‘Mizmal’ (about 550 miles) in a week from Mizen Head to Malin Head. It should be great!” See mizmal.com

Boosting bike usage

Ireland’s cycling boom, according to Heather Boyle, can be attributed to several reasons, with the introduction of the Bike to Work Scheme (biketowork.ie) one of the key initial drivers: “Bike rental schemes in Dublin, Cork and Galway,” she says, “made cycling accessible to everyone, and the increased and ongoing investment in cycle lanes, greenways and blueways has created safer environments for commuters, families and individuals. This investment is crucial if Ireland is looking to increase active travel, and together with cyclist.ie, Cycling Ireland is pushing for 10 per cent of the transport budget to be allocated to cycling.”

 But as Boyle explains, although cycling is enjoying a resurgence in popularity among middle-aged people, Cycling Ireland is keen to promote it to children: “Trends have shown,” she says, “that fewer children cycle to school than in previous years. For example, in primary schools the number of children commuting by bike dropped from 22,400 in 1991 to 6,200 in 2011, according to the census.”

 One means of addressing this challenge is the Sprocket Rocket cycling skills programme, aimed at children aged 5-12, with a focus on basic cycling skills like cornering, balance, braking and pedalling. “It’s a programme,” says Boyle, “that’s particularly popular with our clubs, who have recognised a significant improvement in the confidence and competence of the children who completed the course.”

   Then there is Cycle Right, launched in early 2017, with over 3,000 participants at 80 schools throughout Ireland signed up for training. Boyle explains that this is the first time Ireland has had a national standard for cycle training, and particular emphasis is placed on educating participants to become competent, confident cyclists who will have the skills to move safely on the road network.

The Scottish experience

Across the Irish Sea, Prof Oliver is actively engaged in turning policy into pedalling. “Bike usage,” he says, “is best promoted by governments having an active travel plan and a good targeted, driven cycling policy. My best cycling project that has got people active is Play on Pedals (playonpedals.com). I raised the grant funding for this project, that not only engages pre-school children in cycling to improve the mental and physical health of future generations, but aims to give every pre-school child in Glasgow the opportunity to learn to ride a bike before starting school.”

  The project worked with 7,148 children over 2.5 years and trained 388 instructors and instructor trainers to deliver across Glasgow, a city with large areas of multiple deprivation and recognised health inequalities. “Play on Pedals,” says Oliver, “has been a hugely popular programme. It has provided a fun and engaging way to increase physical activity, confidence and resilience among pre-school children and families in Glasgow. As one head teacher commented, ‘There will be a generational change within the community because we have children who are leaving the nursery who can cycle and that can only add to how our environment will grow’.”

  Is there scope in the future for a mutually beneficial cross-fertilisation of ideas between Dublin and Glasgow?

Cycling disciplines

Heather Boyle emphasises cycling’s many facets: “While many think of road cycling, Ireland’s mountain bike scene is one of the most vibrant and growing communities, with hubs of activities around the country attracting those with a love for adventures off the beaten track. The Emerald Enduro is a great day out for the family.”

And BMX cycling enjoys a healthy resurrection. “This is an area that has attracted many younger riders. While there are several top-class racing tracks for serious competitors, there are BMX tracks in most towns nationwide, making it extremely affordable and accessible.”

Track cycling, says Boyle, is a fast, exciting and competitive discipline, with cyclists on single-gear brakeless bikes riding around in circles! “Ireland has three outdoor tracks – Dublin, Cork and Belfast – and Irish riders such as Martyn Irvine, Caroline Ryan and our paracycling team have won many world medals.”

However, road cycling is the most popular discipline in Ireland, with 65 per cent of Cycling Ireland’s members being “leisure cyclists”, participating in the many sportives held around the country. “Ireland,” adds Boyle, “also has a booming competitive scene, with races like the An Post Rás and An Post Rás na mBan driving up the standard of the domestic riders, and feeding people into the Irish national teams and professional cycling teams.” 

Safety tips from Cycling Ireland

  • Never trust anyone else to look after your safety.
  • Always travel at a pace where you are in control.
  • Make sure you have full awareness of what’s happening around you; if you are changing direction, always glance over your shoulder and do so when it’s clear.
  • When riding in a group always point out or call out obstacles to warn cyclists behind you.
  • Make sure that your bike and helmet are in good working order before hitting the road or trail.
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