Cycling inspiration everywhere I look

I was watching the Tour de France on TV earlier this week and thinking of two of my early sports cycling inspirations – Lance Armstrong, and some bloke I saw on a ferry in Victoria in 2007.

Lance we know about, so let's talk about the other guy. He was probably in his late 50s, stocky in stature, carrying a bit of a front porch under his gaudy Lycra top – hardly an "athletic" build.

Yet athlete he was, and I knew that for a fact. The ferry was travelling from Queenscliff to Sorrento, across the Port Phillip Heads, carrying participants in the annual Around the Bay in a Day cycle challenge.

Which meant he had just ridden about 110 kilometres. And after he disembarked on the other side, he was going to ride almost the same distance back to Melbourne. Just another quiet achiever.

At the time, it was the furthest distance I'd attempted in a day, and my legs felt like lead – but if old mate was good to go, so was I.

I still think of him when I read tedious, stereotypical rants that pick on middle-aged cyclists of unexceptional build, who are derided for having the audacity to wear activity-specific clothing, for buying quality exercise equipment, wearing shoes that clip into pedals, and daring to frequent cafes.

It's pretty weak to mock people who are doing something positive for their health and well-being - and what message does such ridicule send to others who are looking for a good way to get in shape?

I've tended to be a solo cyclist who occasionally rides with a friend or two, but a couple of weeks ago I joined a club ride to seek some insights into cycling's pre-dawn bunch ritual.

One aspect I touched on in the feature I wrote about the experience was the sense of community that many find in such groups.

Speaking to riders over the years, I've found that for many people dealing with the pressures of work and the responsibilities of family life, a cycling group is a subtle form of therapy – on wheels.

One told me how he tended towards depression, and the discipline of getting out of bed to join club rides, and the associated socialising, kept that issue at bay. Good for you, I thought. Way to take it on.

Only this week, I was talking to a friend about this, and he told me: "You know I was a bit larger before I started cycling?"

I'd never heard his story. He was 29 years old and his 182cm frame was carrying 125 kilograms. He tried swimming, he tried the gym, but nothing was working for him until he bought a cheap bike and started doing laps of the local park.

"My first ride was a disaster," he laughed. "The tyres were flat, I had to stop after about a kilometre, a dog bit me ..." But he kept going, reached new levels of fitness, and has never looked back.

It's not only men, of course. I think of the mother-of-three I spoke to on the train back from the Sydney to the Gong event. She'd got up at 4am in Berowra, far to the city's north, driven for close to an hour to get to the start in St Peters, then cycled the 90km and was now on the long journey home.

She'd always wanted to attempt a long ride, was looking for a safe way to do it, and signing up for an organised ride was her motivation – even if it was a dawn start on the other side of the city. Props.

And the most admirable thing about everyday cyclists is that they keep going despite the negativity that often surrounds the simple act of getting on a bicycle.

It's the mocking and carping from the opinion writers, the ranting of shock jocks, the media beat-ups, the misguided and thoroughly debunked calls for licensing and registration.

It's the howls of outrage when it's proposed that a current recommendation in the road rules – that motorists give bike riders a metre of space when passing – should be strengthened into a law.

It's the malevolence of online commentary, especially in the unregulated free-for-all of Facebook, where the mere mention of cycling always draws the whingers and haters.

Even sensible people often lose their minds when bicycles crop up, as is discussed in this excellent article, "Why bicycles make smart people say dumb things".

The worry is that this hostility can spill over onto our roads.

The curious thing is that it appears to be a tyranny of the minority. Millions of us ride bikes regularly, but an Australian survey found that even when it comes to non-riders, 60 per cent would like to get on a bike more often. Their main disincentive? Safety concerns.

And there's the dissonance between cycling and health. We worry about soaring levels of obesity and inactivity, we worry about health funding, but there's an ongoing negativity about one of the best ways to get people active, be it for exercise, transport or utility.

Yes, I'm staying up late at night to watch the Tour de France. The professional riders are admirable, absolutely – but they operate on a different level. And now and again they can really be disappointing (like you know who).

Mostly, it's my fellow everyday cyclists who inspire. The people who know that riding a bike is beneficial, despite the occasional challenges. Chapeau to you all.

As a cyclist, who motivates you? Does negativity about cycling have any impact? If you don’t ride, what would it take to get you on a bike?

To encourage constructive debate, this blog will be carefully moderated; please stay on topic.

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