Last month it was my dad’s birthday, and to celebrate I joined him for his weekly ritual: a Saturday morning off-road bike ride with a group of other male cyclists, all between the ages of 40 and 80. (Trevor, who rides an electric bike, celebrated his own birthday recently, becoming the first octogenarian in the club.) The group meets at the Bonded Warehouse, a 19th-century redbrick building that sits proudly on the Stourbridge canal, at the early-for-a-Saturday start time of 9.30am.
There was some mild bickering between my father, Mike, and I about who was going to make us late—a debate that was settled on our arrival by fellow-cyclist Ian, who confirmed that my dad usually turns up at around 9.45am and I had, in fact, made him early. Ian is a familiar face, as I had done the off-road ride several times before, usually when back home for an OCD bootcamp. This is a regime of eating well, sleeping properly and completing mindfulness exercises that, when I’m struggling, I force my long-suffering parents to supervise.
The birthday ride had inauspicious beginnings, as I was recovering from having broken my wrist just six weeks before, and my mother waved us off with a stern: “Mike, do not let her fall off that bike.” Of course, I dramatically fell off my bike within five minutes, when crossing a bridge over the canal and turning a corner. Thankfully my knee, rather than my fragile wrist, took the hit. I considered going back home, my confidence not only in my wrist but in myself wavering, as my physical injury had coincided with an OCD relapse from which I was only in the baby-steps of recovering. But with the gentle encouragement of Ian, Gary and the rest of the group I got back on the saddle and continued down the trails.
Being immersed in a group from an entirely different demographic to your own is soothing
The bike ride is a staple of my bootcamp because I have noticed that its mental health benefits extend beyond the simple effects of the exercise and the scenery (which is, in my humble opinion, underrated—the West Midlands boasts a stunning canal network and rolling hills). Being immersed in a group of people from an entirely different demographic to your own is soothing and mindful in a way that a coffee and a gossip, or a big night out or even a bike ride with friends your own age could never be.
The cycling group’s conversations are of a different register to my friends’: they embody a gentle, non-toxic masculinity. Every conversation has an undercurrent of teasing, and the focus is very much on practical developments: who has a new bike or new car, and who has completed what DIY? Not a single compliment is exchanged for the duration of the ride—except to me: I am given helpful tips and genuine praise when I complete a tough hill or get through a patch of mud.
But the deep care that is clearly shared among the group is demonstrated in more subtle ways: Ian regularly brings my dad vegetables from his allotment; one cyclist takes a slice of Bakewell tart from the café where we stop halfway round to the house of another man who couldn’t make it that morning. More personal concerns and thoughts are exchanged; they are just delivered and received in a more matter-of-fact way than the confessional tone my friends and I use. One particularly skilled cyclist, who singlehandedly coached me through a sandstone gully, shares his worries about his son who has autism and receives empathy and validation from the group.
I leave the ride feeling thoroughly refreshed, and less lost about what my future holds. Being around people from all walks of life who have been there, done that, survived their twenties and are having a great laugh is deeply reassuring.
I wonder whether this is what community is meant to be. In the digital age, we are constantly, algorithmically, pushed towards people who are similar to us in age, in views, in socioeconomic background. On social media we are steered into echo chambers of others who think like us. Normally, that’s the world I live in. But sometimes it’s helpful to step away from the shared angst of your own demographic and be a fish out of water. It’s a privilege, for me, to share mornings with my dad’s cycling friends