When, early on Monday evening, Boris Johnson announced that Britons should avoid all non-essential travel to help beat back the spread of coronavirus, I did the same thing I do every time I receive bad news. I went in search of a pick-me-up. I went for a bike ride.
In the space of 20 minutes I swapped my cramped Walthamstow flat – and our global coronavirus bubble – for the wholesome pleasures of Epping Forest. The setting sun had turned the sky, peeking through the pollarded trees, a deep and vibrant blue. A stag strutted across the road as I tackled the steep ascent to High Beach. Moments later, I spotted a herd of does moving nervously through the undergrowth. All my anxiety about the pandemic was forgotten. For the first time in days I felt optimistic.
Over the last few weeks, as the spectre of Covid-19 has loomed ever larger, my upcoming travel plans have unravelled. In May I’m supposed to be exploring northern Italy by rail. The terrible outbreak there means my chances of making it are now vanishingly small.
Never mind, I thought, I’ll be taking the train to Girona for a long weekend at the end of March. As of Tuesday that is officially off the cards, with the Foreign Office advising against all non-essential travel beyond our shores for at least 30 days and airlines grounding flights by the thousand.
A UK holiday would be lovely – I could travel by car and find a lonely cottage on Airbnb – but Boris would rather we stayed put. So that leaves but a solitary option: my bike. For a decade it has been my passport to the great British countryside. I can swap city strife for the hills of Surrey and Kent, or the pastoral landscapes of Essex and Hertfordshire. What’s more, my rides provide mental respite. As any keen cyclist will confirm, there’s no better form of meditation than a four-hour dash down quiet country lanes, a beating heart your only company, the tarmac ahead and the green fields on either side your only focus.
Surely, whatever other restrictions are placed on Britons in the coming weeks and months, my two-wheeled sojourns will still be permitted? After digesting Boris’s announcement on Monday I took solace in the smallprint – exercise, so long as it does not involve contact with others, is still allowed.
But there are worrying signs from the Continent. Italy banned leisure cycling on March 9, and Spain outlawed it on March 14. Only rides for food or medical supplies are allowed, and if a cyclist in Italy is caught riding for any other reason, they could face a fine of €3,000.
Stopping the spread of coronavirus is partly behind the moves. But surely exceptions can be made for solo cyclists who have no intention of stopping in a pub or restaurant (most of which are closed anyway)? Another factor, authorities say, is that cyclists who have accidents will place a further burden on overstretched healthcare services. To that argument, I’d point out that you’re as likely to have an accident driving or walking, while each time I have come a-cropper on my bike it involved being hit by a car.
Perhaps our PM, regularly seen on his bike before entering number 10, will block any such measures. If he doesn’t, it will be to the detriment of the health and mental wellbeing of countless thousands like me.
The cycling industry has said as much. “Cycling is an important part of UK resilience against the coronavirus,” the executive director of the Bicycle Association told Forbes. “It enables travel without using public transport, and in relative isolation. It also allows people to keep exercising without using gyms or going to classes.” Quite. I used to be obese, clocking in at an unhealthy 15-and-a-half stone. When I discovered the joys of cycling I managed to cut that to 12.
My daily rides not only keep me slim, but also happy. Cycling helped me come to terms with the death of my mother, and today they assist with niggling anxiety problems. What’s more, for the foreseeable future they will be the only way I can cast off the millstone of coronavirus and have a “holiday”. Governments might consider it “non-essential” travel. For me, nothing matters more.