Riding high

The weather may not be up to much this winter, but our regular columnist Rob Ainsley shares some research that suggests any kind of bike ride will do if you need a hit of happiness…


It may be still be winter, but there are still plenty of reasons to ride. Recently I went to my mum’s for the weekend. It’s 60 flat kilometres from York to Hull, and it was a fine day, so of course I cycled it.

The same day, one of my cycling chums did similar, except he’s in Cambridge and his mum’s in Derby, 170km away. Obviously that’s not a suitable distance for a day ride. He’s an audax rider [participants attempt to ride long distances within a pre-defined time] – a keen member of Audax UK, the long-distance cycling association – so he expanded it to 200km. That way he could register it as a self-made audax, to add to his season’s day trips of 200s, 400s and 600s.

There was a difference upon our respective arrivals, too. He ate en route, little and often, to ensure the 7000 calories he burned were constantly topped up, to be greeted with a well-earned sandwich and a glass of wine. I made sure I arrived hungry. Let’s see – 2000 calories used, against a bottle of wine (600 calories), shepherd’s pie (350 calories per ladle), apple crumble with custard (500 calories). Better go steady on the pie then.

I love audaxers’ sheer enthusiasm for cycling. Many times I’ve sat with audaxers who tell me about their rides. They allow themselves several hours to finish, and it’s non-stop except for toilet breaks. Evidently these rules apply to both the rides and the recounting of them. When I see my friend we always talk cycling, naturally. We have a rule that every time he mentions ‘audax’ we take a sip of our drink. Fortunately I can stay over at his place if necessary.

We enjoy cycling together, and have had lots of excellent biking holidays. But the audax/visiting mother thing shows up our differences. He travels light and fast, with just a tiny saddlebag of snacks and small tools. I travel heavily equipped and steady, with bulging panniers. After all, you never know when you might need swimming trunks, imperial-size spanners, hardback Wisden or foldable guitar. People have toured Australia with less. Captain Cook, for instance.

My chum was taking his mum out for dinner that weekend, so he’d posted some smart clothes up ahead. I was doing similar, so I carried a few old T-shirts, fleece, jeans and trainers in my panniers. Actually, they are my smart clothes.

He did his 200km in one go, essentially, with just a couple of stops to refuel. Me, I stopped off to investigate a few side roads, dawdle on village-green benches, chat to locals, throw sticks for curious dogs, take snaps of quirky signs, measure sub-standard cycle facilities and so on.

Temperamentally, audaxing isn’t for me. The idea of doing its classic UK challenge, London-Edinburgh-London (LEL), doesn’t faze me. Except I’d take three weeks over the 1400km, not 99 non- stop hours like my mate, particularly if I dropped in on a few friends, and my mum, on the way.

We all know first-hand that a big workout makes us feel good. Thanks to evolution encouraging us to hunt animals all day, exercise causes our bodies to release endocannabinoids, natural ‘feel good chemicals’. They in turn trigger dopamine, the ‘reward chemical’ that gives us the emotional hit. Other activities can produce similar effects, such as music, love, or curry. Depending on who you’re experiencing it with, though, you may prefer the cycling.

However, recent research at the University of Michigan (Mesolimbic dopamine signals the value of work – Arif Hamid et al, we salute you) suggests things are more nuanced than hitherto thought. It seems the dopamine is released just as effectively by a combination of mild exercise and exploration. At least, it’s true for rats in mazes; but the reward of picking your way through a labyrinthine Sustrans route to find that cycle-cafe is surely similar.

In other words, you can get just as bike-high from gently trundling around interesting places as you can from doing LEL. See? My mate and I are both right. Our mums were pleased, too. They got their own emotional hit.

Need a reason to ride? Cycle to see a friend or relative this winter. Dopamine all round!