How I mastered my cycling anxiety

Aisling with her cycle in Richmond Park

Meet Aisling. 👋 When they moved to London in 2014, they didn’t think cycling was an option. It was intimidating – something that other people did. Hear how a new role and encouragement from friends and London’s cycling community helped Aisling find confidence as a disabled cyclist.

Cycling with different needs

I’d always been nervous about cycling. Not knowing a route or where I’m going causes anxiety, and like many autistic people, I find it difficult to cope with the sensory environment of busy roads. 

I started cycling when I was elected as a councillor in Lewisham after a recommendation from a friend who is also a disabled cyclist. I have a chronic pain condition and the thought of needing to stop while cycling was scary. I’d never considered that cycling could be less painful than walking until I heard about my friend’s experiences.  

I hired a cycle from Lewisham Council for £10 for the month. As I don’t drive, I didn’t know the Highway Code, so I booked a free one-on-one lesson on the basics of cycle and road safety through the council. Most councils offer these schemes so check if cycle training is available in your area. 🚲

Finding freedom through cycling

Aisling with their first dutch bike

Cycling locally helped me to build confidence and start cycling between where I lived and my ward. I regularly cycled around Lewisham but didn’t think I’d be comfortable cycling beyond familiar areas. 

I’m a member of my local cycling group but in those first few years, had never been able to make the group rides. When lockdown restrictions eased, I joined my first group cycle to Hyde Park. It was a really emotional experience as I’d never cycled in central London and it was something that I never thought I’d be able to do. Having someone take charge and trust that I could just follow along, changed my attitude to cycling in the City. 

Six months after I first cycled into central London, I started cycling there regularly for rehearsals for a directing job. I got lost several times on the journeys back, but not having panic attacks when I got lost felt like a huge achievement. 😊 

The importance of cycling infrastructure

Cycleway with cyclists by Elephant & Castle roundabout

Defined spaces for cyclists make such a difference. Living close to good cycling infrastructure is the biggest reason that I cycle more now. 

Now, cycling feels like less of a big task. It’s often more convenient and quicker for me than public transport. Having a cycle hangar next to my flat means that my cycle is protected during bad weather and it’s easy to get it in and out when I need it.  

There’s still more work needed to introduce new Cycleways and Low Traffic Neighbourhoods. These schemes are great and are making a huge difference. By continuing to involve disabled people and organisations, boroughs can ensure that any road changes work for everyone.

How to start cycling

Practice your route

Aisling on their commute outside the theatre

I need to cycle a route at least a dozen times before I feel confident doing it alone. Before I started rehearsals for my directing job, my friend planned and showed me a route to the venue. Without that support, I wouldn’t have been able to cycle there. 

Always be open with friends and family – ask for help if you need it and take up the help that already exists. You can find a local cycling buddy who will help you practice new routes and build your confidence. 🚴🚴 

Go at your own pace

There are days when I need or want to go a bit slower or use public transport. Our roads and cycling infrastructure are there for all of us to use. Patience from other road users makes a big difference when I’m having a bad day.  

Get comfortable

You don’t need all the gear to start cycling – it was a few years before I had any kit. I’d recommend buying a cheap pair of gloves but a good quality pannier bag (hangs off the side of your cycle) as cycling with a rucksack can be uncomfortable. Handwarmers inside gloves can make a difference as I can’t cycle as much as other people in winter because cold weather really impacts my chronic pain. 

In summer, I find cycling cooler and more comfortable than public transport. Sometimes I get overwhelmed with the sensory impact of cycling when it’s really hot, so it’s important I give myself time to cool down and rest at the end of my journey.  Experiment and figure out what works for you and ask for advice from people you trust. 

Find the right cycle for you

I chose a dutch bike as my first cycle because it’s great for different situations. When I started, feeling comfortable was the most important thing because of the amount of pain I was in daily. As my confidence grew, I was able to go much further than I thought – to Epping Forest and Richmond Park. Learning to cycle in London has built up my strength in a way that I never imagined.  

It can feel daunting if you don’t know much about different cycles, but lots of shops are happy to answer any questions and help you find the right cycle for you.

Aisling with their road cycle

Recently, I bought a road cycle and sold my dutch bike. It’s gone to a friend who wants to cycle for the first time in 20 years. It was a big moment for us both – I was pretty emotional saying goodbye to a cycle that I owe a lot to. 

Make the most of the community

Aisling on a group cycle with six other people

Cycling groups can feel intimidating, but I recommend London Cycling Campaign because they’re very community focused. My local club is amazing and do a mix of cycling and community activities in our borough. They really practice what they preach – their priority is supporting anyone who wants to cycle.   

Sometimes I find it difficult to communicate my access needs as a disabled cyclist – you can’t predict how much knowledge or understanding someone will have. For me, the thing that makes the big difference is attitude. The coordinator of my local group, Jane, has been instrumental in creating the friendly and inclusive culture of the club.

I’m also a member of Velociposse, a cycling club for women and non-binary people. With their support, I started cycling at a velodrome and have signed up for a long ride. Being in a club with other non-binary and trans people where my identity is respected and affirmed has been really positive. 👍 

Find a good cycling shop

Cycle repair shop street sign

It’s important to service your cycle so expertise and advice from a good cycling shop is invaluable. It should be a positive experience where you can ask questions and aren’t expected to understand everything about your cycle. 

If you haven’t used your cycle for a while, you can book it in for a check-up or follow these tips on how to repair your cycle. I chose my local cycle shop specifically because I was able to send an email to book services instead of having to call directly. Phones can be really difficult for me, so having other options really helps.  

Accept that we’re all different

Being neurodivergent isn’t a problem to be fixed or a deficiency. Rather than focus on medical conditions, we should accept that everyone has different needs and be mindful of others. 

Disabled cyclist sign on the back of a cycle

I created a disabled cyclist sign for the back of my cycle. I wanted to make other cyclists, drivers and pedestrians more aware of who is sharing our roads. In the last few weeks, two people have stopped me to tell me how much they loved it and we had really nice conversations. I like to think that the sign might make people more aware of invisible disabilities and be more considerate and aware on the road. 

Read more cycling stories

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