I’m interviewed for a feature in the January 2023 edition of Practical Sportsbikes magazine, out now, about biking and mental health. It’s a great feature that includes interviews with two other guys. We all of us have been affected by mental health issues in our different ways, for different reasons. We talk about how riding and working on bikes have helped us cope. There is background information on mental health, and a feature on Mental Health Motorbike, a rider focused charity offering peer-to-peer support to riders on the road and track [https://mhmotorbike.com]. Those of you who know me will not I’ve been riding since I was 13 off-road, and since I was 16 on the road. My ‘70s punk and bike days overlapped, and indeed are linked. For 7 years during the ‘80s I was a London-based motorcycle despatch rider, putting in literally hundreds of thousands of miles in all weathers, inner-city and long-distance. I left despatch riding when I entered higher education via an Access Course as a 30-year-old mature student in 1989. I still ride, and enjoy recommissioning, modifying, and riding bikes from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. Those of you who know will also know of my struggles with PTSD and Major Depression. Here’s how bikes help.
As a mental health survivor (PTSD and Major Depression), and a life-long biker, some thoughts about biking and mental health. Indeed, biking as therapy.
Motorcycle maintenance and bike building or restoration is great kinaesthetic ‘mindfulness’ therapy: it beats a squeezy ‘anxiety ball’ or joss sticks any day! In part because it is goal-focused (getting the bloody thing running right on the road as you want it). But that goal is low-risk in the sense that it’s not your home, your livelihood, or your relationship that is at stake.
Likewise, riding takes you out of yourself. It stills that useless internal dialogue of negative thought cycles that underpins anxiety. Shuts it up totally: the sensory feedback from the road and the bike; a bike’s inherent dynamic instability (relative to four wheels) demanding micro-adjustments in micro-seconds; the feeling, the sheer physicality, being ‘out there’ on the road; the satisfaction from the knowledge that you are using a skill honed over decades boosts flagging self-esteem; the intensity of it all burns away those evolutionary fight-or-flight hormones that are so ill-deployed in the modern world. Then you realise you’ve been on reserve the past ten miles!
I don’t want to overstate it, but as intensive, focused, physical kind of mindfulness biking is way better than …. Well, let’s just say it’s better than citalopram, a 50-minute Cognitive Behaviour Therapy session, or a fucking wellbeing app.
I had a more-or-less complete mental breakdown 2012-13. I had been working overseas in higher education for a decade, and was caught up in one of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, and its deadly suppression. Unarmed protestors, some of them students I had taught, were getting their brains blown out. Whole villages were carpet-gassed, students were being ‘disappeared’. The campus was being use for torture and interrogation. I was expected to know which side my expat, tax-free salaried bread was buttered on and be complicit, or at least turn a blind eye. But I couldn’t and didn’t, putting myself at risk. I fled in emergency circumstances. Back in the UK I struggled to rebuild my career. Biking helped, really helped. So did working on some of the bikes I had back in the day, or mates had, or I had wanted but couldn’t afford.
I’ve been biking since 1974, my late dad (1926-2016) had been a biker and got me into biking. He had been in the final months of the Second World War, and knew how a bike could still the mind. When he died, I had a bit of a mental health wobble. But I used some of what I had inherited to buy a couple of bikes from back in my ‘70s days. I knew he would have wanted that.
PTSD is a result of an endocrine dysfunction the ‘fight or flight’ hormones adrenaline and cortisol that evolved to help us survive in a state of nature get stuck: in the modern world the threat is not a Smilodon leaping out at you from the bushes, but a symbolic reminder of a traumatic event (for me it was fireworks and fire crackers, helicopters, roaring crowds, and marker pens), or something more abstract: an unexpectedly large bill, a performance management review, a court summons. Your glands uselessly secrete huge amounts of these hormones, overwhelming body and mind. In this sense, PTSD is as much a physiological condition as it is a mental one.
So how does biking help? Well, when riding the physical threat is real, but controllable. Your sportsbike is your Smilodon, but you are controlling it. In that sense, you are quite literally riding your (sabre-toothed) tiger. But you can provoke it to roar at you, then shut it down to a pussycat simply by releasing the grip of your right hand. In this way, you can through riding begin to normalise the release of stress hormones, so they are there when you need them, say when some moron pulls out in front of you, rather than having your body flooded with them by, say, a bill. Before I had PTSD there were times I had a spill on track, or a near-miss on the road. I’d breathe deeply to calm down, think through what had happened, then get back in the saddle as quickly as I could in the circumstances, and try to internalise what I had learnt.
Therapy, good therapy (there’s plenty of crap out there) is a bit like that. Of course, I’m not recommending riding in the middle of a PTSD bout, that would be foolish, dangerous, and a risk to self and others. But biking as therapy, when calm, helps, I’ve found, stabilises the release of those endocrine hormones so that they become more normal, more useful, so they give you the quick response you need to avoid t-boning some idiot driver, rather than freaking you out as you open a letter. I guess high-end sports therapists do something similar, say if a racer has a bad spill then develops a phobia over getting their knee down.
The Yamaha RD400 and a memory that’ll be with me until my dying day. Actually many memories, but for this first post I’ll dwell on the cuddly feel-good one, not the insane, highly illegal, or horrific ones.
I got my first 400 brand new, in July ’76. Wow! I don’t have any images of that time, as I was too busy living the life. But here is a more recent image of an RD400 I owned much more recently, highly modified and tuned (not my build) with an utter smack-in-the-mouth powerband:
In May ’76 two of my best friends were killed before my eyes on a Suzuki T250. A head-on crash with a farmer’s Land Rover. Closing speed about 140mph (about 90-100 from the bike, 40-50 mph to the LR). I was following way behind on my Yamaha FS1-E, a 50cc “sports moped”, Not a pretty sight: I was a witness at their inquest. Anyway, the RD400 was THE hooligan’s fast two-stroke sports bike of the day. Well, the discerning hooligan’s. The Kawasaki H1 500 triple was faster, but its handling and braking were shit, whereas the RDs was excellent. By the standards of the day, and the engine very easily tune-able to 50%+ standard power. That summer I dropped out of Sixth Form for punk, having quite literally told the Sixth Form master to go fuck himself. In front of the class. That accident happened on a Sunday. I went into school the very next day. This necessitated riding over a pink patch in the middle of the carriage way where sawdust had been put down to soak up the blood and brain matter, “Sorry about that mate!” (He would have understood.) Cue loads of school gossip about what had happened, and judgemental comments from teachers, along the lines of “That’ll teach you lot!”; as I left my long-suffering parents’ home for school the phone rang. My other friend had been writing pillion. It was his father calling me to say his son had just died in hospital from head injuries. Off I set to school. No counselling, no nothing. Just school. “Go fuck yourself!” Two months later I was riding one of the most desirable sports bikes of that day. What could possibly go wrong? I don’t think the term PTSD had been coined back then. I lived with it undiagnosed for years. In 2011 it’d come back to haunt me with a vengeance. But that’s a totally different story.
Anyway, I’m going off the point. I said something about that enduring memory, the cuddly feel-good one. so here it goes.
It was a Friday evening in the Autumn of ’78, I was 19. I was on my way up to London from where I lived in rural west Kent. Halfway up I stopped off at an Indian restaurant in the well-to-do suburb of Bromley, on what had been a market square. That weekend I was to stay with one of the leading punk bands of the day, to whom I was very close and did creative work with, and my girlfriend of the day. Quite literally a weekend of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. I took a window seat and ordered an expensive lobster vindaloo, washed down with a then exotic German lager. I looked out of the window, my RD400, my second (my first one got stolen), was on its prop-stand, with UK speedblocks livery, chrome expansion chambers, ace bars, steel braided brake hoses, drilled rotors, a Stage II road-track tune. It was drizzling, and the chrome and the water droplets shone in the orange glow of the old fashioned sodium street-lights, very much as if it was in a photoshoot for an official advert. As I washed down curry and naan the thought occurred to me “So this is what it is to be 19, life can’t get any better!” I’ve done lots of wicked things in my life, but yes, in a sense life never got any better than that magic moment.