I used to be proud of my carefree, adventurous attitude. I had travelled solo, jumped out of a plane and had a host of other adrenaline-filled experiences. But then, when I was about 27, something changed. I started to feel anxious about everyday things, such as going to the supermarket or driving. I worried about interacting with people, and hundreds of “what if?” situations that might arise when I was out.
I have had bouts of depression for more than a decade. It comes in waves: one moment I am feeling better, then days, weeks, months later it comes crashing back down on me. But anxiety has emerged more recently, in the past four years.
Before the anxiety really took hold, a friend who works in mental health told me that people who have panic attacks can make it worse by avoiding the things they worry about: the circle in which you feel safe can get smaller and smaller, and you become trapped inside it. Since then, I have promised to confront the things that scare me, no matter how bad my anxiety gets.
This is why I took up track cycling: whizzing round a velodrome on a fixed-gear bike with no brakes, in proximity to others. It may not sound like an obvious tactic for calming the mind and reducing anxiety, but in the almost three years I have been doing it, I have noticed a huge difference in my mood and outlook after each session.
I loved watching Team GB’s sweep of medal wins at the Rio Olympics in 2016, with Laura Trott, Elinor Barker, Katie Archibald and Joanna Rowsell Shand dominating their races. They seemed so strong and fearless.
Soon after the Olympics, I was in Dorset to visit my parents when I saw a Team GB taster day advertised. I looked up nearby events and came across the Poole Wheelers cycling club, which was holding introductory track sessions at Bournemouth velodrome.
Turning up wasn’t hard, but building up the nerve to try it was. An adult among fearless children, I stood in the centre of the track wondering if I should just leave. It was the gentle encouragement of 15-year-old Lucy Gadd, then the club’s women’s captain and now a professional cyclist, that persuaded me to get on a bike. I loved it immediately: it was exhilarating. While I found the track’s steeply angled banking a little alarming at first, ultimately it felt liberating.
When I got back to London, I discovered Herne Hill velodrome – one of the oldest cycling tracks in the world – and signed up for an induction. I was so taken with it that I stayed on for a two-hour women’s session.
People often ask me if track cycling is scary, but it isn’t really. I was suitably cautious at first, and sometimes intimidated by the more experienced riders flying past, but once you build your confidence it can be strangely meditative.
Cycling at speed, so close to one another, you have to stay in the moment and concentrate. It helps clear my head and lets me focus on something else, even on the days when my mind feels congested. Nestled away from busy main roads, Herne Hill velodrome is an unexpectedly peaceful haven. It is outdoors, so over the year you see the seasons change as you pedal. There are wonderful sunsets on summer evenings and I love the crisp, cool air in the autumn as the leaves start to fall.
It may be a fast and thrilling sport, but I feel protected in the velodrome. I am experienced at cycling on the road, but I find it difficult on days when I am especially anxious. On the track, I don’t have to worry about cars, pedestrians or dogs running into my path. Yes, it can be dangerous, but so can driving. I haven’t had any accidents so far, and I am surrounded by a friendly and professional team of coaches and riders.
Back at Bournemouth velodrome in 2016, I never expected I would end up regularly taking part in women’s track cycling, or dabbling in racing – but here I am, spurred on by an enthusiastic and welcoming group at Herne Hill. We race, we stop and chat, we eat cake and we get back on our bikes.
My anxiety hasn’t completely gone away, and I still have times when I need to work myself up to things – track cycling included – but remembering what I am capable of on the bike, and the way it feels to race around the track, gives me the confidence boost that I need.
It has helped with my depression, too. As well as the positive effects of the physical activity, I have found a supportive and friendly community at the velodrome that never fails to leave me with a smile on my face and a sense of positivity. It is truly like a form of therapy and I feel the old, adventurous me again.
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