How the Covid-19 pandemic made me fall in love with cycling local roads again
Sometimes you don’t appreciate what’s on your own doorstep until you are forced to take a closer look. In many ways, the Covid-19 pandemic has made me realize how lucky I am to have so many great bike routes so close to home. More often than not, these routes are hidden in plain sight.
While I’m all about embracing the adventure of long-distance bike rides, I’ve never really been any good at reading maps. This is perhaps just one of the many reasons why I love cycling in the Algarve. I’ve always reasoned that if you’re cycling from Vila Real de Santo Antonio in the east towards Cape St. Vincent in the west and the sea is on your left, you’re doing well.
Over the many years that I’ve been cycling the roads across Europe, I have, of course, swapped my old paper maps for a more technological solution. Not being too concerned with speed, I was always happy enough to make frequent stops and consult the BikeGPX app on my smartphone to make sure I headed in the right direction.
I have a problem using a smartphone as a navigation aid because they are not always visible in direct sunlight — a big problem when you are riding under a hot Portuguese sky. However, on a much less sunny day (it was absolutely pissing it down) on a ride from Zeebrugge to Brussels in Belgium, the real problem of relying on a smartphone hit home. Actually, it hit the ground hard, slipping out of my cold, wet fingers and landing, screen down on the only shape rock on an otherwise flat surface.
I’ve got to admit; I felt sick to my stomach as I turned the device over in my hand. My brand new Samsung’s shattered screen looked like it had been the victim of a drive-by shooting. Thankfully, there was still life in my device. The shattered glass made consulting a map very difficult and give me splinters as I swiped and pinched the screen, trying to differentiate between the cycle path, the canals, and the damaged screen, as I was riding along.
The more significant problem was that I wasn’t only using my smartphone for navigation. It also stored my hotel reservations, my ferry tickets, was used as a contactless payment device (although a previous misadventure in Portugal meant I was also carrying plenty of emergency cash), and, of course, also provided a vital communication link back home should anything untoward happen (like breaking my phone).
During this long and wet ride, the best place for my smartphone would have been in a waterproof sandwich bag tucked in my panniers.
I needed something more suited for the job of navigation on the road. It was time to buy a cycle computer.
Here’s the problem with cycle computers. They are just so damned expensive. I really didn’t want to spend more money on a device than my bicycle was worth. I also didn’t need any of the bells and whistles that so many cycle computers offer. As a committed “slow cyclist” — more committed to enjoying the journey than achieving “King of the Mountain (KOM)” status, I couldn’t give a damn about power output, cadence, and all those things more sporty MAMILs worry about. I just wanted to know where I was going and maybe how far I’d been.
I needn’t have worried about this — because just a few months after my ride in Belgium, the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK, all of my planned rides on the continent were cancelled, and I wasn’t going anywhere fast.
Instead of looking towards distant climates to fuel my cycling habit, I was forced to look closer to home.
I cycled the same 20-mile route every single day during April and May 2020. It did my fitness a world of good, but I’ve got to admit, I was bored witless.
Occasionally, I would stretch my ride out to a 50, 60, and even 100-mile ride along the Lincolnshire coast — but these roads were very familiar to me and hardly offered the inspiration I typically look for in a longer ride. I needed something to open up new opportunities for me.
That inspiration came to me from an unexpected birthday present. My partner Sarah bought me a Beeline cycle navigation computer (and yes, this is an affiliate link, click it, and it may support my writing efforts). I’m not exaggerating; this incredibly simple device has changed my cycling life.
Unlike many other cycling computers, the Beeline is only concerned with getting you from point A to B, simply by pointing you in the direction you need to be cycling and highlighting the distance to your next turning point. While the device, which neatly sits on your handlebars, needs to be connected (via Bluetooth) to a smartphone app (where all the hard work is done), that smartphone can be stored safely in your back pocket or panniers after entering your destination into the accompanying app.
Like other online services like Kamoot, the Beeline app’s beauty is that it carefully selects the most cycle-friendly route available to the rider. This has opened up routes that I thought (due to my poor navigational skills) were only available via more busy roads.
My first guided ride, from Grimsby to Barton-upon-Humber, underneath the impressive Humber Bridge and looking out towards Hull, was a joy. Despite living in the area for nearly 20-years, the Beeline app took me through villages I never knew existed and upcountry roads that I previously wouldn’t have trusted to take me anywhere.
A ride to Scunthorpe was equally enjoyable, with the app taking me along an old road, running directly through the post-apocalyptic, industrial landscape of the town’s famous steelworks.
One of my longer rides (approx. 85 miles) took me to the city of Lincoln and back. As I cycled alongside the canal leading into the city, I was reminded of my time in Belgium. Only this time, the sun was shining. Unlike Belgium, there are some serious climbs on this route. Who would have ever thought that think there were hills in otherwise completely flat Lincolnshire?
While the likes of Lincoln, Scunthorpe, and Hull will never replace the affection I have for, shall we say, more exotic destinations, cycling to and from them has made me appreciate how lucky I am to live in an area with so many accessible and, above all, safe cycling routes. After all, cycling for me is more about the journey than arriving anywhere. If I see or experience something I’ve never seen or experienced before, I’m more than happy.
Getting to know and appreciate my local surrounding has made me think, where can I go next? It’s also gone some way to dispelling the disappointment of not being able to plan rides that take me further from home.
Has lockdown made you appreciate your local rides more than ever, or are you lucky enough to know that you already live in the best place in the world for a bike ride? Share your comments below or visit the Follow The Blue Line Facebook page.
If you enjoy my writing and would like to read more, please consider purchasing my book, Follow the Blue Line: Cycling the Algarve, or fuel my rides further with a little shot of caffeine at BuyMeACoffee.com.