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Jun 14

I started cycling, lost weight and the diabetes disappeared – Irish Times

Yuh still holdin me up, Daddy? I yelled over my shoulder, as dusk fell on a Belfast park. Uh-huh, came a faint reply. Peeking behind, I realised, with a surge of exhilaration, that I was on my own and that Daddys economy with the truth had eased me through one of lifes rites of passage: learning to ride a bike.

And what better time to discover the joys of cycling than during Irelands National Bike Week, which takes place from June 10th to June 18th. Perhaps, having attended Cycling Irelands recent Bike Fest on June 11th, youre keen to experience life on two wheels, and Cycling Irelands communications officer Heather Boyle is especially keen to share with The Irish Times some biking benefits.

Benefits of cycling

Socially, she says, cycling offers great opportunities to meet like-minded people from all walks of life. With over 400 cycling clubs in the country, theres bound to be a group for you. Cycling offers something to everyone: from adrenalin-fuelled racing to social touring, to a head-clearing cycle home after a hard days work.

And Boyle reminds me that Ireland has some of the most beautiful country roads in the world, with relatively low levels of traffic: On the bike, she enthuses, you see the country at a slower pace and from a different perspective. And from an environmental point of view cyclings a zero-emission activity, so while enjoying its health and fun benefits, youre also helping reduce our carbon footprint.

Cycling and health

The health benefits conferred by cycling are probably best explained by a leading surgeon for whom pedal power proved life-changing. Prof Chris Oliver who is on Twitter @CyclingSurgeon, is the professor of physical activity for health at the University of Edinburgh, and consultant orthopaedic surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. I cycled as a schoolboy, Oliver told The Irish Times, and as a medical student, I rode all over London. But later I became obese, weighed over 28 stone, developed Type 2 diabetes and couldnt cycle. However, I underwent gastric band surgery and got fit again; so fit that in 2013, I rode 3,500 miles across US from Los Angeles to Boston. The Type 2 diabetes disappeared when I lost weight.

Regular cycling, says Oliver, is a great way to increase longevity: Middle-aged people who cycle regularly typically enjoy the fitness level of someone 10 years younger, and gain two years in life expectancy; and cycling, combined with a healthy diet, helps control weight and lower the risk of diabetes. It raises the metabolic rate, builds muscle, burns body fat, and is a comfortable form of exercise which you can vary and build up slowly. A daily half-hour bike ride burns nearly five kilograms of fat over a year.

Oliver also notes that cycling can reduce ones risk of contracting cardiovascular disease, with regular cycling stimulating heart, lungs and circulation, reducing the risk of stroke, high blood pressure and heart attack: In addition, exercise reduces your risk of colon and breast cancer, and research has found cycling reduces the risk of bowel cancer. For bones and joints, he says, cycling improves co-ordination, strength and balance and may help prevent falls and fractures: Being low-impact, with little stress on joints, cycling is an ideal form of exercise for osteoarthritis. Around 70 per cent of body weight goes through the saddle and handlebars instead of your ankles; and the bigger you are, the more important that is!

As for mental health, Conditions like depression, stress and anxiety, explains Oliver, can be reduced by regular cycling. This is due to the effects of the exercise, producing endorphins, and because riding a bike can bring great enjoyment.

Boyle agrees: The mental health benefits are phenomenal, as highlighted, for example, by the huge support for Irelands annual Cycle Against Suicide event, which took place from April 23rd to May 6th this year, and whose message was Its okay not to feel okay; and its absolutely okay to ask for help.

With Cycling Ireland the countrys national governing body for cycling boasting a membership of over 29,000, which has grown by 720 per cent over the last decade, it is clear that the benefits conferred by cycling on all age groups, from primary schoolchildren to retirees, are being enjoyed by increasing numbers of people.

So come on; get on your bike and start cycling: its a life-enriching experience.

Waterford Greenway: Irelands longest greenway was officially opened on the March 25th with 46km of a dedicated cycling and walking trail along the old railway line. The trail stretches from Waterford City to Dungarvan, taking in 11 bridges, three viaducts and a 400m tunnel, and the route is a mix of coastal and inland section.

The Great Dublin Bike Ride: This is the only Dublin City-based leisure cycle; it offers a closed-road tour of Dublin City and County, and is on September 24th.

The Sport Ireland Cycle Series: This is a five-cycle series; you can do as many events as you like of the five that are on offer, with a variety of distances and routes that take in some of the best roads in Ireland like the Wild Atlantic Way, Copper Coast Drive, the Burren and the Ring of Beara.

Ring of Kerry: This is one of Irelands most scenic routes, the jewel in the crown of Kerrys world-renowned wondrous landscape. You can tackle it at your own pace at any time of year, or you could join the 10,000 cyclists up for one of Irelands best loved challenges on the July 1st, 2017.

The Gran Fondo Giro dItalia Northern Ireland: This takes cyclists around some of the spectacular countryside of Northern Irelands east coast, following similar routes to those taken by the professionals when the Giro dItalia visited Ireland in 2014.

The Mizmal: Prof Oliver says, Next year, Im planning to ride the Mizmal (about 550 miles) in a week from Mizen Head to Malin Head. It should be great! See

Irelands cycling boom, according to Heather Boyle, can be attributed to several reasons, with the introduction of the Bike to Work Scheme ( one of the key initial drivers: Bike rental schemes in Dublin, Cork and Galway, she says, made cycling accessible to everyone, and the increased and ongoing investment in cycle lanes, greenways and blueways has created safer environments for commuters, families and individuals. This investment is crucial if Ireland is looking to increase active travel, and together with, Cycling Ireland is pushing for 10 per cent of the transport budget to be allocated to cycling.

But as Boyle explains, although cycling is enjoying a resurgence in popularity among middle-aged people, Cycling Ireland is keen to promote it to children: Trends have shown, she says, that fewer children cycle to school than in previous years. For example, in primary schools the number of children commuting by bike dropped from 22,400 in 1991 to 6,200 in 2011, according to the census.

One means of addressing this challenge is the Sprocket Rocket cycling skills programme, aimed at children aged 5-12, with a focus on basic cycling skills like cornering, balance, braking and pedalling. Its a programme, says Boyle, thats particularly popular with our clubs, who have recognised a significant improvement in the confidence and competence of the children who completed the course.

Then there is Cycle Right, launched in early 2017, with over 3,000 participants at 80 schools throughout Ireland signed up for training. Boyle explains that this is the first time Ireland has had a national standard for cycle training, and particular emphasis is placed on educating participants to become competent, confident cyclists who will have the skills to move safely on the road network.

The Scottish experience

Across the Irish Sea, Prof Oliver is actively engaged in turning policy into pedalling. Bike usage, he says, is best promoted by governments having an active travel plan and a good targeted, driven cycling policy. My best cycling project that has got people active is Play on Pedals ( I raised the grant funding for this project, that not only engages pre-school children in cycling to improve the mental and physical health of future generations, but aims to give every pre-school child in Glasgow the opportunity to learn to ride a bike before starting school.

The project worked with 7,148 children over 2.5 years and trained 388 instructors and instructor trainers to deliver across Glasgow, a city with large areas of multiple deprivation and recognised health inequalities. Play on Pedals, says Oliver, has been a hugely popular programme. It has provided a fun and engaging way to increase physical activity, confidence and resilience among pre-school children and families in Glasgow. As one head teacher commented, There will be a generational change within the community because we have children who are leaving the nursery who can cycle and that can only add to how our environment will grow.

Is there scope in the future for a mutually beneficial cross-fertilisation of ideas between Dublin and Glasgow?

Heather Boyle emphasises cyclings many facets: While many think of road cycling, Irelands mountain bike scene is one of the most vibrant and growing communities, with hubs of activities around the country attracting those with a love for adventures off the beaten track. The Emerald Enduro is a great day out for the family.

And BMX cycling enjoys a healthy resurrection. This is an area that has attracted many younger riders. While there are several top-class racing tracks for serious competitors, there are BMX tracks in most towns nationwide, making it extremely affordable and accessible.

Track cycling, says Boyle, is a fast, exciting and competitive discipline, with cyclists on single-gear brakeless bikes riding around in circles! Ireland has three outdoor tracks Dublin, Cork and Belfast and Irish riders such as Martyn Irvine, Caroline Ryan and our paracycling team have won many world medals.

However, road cycling is the most popular discipline in Ireland, with 65 per cent of Cycling Irelands members being leisure cyclists, participating in the many sportives held around the country. Ireland, adds Boyle, also has a booming competitive scene, with races like the An Post Rs and An Post Rs na mBan driving up the standard of the domestic riders, and feeding people into the Irish national teams and professional cycling teams.

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