• Expert By Experience

Solidarity In Union: Cycling, Mental Health & Being a Black Woman Cyclist

Written by Hannah Moitt

Nine years ago, on a cool evening in August, I was trying to be patient. Sitting, propped against a radiator in my draughty Glasgow flat, I was waiting for a friend: a generous woman with a warm laugh, about to leave our city for a job overseas. She was coming over to drop off a few possessions, amongst which was her bike, which was too small to fit any of our friends.

It had been eight hours since I last ate. At the end of my undergraduate degree, struggling with family crises and racist academics, I would routinely avoid food or, on occasions like this, go to bed without dinner. Although usually, I would try to sleep as early as I could, that night I was wide awake.

Before long, she brought it rattling into my flat, flaking dried mud and rust onto the laminate: a heavy, third-hand 1950s roadster that was to become the only bike I owned as an adult. It was beautiful.

I’ve enjoyed cycling for what seems like forever. As a child, my siblings and I would take long bike rides with my dad, following him like ducklings down gravelly paths. In my teenage years, I preferred the freedom of choosing my own path, cruising wide, flat pavements alone for hours.

I wondered whether I’d still have that freedom as an adult.

I was tentative at first. Too old to ride on the pavements, I ventured cautiously onto Glasgow’s roads. It only took a few cycles for the joys to outnumber the fears. The equation was simple: creaky knees, cranked in shaky circles, converted irritability into purposeful forward movement. I hoovered up fresh air (and exhaust fumes), bolted down hills, the sole pilot of my body. Once I learned that I couldn’t keep up with the roaring traffic, I discovered the peacefulness of not competing with anyone. At night, exhilarated from the day’s ride, I’d sometimes fall asleep fully-clothed.

Within months, the bike replaced what had become a less enjoyable, compulsive relationship with the gym.

As I gained confidence, I noticed one difference between cycling as an adult compared to the chaperoned childhood bike rides. Hostility was hurled, in comments that I often barely caught, out of car windows. I was trespassing, it seemed, on White Man’s tarmac.

I double-double-checked my etiquette, wondered if there was some way to hide my race, wished I could appear larger and more imposing to deter the racist, sexist comments, car horns, invasions of personal space. I looked online for support but was struck by the macho grandstanding and casual misogyny that is still so commonplace in the cycling community. It turns out that I was trespassing just by owning a bike - this was a hobby for men.

A couple of years later, my bike, by now irreparably jammed in its highest gear, was reserved for days when my legs could haul us both up a hill. I was in a challenging and stressful job. The commute was a meditative escape from my volatile boss and the regular, never-funny comments in the office about (my) blackness. On one drizzly ride home, a silver car overtook at speed, inches away from me, just to stop at the lights metres ahead. My feet skidded off the damp pedals and I wondered if the happiness of now infrequent cycling outweighed the physical and emotional discomfort of moments like this. I started taking quieter routes, less frequently still.

My last cycle was a year or two later on a bright, cold day. In my lime green helmet and yellow puffy coat, I gasped in clear air on a gentle weekend ride around Glasgow’s West end. A taxi slid up to my right side, slowing to my pace.

“In this country we drive on the left. Fuck off back to where you came from.”

I was confused - he was driving on the same side of the road as me. The driver (a white, grey-haired man) zipped away before I could understand, leaving me in ashamed silence. I dismounted as soon as I safely could, in tears. I tried to remember the number plate or the face but my memory of the details was already dissolving.

At the time this happened, I had not yet recovered from a violent racist attack months before. The incident with the driver worsened my existing anxiety. I turned it over in my mind at length, eventually realising that my only crime that day was being on the road at all, taking up space that this driver felt he deserved but I didn’t. Sadness made way for anger and I looked forward to one day becoming either tough enough to not care about abuse or quick enough to respond. Now, at 30, I am trying to learn that I am not responsible for the people that might hate me.

Today, via my work’s cycle to work scheme, I bought a bike - the first since that rusty green roadster. It’s a sleek, elegant, adventure road bike, made to be ridden on and off roads. With this, I’ll be able to go anywhere, and I want to believe that I deserve to be wherever I am, no matter the reaction to my presence. I also hope that perhaps there are people for whom the sight of a black woman on her bike will encourage them to feel there is space for them too.

It’s impossible to ignore the lightness that comes with being able to cycle. It seems tragic to deprive myself of joy because of factors outside my control. Alongside a near-decade of hard work improving my mental health, cycling helped to begin repairing my relationship with my body. My head is clear on the road. I focus on my surroundings and am aware of my muscles and bones and sweat. I’ve decided to allow myself that feeling again.