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Cycling in lockdown part four: What is an acceptable distance and duration to ride during the new Covid lockdown?

Pete Muir
5 Jan 2021

New year, new lockdown. Cyclist editor Pete Muir revisits his own rules for riding in a time of Covid

What is an acceptable distance and duration to ride during the Covid-19 crisis?

Cyclist Editor Pete Muir considers the rights and wrongs of riding in the face of social distancing guidelines

9th April 2020

As I was getting kitted up for my daily bike ride the other day, an envelope from the Government was pushed through my door. In it was a leaflet – the same that has been sent to every household in the country – urging me to: ‘Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.’

This stopped me in my tracks. If I go out on my bike, will I really be putting lives at risk?

It’s a debate that has been swirling around social media and one that we in the Cyclist team have been having for the past few weeks. What counts as safe and acceptable behaviour when it comes to cycling?

Are the groups of riders photographed enjoying the sunshine on Surrey’s Box Hill irresponsible louts (as suggested by selective use of telephoto lenses in several newspapers) or reasonable people engaging in harmless exercise?

The instructions, as stated in the Government leaflet, aren’t precise. It suggests that we should ‘only leave the house for very limited reasons’. And among those reasons are: ‘One form of exercise a day, for example, a run, walk, or cycle – alone or with members of your household.’

It goes on to state that, when doing these activities, we should ‘minimise time spent outside of the home and ensure you are two metres apart from anyone outside your household’.

It doesn’t, however, say specifically how long anyone should spend exercising or where anyone should be allowed to go. When pressed on the subject in a TV interview, Government minister Michael Gove proposed that between half an hour and an hour would be about right for a run or cycle, but added, ‘Obviously it depends on each individual’s fitness.’

In addition, the Environment Department has warned against ‘travelling unnecessarily’, but otherwise there has been no specific advice about how far from home it is acceptable or safe to cycle.

So, with my individual fitness needs in mind, is it OK for me to head off into the countryside on my bike and nail 100km in a single ride?

To judge from social media, it seems that plenty of people think a long ride is fine, while some strongly disagree. Cyclists posting long rides on Strava are coming in for flak from those who see it as flouting the rules. Others insist there is no harm as long as social distancing guidelines are adhered to.

There’s an argument that long rides increase the likelihood of an accident – possibly far from home – that can put unnecessary pressure on emergency services. There’s equally an argument that staying cooped up indoors presents potentially greater health risks as it starts to undermine mental and physical wellbeing.

(In my case, the bigger risk is that if I don’t go out riding, I may be tempted to tackle some DIY tasks, which will almost certainly end in bloodshed.)

Should I stay or should I go?

To my mind, the need to get out of the house, to get some fresh air, to exercise on a daily basis, is absolutely vital. If I can ride, then I will ride.

However, I am equally aware that we are in an unprecedented situation, one that is resulting in significant loss of life around the globe, and that at times like these it is vital that we abide by a social code – even if it is unwritten.

As such, I don’t think it is acceptable for us to go on long rides far from home. It doesn’t matter that we are not spreading the virus. It’s not the point that we are not inconveniencing anyone else. It’s not important that I really, really want to go for a long ride.

We have a social duty to abide by the guidelines as much as we possibly can. Everyone will have their own interpretation of what that means when it comes to cycling, but for me it means:

  1. Keep the ride short (under an hour)
  2. Keep the ride local (within 20km of home and nowhere too remote)
  3. Keep it solo (as always)
  4. Keep to the streets (no parks, narrow lanes or towpaths packed with joggers and dog-walkers)
  5. Keep away from popular spots (now is not the time to target that Box Hill KoM)

So that’s what I am doing. It gives me an excuse to get out on my bike every day.

The time will come when we can all stuff our jersey pockets with energy bars and head out into the hills again. And the more we stick to the social code, the sooner that time will come.

In the meantime, whatever your interpretation of the Government’s guidelines, enjoy your riding, stay safe, and look out for each other. And if you’re worried about losing fitness, well… isn't that what turbo trainers are for?

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