Cycling is a hugely beneficial form of exercise that provides easily accessible, low impact cardiovascular training and contributes to better health and improved quality of life. For those with mental health problems, learning difficulties or physical disabilities, cycling can combine the physical benefits of exercise with a sense of achievement and independence.
The vast range of different types of bicycles available today has made cycling an option for virtually everyone. Tandems, recumbents and trikes are some of the more common types of specially adapted bikes. They come in many variations, from the sporty to the comfortable and leisurely, and can be used for competitive sports as well as PE classes, the school run, local shopping trips and family days out. Some specialist holiday companies even offer cycle holidays on specially adapted bicycles.
All-ability cycling clubs, organisations and voluntary programmes can provide the support needed to get those with additional needs cycling. Some clubs offer bike-buddy cycling sessions where those who aren’t able to cycle by themselves can team up with a “buddy” for tandem cycling. In some instances, this has made cycling an option for those with visual impairments.
Joining an all-ability cycling group gives you the opportunity to try different types of specially adapted bikes and to get advice from experienced riders and cycling instructors about which type of bicycle is suited to your needs. Most clubs and groups will be able to help you find a supplier, should you decide to buy your own, and where possible point you towards financial support, as specially adapted bikes can be expensive. Some charities can also help with funding.
Many all-ability cycling clubs meet in parks and other off-road locations where participants can cycle away from traffic. For those keen to cycle on the road, cycle training is recommended. This is available from service providers across the UK and can be tailored to suit all levels and needs. National Standards or Bikeability accredited cycle training providers can supply instructors experienced in working with people with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other special needs, and can cater for individuals as well as groups.
Tandem riding is a very flexible and adaptable form of cycling. It is great for anyone new to cycling as it offers the extra support of a second person on the bike. Lightweight and easily adjustable touring tandems can accommodate children as well as adults on longer journeys or cycling holidays, while bulkier tandems with plenty of storage space are great for local shopping trips. Side by side “sociable” tandems are perfect for those with little or no cycling experience.
Tricycles offer better stability and a wider choice of seating positions. There are many different styles available from small and lightweight “banana bikes” for children, to fast and sporty recumbent style trikes for long distance cycling trips.
On a recumbent bike the rider sits in a seat in a reclining position with the weight distributed over a larger area giving more support and comfort. Chunkier trike models with wider wheels are well equipped to deal with off-road terrain, while smaller, skinnier models are better suited to navigating urban environments.
Laura, a young London girl with severe learning difficulties, has been using her trike to get to therapy sessions. She found that this is quicker than waiting for the bus, and being able to get out and be active has made a big difference to Laura’s quality of life.
Handcycles come in two shapes. A hand pedal attachment can be fitted to a standard wheelchair, turning the wheelchair into a bicycle. Handcycles are also available in recumbent form which are low-slung, lightweight, and mostly used in sporting events.
Many cycling projects offer bike maintenance workshops in addition to the cycling activities. While some basic bike maintenance skills are important in order to keep a bike in good condition, working on a bicycle has been shown to be beneficial in its own right.
The Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust runs bike maintenance workshops with great success. While learning bike maintenance skills, mental health service users restore donated bikes to roadworthy condition. In this way, they are contributing to building up a fleet of bikes for staff and patients to use. Being given some workshop space and taught how to restore a bike helps service users to familiarise themselves very gradually and very intimately with the bicycle. For those who choose to go on to learn to ride a bike, this familiarity provides an extra confidence boost.
For many long-term mental health sufferers, working on a well defined project with a well defined outcome gives them a real sense of achievement and more energy to tackle other challenges in their lives. The bike maintenance sessions at the Camden and Islington Foundation Trust helped one service user to return to employment. He went on to become a cycling instructor, deliver cycle training for the Trust and work in a bike shop.
Children from a very young age can take part in cycling activities. The Hayward Adventure Playground in Islington is designed for five- to 19-year-old disabled children and young people. The playground offers a secure environment for structured and unstructured play, and a fleet of small trikes, like-a-bikes (small bicycles without pedals) and small framed regular bikes is available for the youngest visitors. The bicycles allow young children to let off steam while working on their balance and coordination skills.
St Philip’s School in Chessington is a secondary school catering for pupils with moderate to severe learning difficulties, autism and multi-sensory impairment. In addition to the Bikeability training, the school teaches the kids how to maintain their bikes and has extended its cycle training capacities to cater for those with more severe impairments. Some of the pupils who were not able to join PE classes due to their SEN are now able to take part in the cycling activities.
Cycling can support those with special needs to lead healthier lives, become more mobile and take part in social activities. It can also help young children improve their balance and concentration as they grow up. For young people and adults, specially adapted bicycles can provide an accessible way of getting around their neighbourhood as well as taking part in rides and remaining active.
Mags Reinig is Grants Officer at the London Cycling Campaign, a charity which works with up to 50 community cycling projects every year, including mental health groups, all ability cycling clubs and SEN schools:
Names in this article have been changed.