My expanding waistline following a period of relative inactivity demonstrates the benefits of cycling to the body. But what can the sport offer the mind? It's a question I started to consider during a recent ride through Kent and Sussex. There was a moment as I found a rhythm on the gentle drag up into the Ashdown Forest when I realised the past few miles had been a total blank. Where had those minutes gone? What had I been thinking?
Nothing, I suppose – nothing at all. And that's weird for someone who doesn't do nothing. I'm the guy whose holidays have to be action-packed and who takes months to read a book. There are nights when my brain refuses to wind down and I can't sleep. I won't claim my thoughts are usually anything but banal but the point is: I'm incapable of emptying my mind. And yet, when I'm doing 20mph with my heart racing as fast as my wheels, I can achieve what feels close to a state of meditation.
Even when consciousness is restored, the action of turning pedals is so beautifully simple it barely involves the brain. What's left, unless you're concentrating on a lorry thundering by, is time in which to think, take stock and daydream. As an oft-quoted (by me at least) 1896 'New York Times' piece reads, cycling "yields a higher tone of mental exhilaration than other sports ... With the great speed there are the subtle glide and sway of skating, something of the yacht's rocking, a touch of the equestrian bounce, and a suggestion of flying. The effect of all this upon the mind is as wholesomely stimulating as is the exercise to the body."
Scientists have long tried to establish whether meditation can improve one's health. Some experts have observed increased activity in the area of the brain linked to happiness and enthusiasm. Even if it's quackery, I will confirm that pedalling has the power to tackle the stresses of modern life. After all, "Melancholy," the writer James E Starrs has said, "is incompatible with bicycling." And as for the sport's power to stimulate thought, take this quote often attributed to the cycling physicist Albert Einstein. Of his Theory of Relativity he is supposed to have said: "I thought of it while riding my bicycle."