Spending time on your bike can provide valuable head space to help you process the emotions of your day, both big and small. Benjamin May, founder of bereavement charity the New Normal tells us about how he re-discovered cycling after the death of his father and the place it now holds in his life.
As someone who helps to facilitate workshops and spaces for people to share their stories of bereavement Ben May is very used to candidly talking about his feelings, but it wasn’t always the case, “my mental health journey began in 2012 at the end of a relationship. My partner told me she didn’t like the person I had become. I had grown up to be like the men I had seen around me as role models. Working class, football terraces. Masculinity was about keeping things in. I had become very angry and verbally abusive.”
Being told this was a wake-up call, Ben enrolled onto an anger-management course, “I thought anger management would be about deep breathing, being given techniques to control my anger when it came up, but it wasn’t” Instead Ben spent 18-months learning about how he had become the person he had, “it was talking, talking about the things I was feeling and where they were coming from. Thinking about my childhood, my background and where I had come from.”
Self-examination is a hard road for anyone but the next event in Ben’s life was to be harder still. “In 2015 my father came to me and told me had a brain tumor and it was terminal.” Shortly after this something occurred that became the foundation for New Normal, “A young man, Jack, came in for a haircut and sat in my chair. He told me that his dad had recently died. It gave us both a chance to open up and share each other's stories, it gave me a chance to connect with someone I had never connected with before.”
A love affair with cycling
Ben’s Dad passed away and as he emerged from the fog of grief, he felt he needed something positive to do. “I decided to ride from John o’ Groats back to Southampton where my father died to raise money for the Hospice where he passed away.” Ben started to tell people his plan, even though he didn’t even know how far he would be cycling. By telling people he committed to it, “eventually a friend loaned me a bike so I could do a trial run, in that one ride I completely fell for cycling.” Ben cycled 1115km from John O Groats, mainland Britain’s most northerly point to Southampton on the south-coast. “My cycling journey began when I started training for the charity ride. I cycled to Richmond Park and looked back across London. I had the first feeling of wow look what I have achieved.”
Creating the New Normal
While Ben was falling in love with cycling the idea of New Normal was also growing. “Jack came to me and said he loved the chats we were having but he’d also love to speak to other people about it. We posted about it on our Instagram and invited people to come and talk about those they had lost in their lives.”
From a social media post the ripples went out. “On the 18 May 2018 we stood in a room in a community center with way too many biscuits wondering if anyone would turn up. There were seven people in the room. It was a really organic way of meeting people, we introduced ourselves and we talked about our grief.”
From that first meeting New Normal grew. “In two years we hosted 40 in-person meetings, a couple of hundred people. When the pandemic struck, we told everyone we were going to run an online meeting, we had 50 people sign up. On that first call we had people from all over the UK, France, Spain and Holland. It was the start of what the charity looks like now.”
New Normal has grown into a global charity, “we now have 65 volunteers around the world and are launching in France and Spain. We understand the necessity of people having a safe space to connect with others, to allow difficult conversations to take place.”
Meditation on two-wheels
The benefits of cycling to mental and physical well-being are widely known, but how people experience cycling can be very different as cycling can be done in so many ways, “Cycling gives me two layers – space to think and a time to shut down and be in the moment,” says Ben. “Sometimes I like to ride on my own, I like some quiet music, it gives me some space to start to process some of the things in my mind. I find the repetitive sound of the wheels turning almost meditative,” Ben explains, “but when you are going fast you can only focus on what is in front. There is nothing then but me and the bike. Mindfulness is all about living in the moment. And for me that is on a bike, going fast downhill.”
Cycling creates space to communicate
Ben encourages people at New Normal to cycle and walk as part of their experience of bereavement, “there is a physical connection to the emotional connection. If people need to talk, we suggest they cycle or walk. It is not as daunting as a face-to-face meeting. You are side by side, close but you can’t see each other, you aren’t staring into each other’s face.”
The rhythm of cycling also allows difficult conversation to open up at its own natural pace.
“As you go up a hill you may stop talking, or one of you can drop back for a breather. It can take some of the pressure out of the conversation as the ride has its own stops and starts, ebbs and flows.”
It's not just a bike ride
If someone you know is going through a difficult time, there are many ways to offer support. Being at their side ready to listen is often enough. Going for a bike ride with a friend can give them a chance to open-up as it creates a space away from their everyday life. Listening to a friend is giving them a gift, “I learnt in anger management that having a conversation releases the pressure, that conversation is priceless,” says Ben.
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