‘I only learned to ride during lockdown – now I’m a ride leader!’

A woman is standing astride a hybrid biked on a paved path. She is wearing cycling kit and helmet
Carol Hutchinson has become a ride leader after learning to ride in her 50s
A chance encounter with Bike Hive mechanics got Carol Hutchinson hooked on cycling. Now she is helping others discover the joy of riding a bike

At the start of lockdown in 2020, Carol Hutchinson hadn’t ridden a bike since she was a child. She grew up in Manchester with her brother who was seven years younger than her. Like many other kids from the 1970s, he had a bike, but Carol didn’t, and never learned how to ride one.

“When I was in my teens a friend tried to teach me how to ride theirs. I remember falling off quite a bit, and that was it for 40 years.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, self-employed Carol made and sold leather crafts. Her business was on hold for several months last year while she was home-schooling her son, Michael.

Like many other people across the UK, she took advantage of the daily exercise allowance and got into the habit of walking in Alexandra Park, sometimes taking 11-year-old Michael on his bike.

“I began noticing how many families were riding around the park together, it looked like so much fun. I remember thinking how nice it would be to ride with my son, but left it at that.”

Help from the Hive

One day last summer, Carol and her son happened to go to the park at the same time as mechanics from the Bike Hive – a volunteer-run bike project and Cycling UK-affiliated Community Cycle Club were setting up a drop-in repair session.

Through Cycling UK, the Bike Hive has received funding from Sport England’s Tackling Inequalities Fund, which was set up with £20m of National Lottery money to help reduce the negative impact of coronavirus on physical activity in under-represented groups of the population.

These include lower socioeconomic groups, culturally diverse communities, disabled people and those with long-term health conditions. 

Carol lives in Moss Side, an area of inner-city Manchester where many residents don’t have a lot of money to take their bike to be repaired at bike shops in more affluent areas. 

Bike Hive offers services for free or in return for a small donation, and is based in the local community, helping the organisation reach a range of people who might find price a barrier to starting cycling. 

What a feeling when I stopped pedalling and looked round to see how far I’d travelled alone. From that moment I was hooked!

Carol Hutchinson

Carol’s son had been having trouble with slow punctures on his bike, and the Bike Hive crew fixed it there and then. And although she had no idea at the time, that encounter with the Bike Hive would have a big effect on Carol’s life.

“A few weeks later I was walking through the park and saw Ian, the mechanic who’d fixed my son's bike. He asked if I would like to join the social ride they were having that morning. I admitted that I didn’t know how to ride a bike, and straight away he asked if I would like to learn.”

Although initially reluctant, she agreed, and with Ian’s instruction, she was soon able to take her first independent pedal strokes. “What a feeling when I stopped pedalling and looked round to see how far I'd travelled alone. From that moment I was hooked!

New horizons

“After that I couldn’t wait to have another go. I attended every social ride day, practising in the park on my own and with Ian my instructor.

“After a couple of sessions he suggested we head out to the Loop, a traffic free area used by walkers and cyclists close to the park that was great for beginners. This was my first experience of how cycling can reveal those ‘hidden’ places that car drivers rarely see.”

Having benefited from the hard work and enthusiasm of the Bike Hive volunteers, Carol was inspired to become a volunteer herself. “I wanted to help in any way that I could as a thank you for teaching me to ride,” she says.

Through her volunteering, Carol was given the opportunity to complete a ride leader course. “I was surprised when my instructor put my name forward, but determined to do my best and pass when the time came.”

Then in autumn, a second lockdown arrived and the group social rides had to stop – but that didn’t prevent Carol from riding. “With the streets quieter than usual I ventured out exploring on my own, riding along familiar and unfamiliar streets to build my confidence. It was amazing, I was riding a bike, something I thought I would never be able to do.

“Under the new guidance I could still ride with one other person as long as we stuck to the social-distancing rules. I contacted my friend Mary from the group and we rode out to a local canal path.

“I was blown away, it was so beautiful I found myself stopping to take it all in. I had no idea that places like this existed so close to where I live. I needed to see more.

“As the weather began to get colder I continued to ride with Ian in different conditions: rain, sleet, ice and just plain freezing. I was really enjoying myself, even when my hands were so cold I thought they’d never be warm again, I still wanted to be out learning, exploring and having fun.”

Overcoming grief

In January 2021, Carol lost her father, and to add to her problems her household had to self-isolate so they couldn’t see family and friends for 10 days. “I was devastated,” she says. “I was grieving and yet there was so much to do, and organise.”

It was more than a month before she could get back on her bike, and when she did she felt “rusty and out of sorts”. But it gave her a chance to think about something other than her grief, and she soon began to enjoy it.

“Mindful that the ride leader training was still pending I threw myself into improving my cycling skills, and venturing out to explore new places that other riders might find interesting,” Carol says.

“Finally the date for the training was announced. I completed all the modules and when the practical training day arrived on 7 May I was nervous but hoped I would do OK.”

And so it proved: less than a year after learning to ride, Carol passed her Cycling UK ride leader training course, and is now able to pass on the joys of cycling to others.

Healthier and happier

“I have gained so much from cycling,” Carol says. “I’m happier, and when I’m out on my bike I feel free. I feel healthier, too: my fitness levels have improved lots. I feel more confident whether I'm riding down the road in the mix with traffic, or greeting fellow cyclists on the canal path.

“Since learning to ride I have experienced warmth and kindness from fellow cyclists at Bike Hive, and Beth from a local group, LadyPedal, who kindly loaned me a bike because I didn’t own one.

“My partner Gary, who hadn’t ridden a bike for 30 years, got himself one in December and now rides every day. I’m really looking forward to the three of us going out as a family to some of the amazing places I’ve discovered on my journey from learner to ride leader.

And finally, Carol wants to thank the person who set it all in motion: “My friend Ian, who clocked up the miles with me and started me on my cycling journey with the simple question: ‘Would you like to learn?’”