Spotlight on… Sarah Strong

Sarah Strong
Sarah Strong in the hills of Spain
One of this year’s 100 Women in Cycling, Sarah talks openly about mental health on her blog Bike and Brains

Quickfire questions

What bike do you ride?

I have several but my favourite is a 2005 Storck Vision Light. I absolutely love it.

Favourite place to ride

Not sure I have just one, but I most regularly ride in Kent, around the Darenth Valley. Very pretty.

In three words, summarise your cycling

At the moment… countryside, appreciation, ride

You are a role model to many other women in cycling and were featured as one of our 100 Women in Cycling 2020. Who inspired you and why, and did they encourage you to get into cycling?

I kind of slipped into it, really. About 17 years ago I was recovering from a period of depression when my housemate asked if I’d help out with marshalling at a local mountain bike race in Lee Valley, east London. I ended up volunteering on a regular basis – doing something new, getting out in the fresh air, and meeting new people helped me so much.

There wasn’t one particular women who stood out to me – it was the large number of women there racing which I was surprised and pleased by.

One of the organisers coaxed me into have a go at taking part one week – it was the hardest physical challenge I think I’d done in my life! Gave me a heck of a confidence boost though.

It was a few years later, when I joined a club in south London, that I met a few women who encouraged me to take my cycling further. Maria David and Charlotte Easton both played a part in me having a go at more serious racing, about 11 years ago, and both did a huge amount to boost the women’s race scene in London.

As a female cyclist, have you experienced any barriers or challenges since you took up the activity? What more do you think needs to be changed to encourage more women to give it a try?

I remember being a bit daunted when I first turned up to some local club rides as there were so many fit-looking kit-wearing regulars, but I was with friends and had a bit of moral support!

I haven’t been aware of any major barriers to me personally as a female cyclist though within the wider context of women’s racing in London and the south-east I have been alert to the struggle to get organisers to commit to holding separate women’s races, offering equal prizes and so on.

There’s still a lot of work to be done! Oh, well, perhaps one thing: finishing the Paris-Roubaix Randonnée in 2008 and finding there were no separate women’s showers was interesting. Mind you, at the time I was so exhausted I didn’t care too much!

Roubaix was one of my first big achievements, when I experienced the mental battle of pushing through exhaustion and pain to finish an event. Those cobbles HURT!

Sarah Strong

I had a very welcoming, easy entry into the world of cycling but it can be nerve-racking when you start off. There are various sites such as this one and social media accounts like VeloVixen, Cycle Sisters, WCCG and so on where women can share riding experiences and advice outside of the cycle forums that are often male dominated.

I think that helps a great deal to have a dedicated space and one that is open to all types of cyclist, from the A-B pootler to the mile-cruncher and everything in between.

I think we’re fortunate in London, where I’m based, to have a wealth of different clubs. Initiatives like Breeze and BMXercise have brought women together across various areas of the UK but perhaps more could be done to support those women who want to set up new groups in their area.

Representation always matters, of course, and seeing a diverse range of cyclists in visual media can do something to normalise riding the bike for those who might have a few barriers to break through on the way.

As someone who has challenged herself and experienced so much through cycling, what are you most proud of?

Several things stand out. Doing Roubaix was one of my first big achievements, when I experienced the mental battle of pushing through exhaustion and pain to finish an event. Those cobbles HURT! I was one of about 45 women in a field of 2,500 that year.

Something very different that I’m proud of is my part in the organisation and running of the Beastway Mountain Bike Series for nine or 10 years. That was the race series that started it all, even though my part had very little to do with actually racing bikes.

The (first) Bikes and Brains evening talking about cycling and mental health I held at Look Mum No Hands in November 2017 was huge for me. It happened at a particularly difficult time in my life – I was on the verge of being signed off from work with depression and exhaustion – and I’m so glad that it all came together and I had such great people joining me on the panel.

What has been the biggest personal cycling challenge for you so far and how did you overcome it?

Aside from Roubaix, the Etape in 2013 in the Alps was a bit of a battle, though that was more to do with the fact that I didn’t eat nearly enough in the second half. When I got to the final climb at Semnoz I was not in a very good place at all. That learnt me! I had to sit down on the side of the road for a bit and give myself a talking to.

At Roubaix, at Semnoz, I ending up telling myself that I just had to get it done. There was no point stopping or going back. Even if I had to rest often and break the remaining journey into smaller mental sections. Just keep moving forwards, even if very slowly! Cycling has increased my ability to endure pain, I think!

We’re big fans of your blog Bikes and Brains. Do you think this has enhanced your cycling experience, have you seen more women inspired to cycle as a result, and has it helped you?

Do you know, I’m really not sure! The blog has been great to have an outlet and it definitely helps to express the thoughts and emotions in writing.

It’s also been very rewarding to have had people share their stories with me and the blog. I have had a few messages back from readers who have commented on how familiar some of the emotions and thoughts I’ve described are, and how it chimes with their own experience. Which is what I was hoping!

If my blog posts have inspired someone directly to get on the bike that would be amazing!

Sarah Strong

During coronavirus I’ve found myself focusing on just riding, rather than writing about riding, though occasionally I might add a longer description to my Instagram posts. They tend to have more of an observational, pastoral quality to them rather than them being about my head. If my blog posts have inspired someone directly to get on the bike that would be amazing!

There are many people in lockdown who may have suffered from mental health problems as a result of the restrictions in place and limited contact with the outside world. What advice would you give them if they’re just starting out on their bike?

I think it’s been tricky for a lot of people. Not everyone has easy access to safe cycling space, or has the ability to train at home.

If you’re new to riding or haven’t been on the bike in a long time I’d definitely have a look to see what cycling groups are in your area. They can be a great source of knowledge, local advice and support, aside from any group rides and other opportunities they might offer.

There should also be free adult bike training available, though I’d presume many of these might be on hold during coronavirus restrictions.

Here in the capital, the London Cycling Campaign has set up a Cycle Buddies initiative where experienced riders can provide support to those new to commuting by bike.

On the practical side I’d say teach yourself how to replace a punctured inner tube – it’s fairly straightforward and it’ll save you money and potentially a long walk! There’s plenty of guidance on the web (including here at Cycling UK) and online classes.

Are there any other experiences or advice you would like to share?

I initially thought cycling was pretty much a cure for stress and for a while it seemed to make everything better. Later on I learnt that it’s not and I can be just a miserable while cycling!

Riding doesn’t magic the underlying problems away and there are times when a ride makes little difference to my mood. It is a brilliant management tool, however, the most important one I have to counter mental health issues.

If it is for you as well it’s worth considering what you can do if you can’t cycle for any reason. Maybe something else physical such as running or perhaps something more on the creative side.

I’ve had a couple of major injuries since I’ve been riding and it took a long time to regain my fitness. I found that keeping in touch with my riding buddies at social occasions meant I didn’t feel quite so isolated as I might have done otherwise.

I also planned to write my magnum opus but, strangely, that never came to fruition.

One last thing: stay well-hydrated and fuelled. If this means inserting an unplanned coffee stop into the middle of your ride… so be it!