Life-changing stories from three years of WheelNess

How do bikes change lives? As our WheelNess project draws to a close, senior project officer Fiona Johnston shares some of her favourite life-changing stories from the innovative pilot project

I’ve been working on a Cycling UK pilot project called WheelNess. The concept was pretty simple – if we gave people free access to a bike and tailored support to help them start cycling, would it change their lives?

Since May 2018 we’ve enabled 225 people in the Inverness area to ride bikes and trikes. We’ve collaborated with partner organisations to identify and support our project participants and have built strong relationships with our local independent bike shops.

Here are just a selection of the inspiring stories our WheelNess participants have to tell.

A glint in her eye

Parsla was one of our first participants. A Latvian lady in her seventies, Parsla had been a keen cyclist in her younger years but was struggling to manage a heavy old bike. We gave her a lighter, more suitable bike back in 2018 and she has been a regular on WheelNess group rides run by our partners at Velocity ever since. She also came along to social events and maintenance sessions we put on to connect and upskill participants.

“I feel mentally and physically better after each bike ride. My health has improved in many ways. No need to spend money on other, more expensive transport. The bicycle gave me new opportunities to get to different new places, to visit friends, support others to go out, do shopping, go out with a group and I use it daily for various events.”

I remember a delightful cycle with Parsla along the canal tow path watching a rowing regatta. She told me, with a glint in her eye, that she used to go rowing as a child but had to do so in secret as her mother thought it a dangerous activity.

The bike was a saviour

Through regular cycling Lorraine has been able to come off her medication for diabetes and depression. Her WheelNess bike has been life changing:

I'm not just a mum when I'm on my bike, I'm 'me' and I can go anywhere. I love the adrenaline buzz of flying down a hill, it makes you feel alive!

Lorraine, WheelNess participant

“I'm not just a mum when I'm on my bike, I'm 'me' and I can go anywhere. I love the adrenaline buzz of flying down a hill, it makes you feel alive! When my car broke down, I was still able to get to work, there's no bus service where I live and I can't afford to miss work so the bike was a saviour.”

Such a huge difference

We have a sizeable cohort of student nurses who have benefitted from WheelNess support. Polly was in Edinburgh for lockdown and enjoyed access to green spaces and nature while exploring on the bike with her sister. She also avoided public transport by cycling to her placement. Polly told us: “the WheelNess project has made such a huge difference to my life the last couple of years for my physical health and wellbeing."

Student nurse Polly with her bike in Edinburgh

It changed my life

It soon became clear to us that regular upright bikes were not going to be suitable for everyone. E-bikes and e-trikes joined the WheelNess fleet and they have been truly life changing for some.

Ian thought he’d never cycle again, having being diagnosed with MS eight years previously. When he tried an e-trike with us for the first time he described it as an ‘epiphany’. He said: “Suddenly, something I thought was consigned to the past, became possible. I fell in love with it straight away.”

Within six weeks we’d been able to get Ian set up on his own really cool electric mountain trike, which he uses on a daily basis. Ian summed up his story in an amazing blog post, simply entitled “How having an e-trike changed my life”.

I love it!

Clare can only walk a few metres due to her MS and she felt very isolated and restricted by her wheelchair. Access to an e-trike has had a positive impact on her life too.

“Cycling has helped my physical fitness and I notice my legs are much straighter when standing, but the biggest impact has been on my mental health. I love being outside and the impact of regular cycling has been fantastic on my mental health as I am very isolated socially at home. It also shows me that I can still exercise even though I can't walk. I love it!”

Before I would have used my car

The coronavirus restrictions have curtailed much of the work we had planned for the third year of WheelNess, but our participants are still telling us their great stories.

A new group has been established in the Hilton area of Inverness, a part of the city where we know there is significant need. Set up by our partners at Velocity, we have supported ‘Mums on Wheels’ by providing bikes, child seats and a trailer.

When restrictions allowed, they have been exploring Inverness on group rides, finding green spaces for their tots to play and getting the chance to catch up with one another. Susan told us:

“When meeting friends at parks with my daughter we will hop on the bike, whereas before I would have used my car. Having the bike and being able to go on our group cycles (when we were allowed) during the pandemic has been one of the main things I have looked forward to doing every week.”

Now a Cycling UK affiliated community cycling club, the group hopes to train more cycle ride leaders and give more mums the opportunity to cycle with their children.

Mums and kids from the Mums on Wheels cycling group in Inverness

Not just about cycling

WheelNess wasn’t just about cycling. The soup and cake social evenings at Velocity Café enabled our participants to meet up and learn from one another. On one such evening Sheila, a retired psychiatric nurse in her 80s and Tatenda, a current nursing student at New Craigs Psychiatric Hospital, were deep in conversation about how their shared profession has changed over the decades. WheelNess has been about so much more than just riding bikes.

I feel very privileged to have worked on the WheelNess project and I am very proud of our participants, many of whom have been inspirational, pushing themselves out of their comfort zones to engage with my colleague Brendan and me and with cycling. The highlight for me is the confirmation that access to a suitable cycle and support to get out and enjoy it really can change lives.