When it comes to keeping fit, cycling is the wheel deal

Jo McGregor found that cycling helped her to more than fitness. Picture: Jane Barlow

Jo McGregor found that cycling helped her to more than fitness. Picture: Jane Barlow

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In the second part of our Get Edinburgh Fit series, we look at how switching to two wheels can grow your muscles and shrink your spending at the same time.

Eighteen months ago, Jo McGregor was feeling “fat and miserable” on holiday when she made one small decision that has changed her life.

She decided to go on a cycle ride – and has never looked back.

Her story is inspiration for everyone looking to get active in the new year but can’t face the gym, although few are likely to go quite as far in a year-and-a-half.

The 28-year-old from the New Town said: “I decided to hire a bike and go cycling, and I found myself really enjoying it.

“It probably helped that I was on the Hebridean island of Tiree, which is extremely flat, but it was enough to give me the bug and even though the holiday finished, I knew I wasn’t.”

On her return to the Capital, Jo, who works for the University of Edinburgh, said she was soon pushing her limits and defying everyone’s expectations – including her own.

“One of the first really long cycles I decided to do was out to North Berwick, which is about 25 miles away. My plan was to get the train back, but I enjoyed myself so much I ended up doing the entire round trip on my bike.”

It wasn’t long before Jo decided to use her new-found passion to help others, too, completing a charity cycle between Edinburgh and Glasgow, followed by another between London and Paris. She’s now set to take part in an epic 350-mile ride between London, Amsterdam and Brussels in aid of Hope and Homes for Children.

Jo said: “After the London-to-Paris cycle, I kind of thought my really long cycles were over, but then I saw modern adventurer Alastair Humphreys give a talk about how you don’t need to be a millionaire to travel the world, and about how he had cycled across Australia.

“It got me in the mood for another trip, and that never used to be me – I never thought of myself as the kind of person who would or could do something like that.”

And it turns out she wasn’t the only one...

She explained: “Some of my friends have since admitted to me that when I first started getting them to sponsor me for the cycle between Glasgow and Edinburgh, they secretly thought there was no chance I would actually do it.

“I don’t blame them for it – like I said, I was shocked by it myself, and even though I knew I really enjoyed cycling, I did feel a bit self-conscious when I first started doing it back in the city. My size was a major factor in this. I’m not the smallest of women and I’ve got quite a big bum, which is something you can’t really hide on a bike. If I had to cycle past people I was always sure they were staring at me, thinking ‘She’s too fat to ride a bike’.

“To be honest, although I’m much healthier now, I’m only marginally smaller, but I don’t feel anywhere near as self-conscious as I used to. Getting fit has given me a completely different mindset – I’m a much happier person now and I want to show other people that you don’t have to be a Skinny Minnie to be healthy.”

However, if you don’t feel ready to brave the city centre crowds – and traffic – just yet, there are other options.

Jo explained: “There are lots of amazing cycle path routes where you can build your confidence, surrounded by beautiful scenery, that are in easy reach. Just get on a bike and go – give it a bash. Soon, you’ll be amazing yourself – sometimes I still can’t believe it’s me who’s done all these things.”

Ged Holmyard, the spokesman for Edinburgh Bicycle Cooperative, agreed, saying: “Within a couple of months you’ll find yourself easily covering distances you wouldn’t have previously considered feasible on a bike. Distances that might seem daunting on foot, say three to eight miles, are a breeze to a cyclist.

“When you cycle to school, work, shops and so on, what once might have been dead time becomes active time. Cycling is intrinsically an engaging and enjoyable activity. Even when you ride to a mundane destination, you arrive feeling pepped up.

“Having said that, ride within your limits to begin with. If you haven’t been on a bike for years, don’t overdo it. Start off with short trips and gradually build up. Find routes you feel comfortable with. As someone who has cycled for over 40 years in Edinburgh without a serious mishap, I can confirm that cycling in our city centre needn’t be scary, but if you want to build your confidence up a bit first, Spokes maps or the free maps on the council website are a great starting place to discover ‘traffic-lite’ routes.

“Did you know, for instance, that you can cycle from Colinton to Leith on traffic-free cycle paths?”

And it’s not just your body that will soon start seeing the benefits.

Ged continued: “We’re all having to tighten our belts at the moment and alternating driving with cycling can save you hundreds of pounds a year on fuel and parking charges. And while owning appropriate clobber prepares you for anything, despite its public image, the Scottish climate is not as bad as it’s often made out to be. I often ride daily from one week to the next without needing my waterproofs.

“What’s more, cycling always warms you up. And the only fuel it consumes is your breakfast.”

If you want to make friends while cycling, or feel like a bit of moral support – or perhaps the odd guilt trip – may help you stick to your new hobby, then check out http://www.cycling-edinburgh.org.uk/ for a list of organised bike rides in and around the capital, organised by local clubs and groups.

Most of the rides are free, and all of them are open to everyone. On Sunday, January 26, there will be a 12-mile ride “which will be taken at a gentle pace, with plenty of stops on bike paths and quiet roads, and will avoid steep hills”.

The free ride begins at 10.30am by the entrance to Scottish Widows in Holyrood Park Road, opposite the Royal Commonwealth Pool. It is expected to finish at 3pm and there will be a lunchtime stop at a cafe, though you can bring a packed lunch if you prefer.

Visit the website for organiser contact details.

If you would like to sponsor Jo on her ride between London, Amsterdam and Brussels in aid of Hope and Homes for Children, which helps orphaned, abandoned and vulnerable children all across the world, visit http://www.justgiving.com/joannamcgregor.

My kinda town...

JO gives us her top tips for great places to ride within easy reach of the city centre.

“At the bottom of Scotland Street in the New Town, there is a play park and a tunnel that leads to lots of great cycle paths. One of my favourites you can get to from there is the ride across the Forth Road Bridge and back, it’s really great fun.

“We’re also so lucky to have hills like the Pentlands to the south. For terrain like that, it really is best to go on a mountain bike, but it’s such a fantastic place to go if you want to escape the city and get a breather.

“If you don’t want to go that far, I love doing laps of Arthur’s Seat. It’s right there, a stone’s throw from the centre of town and it’s such a fantastic place, with brilliant views.

“Once you start building up your strength, there’s really no limit to what you can do and where you can go on your bike – though you may not be able to get back the same day. I once cycled all the way to St Andrews from Edinburgh, a distance of about 50 miles. I stayed the night in a wee hotel, then cycled all the way back the next day.

“It’s a really freeing experience to just be able to get on your bike and go where ever you want! You’ll be amazed at all the new things you discover and see – and you’ll be amazed at yourself and how good you feel doing it!”

Velo and welcome to the simple pleasures and benefits

IT’S time to jump on your bike. Did you get a bike for Christmas? Or do you have one that is lying around gathering dust or serving as a clothes peg?

A great way to get more active, improve your fitness and enhance your energy levels is to jump on your bike and take a ride around our great city.

Cycling can be as easy or challenging as you want to

make it.

It can improve your cardio vascular health (heart and lungs) and help strengthen and tone your leg muscles.

It’s best to start off slowly and build up the amount of time you work for, the intensity of hills climbed and the speed you cycle at.

This will help you enjoy it more and assist in decreasing any next-day soreness you may feel.

Ensure you apply an even amount of pedal pressure pushing down then pulling the pedal back and lifting upwards.

This will work more muscles and also improve your pedal power.

Finding the time to exercise can be a challenge, so try to ensure you treat your cycle time as you would any other important appointment.

When possible pick days when you can cycle to work or visit friends and family.

You can check out Edinburgh City Council’s cycling web pages – www.edinburgh.gov.uk/cycling – which include information on how to get cycling, as well as some handy maps to keep you on course.

If you do not own a bike, head to your local gym and take exercise on one there.

You could plan it around a favourite television programme and watch it while you are exercising.

Or, book into to a studio cycling (RPM or Spinning) class and let an instructor motivate you through between 45 and 60 minutes of activity.

RPM is an indoor cycling workout where you cycle to the rhythm of music.

The instructor will coach you through hills, flats, time trials and interval training.

You will reach endorphin highs and burn up to 600 calories in a normal 50-minute class.

Benefits include toning and shaping your legs, hips, thighs and buttocks. You will also burn fat, increase leg strength and endurance without bulking up.

Know your limits – check with a doctor or physician if you are unsure of your limitations or if you have any prescribed medical condition.

• David McLean is Edinburgh Leisure fitness manager.

Going nowhere is good

IF you like the idea of cycling, but aren’t as convinced by the great outdoors, you can still use a bike to keep in shape.

RPM (Revolutions Per Minute) classes are described as “a fun, athletic, cardiovascular cycling workout that guarantees to leave you on a high and wanting more”.

Classtimes range from 7am to 8pm and are held at five Edinburgh Leisure venues across the city – Ainslie Park, Leith Victoria, Craiglockheart, Meadowbank and EICA: Ratho.

The classes last for 50 minutes and are open to anyone over the age of 16, with prices ranging from £3.50 to £6.90.

It is estimated that one class can help you burn 600 calories, as well as toning your muscles and improving your cardiovascular fitness.

For information, visit www.edinburghleisure.co.uk/activities/fitness-classes/fitness-classes-high-energy/rpm.