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Cycling dos and don'ts in a time of pandemic – how to be a responsible cyclist

What you should and shouldn't do when out riding your bike based on the law (vague) and best current advice (less vague)...

Recreational cycling for health is still allowed in the UK. The current guidelines are that during the lockdown you can exercise outside once a day, and cycling is permitted, so long as you cycle alone or with members of your household. Cycling to work is also very definitely still allowed and has the extra benefit over public transport of built in social distancing.

In this fourth update of to How to cycle responsibly in a time of pandemic we've tried to pull together al the latest information on the rules laid down by government and the best practice for applying them drawn from our own expertise and what is being advised by cycling's main governing bodies. We've tried to make this as clear as possible and address some misconceptions around the current rules on cycling and exercise generally. 

The actual regulations covering exercise in the emergency laws enacted by the Government in – The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 lists exercise as one of the exceptions to Section 6 (1) “During the emergency period, no person may leave the place where they are living without reasonable excuse”  covered by Section 6. (2) "For the purposes of paragraph (1), a reasonable excuse includes the need—"  (b) "to take exercise either alone or with other members of their household". That’s it.  When it comes to exercise – as with most everything else they cover – the emergency powers are vague and leave plenty of room for the Government to interpret them and re-interpret them in any way that suits the situation. What’s listed below represents the current interpretation.

It is worth noting that the vagueness of the act means that some things the public, and police forces are interpreting as the law – are not actually covered by it. Oddly, given that it has been a central part of the Government's message when it comes to limits on exercise: there is no limit in the act to the number of times a day you can exercise (there is in the Government's Guidance that accompanies the act), or the amount of time an individual spends exercising outdoors every day, nor is there any specific bar on driving somewhere to take exercise.

Update 17th April 2020: The new guidelines on enforcement of the Coronavirus Restriction written by the Crown Prosecution Service and issued to police forces by the College of Policing acknowledges the fact that the act does not state the number of times an individual is allowed to exercise per day and points out that the threshold for prosecution must be "reasonable excuse" and to say that “each case still needs to be considered based on the individual facts as they present themselves,”. It then goes on to list a number of scenarios. Along with a number of other activities grouped under the heading, Likely to be reasonable, it has this to say about exercising more than once a day "the only relevant consideration is whether repeated exercise on the same day can be considered a ‘reasonable excuse’ for leaving home."

The Government FAQs on social distancing simply emphasis that exercise is permitted once a day (with exceptions for people with certain health conditions). There is one further mention of exercise which actually comes in its advice to dog walkers: "People must stay at home as much as possible to reduce the spread of the virus. But you can also still go outside once a day for a walk, run, cycle. When doing this you must minimise the time you are out of your home and stay at least two metres away from anyone else that isn’t from your household.

Some police forces are doing their best to enforce the Government’s wishes rather than the letter of the law – that situation may change.

So what should and shouldn't you do to be a socially responsible cyclist during the current crisis? 

Do ride on your own, stay on your own, go home on your own and keep social interactions down to the absolute minimum. if you do meet people along the way then observe the guidance on social distancing. In like with all other forms of exercise the only exception to the riding on your own rule is if you ride with other members of your household – partner, children, housemates/flatmates. 

Don’t go out for a recreational/training ride on your bike more than once a day. Government advice is very explicit about this. While there are no rules about how long, or how far you should ride – beyond Michael Gove’s assertion that you should do no more than you would normally do. The advice on how often you should go outdoors to take exercise is VERY clear. Once.

Do stay local – stick to routes you know well and ride within your limits.

Do keep a safe distance from other cyclists in as safe a manner as possible and remember that your speed dictates how safe a distance you need to be behind someone before you pull out to pass – inevitably it is going to be much more than the two metres prescribed for pedestrians. Read our guide to How much distance you should leave the cyclist ahead in a time of pandemic.

Do make sure that you're self-sufficient and that you can fix your bike and make it home without help from anyone else. 

Don’t share bikes or equipment – pretty easy if you’re riding on your own. Only use your own bike, and your own equipment. 

Don’t drive somewhere to ride –this is a  contentious one. The Government's Covid 19 Travel Guidance is clear on this only essential travel is allowed and it deems only three things essential: going to work (if you can’t work from home) luckily you are allowed to ride to work if you have to go; health reasons; and buying food. True the relevant wording of the travel exemption for exercise "to take exercise either alone or with other members of their household" is open to interpretation, but it is also clear that the Government don't want you to do it. That said, as mentioned above the new law is VERY vague and police forces have rowed back from what was seen as a heavy handed approach to enforcing the rules on individuals or households driving somewhere to take exercise. The latest guidance to officers is that people should not be punished for driving a reasonable distance to exercise. However even many of those that argue driving to exercise is legal also admit that is probably isn't very sensible or desirable thing for people to do. So if you can ride your bike from your front door on deserted roads – we'd argue that's still the most socially responsible way to do it.

Why we need to ride responsibly?

First, because of the ethical and moral considerations placed upon us all to do our bit to slow the spread of the coronavirus to safeguard the health and lives of our fellow citizens and the health workers striving to keep us all well. And second – and a very distant second – because if we don't cycling will be banned for weeks and possibly months. 

Recreational cycling has already been banned in Italy,  Spain, and France, and cyclists here failing to heed the new reality will inevitably lead to further restrictions.
Richmond Park in London has already been closed to cyclists with the Royal Parks Authority citing congestion as the reason – a reason hotly contested by many cyclists.
Derbyshire Police ( a force that has come in for considerable criticism of their enforcement of the emergency powers act) say club riders have been flouting new social distancing laws on Snake Pass in the Peak District and British Cycling has warned that cycling will be banned if cyclists don't ride responsibly

Anything else?

Cycling/exercising indoors –  you could consider doing some or all of your exercise at home either just generally keeping fit and doing some core and flexibility work with Joe Wickes (or the like) or if you’ve got one by doing your cycling on a turbo trainer or smart trainer. Or you could cut down the frequency of your outdoor rides by swapping some for indoor exercise or the turbo. 

Training – if you're training and trying to keep your fitness through this, then it's probably a good time to ask yourself how important that training really is. 

A pandemic isn't the time to be pushing your limits out of doors – certainly not doing things you wouldn’t normally do. Getting some fresh air on a leisurely solo ride is a very different thing to a hard, fast training loop, and the risks are different too. And while Michael Gove might say that doing what you normally do for exercise outside is fine – so long as you only do it once a day – British Cycling has wisely advised its members to ride for “calm recreation” and not to challenge themselves. 

Distance V Distancing: There has been much discussion within the cycling community of how far it is acceptable to ride during the current emergency. The key point here would seem to be that distance ridden is a lot less important than the distance maintained between you and other people while out riding. From a virus spreading perspective a short ride on a relatively crowded route where it is hard to maintain proper social distancing is a lot more hazardous for you and the people you meet than a long one on quiet roads. All that said, going for much longer rides than you normally would clearly goes against the spirit of the law if not its letter.

The locked down cyclist's guide to getting fit and staying fit from the comfort of home

If you have the equipment to allow you to train indoors, then that is the place for more intense training sessions: an online training app is a great way –and really the only way – to ride as a group now, too. Even if you’re going hard in the comfort of your own home, you might still want to pause and think about whether now is really the time – you may be stressing your immune system just when you really don’t want to be and when an over-stretched NHS doesn’t want you to either. That applies just as much if you’re recovering from Covid 10 (or any other virus) too. 

Some of us though don’t have an indoor trainer, and for most of us getting out on our bike is about more than boosting our physical health – it’s also helps de-stress and maintain mental well being, not only for us cyclists but also quite importantly for the people that have to live with us. And of course it cannot be stressed too firmly that CYCLING IS NOT BANNED (sorry to shout) in fact it is being positively encouraged so long as it is done responsibly. 

This advice may change – it's an evolving situation – and we may see a further lockdown in the UK similar to we've seen elsewhere on the continent. But whatever happens, stay safe and keep yourself isolated to help check the spread of the virus. We all need to do our part.

Social distancing

As we've already mentioned both of the UK's cycling organisations British Cycling (link above) and Cycling UK have also issued updated  guidance. The current advice from Cycling UK is as follows:

Following the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s address to the nation announcing strict new curbs on life in the UK, Cycling UK has updated its advice on cycling.

Although people are now being told to stay at home during the pandemic, one form of exercise is allowed a day.

This means it remains advisable for people to cycle for their health, fitness and well-being, but in line with our previous guidance, you should only do this alone or with members of your household unless any of them have reason to self-isolate.

Under no circumstance should you cycle or take part in any cycling activity in groups. This is critical to stop the coronavirus disease spreading between households.

We are also advising that anyone who needs to travel to work if it’s absolutely necessary should consider cycling to avoid using public transport, where possible.

Cycling should also be considered as the best means of transport when essential shopping for food for medicines

The guidance for avoiding contamination remains unchanged, keeping at least two metres away from anyone else, regularly washing your hands and catching coughs and sneezes in tissues and throwing them away immediately. See further advice on the NHS website.

We will continue to evaluate the latest advice from Government and update our guidance accordingly.

Failing to ride in a socially responsible way will have devastating consequences for communities, individuals, and the health service. It will also mean the end of cycling outdoors for everyone for quite some time. That in turn will see bike shops and all those that depend on them – yes, even websites like this – going the way of pubs, clubs and restaurants in having to shut or severely restrict their operations. 

Updated: 17th April,  2nd April, 30th March (twice), 23rd March, first published 22nd March 2020

Tony has been editing cycling magazines and websites since 1997 starting out as production editor and then deputy editor of Total Bike, acting editor of Total Mountain Bike and then seven years as editor of Cycling Plus. He launched his first cycling website - the Cycling Plus Forum at the turn of the century. In 2006 he left C+ to head up the launch team for Bike Radar which he edited until 2008, when he co-launched the multi-award winning road.cc - which he continues to edit today. His favourite ride is his ‘commute’ - which he does most days inc weekends and he’s been cycle-commuting since 1994. His favourite bikes are titanium and have disc brakes.

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