With England now in a third national lockdown and restrictions tight in the rest of the UK, recreational cycling outside for health is still allowed throughout Britain. The current guidelines are that during the lockdown you can exercise outside once a day, and cycling is permitted. Cycling to work is also very definitely still allowed, and has the extra benefit over public transport of built-in social distancing.
In this fifth update of our guide to cycling responsibly during the ongoing pandemic, we've tried to pull together all 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.
Since the first March lockdown, exercise has been listed as one of the exceptions to the emergency laws enacted in the original regulations that state: “During the emergency period, no person may leave the place where they are living without reasonable excuse.”
While originally exercise was only allowed "either alone or with other members of their household", the legislation now says you can exercise:
By yourself, with the people you live with, with your support bubble (if you are legally permitted to form one), in a childcare bubble where providing childcare or, when on your own, with 1 person from another household.
That’s it. When it comes to exercise – as with 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.
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's been a central part of the Government's message when it comes to limits on exercise, there is still 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 ban on driving somewhere to take exercise, despite the guidance telling us to "stay local".
For example, after the BBC reported that two women were fined by police for travelling to exercise, human rights barrister Adam Wagner said this on his Twitter account: "It [a limit on travelling for exercise] is not enforceable in law. No explicit limit on how far you can travel for exercise or for how long in the law. There will come a point where you travel so far that the journey becomes the reason not the exercise but driving a few miles should not breach the regulations."
The Government FAQs on social distancing simply emphasises that exercise is permitted once a day (with exceptions for people with certain health conditions) and summarises it as this: "You can continue to exercise alone, with one other person or with your household or support bubble. This should be limited to once per day, and you should not travel outside your local area."
As mentioned before, some police forces are still doing their best to enforce the Government’s wishes rather than the letter of the law, something that caused huge confusion in the first lockdown after a certain Cabinet Office minister said that half an hour was enough when it came to exercising outside.
So, what should and shouldn't you do to be a socially responsible cyclist during the current crisis?
Do try ride on your own (or socially distanced with one other person), 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.
Don’t go out for a recreational/training ride on your bike more than once a day. The Government advice is explicit about this, even if the law is not. While there are no rules about how long, or how far you should ride, 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 – this is pretty easy if you’re riding on your own. Only use your own bike, and your own equipment.
Don’t drive somewhere to ride if possible. The Government's Covid-19 Travel Guidance is clear that only essential travel is allowed, and it deems these things as essential:
- Work, where you cannot reasonably work from home
- Accessing education and for caring responsibilities
- Visiting those in your support bubble – or your childcare bubble for childcare
- Visiting hospital, GP and other medical appointments or visits where you have had an accident or are concerned about your health
- Buying goods or services that you need, but this should be within your local area wherever possible
- Outdoor exercise – this should be done locally wherever possible, but you can travel a short distance within your area to do so if necessary (for example, to access an open space)
- Attending the care and exercise of an animal, or veterinary services
- Attending communal worship and life events, including weddings and funerals
Some would argue that while driving to exercise is legal, it probably isn't a 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.
First, because of the ethical and moral considerations placed upon us all to do our bit to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which can safeguard the health and lives of our fellow citizens and the health workers striving to keep us all well. During the first lockdown there was a genuine concern that cycling could be banned if cyclists don't ride responsibly; and although that's very unlikely to happen, we all have to do our bit to ensure cycling outside continues to be viewed as a socially responsible way to get some daily exercise during the lockdown.
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 Wicks (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.
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 probably isn't the time to be pushing your limits, and doing things you wouldn't normally do. If your usual training regime is pretty strenuous then it should be fine to continue doing that; however in its latest update to its Covid-19 FAQs section, British Cycling advises you to "ride well within your ability and ensure that you are self-sufficient."
Distance V Distancing
Last year, there was much discussion within the cycling community about 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 compared to a much longer jaunt on quiet roads. All that said, going for much longer rides than you normally would clearly goes against the spirit of the law.
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-19 (or any other virus) too.
Some of us don’t have an indoor trainer though, and getting out on our bike is about more than boosting our physical health. It also helps de-stress and maintain mental well being, not only for us cyclists, but also for the people that have to live with us. And of course, it cannot be stressed too firmly that cycling is still being positively encouraged so long as it's done responsibly.
Both British Cycling and Cycling UK have already issued updated guidance. Cycling UK has recently updated a Q+A on cycling guidance during the pandemic, and its current basic advice is as follows:
Where riding is allowed, cyclists should still observe good hygiene, and Cycling UK advises leaving plenty of space when passing others, and to avoid pulling in rapidly after overtaking another cyclist, causing them to end up in your slipstream.
Cycling UK's advice remains that it is advisable for people to cycle for their health, fitness and well-being.
The guidance for avoiding contamination remains unchanged, keeping at least two metres away from anyone else where possible, regularly washing your hands and catching coughs and sneezes in tissues and disposing of them appropriately as soon as possible. For further advice, please refer to the NHS website.
We will continue to evaluate the latest advice from government and update our guidance accordingly. As the threat level reduces, our guidance is likely to be along these lines but this will depend on factors such as local levels of infection, national guidance and so on.
Failing to ride in a socially responsible way could have negative consequences for communities, individuals, and the health service. Stay safe, take heed of the latest government advice and enjoy cycling responsibly!
Updated: 8th January 2021, 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.