Bicycling during the pandemic put me in the hospital and saved my life

Long bike rides during the pandemic didn’t just introduce me to new spots or bring me closer with friends; they forced me to process how I could find the spaces in hardship where I could grow, get lost in thoughts about life, and reframe my challenges.

Bicycling during the pandemic put me in the hospital and saved my life
A newfound love for bicycling helped me form deeper bonds with friends, reconnect with old pals, and sparked a desire to explore a world in limbo.

Photograph by Thomas Wheatley

On an overcast day in May 2020, still in the early days of the pandemic, I woke up on my back on a service road circling Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport with my friend Jake dragging his knuckles along my sternum—an EMS trick he knew to rouse someone from unconsciousness. After biking to the international terminal with my friends to gawk at what the world’s busiest airport looks and sounds like during a pandemic, my bike and I rounded a hill too fast and encountered Atlanta’s official mascot: a craggy pothole so deep you could fit your foot inside it. I flipped over my handlebars, landed on my head, and knocked myself out for a few minutes. When I came to, I could remember my name, my address, and my birthdate, but I couldn’t recount the minutes leading up to the accident.

Because of the memory loss, my friends took me to the emergency room, the last place I wanted to be, even outside of a pandemic. In the CAT scan machine, I thought about two things: relief that I was wearing a helmet and how long the shop needed to repair my bicycle before I could continue exploring Atlanta.

I’ve always loved bicycling. There’s no better way to discover cities than by bike—slow enough to take everything in, fast enough not to get bored. I’d rented bikes in cities like Berlin, Austin, and Denver. I appreciate the role bicycles play in urban environments, and I’ve been an unabashed advocate for more protected bike lanes, slower speed limits, and better access to bicycles for people living on low incomes. But I’ve never considered myself a bicyclist. I had biked to Atlanta magazine’s downtown office a few times—mostly if I planned on joining Critical Mass, the leaderless group ride after work on the last Friday of every month. Most of my long-distance riding had been on the easygoing Silver Comet. I owned a sturdy hybrid bike, which was great for getting around but not built for pushing myself on gravel roads or riding long distances, especially in hilly Atlanta.

Then, the pandemic happened. Even before Covid-19 precautions forced nearly everyone to hunker down at home, 2020 was a difficult year for me. Depression and anxiety had been mounting, a relationship had ended, and work stress had taken a toll on my health—mental, emotional, physical, all of it. Covid cases and deaths began rising. Meetings started taking place on Zoom. Days spent inside by myself created a sense of loneliness that I last felt nearly 15 years ago, just before I got sober. For the first time in my life, I woke up asking myself, Another day of this?

Like so many other Atlantans, I greased my chain, put air in my tires, and started regularly riding in, ironically, the most beautiful Atlanta springtime in recent memory. I began with an eight-mile route from my house in Westview to downtown and back, on streets so empty I’d sometimes travel all of Peachtree Street and see only a few cars, most of which were police. Underneath downtown viaducts, I biked on the actual terra firma of downtown, and saw where Atlanta’s homeless people are pushed out of sight. As I got stronger, I began embracing hills.

After a few weeks, my friend Max, a fellow journalist who moved a few doors down in the middle of the pandemic, asked if I wanted to ride. We built up to 10 miles, then more. Jake and Kevin, two other neighbors and friends, and an old classmate from middle school whom I ran into while riding one day this summer, joined the group, along with other buds.

Two to three times every week, we would push off from Westview or Cabbagetown, and for three or four hours, sometimes five, we rode through intown neighborhoods we thought we knew before Covid-19 slowed our lives to a crawl. On rides through downtown, Midtown, and the west side, we watched office towers rise and debated if they would ever see workers inside. One Saturday morning, we biked to Sweetwater Creek State Park, waded in the stream, and later discovered a cuckoo clock shop on a Douglas County sideroad. Another weekend, we pedaled to Buford Highway to eat arepas at Plaza Fiesta and watch planes land at Peachtree-DeKalb Airport. Despite living in Atlanta for more than half of my life, I discovered parts of the city I’d never seen: forgotten bungalows backing up to industrial sites in neighborhoods without names; a lovingly tended forest of ferns hidden on a Georgia State University satellite campus; and an abandoned historic brickyard with tunnels and burned-out cars, plus a small subcommunity of trainspotters.

Bicycling during the pandemic put me in the hospital and saved my life

Photograph by Thomas Wheatley

There’s something about biking far from your home (and most public-transit options) and making your way back. These long rides didn’t just introduce me to new spots or bring me closer with friends; they forced me to process how I could find the spaces in hardship where I could grow, get lost in thoughts about life, and reframe my challenges. For a recent trip to California to visit my parents, I rented a specially designed bag from Earl’s Bike Shop on the Westside and checked my bike on the flight. I biked two hours to the top of a ridge with my favorite view of the Pacific Ocean, on the floor of Yosemite Valley under El Capitan, and along the Los Angeles River, where trees broke through the concrete and took over the culvert. By the end of the year, I had shed 20 pounds. I sleep deeper. I am generally happier. And I’ve graduated to a better bike. (I have also caved and bought tight shorts.) Winter reduced the number of rides, from about three a week to one, but before the end of the year, I hope to ride a century—100 miles in a single day.

With our group, on your birthday ride, you get to pick the route. Last August, on mine, I guided us to South-View Cemetery near Lakewood Heights to pay our respects at John Lewis’s grave. We headed to Hapeville to buy tacos from Don Chon, my favorite taqueria. I considered suggesting we return back to the spot where I crashed. I told my friends I loved them and our adventures. They nodded in agreement, and accepted my corniness. We rode to my house and drank kombucha in my front yard in the sun. And I couldn’t wait until we rode again.

This article appears in our March 2021 issue.