Having a hobby which gets you off farm and connects you with friends can often be key in a isolated job. And as Natalie Noble found out, for one group of farmers, cycling has done more than just lower their blood pressure.
Cycling may not be a regular activity for most farmers, but a community in Limavady, Co Londonderry, have improved their mental and physical health based on banter, bikes and charity.
Founder David Gault, an arable farmer in the area, already had an enthusiasm for physical activity, having long held a penchant for football.
But in 2008, he sustained a painful cruciate injury which required surgery and left him with a long recovery ahead.
David says: “Getting out a couple of times a week to train and play matches, I had always been committed to something other than the farm.
“It was good physically and mentally for me to get away from the farm, but the injury put a stop to that and unsurprisingly my fitness suffered.”
In 2010 David found an unexpected new outlet, cycling.
“I got talking to local tree surgeon John Henry, who is a cycling enthusiast. I was missing the physical and social aspects, so he told me to go get a bike – and I did,” he says.
“You cannot just drop everything but there is a lot to be said for making time for something other than work”
By the summer of 2011, David had progressed from total novice to feeling ready for a challenge and with John persuaded local farmers Robert Craig and James Wray, both who were fairly new to cycling, to don a bit of lycra and join them in riding Lap the Lough.
Success saw a repeat with more riders.
David says: “We rode 81 miles around Lough Neagh and stayed there overnight, riding together and then enjoying a few beers was a good craic and we all felt better for it.
“It got us thinking that it would be good for us all to do this as a regular thing and if we could get more people involved and raise some money for charity, all the better.”
Joining the local Roe Valley Cycling Club helped to spread the word.
“Once you are doing something you start talking about it, including at our farmer and arable group meetings, more people became interested in getting involved,” David says.
Between 2012 and 2014 the Cycling Farmers undertook several challenges, raising more than £10,000 for various local charities.
And by 2015 there were a good few farmers in their peloton, so they decided to take on the Giro d’Italia legacy ride, the 107-mile long Gran Fondo, raising money for the Farm Safety Foundation, widely recognisable for its yellow wellies.
“Brian Prue had been riding with us for a couple of years and as the agent for Limavady NFU Mutual he was keen to raise money and awareness of farm safety and mental well-being,” says David.
Brian bedecked 16 team members in cycling jerseys complete with yellow over socks to represent the foundation.
“We have all heard of or been affected to some extent by a farming injury,” says David.
“Keeping yourself physically fit and mentally well is always going to keep you safer on-farm.”
A memorable moment, he says, was the community spirit felt on entering Hilltown while completing the Gran Fondo in 2015.
“It was packed with spectators, we heard cheers of ‘look it is the Cycling Farmers and their yellow wellies’ – it gave us such a boost.”
Raising money for worthy causes also gives the group an incentive to push themselves and make a difference.
“It also gives you a sense of achievement, which can really lift you when other things are not going so well,” says David.
The Cycling Farmers have since completed a 100-mile sportive around North Co Donegal in 2016, a 170-mile round trip to Dunfanaghy in 2018 and the Donegal Ultra 555, a 21-hour non-stop endurance race last year, completing 344.8 miles (555km) for Northern Ireland Air Ambulance.
“The endurance ride was exhausting,” says David. “It was really tough and asked a lot of us.
“Sometimes you hit really low points but we had a great support crew, they did a fantastic job of keeping us encouraged.”
The group of friends have now raised more than £30,000 for charities.
And they have made some memories along the way, with the camaraderie highlighting the importance of social support in a challenging industry.
“Farming can be really isolating making the pressures and worries worse, your mental health is going to suffer,” says David.
“Being a part of a group takes away a bit of that isolation. It puts you with people who are like-minded and helps build friendships. Suddenly you are a part of a network looking out for one another.”
The weekends away are popular and give members a chance to get away at least once-a-year.
And for farmer Robert, a change in physical pace and isolation saw him keen to join David in the early days of the group.
Robert says: “Farming has changed; the physicality has reduced and I just found myself spending more time in a tractor or the office, it dragged me down.
“I missed being immersed in the outdoors. The isolation and loss of hands-on work left me feeling disconnected from why I farm. Joining David was a way for me to improve my health, but it also gave me the time away to get perspective.”
The group does not keep to a set schedule, preferring to operate on an ad-hoc basis for ride outs, keeping the more regimented training days for events.
David says: “Time is a big challenge, harvest makes it tricky for anything outside of farming. So we put out the word of a ride and whoever can join will go. No-one needs to be pressured but it might get mentioned in good humour if you have not been out for a while.”
The group is also eager to show others how making time to look after your fitness and mental well-being can make a difference to daily farming life.
“You cannot just drop everything but there is a lot to be said for making time for something other than work,” adds David.
A WhatsApp group was originally set up to organise ride-outs, but fast became a place to keep connected.
“We all go through tough times – it has been particularly great while we have been kept apart in recent months.”
And when the Cycling Farmers are not cycling, the WhatsApp group is a place where farming is never far from the topic of conversation; a problem shared is a problem halved.
“We share a lot of what we are doing – how we are getting on, what has gone right and what has gone wrong – it keeps you connected and that is important at times of year when the pressure is on and the stress is heightened,” says David.
In 2021, the Cycling Farmers hope to reassemble in force to complete an epic ride from the most southerly point in Ireland, Mizen Head, to the most northerly point, Malin Head. This will be in aid of member Willie Moores’ chosen heart health charity, which has given vital support to a family member.
And it is this kind of commitment which shows the cement around which communities form. When a founding member was diagnosed with bowel cancer in April the group really rallied.
“He needed a big operation followed by chemotherapy, it was such an awful time for him and his family,” David says.
“He was very down and the lockdown was isolating. His family could not even visit him in hospital.
“Through our WhatsApp group we were able to keep in touch, we wanted to keep his spirits up with our usual banter and talk of charity plans for next year - with him up front and leading.”
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