We usually experience fear as a burden that we want to get rid of. This applies to a large extent to fear during cycling. Fine movements are made impossible by fear, and cycling is only possible thanks to such fine movements. Through fear, the cyclist enters a vicious circle: fear makes fine movements impossible, which reduces the control of the bicycle, and fear increases even further. This vicious circle is maintained by the activity of a primitive part of our brain: the brainstem. This does not mean that our fear reactions are completely dictated by the brainstem. During evolution, the role of the prefrontal cortex has become more important, and this can break this vicious circle. Specifically, our prefrontal cortex can prevent that a signal is sent to the brainstem, and can also control the brainstem’s response. In this way, the prefrontal cortex allows us to overcome unnecessary fears.
Fear can be overcome by doing and not by talking. This means that fear only disappears by experiencing that what you are afraid of does not happen. This fact is the crucial factor behind the success of behavioural therapy in the treatment of phobias (an excessive fear of specific issues or situations, such as spiders and closed spaces). By gradual exposure to the frightening situation, changes occur in the connections within a part of our brain that is responsible for the detection of dangerous situations, the amygdala. In the course of the gradual exposure, the amygdala learns that this situation is safe, and it no longer activates our brainstem. As a result, stiffening and other fear reactions do no longer occur.
Fear is not always our enemy, but sometimes also our friend. Some fears are useful because they make us aware of our limited bicycle skills. These fears will only disappear if our cycling skills improve, and that requires exercise. We can achieve a lot with exercise, but some changes with age (among others, deterioration of the vestibular organ, stiffer joints) can no longer be compensated by specific exercises. Fortunately, a two-wheeler is not the only healthy means of transport.