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The right to wind in your hair

Cycling Without Age is a movement launched in 2012 by Ole Kassow in Copenhagen, Denmark. It starts with the generous act of taking one or two elderly or less-abled people out on a bike ride. It is a simple act that everyone can do.

As we mark World Bicycle Day (3 June), Member States are encouraged to emphasize and advance the use of the bicycle as a simple, affordable, reliable, clean and sustainable means of transportation. However, as we grow older, our eyes, legs and general physical condition start to limit our ability to cycle. Elderly persons, often reluctantly, stop cycling for fear of getting injured, giving up the freedom and joy that cycling brought to them.

So how can we help older people get back on their bikes, despite their limited mobility?

A life changing bicycle ride

Like many Danes, Ole Kassow commutes to work by bicycle. Passing a nursing home, he noticed an elderly gentleman, his walking aid next to him, watching people go by. His name was Thorkild, and Ole wondered how much people with reduced mobility miss the freedom that cycling brings?

He decided to rent a rickshaw and head over to the nursing home hoping to offer residents a ride. His first passenger was Gertrud, who asked to go to the Langelinie area of Copenhagen. It was a special place to her; she had migrated to Greenland after the Second World War and it was here where ships from Greenland used to dock. She recounted all the details and over the course of an hour, they formed a bond. The experience had been enriching to both rider and passenger. The next day, the nursing home’s manager called and asked what he had done with, before quickly adding that all the other residents now wanted a ride too.

Thorkild on a ride in Copenhagen | Photo © Cycling Without Age

Ole decided to repeat the experience and took more nursing home residents out on bike rides. Thorkild got his turn too. His ride with Ole took them past the Rosenborg Barracks where 76 years prior he had served as a Royal Guard.

The stories and experiences were too good not to be shared with anyone else. Ole got in touch with Dorthe Pedersen, a civil society consultant from the City of Copenhagen, who was intrigued by the idea and together they bought five rickshaws.

Equipped with their new rickshaws, they gathered volunteer riders and took 10 residents from nursing homes out for a ride. By word of mouth only, 30 new volunteers had signed up by the next day. Pretty soon other cities in Denmark wanted to take part and it has kept growing since. Today, the movement has spread to 50 countries around the world, with more than 2,500 chapter locations.

Ole Kassow and passenger at the Pescatore Foundation, Luxembourg | Photo © Cycling Without age
Ole Kassow and passenger at the Pescatore Foundation, Luxembourg | Photo © Cycling Without age

Stories, relationships and combatting ageism.

“The bicycle is an equaliser, across generations, social boundaries, countries, it is a fantastic tool to create relationships between generations.” Ole told UNRIC.

Among its objectives, Cycling Without Age has been keen to challenge ageism, discrimination based on a person’s age. It does so by creating relationships between generations, between pilots and passengers, care home employees and family members.

“Relationships are so important that they should be enshrined as a human right, the right to relate. Then we would not build cities and communities in ways that prevent people from forming relationships.”

Joyce and Maude out on a ride with Cycling Without Age Musselburgh, Scotland (© Cycling Without Age)
Joyce and Maude out on a ride with Cycling Without Age Musselburgh, Scotland (© Cycling Without Age)

Relationships help build trust, create happiness and improve quality of life. They are key to preserving the stories of older generations which will otherwise be forgotten. Volunteer riders engage with their passengers, they listen to their stories and in turn they share those stories with their friends and family, ensuring that they endure through time.

The movement has shown how a simple bike ride can have profound effects on the lives of older people with limited mobility. Feedback from nursing homes speak of residents who have not talked for years telling neighbours of their cycling adventures and spirits being lifted in care-homes as a result of the rides. For those with visual impairments it has been about feeling the wind in their hair, taking in the smells and sounds.

Cycling Without Age is about improving the well-being of older citizens by getting them back on their bikes. The movement has an active role in promoting the Sustainable Development Goals, with particular attention to goals 3, 10 and 11 on good health and well-being, reduced inequalities, and sustainable cities and communities. Kristine Schaan (MA, NHA, CPG) at Cycling Without Age in Singapore is a gerontologist and has written a series of articles about Cycling Without Age’s contributions to the Goals.

Cycling Without Age riders and passengers in the Rocky Mountains, Canmore, Canada | Photo © Cycling Without Age
Cycling Without Age riders and passengers in the Rocky Mountains, Canmore, Canada | Photo © Cycling Without Age

COVID-19 and looking ahead.

With nearly 99% of operations suspended globally at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cycling Without Age chapters looked to other ways to help.

In several countries, riders started shopping runs to provide food and supplies to isolated regions.

In Lisbon, a local chapter organised balcony talks, using their rickshaws to transport psychologists and social workers to talk with elderly people from their balconies.

And in France, ‘La Grande Evasion’ (the Great Escape) sees over 50 pilots taking turns riding 5,000 km over 3 months across some of the country’s most scenic routes, in what will be the first ‘Tour de France’ by an electric rickshaw. Volunteer riders will be stopping in towns and villages to meet, greet and inspire people to get involved in the movement.

Two elderly women on a trishaw ride in Valence, France, part of La Grande Evasion | © Cycling Without Age
La Grande Evasion, Valence, France | © Cycling Without Age

Looking ahead, the changemakers and riders from Cycling Without Age are hoping for a kinder and more welcoming world. Many among us will have felt what it was like to be confined, they hope to see greater empathy from people toward those living in isolation or with restricted mobility.

The movement believes that even if close to a hundred years old, life can and should be beautiful. Life in a nursing home should be a place of joy and continued mobility. You too can invite a local, a neighbour, or a complete stranger on a journey through cities and landscapes, and by doing so you help create better lives.  It is all about creating relationships.


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