‘Everything got a little bit better’: the role cycling can play in the grieving process

At some point in our lives, every one of us will be affected by bereavement. we find out how cyclists can help one another through the grieving process

Male cyclist dealing with bereavement
(Image credit: Future)

Cyclist John Hewitt describes his relationship with his daughter Kelly as having been “extremely close, best friends.” But in late 2016, Kelly changed jobs, becoming a prison officer, and it seemed to take a heavy toll on her mental health. As Christmas approached and John tried to get to the bottom of what was troubling her, Kelly shut him out of her life. “I was distraught and extremely hurt,” the 53-year-old reflects. 

His attempts to reconcile with his daughter went unanswered for an entire year – a period of not-knowing brought to an end in the worst possible way. On 21 December 2017, Hewitt received news that Kelly had taken her own life. She was 24. “I hadn’t seen Kelly for 12 months and the next time I did, she was in the mortuary,” Hewitt says slowly. He later learnt that Kelly had been the victim of bullying at work and had also been through the trauma of a miscarriage. “I don’t say this lightly: I still grieve every single day,” he adds. 

As a society, we sometimes hold back from talking openly about death and grief. Mortality is too often a taboo subject, something we only refer to with black humour, masking our fear and anxiety. We will all experience grief, and we need to learn to talk about the feelings that arise and how to cope – including the role cycling can play. “The moment I started going out on my bike,” Hewitt says, “everything got a little bit better.” 

Response to loss

Male cyclist dealing with bereavement

(Image credit: Future)

Grief encompasses a wide range of feelings and experiences, but stripped down to a basic definition, it is a response to loss, most commonly that of a loved one. A similar cascade of emotions can also be triggered by losing your job, losing contact with a partner or spouse, or even losing a pet. When experiencing grief, a person’s emotional and cognitive functions and their behaviour are affected. 

There are five accepted stages of grief: first, denial, as we are unable to absorb and understand the loss; next comes anger as we adjust to the new reality, which can be expressed or internalised; after anger comes bargaining, the phase where we plead to others or a spiritual power to change the circumstances; the fourth stage, typically the longest and hardest, is depression, often accompanied by isolation; finally the ground is laid for acceptance, where we begin to accept the modified present, albeit without forgetting the loss. 

These stages are not always experienced in the above order. Some people will go through just some of the stages, others all of them. Everyone processes grief in their own way. 

Dr Hana Patel is a GP specialising in mental health: “People often feel that they need to get over grief by a certain time, but how do you all of a sudden get over the loss of someone or something so important? You can’t, so it’s about understanding that grief is a completely normal process – you’re not alone.”

John Hewitt's story

Processing pain In the aftermath of his daughter’s suicide, John Hewitt could not face socialising. “I locked myself away to try and get my head straight,” he says, explaining how he sold one of his two businesses and set up a support and counselling charity in his daughter’s name, We Mind & Kelly Matters. In the past three years, he and dozens of others have cycled the length of Britain, from Spain to Germany, and from New York to San Francisco, in the process raising a combined total of £300,000 (~$380,000) – money that has provided over 3,000 free counselling sessions. “When I read the feedback and Q&A forms from those we’ve helped, I see how many lives we’ve saved,” says Hewitt. 

The act of riding a bike became integral to Hewitt’s emotional healing. “In the first three months of cycling, I lost three stone and it was amazing how much it really, really helped me mentally. It makes me feel good about myself, and the stimulus of seeing spectacular things out on the road, be it a deer or a rabbit running, or an ancient church I’ve never noticed before.” 

Pain, of course, remains. Hewitt describes days when the weight of grief doesn’t lift at all, times when he sobs uncontrollably. He still feels guilt, a common characteristic of grief. “I did nothing wrong, but I still blame myself,” he says. Kelly’s troubles at work and in her private life had taken her to a dark place mentally. “There’s shock, anger, numbness, all emotions that still go on now. I suppress those thoughts, if I am honest, not because I want to ignore them, but because I’m trying to do happy things.” Hewitt has learnt to keep on living fully while bearing the pain of loss. “I don’t want to live in the past or feel sorry for myself. But there are times when the grief hits you unexpectedly, including while cycling, when I’ll start crying by the side of the road.” 

Setting up a charity and embarking on three long fundraising rides helped Hewitt in the short term, but it’s only in the past six months, after an extended break, that he feels he is finally processing what has happened – more than four years after Kelly’s passing.

“Since November I have almost switched off completely from the charity and business, and I’ve realised I’m paying the price for not doing enough grieving before. I have busied myself too much to support other people, but it’s taken its toll on me. It’s only now that I’m stepping back and doing what I need to do for myself.” Hewitt’s hyper-activity in the aftermath of the loss, a common reaction to grief, had masked rather than dealt with the agony. His younger daughter, Amy, is getting married next month. “I always hoped to walk both of my daughters down the aisle, but I’ll only get the chance to walk the youngest one. I carried the eldest one in a coffin,” Hewitt pauses. “With the wedding coming up, Kelly comes into my head more and more.” In nearly five years, he and Amy have had only one discussion about Kelly’s death. “It worries me how closed off Amy is about it, but grief manifests itself in different ways. Her way of dealing with it and her tribute to Kelly was riding across the US with us.” 

Jeremy Daubeny's story

From the grief of a father and a sister to the grief of a son: Jeremy Daubeny was just 15 in 2016 when his mother Clare was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. A year later, his dad Giles was diagnosed with a brain tumour and died in September 2018. Just seven months after his dad’s death, Daubeny’s mother passed away. “I was 17 at the time and I had lost two parents, something that at the start of 2016 was unimaginable.” 

Daubeny describes how at first he “just cracked on with life, didn’t engage with [grief].” It was his form of the denial stage. “I had school and that was an escape. It was a blessing at first. People would ask if I was crushed, and, yes, it was awful, but I didn’t think about it. My sister went to uni, there was no longer sadness at home, and I enjoyed having my mates over. Life was mostly fun.” 

Then, a month before Covid-19 lockdown was enforced, it hit him – hard. “The grief came and bit me. Lockdown meant I had a lot of space to breathe and think about everything. It was painful, but needed.” That’s where cycling came in. “I was never a sporty kid, but it turned out I loved endurance sports and enjoyed being alone, getting on with something, putting my mind to use.” 

In the summer of 2021, before he started a degree in economics and politics at Exeter University, Daubeny went on a 57-day lap of Britain searching for the best cooked breakfast. He called it the Tour de Full English, and raised £37,500 for the Brain Tumour Charity and MND Association. “Cycling helped me enormously with coping and coming to terms with what had happened,” he says. “All sorts of memories came back as I rode around. I would have periods of joyful reminiscing, moments of mindfulness, but also a realisation that you can’t live a happy life constantly.” 

Different parts of the challenge helped him process the grief in different ways. “Sometimes I put on a brave face; sometimes I listened to the Beatles to remind me of my dad, and other times I embraced solitude. Talking about it on social media and in interviews helped me be more open about what had happened and what I was experiencing. My journey became like a healthy version of a sitcom.” 

And of course, the irresistible question: where serves the best full English? “It wasn’t even in England!” he laughs. “It was in Pembrokeshire in Wales at the Caffi Y Ragna, and it scored highly on all five categories. The crispy onions on beans were a game-changer.” 

Superman’s crash landing 

Completing the ride made Daubeny feel invincible, but in certain respects it was a false start in dealing with his grief. “Through telling my story on the ride, I became desensitised to it, and when I started uni I was thinking I was superman as I’d just cycled around the UK. I came crashing back down to earth when I began my studying and there was still a lot of heaviness to endure.” 

Daubeny would hop on his bike again in the summer of 2022, this time alongside his girlfriend Lottie, riding all the way to Greece over 69 days. He had learned something that almost everyone who suffers grief comes to appreciate: there’s no closure, no point at which the pain tap shuts off completely. Dr Patel explains: “Some people are OK after a few weeks, but for others it takes longer. It’s normal to grieve for up to a year after a loved one’s death, and it can affect you in many ways. You may stop engaging in things you previously enjoyed, or no longer function like your ‘old self’.” 

The depression stage is often the hardest hurdle to overcome, says Patel. “When you’re sad and longing, this period can be hell. You can feel like life has no meaning anymore, which can be scary. It’s helpful not to drive friends and family away when you’re in these low moments, but to use them and a qualified counsellor as a sounding board.” Employers also need to be accommodating. “Time off work can be beneficial as you need time and rest to get through the five stages. The pain does lessen over time.” 

If you feel able, carrying on cycling can be beneficial. Fellow mental health expert and counsellor Trina Parker says that “sport is incredibly helpful for people experiencing grief. When they’re out in nature releasing endorphins, they feel part of a community. Hypothetically, if you could compare two people with identical bereavement, the person who is sporty and exercises would fare much better than the one who doesn’t.” 

How cycling helped

Both Hewitt and Daubeny testify to the healing power of cycling. Now in his second year at university, Daubeny spoke to me while out on a bike ride. “Whenever I’m low, I’ll go out on my bike, because I know it allows me to feel something,” he says. “Cycling is an amazing way to focus when you don’t otherwise have the necessary energy to engage with everything else.” 

For Hewitt, it was just a few weeks until his daughter Amy’s wedding. “I’m going to be very emotional that day,” he accepts. “But I am a realist, whatever I say or do will never bring Kelly back.” With cycling, though, he’s found a new passion, one that allows him to ride in his daughter’s memory, help others and, crucially, himself too. “When I bought my first bike, the guy in the shop said it would change my life. I replied to him, ‘I can guarantee you that when I get to Land’s End, I will throw this bike off the cliff’. Before I’d even started LEJOG I’d fallen in love with cycling. Nothing else has as much power to make me feel good about myself.”

How to help someone through grief: the dos and don’ts

Two mugs of tea

(Image credit: Future)

It can be hard to know what to say to a bereaved friend or club-mate, and ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ can seem forced or clichéd. So what should you say or do? 

“Just be there for them,” advises Jeremy Daubeny. “Trust me, it really means the world. People squirm at the start, but asking questions helps. Most grieving people actually want the release, to be open, to tell their story and how they’re feeling, but they need to be nudged into it. A ‘sorry’ is good, but being there counts for much more.” 


  • Go for a ride together, it’s an act of normality.
  • Offer the person space to talk. A listening ear is valuable.
  • Share a memory of the person who’s died.
  • Reassure them that grief is a normal process, experienced by millions.
  • Recognise what they’re going through so they feel supported.
  • Ask how you can help them, suggesting specific things. 


  • Don’t assume how they’re feeling – let them tell you.
  • Don’t tell them to “get over it” or to “move on”.
  • Don’t set expectations of how long grief will endure.
  • Don’t try and hide away from reality, but equally don’t force the issue or fixate on the grief.
  • Don’t tell them what they should do; ask instead, ‘Have you thought about…?

Sporting lost: grieving for the athlete you used to be

Grief can be triggered by many different things, not only losing a loved one. A decline in sporting performance or inability to partake in your usual activities, for instance, whether through injury, age or other factors, can be accompanied by a painful sense of loss. 

Trina Parker is a loss and bereavement specialist. “When someone has a sport taken away from them for a period of time or forever, or when they notice that their abilities are waning, the emotions they experience follow a similar pattern to those experienced during a bereavement. It could creep up on them or come out of the blue, but there’ll be denial, anger, depression. It can be a rocky road to acceptance.” 

For many of us, sport – in particular cycling – is part of our identity. It’s a core source of motivation and self-esteem, and often the bedrock of our social lives. Worsening performance can make us feel ashamed or diminished, despite it being natural and explainable. By seeking support from family and friends, it is possible to adapt to the changes without quitting sport or hitting the point of despair. 

Every athlete is able to prepare in anticipation of the grief that may come with performance loss. “You can manage it so it’s not such a big impact, and so you don’t cling onto something that’s not there,” Parker explains. “You can no longer perform at your previous level, so how else can you get the positive feeling sport gives you? Set new targets, and readjust expectations. There’s always something else to motivate you. It’s why a lot of ex-professionals go into coaching.”

This full version of this article was published in the print edition of Cycling Weekly. Subscribe online and get the magazine delivered direct to your door every week. 

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Chris Marshall-Bell

Chris first started writing for Cycling Weekly in 2013 on work experience and has since become a regular name in the magazine and on the website. Reporting from races, long interviews with riders from the peloton and riding features drive his love of writing about all things two wheels.

Probably a bit too obsessed with mountains, he was previously found playing and guiding in the Canadian Rockies, and now mostly lives in the Val d’Aran in the Spanish Pyrenees where he’s a ski instructor in the winter and cycling guide in the summer. He almost certainly holds the record for the most number of interviews conducted from snowy mountains.