Why Cycling Improves My Thinking

I get clarity — and a big-picture view — when I’m on two wheels

Clive Thompson
8 min readJun 4, 2022


Photo of a silhouette of a woman on a bicycle, against an orange-colored sky at dusk with clouds
by renategranade0 via Pixabay

Three months ago I wrote about how cycling improved my mental health. As I noted, going for a ride nearly always makes me feel better:

If I were worried? A brisk ride would part the clouds. If I felt pissy, it’d expel the yellow bile. If I were blocked or stuck on a piece of work — or uncertain about a decision? A ride brought blessed clarity. I’d return home knowing exactly what to do.

I want to explore more deeply that last point: How cycling gives me clarity when I’m thinking through a problem.

Why does it do that? How does it do that?

It really does! When I’m cycling, I find that I get a lot of really useful thinking done. My mind seems to float free of everyday worries that normally peck at me like ducks. When I’m in the saddle and racing along, I find myself more easily able to take a big-picture view.

I think it has to do with the curious balance between a) the demands that cycling places on my mind and body and b) the freedoms that it imparts. There’s something alchemical going on that catalyzes a truly useful mental state, and one that’s qualitatively different from when I’m sitting at home, reading, walking, or talking to other people.

The cognitive quality of cycling is caused, I think, by these aspects of the activity …

Black and white photo of a woman cycling past trees, with a slight motion blur
“cycling (panning)” by d26b73

1) Cycling only *gently* occupies your mind

Technically speaking, cycling is a mentally demanding task. You have to keep constantly balancing on the thing while navigating, right?

Except balancing and navigating are a super automatic activity. You don’t have to think about them. Indeed, “it’s as easy as riding a bike” is our go-to metaphor for tasks we can perform with a joyful mindlessness, as Jody Rosen notes in his wonderful new book Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of The Bicycle:

In recent years, researchers gained greater understanding of the process as a guide or master of…



Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net