One silver lining of the pandemic is that we can still ride our bikes. In fact, we’re encouraged to do so for essential journeys and exercise.

Crawling the walls yet? Most of us are in lockdown again; the rest, in something close to that. Thankfully, for all of us in the UK and Ireland, cycling is permitted for exercise and essential local journeys. Governments have specifically told us to “walk or cycle where possible”.

Exactly what you can and can’t do depends on where you live. For the most up to date guidance, visit the websites of the UK Government – there are links for England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – or the Government of Ireland.

What cycling is allowed?

You can ride your bike for exercise (see below) or to make “essential journeys”. The rules on what’s essential are remarkably consistent across The British Isles. They include:

– travelling for work, if you can’t work at home
– shopping for food or other essential items (including cycling equipment!)
– providing care for someone
– any medical need
– animal welfare (such as taking your pet to a vet)
– attending a marriage or funeral (subject to rules on maximum numbers)

You can – and are encouraged to – make such journeys by bike or on foot. You must: maintain social distancing; not cross a country border; and stay at home unless your journey is essential.

Exercise restraint

Rules for exercising outside the home differ between nations and in some cases between regions.

England: Limited to once per day. Alone, with one person from another household, or with members of your own household or support bubble. You can only exercise in “your local area”, which isn’t precisely defined. You may travel (e.g. by car) “a short distance… to access an open space”.

Scotland – mainland and Skye: Unlimited times per day. Up to two people, plus any children under 12, from up to two households. Must start and finish from the same place and travel no further than “five miles from the boundary of your local authority area”.

Scotland – most Scottish Isles: Unlimited times per day. Up to six people from two households. Distance not limited but must not travel into or out of other level 3 or level 4 areas.

Wales: Unlimited times per day. Alone or with members of your household or support bubble. Must start and finish from home but no limit to the distance you can ride.

Northern Ireland: Frequency not specified but “you should minimise time spent outside your home”. Alone, with one person from another household, or with members of your own household or support bubble. You “should not travel more than 10 miles from your home”.

Republic of IrelandFrequency not specified. On your own or with people from one other household. Travel limited to 5km from home.

Essential journeys by bike

If you have to travel for work, cycling is one of the best ways to do so. Riding a bike promotes social distancing, minimising your exposure to the virus. It also frees up public transport for those who have to use it, making it safer for them as well.

If your commute is too far to cycle, you could travel part way by car or train and cycle the remainder. That’s better than not cycling at all and it will reduce urban traffic congestion or crowding at terminal rail stations. If you can’t travel with a bike, you might be able to hire one. In London, a Santander hire bike offers better social distancing than buses or the Tube – and the bikes and docking stations are regularly wiped down with an anti-viral cleaning agent.

If it’s been a while since you cycled regularly, you may need a few pointers on commuting by bike. Don’t let the winter weather stop you – just ensure that you and your bike are ready for the conditions. On frosty days you may need to plan your route differently because minor roads and cycle tracks are unlikely to be gritted.

Grocery shopping is another essential journey you can make by bike. You can carry plenty with a cycle trailer or a set of large panniers.

Essential errand? Go by bike! Sick pet? Visit the vet by bike! A cycle trailer is the easiest way to transport an animal but any solution that’s safe and secure is okay.

Exercise by bike

Cycling is an excellent way to take exercise during the pandemic. It doesn’t demand shared facilities or teammates, and you can start and finish from home (a requirement in some countries). Unlike indoor workouts, cycling gets you into the fresh air and perhaps into green spaces. That’s good for your mental health not just your physical health.

Don’t stick to the Scalextric slots of your regular local loops. Buy a large scale map (small area, lots of detail) or download an app such as OSMaps or Komoot and plot new routes. Unless there are other restrictions in force, you can ride not just on roads but on bridleways, forest tracks, byways open to all traffic, towpaths, in many parks, and (of course) on cycle tracks.

Where the pandemic restrictions on cycling are open to interpretation, ask yourself: “Is my ride reasonable?” If in doubt, do a less ambitious loop.

Safe, self-sufficient cycling

Make sure your bike is in good running order so that it’s unlikely to break down. Get it serviced at your local shop or learn how to look after it yourself. Unless you carry, and know how to use, the tools to fix a puncture or repair a broken chain, don’t ride further from home than the distance you could walk back.

Ride sensibly and carefully. Health services are under enough pressure during the pandemic. They can do without you turning up with a broken collarbone. And purely from a selfish point of view: do you want to go into hospital right now?

Off-road, don’t gamble on your skills. Ride only those trail features you’ve already mastered. When in doubt, dismount. It could be a long time before anyone comes across you if you have a fall off-road.

On road, you can reduce the risks with good road positioning and by making sure you’re visible to drivers. This includes having good lights! Be very careful when it’s cold enough for ice. A fall that prevents you riding your bike would be depressing. In a pandemic, the escapism that cycling offers is invaluable.