Pedal power

Riding a bike to work is fun, easy and good for you

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While other commuters are locked in their cars in bumper-to-bumper traffic, Beth McKechnie is gliding along a scenic pathway on her bike, contemplating the joys of life.

Within minutes of leaving her West Kildonan home most mornings, she will hit the North Winnipeg Parkway, a bike path that runs along Scotia Street. This route will take her south through St. John's Park, under the Redwood Bridge to Michaëlle Jean Park, and eventually across Higgins to Waterfront Drive before arriving at her office at the Green Action Centre at Portage Avenue and Donald Street.

By car during rush hour, the eight-kilometre trip might take 30 frustrating minutes or longer. But McKechnie will complete the journey in 25 minutes or less - and she will enjoy every minute of it. "I try to ride along the river as much as possible," she says. "I love the sunlight off the water and all the birds - the songbirds have been great lately. One of the things I love about my route is that it's heavily treed. Something about the trees and water has a calming effect."

McKechnie is not alone. In the past five years, the number of people cycling to work has soared. Bike Winnipeg reports a 64 per cent increase in commuter cycling between 2007 and 2012. About 13,000 Winnipeggers ride their bike to work each day. This number is expected to keep growing as the city builds more bike paths and businesses find new ways to accommodate employees who cycle.

Shoni Litinsky, 27, who works with the Active and Safe Routes to School Program, has noticed the increase in cyclists on the road. "It's a nice feeling to ride to work and see so many people on their bikes. You feel safer navigating traffic when you see more cyclists out there," she says. "I also really enjoy being a part of the cycling community - you meet a lot of great people."

The reasons behind the increased popularity of biking are simple. It's fun, easy, inexpensive and environmentally friendly, says Dan Prowse, a 63-year-old electrical engineer who cycles to work every day, even during the winter.

"I had five kids on one income, so I'm extremely cheap and it's hard to beat walking or biking," says Prowse. "I've never driven to work. It's a sin to waste non-renewable energy."

Cycling to work is also good for your health and your well-being, according to Sarah Prowse, physical activity promotion co-ordinator with the Winnipeg Health Region. She says riding your bike for 15 minutes twice a day adds up to 150 minutes of exercise per week, which is the minimum requirement for maintaining good health. Doing so can reduce your risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, premature death, and certain types of cancer, while helping you to maintain a healthy body weight.

"Regular physical activity has been shown to increase your quality of life and improve your mental health and emotional control," she says. "Cycling to work allows you to fit physical activity into a busy lifestyle. An active commute is a great way to start and end your day - it helps you feel energized and gives you time outside."

Krista Muller, a nurse at Health Sciences Centre, finds cycling to work is often the only way she can sneak in physical activity.

"I've always been interested in exercise and fitness, but I find it very difficult to build extra time in my day for exercise," says Muller, 45. "I like to set a good example for my family by cycling."

The advantages of an active commute go far beyond health benefits.

One of the many things that motivates Sean Madden is the opportunity to spend quality time with his fiancé. Madden, who works for the City of Winnipeg, encouraged Litinsky to start cycling with him when they were just co-workers.

"We're able to spend most mornings cycling together, and many times the afternoons work for us as well. We're able to cycle side-by-side and talk," he says. "I can definitely tell you I'm not in as good a mood in a vehicle, no matter what the weather might be."

Despite the growing popularity of cycling, many people still aren't sure it is practical. But cycling to work is not as challenging as it may sound, says Dan Prowse. He has a solution for every problem and doesn't mind turning some heads. In the bitter winter, he wears goggles with a battery and fan so they don't fog and a balaclava taped to his face. Many winter days he goes with shorts and bare legs. Yes, shorts!

"I wear shorts as much as possible, even during Christmas week. What I have found is that my legs will take whatever temperature my face will take," he says. By keeping his core, head and hands warm, Prowse says he can ride bare legs in subzero temperatures. "Minus 10 C is really delightful," he says. "It's kind of like a reverse sauna - you get this glow."

As the sun goes down earlier in winter, Prowse also makes sure that he is easy to see when it gets dark. "Light is a huge challenge in winter. I look like a Christmas tree - flashing lights on my shoes, my backpack, and the back of my bike. It's all manageable. To actually have some kind of challenge and to deal with it in our sedentary lives is quite satisfying," he says.

Some people pass on the opportunity to cycle to work because they worry they won't look professional once they get there. Andrea Tetrault, 43, a graphic designer and mother of two, says that was initially an issue for her when she started cycling to work last winter.

"I was wearing my husband's goggles, garbage gloves and ski pants. Finding the right gear combination in the winter was an exercise in trial and error," Tetrault recalls. "I would show up at the office a total hot mess. Sweaty and disgusting."

Eventually, she figured out how to get around the problem. She now keeps her shoes at the office, and carries her work clothes and a towel with her on the bike. To deal with her naturally curly hair, she wears it in a ponytail while cycling and stores a curling iron at work.

"I try to carry clothes that don't wrinkle too badly. By the time I'm cleaned up, no one would know I'd been on a bike 15 minutes before," says Tetrault, who has a 'bird bath' in the office bathroom before changing. "There's always a way around obstacles."

For Rachel Prowse, planning ahead is the key to a polished appearance. The dietitian packs her professional clothes and water, along with an extra outfit if she's going somewhere after work.

"I tend to plan everything the night before. It took one full season of biking to know what I needed to do. If you don't plan it out, it's really difficult," says Prowse, 23, who also leaves her shoes at the office. She wears her hair in a low bun while cycling and keeps a hair straightener at work. "I usually bike in shorts and a tank top. I wear lots of dresses to keep cool."

Another common obstacle is living too far from work to cycle or not having enough time.

"Cycling to work can actually save you time because you get exercise on your commute, but it's always a personal preference. It depends when and how you want to get your physical activity," McKechnie says. "For a lot of folks, there may be a concern about their fitness levels. I encourage them to park and ride - they can cycle part of the way until they get stronger."

Many local cyclists find the lack of infrastructure a challenge, although the situation is steadily improving.

"There are parts of my route where I put myself in danger and feel I don't have a place in the road. (The infrastructure) could use some improvement for sure. There are gaps," says Madden, 30, who has spent time cycling in New York, Portland, Chicago, and Minneapolis. "It does seem we're about a decade behind other cities in providing infrastructure for cyclists."

While Madden has never been seriously injured while cycling, he has been sideswiped by a turning vehicle. He's been bumped and startled by cars.

"We could improve the overall convenience and safety of the cycling network. There are areas where you find yourself with nowhere to go, forced out of a bike lane or onto the sidewalk. It will take continued improvements to make a majority of Winnipeggers feel comfortable."

McKechnie says people who want to start cycling to work can increase their safety and comfort level by planning their route in advance. "People make the mistake of thinking they have to take the same route as they do when they're driving," she says. "Bike to work on the weekend for the first time so you don't have any pressure. If you happen to know someone in your area or anyone who is an avid commuter cycler, ask them to ride with you the first time."

Unfriendly drivers have been Litinsky's biggest obstacles. "Learning to effectively communicate with drivers was a challenge for me in the early years, but I haven't had anyone honk or yell at me in a long time. Their tension comes from not knowing what you're going to do. You have to think like a vehicle," she says. "Some people are just (annoyed) that you're on the road, but don't let that stop you."

Muller, who lives in south St. Vital, has never had an incident while cycling. She credits the well-groomed bike paths in her neighbourhood.

"Give cycling a chance for one month and you will enjoy the benefits. Research a decent route and get a helmet," she says. "They are not expensive, compared with a gym membership or filling your tank with gas. You don't need an expensive bike."

Fancy equipment is not required. A good helmet will set you back $50, and almost any old bike will do. "I have an old, crummy 10-speed for summer and an old, crummy single-speed for winter. I don't need anything special, so long as I can go fast on it. I like fenders and rear pannier racks," says Madden. "I have a very good lock, but because my bike isn't pretty I never worry about where I lock it."

The freedom of cycling can be habit-forming. Anders Swanson, 34, would much rather cycle than wait for the bus or be stuck in traffic. He cycles almost everywhere, sometimes even to hockey practice, toting his goalie equipment behind him in a bike trailer. "I just bike because it's easier. I don't go on bike rides for fun, but it's sure more fun than sitting on a bus and way more fun than driving. Anytime I drive I feel like I'm trapped. A bike is freedom," says the independent consultant, who has designed bike maps for many local events. "It's also the way I trick myself into exercising. It's precisely because I never think of it as exercise that I like doing it. If I ever found it to be 'exercise' I would probably stop and order pizza instead."

Swanson also likes the flexibility he has to pause and chat with the friends he meets while cycling, or to change his route on a moment's notice.

"Whatever's good about being alive is good about biking. It changes where you live - it turns your city into a living, breathing entity rather than a disconnected series of points," he says. "Behind the wheel of a car we turn into dead robotlike things whose only job is to guide this beetle-like creature where it needs to go. I'm actually shocked at how many people can afford cars."

Motivating yourself to cycle is easier when you know how good it feels, says McKechnie. "There are all sorts of excuses I can come up with in the morning - the weather, having to run to a meeting during the day, helmet hair," she says, laughing. "But I enjoy it so much more when I'm out there. For me it's really a relaxing time. I come home or get to work feeling more awake, and I like that I set my own schedule. When I'm ready to go, I go."

Bribes work as motivation for Tetrault, who just finished a 30-day challenge that required her to ride her bike every day in April. "I love food. Twenty-five minutes of low aerobic activity twice a day allows you a good amount of calories, and I feel better when I ride than when I don't," she says. She once biked to work during a week when it was -45C with the windchill. "I thought 'If I can ride in this, I can ride in anything'. And when it was over, I rewarded myself with a really nice bottle of Pinot Noir."

Most obstacles to cycling can be overcome, says Dan Prowse, adding that the Europeans have the right idea about cycling. "You see all these people of different ages living on bikes - living a life in which you are not captive to these big vehicles and lots of gas. It would be wonderful if more people could see what life can be like."

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