fitness

I’m a Winter Cyclist (for real!)

Way back in September I wrote about winter cycling and now that wintery weather is here, it’s time for an update. TLDR: I like it!

It took me a few tries to get my gear to my satisfaction. The seat was lower than I remembered. I needed to move some lights and my basket. I accidentally installed my bell upside down (still need to fix that). My pannier actually works better with the new bike than it does on my summer one, so that’s a bonus.

And then there were clothing questions: which hat fits under my helmet? Surely I have a balaclava or two in the closet? I did find my rain pants so I can block the wind on chilly days. My woolen mitts work for now, but I have a pair of pogies in my Amazon cart that I will need to order before it gets much colder.

It’s harder to pedal than my summer bike because of those studded tires that keep me safe on the ice. But I sure appreciate them on the section of pathway that doesn’t get ploughed in winter, despite heavy use by walkers and cyclists. Eventually I will need to choose a different route to work; it will be on quiet streets, but I’ll miss the paths that keep me completely separated from vehicle traffic.

Snow-covered path filled with foot and tire prints, in a snowy park under grey skies. There are park benches and trees along the path, and a building with a construction crane in the distance.
Snow-covered path covered with foot and tire prints, in a snow-covered park under grey skies.

I make sure I’m really visible, with a reflective construction vest and bright head and taillights. I’m still fussing a bit with the fairy lights, but they work well and look rather pretty in the dark.

Bicycle with lit fairy lights wrapped around the front basket and frame, inside a darkened storage room. There is snow on the tires of the bicycle, and the wheel of another bike in the front left of the picture.
My bike with the fairy lights lit, inside my storage area so they will show up in the dark.

The best part of being a winter cyclist is the camaraderie with other cyclists, and the feeling that you’re a bit of a badass. I love the community of people sharing pictures of “not taking their kids to daycare” or “not going to the grocery store” because “no-one bikes in winter”.

White woman wearing an orange and yellow construction vest over her coat and a hat and ear protectors under her helmet. Her red and white bicycle is parked in the snow, with houses in the background.​
Diane, “not biking in winter”, while wearing an orange and yellow construction vest over her coat and a hat and ear protectors under her helmet. Her red and white bicycle is parked in the snow, with houses in the background.

Diane Harper lives in Ottawa.

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Reflect

A recent CTV article was very excited about a new Disney short called Reflect, about a young ballet dancer named Bianca, and its body positivity message. As the resident fat ballerina on this blog, I had to watch it.

Hilary Bradfield, the creator, says “I feel like I’m a body positive person in principle, but when it’s on a personal level, it’s a lot harder to be body positive. I feel this deeply: despite repeated self-talk, I sometimes hate how I look.

It’s so short that the introduction by the creator was almost as long as the film itself so I watched it several times. I wanted to love it. The animation itself was well-done. It had the kind of uplifting Disney “girl overcomes barriers and has a happy ending” story that makes me smile.

But somehow it didn’t, quite. Was it too short to engage me? Too unrealistic? I think it was the latter, which is deeply weird; it’s Disney – of course it’s unrealistic!

Bianca was too small/young to be dancing en pointe (kids should be at least 12 or so to prevent permanent damage to growing bones). Triple pirouettes are hard. And she was so round compared to the stick figure dancers in her class! Those other kids would not have been able to stand in real life, let alone dance.

In some ways, I wanted Bianca to do more ordinary things and be happy, and her classmates and teacher to at least notice her. I know that wouldn’t have been as much of a Disney story that satisfies kids.

But maybe it would have resonated more with adult fat ballerina me who has already learned not to notice anything in the mirror except posture and position. The fat ballerina who will never be any good dancer, but who loves dancing anyway.

Sorry – no pictures of Disney’s Bianca, so you get me in a black leotard, at the end of a successful single pirouette. I have a huge smile.

I hear that others love Reflect and see themselves in Bianca. I am curious about what you think. Am I putting too much onto the shoulders of this young dancer to be a role model but also somewhat ordinary? What is the right balance of expectations for a plus sized or otherwise different person with talent?

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Women Fighters of the Modern Middle Ages

Meet some of my friends, who do cool martial arts: Queen Kaylah, Sir Aelfwyn, and Baronesses Jocea and Kersteken.

Kaylah and Aelfwyn are heavy weapons fighters, and both have been recognized as knights for their fighting prowess. Aelfwyn has been fighting since 1991. She was a “bookworm couch potato” before that.

Sir Aelfwyn, holding a shield with three boars, fights Baron Kohlbjorn. Both combatants are wearing red tunics and helmets, and fighting with rattan swords.

Kaylah is also Queen by right of arms, which means she fought and won Crown Tournament, a semi-annual event for the Kingdom of Ealdormere (which is roughly the province of Ontario).

Kaylah as been fighting since she was 18, and went on her first date with Trumbrand, who is now her husband. She fell in love with the sport immediately. She is now 55. More recently, she took up fencing.

Jocea and Kersteken are also fencers. Jocea says her first love is the heavy weapons fighting she first took up about 25 years ago, but for the past five years she has been fencing because it doesn’t hurt her aging body as much.

Jocea, on the right, fights Cesare on the left. Both are wearing mail shirts and protective face coverings. Jocea is holding a small buckler (a kind of shield).

Kersteken has been fencing for ten years. She tried heavy fighting but decided it wasn’t her jam. She is also a weightlifter and does yoga and cross-country skis. In additions, she is a busy nurse and mom of two teenagers. She started fighting because she was bored as virtually all her friends were also fighters. She loves it because it is the only time when she can turn off all the things in her brain and concentrate just on fighting.

Kersteken, on the left, wearing a mail shirt, inspects Hocea’s armour and weapons for safety before she begins fighting.

Ealdormere is a bit of an outlier in our club, as approximately half our fencers and 1/4 of our heavy weapons fighters are women. Both these sports are fought by all sexes, with no divisions by age, size or gender. The statistics in other kingdoms are much lower. We also have more royal women by right of arms: one princess from the days before we were an independent kingdom, and two queens.

Getting into fighting can be hard if you don’t have the right supports. Role models are huge, of course, but so is having the right equipment. Early patterns for armour were not adapted for women’s body shapes (breasts, shorter torsos, etc).

Technique matters too. Kaylah says she can’t rely on her height or weight to compensate for a less-than-perfect shot. The traditional teaching comes from long established techniques typically developed by and for large men who, with abundant upper body strength, didn’t need to rely as much on form to produce the striking power necessary. Smaller stature fighters, typically women, need to use whole body mechanics to develop the same power, a requirement that can easily be missed by coaches who have never needed it themselves.

Kaylah, in the centre, holds her ground with a great sword while Sir Kellen attacks from the left. More fighters in the background wait their turn to join the field.

Aelfwyn says that where a large man can get away with maybe 40% perfect technique, she has to have 80% technique for the same result. She went on to explain that coaching techniques are improving as these sorts of issues become more mainstream, in particular crediting on-line coaching discussions that became popular during the pandemic.

Female fighters have typically been somewhat isolated, simply because they are rare in many parts of the world. On-line “coaches corner” sessions with guests including my old friend Sir Elizabeth Mortimer and a series of round tables with female knights had a very positive impact on changing coaching techniques to address the issues specific to smaller fighters and women. Many of these are available on YouTube. If you think this looks like a fun thing to try, please go take a look.

Diane Harper lives in Ottawa, also known as @Ealdormere. She has been a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism (#TheSCA @SCAsocial) for nearly 40 years. She tried fighting once, and decided she bruises far too easily. Instead, she cooks and does crafts.

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Bike lanes, accessibility and health

The mayoral elections in Ottawa this week were largely defined by transit issues, and nearby Montreal Road, in the community of Vanier, was recently reopened as a complete after three years of construction. As a result, bike lanes and accessibility have been very much on my mind.

I stopped in for the grand reopening of the street; there was a large crowd of people who had come on foot, by bicycles of all kinds, in strollers, or on scooters. The new street features wider sidewalks and separated bike paths for most of its 2 km length, along with improved infrastructure for the bus service.

That’s me! I’m the cyclist in a beige coat and blue knapsack riding away on a separated bicycle path adjacent to an urban street with many small shops and low-rise buildings. Photo by Sarah Kester/CBC

Why does this matter to a fitness blog? Because that street is in a relatively poor part of town, where many people don’t own cars. There are lots of immigrants, kids, many people with disabilities, and the local bus is among the busiest in the city. A complete street like this one means that people can get around more safely.

Surveys have shown that cycling numbers increase significantly when there is safe infrastructure. People will cycle year-round if the paths are cleared. In Ottawa, the number doubled between 2015 and 2020, even though the winter cycling network has only about 50 km of maintained routes. Even if you are a fair-weather cyclist, it is easy to manage at least some trips for 7-8 months of the year if the roads are safe, since the average trip in the downtown area is less than 4 km according to Ottawa’s 2013 Official Cycling Plan.

Other people using wheels also benefit from those separated bike lanes – whether it is little people in strollers or those using wheelchairs or mobility scooters. In fact, I shared a good chunk of my last ride to Canadian Tire with a guy on a mobility scooter.

Transit has been strongly linked to higher rates of active travel and physical activity. However, as Journal of Transport & Health notes, the associated physical health benefits must be weighed against potential health threats. “For instance, in terms of safety from vehicle traffic or emissions, walking and bicycling to transit can be riskier travel options than other modes due to their higher levels of physical and environmental exposure. For this reason, by travel distance, active travelers suffer from injuries and fatalities at a higher rate than drivers. Additionally, walkers and bicyclists may suffer disproportionately from vehicle emissions compared to other modes, particularly during higher-exertion events during which oxygen uptake will be elevated.” But if we had fewer vehicles on the road because there was a viable, low-cost alternative? Game changer!

Commuter cycling and accessibility also has race and gentrification issues. A quick Google search will bring up all kinds of articles, though most focus on the experience of Black cyclists in the USA. I don’t know how much race plays into cycling in my neighbourhood, but there are definitely concerns about this historically working-class Francophone community being gentrified.

One local group is addressing cycling inequities. Vélo Vanier is not-for-profit that loans bikes to residents and recently started lessons for moms after discovering that many women who brought their kids for bikes had never learned to ride themselves. Two recent students were featured in a CBC article; both are recent immigrants from Africa.

Claire Kiruhira from Uganda, left, and Christine Uwamwezi from Rwanda, far right, pose with their Vanier Vélo instructor Denise Inglis. Claire is wearing a white helmet, white sleeveless top and black leggings and seated on her blue bicycle. Christine is wearing a black helmet with bright purple and pink leggings and shirt, standing beside her white bike. Between them stands Denise Inglis, a white woman with shoulder-length brown hair, wearing a pale blue shirt and brown shorts. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Diane Harper lives in Ottawa. She has become a dedicated commuter cyclist.

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Getting My Courage Up For a Spooky Ride

Do one thing every day that scares you. I don’t follow Eleanor Roosevelt‘s advice every day, but I did last week When I went for a night-time bike ride. I haven’t ridden at night since sometime in the 1970s when I was trying to beat curfew: even then, it wasn’t by choice.

The ride took place on a very dark and rainy night, and our little group rode to a part of the city I had never biked through before.

There were puddles. The paths were covered in leaves so that it was hard to see where the edges were, let alone stay on my side of the yellow line. Wet leaves are slippery. I was super nervous about sliding and falling.

At first I had minimal peripheral vision because I had my rain hood so far over my face to keep my glasses dry. My bright headlight failed in the first half hour; thankfully I had my old one as a backup.

I survived and actually had fun. It was quite magical riding between trees that arched overhead to form a green/red/yellow tunnel. We even stopped to admire Halloween decorations.

Halloween-themed lights in various colours glow on a dark night, with bicycles and cyclists barely visible in front

That night ride was enough of a confidence boost that a few nights later I rode downtown to an evening ballet performance.

I am as prepared as I can be: helmet reflective vest, and cycling pearls.

Diane Harper lives in Ottawa, where she commutes to work by bicycle and is trying to live a mostly car-free lifestyle. Longer rides, just for fun, are a relatively new adventure.

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Riding the Temperature Down to Cold-Water Swims

I haven’t swum as much as I usually do this summer, and now fall is here, with colder air and water temperatures. My little group of cold-water enthusiasts has shrunk, and we have all been pretty busy. Still, we did get together a couple of weeks ago, which was lovely.

Aimee, Vicki and me in the water under a brilliant blue sky. Vicki wears a wetsuit, but Aimee and I just wear bathing suits and caps.

It may have been our last group swim until spring, unless we can get coordinated for a Vampire Swim. We do that in costume for Halloween, and have treats on the beach afterwards. A blood donation or donation to the Red Cross is traditional.

All that means riding the temperature down will be tough this year. Cold water swimming is fun, but it can be miserable when your body isn’t used to it or when there is a sudden drop in water temperature. In past years, I tried to get into the water at least once a week in the fall and early winter, giving up only in late February if I couldn’t find open water for a swim.

There is a lot less incentive to go without my buddies, and it is also more dangerous should something go wrong. We are very careful about not going past about waist deep, having hot drinks on hand afterwards, and changing quickly into warm dry clothes (we even bring a changing tent so we’ll be out of the wind).

Not everyone sees this crazy sport the same way, though. On Thanksgiving Monday I hopped on my bike and rode to the local pond. The water was about 15C, which is definitely cool, so I did a lot of head’s up breast stoke until I felt I could put my face in the water. I did my usual three loops in just under 40 minutes and got out to a small crowd of people applauding – quite possibly the weirdest reaction ever to one of my swims!

Me in a blue bathing cap, with the pond and autumn trees in the background. Ignore the time info – Strava records the distance accurately but gets very confused about swimming speeds.

I then made the rookie mistake of standing around in my wet bathing suit and bare feet, talking to people who had questions about cold water swimming. I didn’t feel particularly cold, but after I biked home I felt quite sleepy for the rest of the day; I had forgotten just how much energy it takes to keep your body from suffering hypothermia.

How about you, readers? Have you ever considered swimming in cold water? If you tried it, how did it make you feel?

Diane Harper lives and swims in Ottawa.

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In Praise of Jessica Fletcher, and RIP Angela Lansbury

Dame Angela Lansbury died yesterday. In addition to her show Murder, She Wrote, I had fun last year listening to this podcast about her fitness book Positive Moves. I even tried her fitness video, which you can watch here. They only reinforced all the good feelings I had about Jessica Fletcher as an active role model, that I blogged about last May.

I have been re-watching Murder, She Wrote for pandemic relaxation. I admired Angela Lansbury in the role of Jessica Fletcher, author and sleuth, back when it first came out, and watched the show regularly. Now that I am approximately the same age Jessica was when it was filmed, I love her character even more.

Lansbury was 58 when the show debuted, and from the opening credits of the very first episode, Jessica is casually active in so many ways. She walks, cycles, skis, jogs, rides horses, and dances. She travels widely and fearlessly. She is both clever and wise. I remember admiring those things about her when I was younger. She was a bit of a role model even then.

Jessica Fletcher, wearing a beige jacket, smiling and on her bicycle, in the village of Cabot Cove

Now that I am older, I have been noticing and learning new things about the show. Especially in the early seasons, Jessica treats a diverse cast with dignity and respect. Long before the age of Black Lives Matter, a much larger immigrant community, Indigenous issues and disability rights, Murder, She Wrote tackled some of these issues and represented all those communities on screen – sometimes because it was relevant to the plot, and sometimes simply because they were people.

Jessica is widowed, but never remarries or has a romantic entanglement despite many male characters being interested in dating her (and one offering marriage). Apparently, this was something that Lansbury herself insisted on, in order to keep the focus on her character as a mystery solver. She also has a panoply of strong, interesting older women as guests on the show. Half the fun has been checking the bios to discover (or rediscover) stars from the 30s through the 60s.

Almost 40 years after she first appeared, Jessica Fletcher is still a role model for me. And apparently for others too. Aside from articles about the Jessica Fletcher effect (cycling inspiration for women as they hit their 40s), there are websites about “what would Jessica do”, as well as Twitter and Instagram fan sites. Dame Lansbury is still active at 95. Now I have new life goals, still inspired by her.

Dame Lansbury with her famous bicycle in 2013. She is wearing a white top and long black skirt.

Diane Harper lives in Ottawa, where she is currently working from home and riding her bicycle, walking, dancing, and riding a horse as often as possible. She does not solve murder mysteries.

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Truth and Reconciliation Bicycle Tour

Yesterday was Canada’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a day to reflect on the legacy of residential schools and their impact on the indigenous peoples. I decided to join a couple of formal events and then ride out to a site in Pointe Gatineau I had read about. It seemed especially appropriate to do everything by bike today, to leave a light footprint on the land.

My tour started at Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa, where we did a short walk to the graves of four people connected to residential schools. Then I rode downtown for another walking tour of sites mostly connected to Dr. Bryce, the man who first reported on the conditions at residential schools over a century ago. Both tours were led by young indigenous people, mostly Anishnabe (Algonquin) from Kitiganzibi and Pikwanigan.

An indigenous man holding an eagle feather leads a tour, surrounded by people wearing orange shirts. Orange shirts recall a girl whose orange shirt was taken from her on the first day of residential school and never returned, so they are a symbol of forced assimilation.

This was the first time I had heard about an indigenous burial ground downstream from the waterfalls in the Ottawa River, very near the Canadian Museum of History. So, across the river I went. I couldn’t identify the spot, but I did find a plaque about the history of the Anishnaabe who have lived and traded in the Ottawa area for thousands of years, plus a statue of Chief Tessouat, who was party to the first major alliance between Europeans and the First Nations, 400 years ago.

A metal statue of an indigenous man in traditional clothing, with the Ottawa River in the background.

I continued along the Voyageurs Trail, a 30 km route, towards Pointe Gatineau. There were more plaques with bits of history, and I stopped to read them all. I am a bit of a plaque nerd.

The next spot of interest was near a bridge I had never noticed before. Called Mawandoseg (land where our people once gathered), there is also a statue in the form of a stone point, to recall the artifacts found here that show the site had been used for millennia.

The back of a statue in the form of a stone spear or arrow point.

My next stop was in Pointe Gatineau, at Place Abinan (the people were here), a little park near the water. When excavated, this area had proven use dating back 7,000 years, with people traveling or trading widely. From just a few metres away, it was possible to see the confluence of the Ottawa, Gatineau and Rideau Rivers, waterways that made this such an important site for trade.

In the foreground is the Gatineau River as it joins the Ottawa River. On the far side, in the centre, you can just make out the Rideau Falls, where the Rideau empties into the Ottawa.

Looking across the river, I remembered the Chief Pimisi portage route around the falls, so that’s where I cycled to next. I rode through Rockcliffe Park but decided not to tackle walking down to the water, since there was no place to lock my bike. I did get a selfie looking back towards Pointe Gatineau.

Me in a turquoise and white sweater and bicycle helmet, with an orange shirt pin. In the background are trees just beginning to turn yellow and orange. place Abinan is barely visible in the far distance near my left ear.

Finally, it was time to head home. It ended up being my longest ride in years, somewhere between 27 and 28 km. Since I wasn’t wearing proper riding gear, I was grateful for all the breaks along the way. But even in proper gear, I think this was a good way for me to do a longer ride. It allowed me to combine my love of history and social justice issues with a fitness activity.

Diane Harper lives in Ottawa.

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Is it too Early to Think about Winter Biking?

I hope not, because I am thinking about it a lot right now.

In some ways, I am very late to winter cycling. have been thinking about it since the miserable 51 day bus strike in the dead of winter (December 2008-January 2009). That was the first time I ever saw cyclists in the snow, and I envied them as I trudged to work, a 45 minute walk in good weather, on cleared sidewalks.

I dismissed the idea even as I reluctantly returned to public transit, instead riding my bike to work for up to 9 months of the year. Then I met a couple of colleagues at a new workplace who rode year-round for environmental reasons, and I was intrigued again. Two years ago, I actually stopped a random guy at a street light in late winter, and quizzed him about his experience and gear.

Last winter, my friend Florence introduced me to the concept of studded tires. She cycles year-round, even to swim practice (brrr). And last week she came to the Fancy Women Bike Ride in a Cleverhood rain cape like this:

Model wearing a bright yellow rain Cape poses on a red commuter bicycle.

I was starting to see ways I could feel safe and warm as a winter cyclist.

My next step was to acquire a bike I wouldn’t mind getting rusty. That came thanks to my local community mail list, where someone had an old Trek with seized gears that they wanted to give away.

Advice for how to fit it up came from the Ottawa cycling community on Twitter (which includes a lot of moms, every day commuters, and cycling infrastructure advocates, so I felt confident their advice would work for my cycling interests). One thing they said was to get the studded tires now, to avoid shortages later in the fall.

I picked up my bike from the shop on Friday. It has studded tires, fenders, new gears and brakes, a rack to hold my pannier, rechargeable lights and a bell. My new red hood is hanging by the back door, along with a pair of splash pants and my reflective vest. I have a bottle of chain oil that I will use daily, and a rag to wipe down my bike after each ride.

Red and white Trek bicycle with studded tires.

It is definitely too early for winter riding, but I am ready (and ridiculously excited).

Diane Harper is a public servant in Ottawa. She doesn’t love commuting, except by bicycle.

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Fancy Women (and others) Ride Bikes

According to Wikipedia, The Fancy Women Bike Ride is an event started in 2013 by history teacher Sema Gür in Izmir, Turkey. The event draws attention to the themes of freedom and women.

This year, it was held in some 200 cities in at least 25 countries. In 2022, Sema Gür and co-organizer Pınar Pinzuti were awarded with UN World Bicycle Day Award. World Bicycle Day recognizes “the uniqueness, longevity and versatility of the bicycle as…a simple, affordable, reliable, clean and environmentally fit sustainable means of transport”.

I joined the ride in Ottawa on Sunday September 18, along with about 20 women, men, and girls.

The FIFI bloggers had debated a bit about who was being left out by calling it the Fancy Women’s Bike Ride, but I found that it was inclusive and focused specifically on safe infrastructure for all riders.

Some of us had dressed up, while others preferred sensible GoreTex. we all decorated our bikes with flowers before starting, which was rather fun.

A group of cyclists lined up in the rain, with the Ottawa River in the background.
Cyclists of all ages in brightly coloured gear.

Cycling infrastructure matters a lot to me. I have ridden my bike to work for many years, most of them on streets that were rather terrifying. Modest changes over the last few years have made my commutes feel much safer, but I am still learning where I can avoid most of the worst traffic. I have been known to rant that “paint is not infrastructure!”

Will I go again? Almost certainly. I had fun connecting with other cyclists, and exchanging notes on best gear for different weathers. I am very happy to support better cycling infrastructure too – it makes the streets and sidewalks safer and more accessible for everyone, not just cyclists.

Diane Harper lives in Ottawa. She commutes to work by bicycle, mostly for environmental reasons.