I live in an area where cycling makes a lot of sense for everyday tasks. I can get to work, the grocery store, and most essential shops easily and safely by bicycle or on foot.
As gas prices rose this fall, I started a little personal challenge of not using my car more than once a week. I was already riding my bike to work on my days in the office, so this shouldn’t be a big additional burden, right?
I don’t know. My sample size is very small, and I didn’t set up a good research question in advance. My evidence is purely anecdotal.
I can tell you that I’m tired. Far more tired than I expected. But I’m still doing it, mostly. Even if it meant I needed a long nap after cycling to swim practice and to buy groceries on Saturday. I did get up on Sunday to bike to church.
A little bit of my tiredness is undoubtedly because being nervous about sharing the road with cats is exhausting. Even though I am getting more confident, I miss the separated lanes and bike paths that are available to me in summer. T
And sidewalks often aren’t clear for pedestrians, so walking isn’t fun withers. In fact, the closest I have come to an accident was when a pedestrian using the road jumped into my path to avoid being hit by a car.
If we really want people to adopt active living, which has huge benefits for overall health, accessibility and the environment, we need to push our civic leaders to invest in infrastructure that supports people to use non-car transportation year-round. And leaves them less tired and stressed from the effort.
Diane Harper is a public servant in Ottawa, and a recent convert to year-round cycling.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
Diane Harper lives in Ottawa. She has become a dedicated commuter cyclist.
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.
That night ride was enough of a confidence boost that a few nights later I rode downtown to an evening ballet performance.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
#ottawabikesocial is a group that gets together for weekly rides in different parts of Ottawa. I was intimidated by the idea of joining in, but then they posted about going for ice cream afterwards. That sounded like my kind of group!
My friend Florence rides with them regularly, so I followed her to the meet up spot, where we were joined by 25-30 people, men and women of all ages and sizes. There were people in Lycra, in casual shorts, and even one in an elegant dress and tights.
The bikes were even more varied. There were road bikes and mountain bikes, cargo bikes, electric bikes, bikes with baby seats, and even a recumbent bike and a Brompton folding bike. Plus there was Winston, a little dog who loves to ride in own basket.
We headed at a comfortably sedate pace to the nearby bus station, where we had a chance to try using the the rack and roll system that allows cyclists to use public transit.
The rest of the ride took us along paths and urban streets, over the highway on a pedestrian/cyclist bridge, through parking lots and then through a park along the Rideau River to our start point..
All told, with the ride there and home, plus my commute to work today, I did about 22 km, my longest ride this summer.
As I rode with a group that pushed me out of my distance comfort zone, I was reminded of a 2007 report for Natural England about the shrinking space of childhood.
On my bicycle, I can be like the great-grandfather. I have the freedom to go a fair distance. Things are closer than they appear, and often it is almost as fast to get there by bike as it is by car.
How about you dear readers? What have you tried that turned out to be less scary than you thought? What did you learn from the experience?
Diane Harper lives in Ottawa, where she mostly uses her bike to commute to work.
A few years ago, my workplace started undergoing a major refit, including a completely renovated cycle parking area. Cycling was a popular option because there is extremely limited parking, and the bus schedule can best be described as “whimsical”.
The stated goal of my workplace was to encourage cycling as part of an effort to reduce greenhouse gases. To do that, we needed something much better than the old open area with bicycles crammed in higglety-pigglety.
Employees were consulted several times. At each of the sessions I participated in, someone raised the issue of accessibility and the importance of doing a GBA+ assessment. GBA+ is an analysis of gender, race and accessibility implications for a planned policy or activity. They are mandatory in my work. More importantly, they are welcomed as a way to help us identify both positive and negative impacts of what we propose to do, design strategies to avoid or mitigate the negative ones, and measure the results.
Based on the reaction of those leading the consultations, we were not confident that our concerns about the bike area design where registering, or that a GBA+ analysis would be done.
Fast forward past the pandemic and today I finally experienced the results of those consultations.
I bonked my head on the security gate as I struggled to keep my bike upright while swiping my ID card and then get through a weird combination of revolving door and bike gate. Fair enough; I do work in a place where security is a concern.
Then I got to the second set of doors and swiped again. The doors don’t open so I can walk my bike through; I need to pull them open with one hand, while trying to roll my bike through. Sure, that’s not much worse than getting my bike into its storage spot at home, but the work doors are much higher and heavier than my basement door, and it would have been easy to install an automatic door opener as the default.
Then a third door (more of the same) before finally arriving at the glory that is our new bike area. I am reasonably tall (5′ 8″) and fit. I have some upper body strength from swimming. I worked up more of a sweat trying to get my bike onto the lowest of the racks than I did cycling to work.
There is no way that someone smaller or less fit that me could manage this. I felt ready to cry with frustration. After I finally got it in place, I noticed that some people had abandoned the racks altogether, and parked their bikes in the few free areas.
So if I were a cyclist with a cargo bike, ebike, tricycle, trailer for my kids because I dropped them at daycare on the way, where would I park? Those with physical limitations would struggle with using the racks even if they could use a regular bicycle.
My building doesn’t need anything like the 8,000 bicycle spaces in this Utrecht, Netherlands parking garage, but it could certainly have used something like the system where bikes are rolled into place and then lifted up to various heights. Accessible and even more space efficient!
I’ve always owned a bike and I’ve always enjoyed riding my bike but most of my extensive riding was when I was a kid.
Since then, I’ve never really done enough cycling to build skill, strength, or any sort of endurance.
I think the issue started when I graduated to a bike with gears. I could never quite grasp how to use them properly. The knowledge that the gears were supposed to be useful but I couldn’t use them well was frustrating and I got out of the habit of going any real distance.
This is an ADHD-related issue for me – this kind of thinking crops up for me again and again. I have to keep reminding myself of the issue that Geraint Evans describes so succinctly below.
If I add the frustration with gears to the effort required to get out on my bike and then add those things to my ADHD-fuelled notions that a) I needed long rides in order to get good at cycling and b) that once I had the skills I would have to either head out on steep bumpy trails or head out into traffic (neither of which is a burning desire for me), you can see why my desire to ride didn’t add up to much actual riding.
You can, of course, see the flaws in my (previously unexamined) thinking. But I didn’t even realize that I was working from those assumptions and frustrations until recently when my husband has gotten back into cycling.
I really admire the way that Steve gets into new (or renewed) fitness things. He does enough research to ensure some base knowledge and his safety and then he just gets started.
He doesn’t have to make a big plan, he doesn’t generally have a clearly defined end goal. He just gets started and works in small sessions until he feels an improvement and then he increases the challenge in some way.
This is a stark contrast to the way my brain wants to approach any fitness plan. I want a clear plan with fixed time intervals and incremental milestones…
…and then I probably won’t follow it because it is too rigid and doesn’t allow for the way my life works.
So, as Steve has been getting back into cycling, he has been heading out for short jaunts on the side roads and paved trails near our house. Sometimes he is gone for 10 minutes, sometimes it is half an hour or more, depending on his capacity that day.
I’ve decided to copy his approach.
And I’ve decided that I never have to go on a busy road or a bumpy trail if I don’t feel inclined to.*
Taking those possible end points out of consideration made things a lot easier for me.
The other night Steve and I dragged my bike out of the shed, checked it over, and then I took a little spin around the cul-de-sac. Since I only had a few minutes right then, I would have normally just put the bike back in the shed until I had time for a ride.
But because I am employing the Steve method, I went out for a few minutes. Obviously, not a skill-building ride but it was fun to spend even that little bit of time on my bike.
And while I was riding I had a lightbulb moment.
Not only can I ride in small bursts of time but I have the perfect practice spot nearby.
There are two empty-for-the-summer schools just minutes from my house. One of them even has a significant slope down from the road so I can get better at hills (a necessity in this province!) It won’t be an exciting place ride but it will be a safe and useful one.
So, you may never see me on a road with traffic and I may never go on a bumpy trail, but this will be the summer that I finally use my bike as much as I would like to.
Thanks for inspiring me to rethink things, Steve! 💚
* The bumpy trails may become a possibility, the busy roads are extremely unlikely. My particular manifestation of ADHD makes riding very complex, adding traffic into the mix means waaaaaaay too many things to pay attention to at once. Perhaps that will change as my skills with the bike improve but it’s not even on the table as of now.