How my fears and doubt turned into a passion.

When I first was told by a friend that I should “bike to work” my excuses were lengthy. I don’t have a good bike. I live in a condo in the city so it’s a pain to store it. It’s going to get stolen. I’ll be too sweaty by the time I get to work etc… But what it really came down to (which I was too proud to admit), was that I was absolutely terrified to bike in Toronto traffic and didn’t think I was a good enough cyclist to cut it.

I hadn’t owned a bike since high school, and not to date myself too much, but that was more than 15 years ago. Pretty sad eh? Somehow between university and coop terms and living with the parents in the burbs post-school, I just didn’t get around to buying one. Then I moved into the city and a combo of walking and the TTC seemed to get me around fine.

In my head I saw myself as a wobbly rider that wouldn’t be able to stay in such a narrow passage between a car and the curb. That I wouldn’t be able to peddle hard enough to get up the big hills or that my brakes wouldn’t be able to stop me fast enough if I was barreling down a steep road. I had heard about the “door prize” and couldn’t get that image out of my head.

So I decided to leave the biking around the city to the crazy, extreme bike couriers since it was clear to me that you needed to have a death wish to compete with Toronto rush hour traffic. If I wasn’t an experienced cyclist then I shouldn’t attempt to navigate the roads on two wheels.

Does this sound like you?

Have you (like I did) made up your mind about bike commuting without even getting on a bike?

Here I am outside our Toronto office.

Here I am outside our Toronto office.

As the years went by living in the city I started to notice a lot more people biking around. And they actually looked a lot more like me. They didn’t have dreads, piercings and a one-shoulder sling backpack. They were wearing dresses, trendy cap style helmets and carrying their groceries in a cute basket. Maybe this isn’t as insane as I thought?

Along with this increase of bikers, came other increases too. There was an increase of traffic in the city. An increase of the price of gas.  An increase of price of the TTC. An increase in the number of people squishing on to the King Streetcar. All these increases lead me to start seriously considering a new commute, and I decided to start looking for a bike.

Step 1: Buy a bike

So this isn’t 100% necessary in Toronto anymore since we do have a wide BikeShare network operated by Bixi Toronto. However since I didn’t have a Bixi location near where I lived, it wasn’t the most convenient option for me. I also didn’t want time and limited parking spots to ever cramp my style.

There are a ton of bike options out there and it can be a bit overwhelming. I suggest going to a bike shop that’s on or near the route that you’ll be taking to work. That way you can test drive the bike on the actual roads you’ll be on every day. I went to Cycle Shoppe on Queen West and found them extremely helpful in guiding me through the bike decision process. To help me narrow down my decision they helped me decide on my bike criteria:

  • Primarily being used for daily commute and in-city biking (not for mountain biking or bike racing)
  • Easy and quick to get on and off (if things got hairy on the roads, I wanted to be able to get off quick!)
  • Lots of Storage (work clothes, shopping, oversized purse)
  • Easy to maintain for someone who doesn’t know bikes
  • Cute and stylish (hey…you’d look for this in a car, so why not a bike?)mybike

I then jumped on a few different bikes and went for a quick ride around my neighborhood. I practiced right turns, left turns, hills and tight corners. There were for sure some bikes that made me feel more confident and others that didn’t quite maneuver the way I wanted them to. Each person and neighborhood is different, so make sure to test drive a few bikes before purchasing one. Price and looks aside, the most important feature to look for is a bike is that it makes you feel confident when you are on it. I ended up going with a Biria CitiBike which had a great step-through frame which would make my emergency exit strategy easy and quick. It also met all my other bike criteria, including bike racks and coming in some cute and stylish colours.

Step 2: Get a helmet

bernhelmetForgot about worrying that you’ll have messy hair or not look cool.  Who cares? I recently visited the neuro ward at Toronto Western Hospital and it made me appreciate how fortunate I am to have a fully functioning non-injured brain. Most people in the hospital didn’t have a choice to be in there, but you do. Bike accidents unfortunately do happen, and it doesn’t take much to protect the most important part of your body. And hey, there are some extremely cool looking helmets!

Step 3: Get out there and stick to it

It took me a few weeks before I started to get the feel of biking on the roads, and I even find that each spring when I take my bike out from storage it takes me a few days again to get into the swing of things. So don’t give up. You are probably not going to feel 100% comfortable the first few days.  Start on quieter roads, and practice during non-rush hour to begin with. I don’t recommend attempting King & University at 8:30am on your first ride!

Many people bike with an attitude of “I’m in the right, so cars need to respect me”. But at the end of the day, if a car and a bike collide, the car is going to win 100% of the time. So don’t risk it. Bike cautiously and if you encounter a situation where you are unsure if a car sees you, just assume that they don’t and hang back. A few minutes here and there isn’t going to make a huge difference, and in most cases you are already going a lot faster than most modes of transport during rush hour.

There also maybe situations that make you feel uncomfortable, but you continue on to “look cool” to those around you. Not me. I’m totally fine with getting off my bike and walking it around tight squeezes, or skipping the left turn that requires crossing streetcar tracks and darting across traffic by taking an indirect left turn, or doing the one-foot on the curb shimmy if you can’t keep your balance when a car isn’t leaving you much space. These tactics may seem lame, but they could help avoid an accident and by being a bike commuter you are already cooler than most.

Other things you can do to make your ride to work smoother:

Talk to your employer – There’s a lot of benefits for employers when their staff bike to work, so in return it’s not unusual for organizations to add some perks in their environment to encourage more people to join the trend. Not sure what to ask them for? Blogger and Bike advocate Joe Byer shares his ideas. At Ian Martin we have free underground parking for bikes with a security guard sitting by them all day long and a fitness challenge all summer to encourage active ways to work with some sweet prizes.

Pre-determine the best bike work outfits – A pencil skirt and high heels aren’t going to be the best option for bike commuting. I once put a dress on and started to bike to work, and had to turn around and go home and change since I was pretty sure I was flashing people.  Either bring along work clothes to change into, or have some outfits that are pre-tested for your commute. There are also finally a few clothing companies emerging that are designing bike to work business attire.

There are a lot of sites that can help you get started on your bike commute including http://www.ibiketo.ca/, http://bikemonth2013.ca/ and http://biketowork.ca/.

Now in the morning the first thing that I do is check the weather, and if I can bike to work I get excited. I’ve gone from fearing cycling to racking up over 250kms on my bike in the last month. I dread having to wait for the streetcar and get pushed around by the crowds while we slowly inch down King Street. By the time I get to work, I’m still feeling sleepy and sluggish, overheated and irritated.

A day that I get to bike to work means that I get fresh air and the blood flowing to start the day. I also get my mind working since it takes concentration to avoid pot holes, cars and jay-walking pedestrians – so I arrive to work way more alert. I also save the $6 I’d have to spend on the TTC, so that’s like getting a free Starbucks Latte each day you bike to work.

Best part – I actually get to sleep in the days I bike to work since I get to breeze by traffic and beat all those other methods of commuting!

Any other bike commuters out there have tips for those that have never tried it?