Bike curious: how to get back on your bike

Photo: Marianne Helgers with “Diva,” her Batavus city bike.
How getting back on a bicycle helped one woman connect with neighbours, save time and money, and improve her health

Marianne Helgers, a teacher in Brantford, ON, fondly remembers the family bike rides she and her three young sons would take around their quiet neighborhood.

As her boys grew older, hockey tournaments and basketball practices soon replaced the rides. It wasn’t until much later, once her children grew older and began traveling on their own, that Helgers became intent on getting back on her bike.

Looking for a way to get outside and exercise, she bought her first new bicycle in over two decades. Since that day, Helgers has connected with neighbors, saved time and money getting to work by bike, improved her health and once again has a joyous pastime she shares with her boys and a young grandson.

I sat down with Helgers to discover how her life has changed since getting back on a bicycle:

Q: Where did you prefer to ride
 your bicycle at first?
I only felt safe on the trail system in town. It is close to my home, so I did not have to deal with much traffic to get to it. Our trail system is beautiful and serene and often we see deer, raccoons, turtles and even the occasional fox. Fortunately, my neighbor also bought a bicycle around the same time I did, and that summer the two of us rode at least five times a week, riding just over 745 miles (1,200 km).

Q: Why did you start commuting by bike?
Four years ago, I transferred to a different school, one that is only four miles (seven kilometers) from my home to work. Around that time, my youngest son went to college and was commuting quite a long distance. Out of necessity he used my car. On the days when his classes were too early or he needed to stay late I first started using the city bus system. I soon realized that I could ride my bicycle in half the time, and for free, so I started riding to work a few days a week. That is also when I purchased my Batavus city cruiser to make the ride more comfortable.

Q: What else has helped you enjoy your commute to work?
In the last two years I have started to wear my work clothes on my commute. I always bring along a change of clothes just in case, but do not feel the need to change. My influence for that shift came from my son’s girlfriend. She commutes in her work clothes and wears her street clothes when they go out on their bicycles. Also, on my last trip to visit family in the Netherlands it became apparent that work clothes, even skirts, are appropriate for commuting.

With the purchase of my city cruiser I knew that I had to be visible in traffic. Motorists here are not accustomed to seeing people riding in rush hour traffic. I wanted a helmet to stand out and bought a colorful one from Nutcase. It is a great fit and I get a lot of comments. People see it, chuckle and then are reminded to drive with caution when they pass me.

Q: How has cycling helped with your physical health?
I have had knee and back issues for as long as I can remember. I delayed having knee replacement surgery for as long as I could, until I was no longer able to ride my bicycle. That was the turning point. I had the surgery and within six weeks was back on the trails. This past summer I needed back surgery. My surgeon suggested that my physiotherapy should not be cooped up in a gym but out on the streets riding my bicycle. After 10 days, I was permitted to ride my city cruiser and after six weeks I started to ride my hybrid bicycle on the trails.

Q: What does the future hold
 for you and bike riding?
Recently, I reached a milestone birthday and with it I lost the desire to ride quickly. I prefer to ride to work and run errands, rather than ride the trails. As well, we have a child trailer that attaches to my bicycle so we can do family rides with my grandson. We ride to parks and around the neighborhood. I have also realized that we need to make our local city infrastructure more bicycle-friendly. I will be advocating for more bicycle lanes and racks to park bicycles. Our newly renovated city market readily put in a bicycle rack after they asked their customers what was still needed. I will also be petitioning the local supermarkets and big box stores to set up bicycle racks.

3 Tips for the Bike Curious

By Marianne Helgers

1. The most important thing is to make yourself visible. Do not hug the curb but claim your lane. People need to see you and respect your presence.

2. Give yourself time to get used to leaving the house, unlocking your bike, and finding bike parking so that you arrive stress-free.

3. Encourage your friends and colleagues to commute with you. Join the ride your bike to work campaign. Contact your local newspaper and city councilors to get them involved.

Momentum Mag promotes, encourages and inspires smart living by bike. Published five times a year, the magazine focuses on transportation cycling and bike culture in North America.