A few years ago, I woke up one winter morning to a bout of unexpected weather: skies heavy with clouds, frigid temps, and flakes falling at a steady clip. While winter in Boulder, Colorado is relatively mild compared to, say, the upper Midwest, this type of weather is certainly not out of character for the Front Range. Regardless, I was still bummed as—like most mornings—I’d been planning on riding the short 2.5 miles into work.
When I moved to Boulder from the southeast two years prior I didn’t even own a bike. Following college graduation, in 2014 I’d sold my townie clunker before embarking on a six-month road trip and had somehow made it two years sans velo. But during my first summer in Boulder, as I became aware of the convenient and expansive network of bike paths that lace through town, not going by bike was no longer an option. I bought a 1986 steel Centurion LeMans RS road bike—set up single speed—for $150 from a co-worker and was soon on my merry mono-geared way to exploring my new home.
In the beginning, I’ll admit that I saw commuting into work as a bit of a hassle. While the actual travel time was barely longer than driving, the extra prep was ultimately the mental hurdle. Most every day I brought lunch, a coffee thermos, water bottle, and either running clothes/ shoes for a quick lunch jog or my gear to hit the climbing gym after work. All that plus whatever layers and lights the season called for (always a jacket because the office AC levels were fit for a morgue and, if it was summer, a fresh shirt to change into upon arrival—fortunately, a rain jacket is hardly ever mandatory in CO).
But the more times I forced myself to take the extra 15 minutes to cram everything into a backpack, the more I found myself wanting to start my day on the bike. Because of the well-developed system of bike paths in Boulder, my commute didn’t involve any riding in traffic—a huge perk—which gave me the freedom to relax and listen to music, or a podcast, or simply spin in silence for 13 to 15 minutes, depending on how late I was running. That combination of fresh air and a little movement always seemed like a surefire way to elevate my mood, whereas driving left me stressed and generally annoyed with other humans, or rather, other cars, because when you’re in your shell of metal and glass it’s hard to see other cars as humans, and not just obstacles in your path.
I also started noticing that whenever I rode into work my co-workers wanted to talk to me. In addition to the rote string of “good mornings” received as I filed past a row of cubicles, I’d also be greeted with a few inquiries about my ride in, if I was walking my bike. Riding, inherently, connects you more directly with the conditions—fair or foul—than driving, allowing perhaps for a wider range of experiential possibilities. And anyone who has ever thrown a leg over a top tube has known the simple joy of the wind in your face and sun on your skin. (Meanwhile, “I had a great drive-in,” said nobody ever.)
A few of my co-workers were also apt to frequently commute by bike and this shared experience, however minor, gave us something easy to chat about. I remember one guy, specifically, who lived in Berthoud (27 miles away) would ride halfway into a bus stop and then bus the rest of the way to the office, still racking up around 30 miles per day including his return. He was my commuting hero.
But on that wintry day, it seemed the weather had decisively canceled any aspirations to ride. People don’t bike in this sh*t I thought, glowering out the window over coffee. And then a strange sense of amusement crept over me as I thought, again, People don’t bike in this sh*t…but I could! The improbability of riding into work in such objectively awful conditions suddenly felt to me, not like a mandate handed down by the forecast, but rather a matter of perspective. In actual fact, my mindset was the only limiting factor in the balance of this decision. After all, it was only a 15-minute ride—I wasn’t going to die or go hypothermic in 15 minutes. I could bring a change of clothes with me and drink hot tea after. Giddy, like a kid laughing at her own dumb joke, I got ready to brave the ride.
All the way into work that day, I felt a slight hysterical elation at the absurdity of riding my bike through the snow and slush. (Incidentally, this was before my gravel initiation and I was running 23mm slicks and didn’t know what shoe covers were.) I was high on my own agency, but I also felt a sense of gratitude at this privilege of choice—this was not a mode of travel inflicted on me by personal circumstances, it was a choice (maybe this is what is meant by the concept of elective suffering) and I knew that I could and would again be warm, dry, and comfortable at the office. But in deciding to ride, despite the conditions, I felt—immensely and overwhelmingly—free for those 15 minutes. Free of expectations, free of social norms, but most remarkably, free from self-imposed limitations.
Upon arrival, my boss did seem slightly appalled at my beet-red cheeks and utterly mystified by my dripping bicycle. “Nice morning,” I said, as I kept walking towards the bathroom to change.
Of course, this day was a stark anomaly amongst most commuting scenarios and I certainly didn’t ride in every horrible weather day that winter—it’s human nature to gravitate towards physical comfort and I am certainly lured by that desire all too often. But it was a welcome realization that the vast majority of the time perceived limitations can be lifted just by changing your mindset about them.
Because of our tendency to want convenience and comfort, I think some of the best strategies to get into the habit of commuting involve making it easier. For example, knowing that I often liked to jog during lunch at work, after a while I ended up just leaving a pair of running shoes under my desk so that I had one less thing to remember to pack and carry on my morning rides. Similarly, I also left a water bottle and extra coffee/tea at the office. Packing as much of my backpack or bike bags the night before was another fail-safe I used to ensure I wouldn’t bail on riding. Fenders are a good insurance policy too, especially if you live in high-precip regions. Leaving my bike shoes, helmet, wallet, keys, lights and earbuds right beside the front door also proved helpful.
And while it took me some time to get into the habit of habitually going by bike, I honestly now prefer it and feel irked when I have to take the car out. When it comes to commuting for other, everyday life tasks, like grocery shopping, errands, or just meeting up with friends, I always plan to ride there, thereby building in that extra time in my mental plan. To accommodate grocery runs, my partner and I usually make bigger trips together. Between our two large bar bags and baskets, we can fit a surprising amount! We also habitually bring a small backpack that stuffs down to about the size of a pair of socks for those can’t-miss yogurt BOGO days. And of course, on occasion when we really need to stock up or simply don’t have the time, we drive to the store but when we do take the car, we try to string together a few errands to maximize the gas miles.
I find riding around town gives me that same sense of contentment that I experienced on those morning commutes (I now, like so many, work remotely)—for me, spinning the legs somehow also gets my brain working in a way that driving just doesn’t and I often find myself coming up with solutions to problems, or having creative ideas. Riding—for five minutes or 50—wakes up my senses; the sun feels warmer and the breeze cooler. Finding shortcuts and the most efficient routes is a rewarding and engaging way to learn your town and it makes every outing feel a little more adventurous. It’s a philosophy and a lifestyle but also just a pleasant way to move through the world. And, finally, you’re just about always guaranteed a front-row parking spot.