Bike to Work Week helps commuters appreciate the power of pedaling

If you’re a bicyclist of any stripe and you tell Joan Collins that you’re not pedaling to work on a regular basis, get ready for a pep talk.

The indefatigable Madison PR pro can be found blazing down bike paths and city boulevards at seemingly any hour — on her way to business meetings and networking events, and back to her home-based office.

So whatever your excuse for not commuting to work via two wheels, when you’re confabbing with Collins, make sure it’s a damn good one.

Just don’t tell her that biking to work could lead to a fashion faux pas.

“People say they can’t do it because they’re concerned about their hair — and it’s true you really need to wear a helmet — but it’s amazing to me the excuses people come up with,” said Collins.

In other words, it simply won’t do to blame your delicate ’do, particularly in light of the benefits a simple dedication to bicycle commuting can bring.

According to Collins, those include greater focus, more energy, and a more productive mindset. In fact, for Collins, the infusion of energy that a physical activity like biking can give you is better — and longer-lasting — than American office staples like coffee and doughnuts.

“To me, it’s become so much a part of my life, so that if I go three or four days without getting exercise, I feel like I’m not even with the program,” said Collins. “You can also look at the research they keep doing about how exercise is good for the brain.”

Collins could be a great ambassador for National Bike to Work Week, which takes place May 11-15. Part of National Bike Month, the week is designed to get commuters thinking about the upside of heading to the office via a healthier, less energy-intensive mode of transportation. (And if you’re reluctant to commit to a week of pedaling, there’s National Bike to Work Day, May 15.)

While the energetic Collins can tell you, and likely show you, that biking gives her a regular energy boost and allows her to function better at work, there’s evidence to back up her claims — evidence that should make employers stop and think.

One study, from the University of Bristol, showed that employees who exercised before or during work experienced improvements in their mood and their ability to handle common work-related stressors.

Published in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management, the study compared the performance of workers on days when they exercised to their performance when they didn’t.

The researchers found that 72% of workers saw improvements in their ability to manage their time on days when they exercised, 74% said they managed their workload better, and 79% said their mental and interpersonal performance was improved.

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Those numbers are no surprise to Dave Cieslewicz. As Madison’s mayor from 2003 to 2011, Cieslewicz was a key force behind many of the bicycling infrastructure improvements the city has seen in recent years. Today, as executive director of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, Cieslewicz works as a full-time bicycling advocate.

On most days during the spring, summer, and fall, Cieslewicz commutes via bicycle from his home to the Bike Fed’s downtown Madison office.

“Most days I feel a lot more alert when I get in and a lot less hassled than when I’m driving,” said Cieslewicz. “I think I’m more productive.”

Cieslewicz also feels that it simply makes sense for employers to encourage and facilitate bicycle commuting, if only for practical, bottom-line reasons. Those include taking pressure off your facility’s parking (particularly downtown) and potentially lowering your insurance costs.

“And for your employees, of course, not only will they get the health benefits, hopefully they’ll be a little more alert on the job,” said Cieslewicz. “But they’ll save some money, too, if they have to pay for parking, and obviously they don’t have to pay for gas. Biking is free once you’ve got the bike. The air is free for your tires. A can of WD-40 will last you several years. Biking is a really inexpensive way to go to work.”

A worthwhile trek

Marcus Gagnon has seen the benefits of bicycle commuting up close. As wellness coordinator for the Waterloo-based Trek Bicycle Corp., Gagnon has a dual interest in promoting bicycling as part of a comprehensive wellness strategy and to boost his employer’s bottom line.

He says the benefits of Trek’s wellness program have been “astounding,” and he notes that bicycle commuting has been a big part of its success. For the past four years, Trek has participated in the National Bike Challenge, and in 2014, more than 1,200 of Trek’s employees logged a combined 1 million miles through the challenge.

“As we continue to ride more and to actively promote commuting, we can see through metrics like biometric screenings that as a population we are getting healthier,” said Gagnon. “These are real, concrete ways our commuter program has affected the health and wellness of Trek employees.”

Not surprisingly, Trek strongly encourages its employees to commute via bicycle whenever possible. The company has invested heavily in facilities designed to accommodate its bicycle commuters — including on-site showers; a bike-wash area; and a heated, state-of-the-art commuter room with parking for 175 bikes — and during Bike to Work Week, it organizes group rides from multiple locations and buys breakfast for all participants.

In addition, the company offers bicycle commuters “Trek currency,” which can be applied to café credits or spent on new bikes and products.

While Trek has a greater incentive than most companies to encourage its employees to ride, according to Gagnon, any company could benefit from a workforce that rides.

“We know that promoting healthy lifestyles isn’t just good for the environment, it’s good for everyone who works here, too,” said Gagnon.

Wisconsin pedaling forward

Meanwhile, the opportunities for bicycle commuters continue to grow in Greater Madison and beyond.

While National Bike to Work Week is May 11-15, the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin is sponsoring its own series of events the week of June 6.

“Given the weather here, we want to do it much later, so we’re going to do it June 6 to June 13, and we’ll have all of the traditional Bike to Work Week events, but we want to expand that, so we’ll have events for families and other things. We want to make it a little bit more all encompassing than just bicycle commuting,” said Cieslewicz.

The Bike Fed also sponsors a program for commuters called Savvy City Cycling, a series of workshops that promote safe biking practices and show bicyclists the best way to plan a route, how to dress properly for cycling, and how to do basic bicycle maintenance, etc.

But more than anything, says Cieslewicz, the Bike Fed wants to be a strong advocate for bicycling as a whole, not just for bicycle commuting.

“I think most of what we try to do is advocate for policies that provide more safe biking facilities, because we believe that the more people feel comfortable and safe on their bicycles, the more people will choose to bike, and so any project like a dedicated bike path, a bicycle overpass, the treatment of complicated intersections like Monroe and Regent streets, all of those things benefit bicyclists.”

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