Photo courtesy of Kathleen Wilker
Jasper Winter Bike Ride
In just a few days, I’ll be flying to Winnipeg for the second international Winter Cycling Congress, from February 12-14.
As soon as I heard about this conference, I wanted to attend and learn from experts and enthusiastic winter cyclists in snowy countries from around the world. Every year, there are more people in Ottawa, ON, riding their bikes and this seemed like a great opportunity to learn best practices in facilitating winter riding.
I reached out to organizer Anders Swanson to see if he would be interested in having me attend the conference and cover the event for Momentum Mag. Swanson said "yes" right away and also invited me to submit a proposal to become a speaker at the congress.
While looking over the topic suggestions, “biking with kids,” “biking and walking to school,” and “performance pieces” caught my eye. I sent off a proposal for a series of prose poems celebrating kids, bikes, and snow, accompanied by a slide show. Both parts of the proposal would be based on articles that I’ve contributed over the years.
I wasn’t sure if this proposal would appeal to the organizers, but after a few weeks, I received an email from Swanson telling me he the LOVED it and not to put any pressure on me or anything, but I’d be delivering this presentation on the main stage, right after the opening remarks, and right before the keynote address.
Gulp! At first I felt extremely nervous. After all, I’m a writer. Usually, I ask people questions in coffee shops or over the phone and then, in the quiet of my home, I turn those interesting conversations and experiences into stories about other people. When there’s a need to speak in public – like when we’re about to start a bike parade and we need someone to make an announcement or it’s time for all the kids in Bike Club to listen up – I usually ask someone else, with their loud voice, to step up and speak.
But what an amazing opportunity! It’s not every day that you’re invited to share a parent’s perspective about the joys (and challenges) of biking with kids at an international winter biking conference. It’s not every day that you have the chance to let city planners and program coordinators and politicians know what it’s like to ride with children. For all of the moms and dads who spend so much time sharing their love of cycling with their families, figuring out how to keep riding at all different ages and stages, and taking on the challenges of weather and whining, I knew I had to go for it, no matter how nervous I felt.
If we didn’t do the things that are difficult or that make us nervous, we wouldn’t ever take our children’s training wheels off. We’d never teach them how to safely and skilfully ride on the road with us. And we certainly wouldn’t take them bike camping. Anyone who’s taken up those challenges knows that the years of rewards are so worth the moments of nerves.
So I created the presentation. It’s full of gorgeous photos of kids and adults on bikes and on skis. There are kids sledding to school and families skating on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Whenever a friend posted a sweet picture of their kid skiing to school, I asked them to send it to me and included it. The presentation is a celebration of winter and of taking pleasure in the journey as well as arriving at the destination. It’s a story about raising kids outside and growing as a family and a community in the process. It’s about being inspired by other people’s courage and about having fun in the winter.
After presenting the story for my family as many times as they’d listen, I practiced for fellow board members of Citizens for Safe Cycling, Ottawa’s bike advocacy group. I was definitely nervous, but my friends at Citizens for Safe Cycling were very supportive and even agreed unanimously to support my trip to Winnipeg by helping out with the cost of accommodations. If we’re still thinking of the "taking off training wheels" analogy, presenting for the board might be like a recreational cyclist riding to work for the first time with a friend suggesting a route with light traffic and scenic, off-road paths. It might be outside an existing comfort zone, but it is so worth the effort.
Last weekend, I invited the kids from my neighborhood who are in the slideshow to come to a sneak preview at RightBike, our community bike sharing headquarters. I really wanted the kids to know that they – with their enthusiasm for snow and their love of self-propelled adventures – are the stars of the show and an important voice in any conversation about city cycling. My daughter and her friends made cupcakes for the occasion. I figured that if the kids weren’t interested in the presentation, the cupcakes would make the trip worthwhile.
After presenting for two sittings of warm and receptive parents and kids, I felt a lot more comfortable. The kids might have liked the cupcakes best of all, but the most magical part for me was the kids and the adults pointing out themselves and each other on the screen and sharing stories of the adventures the slides were celebrating. I felt like I was in the middle of a group ride. Alert, connected, communicating, and sharing something awesome that was bigger than any one of us.
I’ll still be nervous when it’s time to present "For the love of kids and bikes and snow" on the main stage at the Winter Cycling Congress. But thanks to all the support and practice among friends and family, I’m ready. I imagine the main stage presentation might be like the first time you turn left on your bike in a busy intersection with lots of lanes of traffic. It takes guts. But when it gets us where we need to go, we take a deep breath, make eye contact with everyone, wait for just the right moment, and go for it, riding confidently and moving forward.