This Thunder Bay mom commutes year round by bicycle

Sebatien (l) and Felix on their bikes in downtown Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Marlene Wandel grew up in a rural area outside of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. As a kid, she recalls, “I was really jealous of all the kids who could cycle to get around. We lived too far out in the country for that to be an option. So when I moved to Guelph, Ontario, to go to university, one of the first things I did was buy a bike — a mint-green 10 speeder. And all of a sudden I had freedom. I could go places. And when winter came, I realized that if I wanted to keep going places, I’d have to ride through the winter.”

That was more than 20 years ago. Today, Marlene, now 43, is still cycling up a storm — almost literally. Now a cardiac nurse and a mother of two in Thunder Bay, Ontario, cycling is her main form of transportation to work. She commutes to her job at the city’s hospital by bicycle year-round, which is no small accomplishment when you consider winter temperatures routinely hit below -20°C for weeks at a time.

“I used to have an arbitrary -24°C cutoff point where I would walk or take the bus, and then one winter it was -25°C for weeks on end, and so that was no longer an option.”

Marlene — who lives on a steep hill — cycles through rain and snow, blizzards and hail. She’s frostbitten her ears. “I kind of hate it at -30°,” she admits.

But, properly suited up with lights, layers, waterproof clothing, and — of course — a good helmet, the weather generally doesn’t faze her: “It’s the same principle as tree planting: there’s no bad weather, only bad gear. Although once it was too snowy to cycle, so I ended up cross-country skiing to work.”

And the rewards far outweigh the cold and rain. “I don’t have to pay $600 a year for a parking pass. We don’t have to buy and maintain a second car. I don’t have to rely on transit. I don’t need a gym membership. I’m not polluting the environment. I’m out every day in the fresh air, breathing and getting some exercise. And those exercise endorphins kick in: I typically arrive at work happy.”

Marlene and her partner, Olivier (who also rides year-round to his job as a teacher) have worked hard to instill that same love of cycling in their kids, 11-year-old Sebastien and nine-year-old Felix. The two boys have been on bikes since they were babies, first towed by their parents in trailers then on Trail-a-Bikes behind Marlene and Ollie, and — for the past several years — under their own steam. “Ever since they both learned to ride, they were able to go long distances, as long as we took lots of breaks,” says Marlene. “They’ve never slowed us down.”

Cycling is the family’s main mode of transportation for fair-weather adventures. “We’ll cycle to the park, or across town to the splash pad. They get to see the city in a whole different way when they actually propel themselves through it,” says Marlene. “This past summer, we went on a ride through some bike trails. I had gummy bears in my pannier, and it turned into a bit of a rodeo, where they took turns cycling up next to me and grabbing gummy bears right out of the bag without stopping. It’s not something that we would ever do on the road, but it was great to see just how agile they are on their bikes.”

Sebastien is now old enough to ride on his own to school, while Felix still requires adult supervision. Both kids wonder why their mom doesn’t let them ride year-round, like her. “That’s still too dangerous,” she says. “That’ll probably wait until they’re in high school.” The boys have been taught to obey the rules of the road, but Marlene is still occasionally stopped by strangers who chastise her that she is somehow putting her kids at risk. “Ironically, it’s usually people who pull over in their cars — which puts everyone in danger — to tell me that I shouldn’t be on the road.”

She gets that, from the outside, her commitment to year-round cycling may seem extreme, but to her and her family, it’s just a way of life. And she doesn’t see cycling as an all-or-nothing proposition: “People have to do what they’re comfortable with. If you want to add more movement in your life, maybe you start walking on one errand a week. Or maybe you make one of your weekly adventures with the kids a bike ride after dinner.”

She’s thrilled to see the freedom and independence she so craved as a kid developing in her own children’s lives. Sebastien has started cycling to and from friends’ houses; he and his buddies will pick each other up, and cycle to the park and home. “It’s pretty exciting to watch.”

Cycling is too much a way of life for Marlene and her family to imagine giving it up. “I can’t stop now,” she says about her commitment to two-wheeled travel, “that would mean I’m getting old.”

SUSAN GOLDBERG is a writer based in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s Parent, Full Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines, and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and coeditor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families.


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