JBER civilians are going the distance aboard their bikes

Saturday, August 20, 2011 - 11:35

"It's shocking how happy I am," said Jan Johnson, a manpower specialist for the 673d Air Base Wing on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. "I expected to be healthier, but I didn't expect how happy it has made me."

The secret to her happiness is simple, she said — she rides her bicycle to work. Every day, rain or shine. Even in the winter.

"The bike swap got me interested," she said. °©

Rebecca Kleinschmidt from the JBER Health and Wellness Center send out an e—mail about the 2010 Ride Your Bike to Work week and Johnson got a $25 bicycle and decided to ride it for the week.

"It was scary," she said. "Getting through the gate on a bicycle is different; there was traffic — I live on the east side of town, so I had to come up Boniface.

The cold weather was scary; I didn't know how I'd keep my hands and feet warm enough, and the darkness was unsettling."

She kept going, though, and made it through the summer; she figured out which bike trails kept her away from the heaviest traffic and got used to navigating the gates.

Then winter came.

"I was afraid of giving up for the winter — I knew if I quit riding, I wouldn't start again in the spring," Johnson said. "So I bought some studded bike tires. My daughter thought I was pretty extreme, but I was working 12 hours a day and I needed that healthy diversion."

Over time, she discovered studded tires for bicycles work even better than studded tires for cars, and there's a pedestrian gate on Arctic Valley Road that works well for cyclists. It relieves a lot of stress, she said, but it also has concrete benefits.

"I was balancing my checkbook, and from April to October, I had spent about $1,500 less than normal. Less fuel, fewer car washes — it's not just riding for pleasure now."

She got panniers for the back of her bike, and even stops at the grocery store on the way home.

At her annual checkup, she discovered that her cholesterol had dropped by thirty points after the first summer of riding.

And her attitude has been wonderful, she said.

"I'm stunningly happy. I'm smiling on my way to work. And when I do drive somewhere, I realize how frustrating it is to be in traffic. On the bike trails, I'm away from that."

Often, Johnson said, drivers seem to forget cyclists and pedestrians exist. She wears bright fluorescent and reflective clothing and rides defensively in traffic, but largely avoids it.

Johnson's whole family has taken up bicycling now, too — as well as a number of other JBER employees she has encouraged to get into cycling.

"My family had gotten out of the "outdoorsy" habit, with the pressure of work and life," she said. "We were a family of eat and nap, computers, TV — now we've taken a trip to Talkeetna in the winter with our bikes. Everyone in the family takes their bike to work."

Her bike has a powerful headlight, as well as standard bike lights to make her visible, and plenty of reflective tape. Rain doesn't bother her, she said.

"I bought rain gear, but really it's not that big a deal — I change at work anyway."

In the winter, she layers for the five—mile commute with earmuffs and a helmet cover.

"The helmet cover keeps me pretty warm," she said. "There were only two days last winter that I wore a hat under my helmet."

Lobster—claw gloves, long underwear, winter cycling pants, and other layers keep her toasty.

Johnson's building has a bathroom with a shower, so she can change and tidy up after her ride in. She has a small locker with clothes for work at the office, which frees her to wear cycling clothes.

And although the thought of biking in the snow can make people think twice, she said doing so actually makes the weather seem better.

"There's something every day that makes me happy," she said. "If you're outside every day, doing something, the weather doesn't get you down. Our winters are long and sometimes even the summers are rainy. But if you're out there enjoying it... it doesn't seem that bad."

The internet is full of information for those considering the change.

"There's so much useful information out there — about keeping safe, being visible, how to pack your office clothes, types of bicycles — everything. That stuff helped make it manageable."

Johnson has been working here for the last 25 years, and said she wishes she'd started biking ages ago.

"The people in Anchorage that should be the healthiest are the people on this installation," she said. Since the military considers fitness important, she said it's surprising cycling isn't encouraged more.

Matthew Mills, 673d ABW plans officer, started biking to work at Johnson's urging.

"I've been riding to work since the end of April — when most of the ice was off the roads," he said. "I like it; it takes a lot of my gym time. It's all the cardio I need."

Mills said it's amazing to pass people in their vehicles, driving to the gym, when he's getting a workout just getting there. He rides to the gym and lifts weights before work, he said.

"Lots of people here veg out in the winter and work hard all summer," Mills said. "I cross country ski a lot, so I had almost the opposite problem.

"This keeps me in shape. I don't know that I'll ride in the winter — I'll probably just ski. But riding to work this time of year especially is really doable."

Johnson continues challenging people to ride bikes to work, whether it's Bike to Work Week or not.

And it's not just the physical training either, she said.

"Really, it's about challenge — you face it, accomplish it. As you get older, we tend to think things are unimaginable, but they're not."


This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, July 20, 2011.

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