By Kenneth Evans
Michael Heathfield hadn’t straddled a bicycle since 1992, but in 2007 decided to start commuting to work on a bike. An experienced alpinist and outdoor enthusiast, it made sense that cycling would be an excellent supplement to his training regime based on feedback from family and work associates.
As an employee of REI, Michael had ample equipment choices as well as mentoring from knowledgeable staff; and fully equipped, he hit the road on a bike instead of a car one bright workday morning.
From his home on 12th Avenue, he descends Virginia Street, rides through the University of Utah campus, and continues along the 19th East corridor before ascending foothill neighborhoods and rolling into REI, exhilarated and ready for work.
Riding year ‘round the 20 mile round trip route offers a sundry mix of urban, campus, and residential riding in addition to some healthy elevation gain. Although supplemental training was the primary motivation, the commute has become enjoyable to the point that he feels resentment when weather or circumstance dissuades him from riding.
“In addition to the physical benefits, I equally enjoy the “mental’ benefits as well, especially after an intense day at work; I just hop on my bike and pedal my woes away.”
During the eight years of riding, Michael has experienced all the woes and benefits of bicycle commuting one could expect: hostile motorists, mechanical breakdowns, refreshing summer mornings, and camaraderie amongst other commuters. Notwithstanding discouraging moments that sometimes prejudice the good, he peddles through it all with due vigilance and acceptance. He’s adjusted to the challenges of aggressive traffic and learned to avoid mishaps in resourceful ways, such as focusing on vehicle wheel movement instead of making eye contact with motorists. He’s adamant in obeying traffic laws, such as slowing to a complete stop at intersections, not only for safety sake, but also to demonstrate respect for other users.
Riding safe and utilizing keen instincts and agility developed via climbing, he’s managed to avoid accidents with one bizarre exception. While riding through a deserted Ute stadium parking lot, he turned onto a sidewalk and collided head on with an errant maintenance vehicle driven by a University employee. Vaulted over the handlebars, he fortunately landed face up atop his pack, and in adrenalin induced daze feared the worst as the driver rushed frantically to assist. But other than some road rash and a sore knee that hit the tope tube of the bike with enough force to bend it, he suffered no significant injury. Waving off pleas from the anxious driver, he declined medical assistance and instead called his wife to pick him up. A day off work tending to scrapes and bruises was the only physical consequence, but it took a month to regain the confidence to ride again.
“I had just returned from an attempt on Denali a month before so I was in top physical condition, which certainly aided in my recovery. Mentally however, it took time for me to feel at peace on my bike again.”
Hazards of road cycling can mostly be attributed to close encounters of the motorist kind, but weather obviously presents its own indifference to the hearty cyclist. More than once icy conditions have necessitated Michael pushing his bike up Virginia Street during his return trip home. It’s not often when winter snows and chilly temperatures are cordial to an enjoyable riding experience, but Michael recalls one stormy December evening delivering a memorable pre Yule-Tide gift.
“One Christmas eve I was riding home from work at dusk in a heavy snowstorm. HUGE snowflakes! The cloud cover was very low. It was a fun ride, then thunder filled the air. Next, lightning exploded-lighting up the clouds, it was surreal, something I never would have experienced in a car.”
After acclimatizing to external forces and adjusting to the physical demands of biking, it may be safe to assume that Michael would extend his commuting skills to more recreational or competitive cycling endeavors, but this has not been the case. Commuting accounts for his total yearly riding mileage, the rest of his spare time is spent with wife Lora, son Hunter, and of course, mountain climbing excursions. He’s crested most of the prominent peaks in the U.S., joined in five expeditions to the Alaskan range in the last decade, and has most recently been to South America on two climbing trips, with a third scheduled for this January.
His love for the outdoors began as a child growing up in Detroit (of all places). His father, an engineer for GM, took his family on many camping trips in Northern Michigan, and the cumulating effect was a love of wilderness and adventure. After graduation and subsequent marriage, he and family have resided in Oregon, Delaware, Nebraska, and Indiana. Whether living in the flatlands or in the middle of a bustling eastern metropolis, he has answered the alluring call of a distant mountain peak. Support from his wife has also been crucial when the call is heard from pinnacles as far away as South America and Alaska. With sentiments of true accord, she insists that no matter where they live, he is to devote an agreed amount of time to indulge in climbing, and he enthusiastically obliges.
Living in Utah has largely mitigated logistical compromises, as climbing opportunities are a relatively short drive away. Michael is also blessed with a capable climbing partner, as his son inherited his father’s love for climbing.
“When Hunter was younger I focused on the moment, for his safety and enjoyment. Now, years later, I cherish each and every outing with Hunter, not so much as a ‘caretaker,’ but as an equal in our outdoor adventures. I can’t believe my teenage son still comes out to play with his old man!”
Maybe an old man in jest within the family circle, but not so much when play is scaling grade V climbs in remote areas of another continent, where conditioning and ability nullify chronological measures of age. While disregarding the advance of age he also ignores implicit fashion protocols. Instead of donning cycling specific clothing he wears a climbing jersey and approach shoes when peddling his Cannondale Quick along urban thoroughfares. When dismounting at REI he could just as well scramble up Mt Olympus as walk into the store.
Riding a bike to work, bagging peaks in distant lands, and involvement in various outdoor activities are indicative of a man still in the peak of physical conditioning, and he shows no signs of slowing down.
“In a month I am heading up the Grand Teton with some friends, members of a veteran’s climbing club put together through the VA Hospital in SLC and then shift training gears for my January climbing trip down to Chile. With each and every commute, I know I am getting stronger. I also want to thank every one of my mentors, mechanics and friends for keeping me safe on the road!
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