Shifting into a new way of commuting

Photojournalist with the National Observer, Alex Tétreault is pushing the limits of moving around his photography gear to his photo shoots and assignments – all on his bike. 

Alex started commuting by bike in 2010 during school and continued through his employment at Ecology Ottawa. He gave up bike commuting for a short while after starting photography professionally while he figured out how to carry all of his gear.

Alex has committed to riding his gear-filled bike to and from work and everywhere in between. For the majority of his work he uses two 30L panniers with a combined 50-60 lbs of gear, this holds his “base kit” as he calls it. He uses this setup for everyday assignments (days on Parliament Hill, press events, etc.), and it allows him to be highly mobile while having the necessities of general photojournalism.

When the job calls for a more formal approach – either a portrait shoot or another event that requires more gear – he will bring his flashes and lighting accessories, still on his bike.

Here’s a bit of insight into Alex’s commute:

What is the main reason for biking with your gear?

There are a few reasons actually. The first one is really to step away from the car as much as possible. I was already mostly commuting by bus, but this is even better. The second one, probably equally important for me, is that with my current work life balance, I have very little time for exercising, so the most ideal way to get some of that in is through commuting, and I really need to drop a few pounds. So biking with my gear to my assignments was, and still is, logistically a bit more complicated, but it’s the best way to get that in. I’m happy to be able to reinstate this in my lifestyle. Also, no one else seems to be doing this, so that’s neat!

What is your biggest challenge and what did you do to overcome it?

I’d say the logistics of fitting it all on a bike, so finding the right gear to make it happen. It helps when you have really knowledgeable people helping you out, but for the inserts I’m using in the panniers, for example, it was a lot of trial and error, and ordering some equipment I then had to send back because it wasn’t the right fit, and I couldn’t just shop it out in a store to try. Right now, though, the biggest challenge is less about how to fit it all on a bike, but what to do with it once on location and the bike is locked away. I’m actually still working on that last part, carrying 50-60lbs of gear in panniers up Parliament Hill every day isn’t ideal. I’m trying using a camera bag instead of an insert in one of the panniers, so I can then be work ready once I lock the bike away. Not sure about leaving panniers with inserts on the bike as I lock the bike away though.

An added challenge I’d like to touch here, and I’ve not read or seen a lot about it, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who has to deal with this, are allergies. And very specifically, allergies that manifest with post-nasal drip, not necessarily the sneezing side of things. Often in the morning I have to cope with post nasal drip that is so bad that it causes me to straight up choke on my commute, forcing me to stop, take a breather, some water, blow my nose. On bad mornings it can be debilitating enough to make me throw up, and that’s such a legit factor to make someone want to stop. I want to stop it all every time it happens to me. I know I’m not alone in this, so my struggle to get to where I need to be is often not physical in nature, I don’t get too tired, I’m never not strong enough, nor do I get too winded to make it happen, but the struggle against the allergies is my biggest challenge still. Prescription allergy medication, nasal spray and daily nasal saline washes are the only things that have helped me up to now, making things much more bearable, but this time of year is just particularly horrid. Don’t give up. Take your time, plan an extra 10 minutes in your commute to just stop, breathe, drink, let it pass, and get back on that saddle. If you have the same medical issue I do, that will be your biggest hurdle.

What advice would you give to others who need to commute with a good amount of gear?

Take it slowly. Try things out. Keep at it. Things won’t work right away, and it’ll be a work in progress with a lot of trial and error to see what works for you. Also plan your day, play out the scenario of what you need to bring, where and how. Where are the bike racks, where do you leave the bike at? Is the issue weight? Length? Both? At first, you might not see time savings right away as you’ll be spending more time packing and figuring things out but keep at it. Your commute will definitely be fast, but not necessarily easier right away. That will come in time. Also, as I hinted above earlier, the most complicated part of it all might not be loading the bike and riding it, but what you do with the panniers once you get where you need to be, especially if the bike rack isn’t super close to the work place.

What inspires you?

That’s a tough one. I’m not sure really. Generally, my family, wife, daughter, doggo. For work, stories of people, humans, beyond the story at hand. For biking, the environment, doing my part, hating the car culture, #autowa, health.

Here’s how he did it:

This is his “base kit”; note how well protected the gear is before he packs it into his larger panniers!

Nice and compact – the basics fit perfectly into his two 30L MEC panniers and he’s updated to a heavy duty rack

He adds this gear for portraits and more formal jobs

Even with all of his gear it doesn’t seem like much to pull around!

With a little thought it’s easy to pack this stuff up!

His ultimate goal is to become entirely free from using his car for work,  a light trailer will solve this problem.