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Glen Sampson is crouched over his bicycle, flying down Jackson Hill Road in Middlefield, past farmland sweet with the smell of grass and wildflowers. Peter Aarrestad wings his way through the greenery of Tryon Street in Glastonbury, with the Connecticut River glimmering on his left.
It's at moments like these that there can be little doubt about the superiority of cycling to work over commuting in an insulated, air-conditioned box, fuming over heavy traffic.
But Sampson and Aarrestad are especially dedicated bicycle commuters -- of which there are an estimated 900 in the Hartford area -- who do it even if they must wend their way through heavy city traffic, even if there's a stiff headwind, even if there's a chance they might get caught in the rain.
``I don't dwell on the worst parts,'' said Aarrestad, 43, who commutes 25 miles -- including a ride on the Connecticut River Ferry in South Glastonbury -- from East Hampton to Hartford. ``Anytime I'm riding is good. The whole ride is relaxing if I'm not sitting in traffic in my car.''
Aarrestad began riding a bicycle four years ago when he worked in Old Lyme and did lunchtime workouts with co-workers. That evolved into riding the 28 miles to Old Lyme. When he was transferred to the Hartford office of the Department of Environmental Protection, he soon found several doable routes into the city. He tries to cycle at least a couple of times a week during good weather.
Sampson, 57, a Windsor resident who runs a Middlefield business, Advanced Energy Solutions Inc., got into bicycling while on a consulting job in San Diego. He was there for several months and noticed a bicycle with an electrical engine on it. He had never biked much before and at 220 pounds was not in good shape, but he thought he might enjoy a bicycle that gave him the option to motor up steep hills. Soon, he was taking trips of dozens of miles without using the motor at all.
That was several years ago, and Sampson said, ``It just sucked me in. Each day I have to get on the bicycle. I feel I miss something if I don't.''
His 28-mile commute is impressive, but even more so are the hundred-plus mile jaunts he's been taking to get himself in shape for the ``BMB'': a 750-mile bicycle ride from Boston to Montreal and back with a time limit of 90 hours.
When he left his sunglasses at a rest stop in Haverhill, Mass., earlier this month, he used it as an excuse to get in some training. He left his home at 4 a.m., rode the 135 miles to Haverhill, arriving about 6 p.m. Then he started for home, realizing he would be riding through the night. About 4:30 a.m., he called his wife, Peggy, from Brookfield, telling her he was too tired and cold to continue and she picked him up.
``It worries me a little bit that he rides a lot when it's dark,'' said Peggy Sampson, ``but I just sort of decided he's doing what he loves and is really reaping benefits from it. More power to him.''
Since he began bicycling, Sampson has dropped 40 pounds, his cholesterol has gone down 100 points and his blood pressure is down.
Commuters who choose a bicycle over a car also have a good effect on the environment. Sandy Fry, who oversees the ``Bike to Work'' program for the Capitol Region Council of Governments, said that last year commuting bicyclists in the Hartford area saved 24,000 gallons of gasoline and spared the atmosphere 240,000 tons of carbon dioxide.
To encourage bicyclists, Fry holds various events, including a monthly breakfast from April to October -- the next is July 30 -- at the Old State House from 6:30 to 9 a.m. At those events, there is usually a workshop on some aspect of bike maintenance from fixing a flat to adjusting gears. At the council's website (www.crcog.org/Bicycle/BikeToWork2004. htm), there's a schedule of events along with a listing of ``bike buddies,'' who help new commuters find a safe route and sometimes accompany beginners.
Call David Ringquist in West Hartford if you want some advice on all-weather commuting. The Department of Environmental Protection employee cycled his 5-mile route all but one day last winter, enduring bitter cold, snow and ice. He loves cold-weather riding, he said, because it reminds him of skiing. Sometimes he actually chooses to go through the drifts in Bushnell Park. This year, he used a studded snow tire for his front wheel, which helped with the ice.
Their Routes To Work
Sampson and Aarrestad have contrasting routes: Sampson starting on city streets and ending in the country, Aarrestad rolling from rural to urban.
In capsule form, here are their routes.
Sampson takes Route 159 (Windsor Avenue) down to North Main Street, through Hartford on Main Street, down Wethersfield Avenue to the Silas Deane Highway.
Along the way, there is plenty of traffic and pedestrians, but Sampson says he enjoys watching all the activity. It keeps him alert and focused and perhaps, for that reason, even safer than on a less-traveled country route.
The congestion eases up when he turns right onto Route 3 in Rocky Hill, entering a residential neighborhood, before taking Route 217 to Country Club Road. When he turns left onto Higby Road, with its view of Mount Higby, the scenery turns bucolic. He crosses Route 66 and goes on to Jackson Hill Road, where he hits his maximum speed -- 40 mph -- and passes the scenic Walnut Hill Farm.
He blows through the stop sign at the bottom of the hill -- it's the only traffic signal he ignores, he said, because he can easily see whether he needs to stop -- and then heads up Route 147 to his office.
Time: About 2 hours. Average speed: about 20 mph.
At work, he takes a shower and changes into the work clothes he carries in his messenger bag. He rides much of the year, but avoids snow, ice and heavy rain.
Aarrestad, who lives near the edge of Lake Pocotopaug in East Hampton, starts at 6:30 a.m. with a view of the mist rising from the lake. From there he coasts on what may be the most dangerous part of his commute: Route 66. This two-lane road has fast-moving traffic without a lot of shoulder.
``I tend to be a little bit aggressive,'' he said about how he positions himself along the road. ``I try to stay visible. I don't hog the travel lane, but not riding in the gutter with the broken glass and nails and catch basin grates.''
Next, it's down Route 17 -- a greener route, but still dicey because of its narrow shoulder, rough pavement and heavy traffic.
In South Glastonbury, Aarrestad turns left onto Old Maids Lane and then Tryon Road and enters a world of furrowed green fields, organic farms and glistening river.
He catches the South Glastonbury-Rocky Hill ferry ($1 for a bicycle) and takes back roads up toward Hartford, entering the city on Wethersfield Avenue.
His time is 113 minutes for 25.27 miles. Average speed: 20.7 mph. His fastest speed: 42 mph down a hill.
Aarrestad locks his bike to a bicycle rack in the garage next to his office. He doesn't bother with a shower, saying, ``I've never had a complaint.'' His work clothes are under his desk in a bag that he takes home on days when he uses his car.
Both Sampson and Aarrested say the ride helps them to focus better at work. When Aarrested bicycles, he arrives at work ``in a better of frame of mind. It gets the blood pumping, the brain works better. I'm more relaxed.''