The Coals Beneath

In the winter I try to remember what I like about riding bikes. The cold mornings with the air still night-cold can be intimidating, but at least the sun promises better to come if only I will clip in and roll out. The ride home, straight into the darkness and the grind of traffic, can be more forbidding still. Stirring the near-dead ashes of motivation for the surviving coals beneath becomes a bigger job.

Today, I arrived at work the same time as Neil on his fixed commuter. He took the driveway in front of me, and as we came to the dip just before the parking lot, he did that little rear wheel hop you do when you ride fixed, a way to dump some speed quickly. I haven’t ridden fixed for a few years, since we moved to a house on a high hill, but I remember that hop and how it feels. It feels like mastery, and it feels like control. And I miss it, a little.

There is a moment, too, when you are riding along on a brisk winter day, and the cold recedes and heat rises in your core and flows out into your limbs, and suddenly you are less tense. Your movement becomes languid and comfortable, mist rising from the back of your neck, and you feel as though you could ride all day.

Quiet, slow times when you’re alone and you think to slalom gently against the gyroscopic action of your wheels. Sometimes the sun catches the rims and projects a small mobius strip of light on the ground next to you, tracing in and out, suggesting something much more than simply rolling along, some sort of connection to the infinite. Whatever that is.

If I squint I can recall that first burst off the front on the Wednesday night ride in summer, not a race but a competitive ramble with some friends. If it were more competitive I’d never get off on my own, but sometimes they let me go, and I can feel the flush in my legs and breath rise in my chest, and all and everything comes into focus, not just trying to maintain that crazy cadence, but to hold the best line, to find a resting a place in the effort and to enjoy the moment.

Or, when twenty miles disappears in the craic of the group ride, swapping seamlessly off the front and slotting into new conversations. Zingers flying between partners, side-by-side, eyes rolling, directions shouted over shoulders. Distance dissolving in the raw good nature of the whole thing.

Even just bringing myself, as I did today, to ride when the thermometer lies about the day’s true intentions, when the wind has teeth. Water flows off the front lawns of my neighbors and freezes glassily across the road. We slip and slide, the kids and I, on the short walk to school, and I begin to convince myself that the car makes more sense than the bike.

But I know better. I know what the bike will give me that the car never can, despite the heater’s comforting blare and the soft sounds of the radio. The siren song of what is easier in the moment gives way to what is better in the long run. I pull on my winter tights, gather my things.

Image: Matt O’Keefe

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  1. Joe

    So much about this rings true. Although the photo made me immediately think of how quickly I hit the ground when I recently misjudged the physics of wind and ice while riding this winter. Still, the replay from my commute-cam of me sliding by my laid-out bike always brings a smile.

  2. cormw

    Great piece Robot!

    I had a “winter” morning ride this morning before work, but it occured in bizzaro world, as it was a balmy 70 degrees…not exactly winter, but so much nicer! The benefits of living in Florida!

  3. Andrew

    Great piece. Rode gravel for a couple of hours this am with a friend. Dark, cold, icy. Definitely studded tire season here in MN. Tired from having ridden hard the last 5 days. And you know what?- once I forced my sorry self onto the bike at 530am, it was awesome.

  4. Brian

    Winter riding is amazing. The feel of battling the elements while your out there. It takes a special breed to ride consistently outside in New England through the winter. Its gets below 30 I will be hard pressed to go out there. When I do, I regret not going out more often.

  5. David B

    Interesting timing, as today was the best day of 2013. I went out. Not being a hero, I hadn’t ridden much since before Christmas. The saddle felt strange… the drops were too far below… the bike wasn’t moving much… but then it all slowly fell into place. It’s been a while since a ride felt that special.

  6. christopheru

    I love riding in the winter – likely I will have about 3k km on the commuter bike before the snow is done with us. There is something fainly magic about being out in “it” when most others are not. I arrive at work much more focused and much more able to get things done when I get my ride in before hand versus when I take my car. And, to be frank, the crazy looks I get from some people on the way contribute to this 🙂

  7. Wanderer_RN

    I love winter riding. There’s something about the clear cold air that snaps everything into a slightly sharper focus. There is something about throwing a leg over the saddle in the dark cold, it feels right. My daily commutes are what keeps me sane and the incredulous looks from my co-workers adds to the sense of satisfaction. It was 3F the other morning here in the White Mountains of AZ and I still rode. It was great.

  8. armybikerider

    I understand all of your reasons to like cold weather riding….but give me a sunny 80 degrees any day when my nose isn’t running like a faucet and my toes and fingers don’t ache and I dont have to wear three layers to stay comfortable.

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