Snow White

Snow White

All this fucking snow. Excuse the f-bomb, but as I tell my kids, if the context demands it there is nothing at all wrong with the word. It’s not all the snow’s fault, either. Its enabler, the cold, is lingering at 30-year-lows.

The snow is so nice, so beautiful, as it falls, limning the leafless branches of the trees. The road disappears into the neighbor’s lawn, all of it paper white, a giant blank canvas to imagine the summer against. Cognitive dissonance creeps in here, looking out the window, trying to hold the winter stillness in mind, contemplating warmer weather, less clothing, more riding. Snow storms more or less demand you stand in windows, staring vacantly, thinking these thoughts.

Once the plows come rumbling, dropping their blades concussively to the pavement to scrape away what they can, and once the salt trucks visit, broadcasting sand and calcium chloride across the resulting mess, you are left with something that looks not unlike the bark of the white birch, mottled and rough, dark in patches. The main roads are the trunk, the side roads the branches. The white birch is also sometimes called the canoe birch, because some native tribes used it to skin their canoes.

During every storm, a great levy rises at the edge of the plow line where the snow piles, churned by the broad plow blades into a sort of cement. The shoveling can be easy until you reach this levy, and then you need dynamite and a crew of metal shovels to break through, to reconnect yourself to the world.

This snow bank, which shrinks the useable asphalt to a narrow strip, will look like the tide as it recedes, melting, all froth and sand pulling back, dwindling, going away. Bits of garbage melt out like fetid time capsules.

While it’s not true that Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, there is a period in the life of each flake during which it is rideable. One of my very favorite times to ride is between the first dusting and the fall of the third inch. There are complicating factors, of course. If the snow is too cold, and there is a frozen under-layer, then you can’t ride it. The meteorological dominoes have to fall the right way. When they do, and the temperature remains cold and stable, this magic snow can remain tacky for as many as two or even three days. Once the first melt comes on, even a momentary thaw, the whole surface turns to ice again, and you’re lost. It’s over.

I like it best when the snow is actively falling.

My first snow ride this season featured 12F temperatures and a stiff wind. I set out at night, the flakes swirling in my headlights, and the cars idling in stand-still traffic like little huts of misery, their drivers watching me pass, thinking I was crazy but wishing they could be moving, too.

The next weekend it snowed again, and with more time on my hands, I headed for the woods. Alone there except for a few cross country skiers, I struggled to remember all the features of the trails I’ve ridden hundreds of times before, like going to your favorite restaurant only to discover they’ve changed the menu, and the cuisine, and the decor.

All that fucking snow. It gets hard to know what to do with it. By the driveway it got high enough that I struggled to throw more over the top of the bank. On the bike, some kids with sleds pointed and laughed as I churned through the fresh snow in the park by the house, on my way where exactly? I have been off the bike more than I have been on it, but I have stood in the window thinking hard on it. It’s so lovely, as it falls.

Image: Matt O’Keefe

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  1. Jan

    You’re a braver biker than I, Robot! I don’t even think about biking through snow.

    And with winter as cold as this is (I’m in Wisconsin), skiing or snowshoeing are not nearly as fun, and (I’m told) outdoor ice skating doesn’t work right because the ice doesn’t melt a microlayer under the blade.

    I see your f bomb and raise you a couple more!

  2. TominAlbany

    Yeah. I’m usually done with the white stuff by the end of President’s week – winter break. And here I am looking at our frozen, hard-pack wondering when I’ll see enough shoulder alongside the road and enough mercury in the thermometer to consider my first ride to work for 2014. I did get the bike out and too around the ‘hood this past weekend when the temps approached 50F but, I was running the kids so I wasn’t free to gallivant. It sure was nice, though, to get all of my driveway back!

    Albany, NY has had an above average snow year with consistent cold. My back hurts just thinking about it!

  3. Kurti_sc

    Well what can I say. Although we’ve had more wintry precip than past years, we do have nice riding weather – finally. You know how nice it is to be out west or riding in CA all year round…
    In the southeast we are beginning to smile. I was night riding last night in knee warmers and a short sleeve top. The dirt had the magic tacky feel that gives us all a bit more confidence and flow.
    Y’all c’mon over and we’ll have a big time !

  4. Andrew

    I don’t want to exaggerate how horrible it is here in MN, but it is hard not to. Since 12/1/13, we have had something like 50 days where it has been 0F or below at some point in the day. At the beginning of it, the kids got school closing for -15F, -20F days, but at this point they’re like, “Fuck it. School’s open”. My dogs of course couldn’t care less, and I am almost certain that I now hold the World Record for Most Consecutive Days playing Jolly Ball with Australian Shepherds in Sub-Zero Temperatures. In case you are wondering, a Jolly Ball makes a very odd thumping noise at -20F and doesn’t really bounce very much. The hollow Jolly Ball with the green ball inside it simply shattered and is no more. Not a single snow flake has melted since early December, and there now is about 2 feet of snow everywhere, except where the recent “Little Home on the Fucking Prairie” blizzard heaped up 12 foot drifts. Even with studded tires, I’ve only managed to get in about 6 outdoor riding days since December. I know, I am weak and pitiful, but there’s a point where riding at 20mph is just too damn cold to be fun anymore. The fat bike guys have been out more, but they’re doing 6mph in the woods. If I’m going to go slow in the woods, I’d rather have my snowshoes and my dogs.

    Have I established that it’s been kinda bad here this winter?

  5. Gary

    I definitely feel for all of your. I moved to San Diego 3 1/2 years ago from Portland, Oregon. Our winter in S.D. has been absolutely unbelievable. We’ve had 1 day of rain since December. I’ve only worn leg warmers a couple times. WOW! We do have a serious rain storm coming Friday but otherwise, it’s been SO nice to ride in shorts and an jersey. Not that I’m rubbing it in……..:-)

  6. SusanJane

    It would take rain every day until May to put our water storage back to normal. So could someone just put a few feet of that white stuff in the empty lakes we have around California? Your grocery bills will be a lot lower that way. Produce, nuts, rice, etc. You get it from California. But hey, you could come out a ride for a winter vacation. Great roads, great weather.

    Just read that Brazil’s drought is even worse. Worlds number one coffee producer. What’s a cyclist without coffee?

  7. christopheru

    Gary, you are rubbing it in.

    I have hit the screw it point, I am riding anyway.

    Temperatures are at 37 year lows around here (wind chill at -30 tomorrow – and I am riding to work ’cause pffft, I have to or go mad).

    Studded tires are my friend, even if they are a friend I would like to kick to the curb.

    March looks like it will be a dud (during the March school break two years ago, the kids had water fights in swimsuits, this year, it MIGHT get as warm as freezing – if we are lucky).

    This could stop now, k?

  8. Brendan

    Beautiful writing Robot. Nailed the snow I’m nostalgic for. Living in SoCal now, there’s so much about snow and cold that I miss and am sad my son will never really appreciate. Even clearing the frozen plowed in mouth of the driveway with a pick-axe and watching the plow come by to refill it with another foot deep of the heaviest, most densely packed like of that white crap. But the looking out at it, the mountain bike ride in a few inches of new snow, the quiet peace on a snowy trail… Andrew puts it in perspective too, suitably less poetic, and I know I should just be happy that it’s raining here this morning in Los Angeles.

  9. Patrick O'Brien

    Robot, please send the snow here to SE Arizona. Just keep it above 7000 feet, in the mountains, where it belongs.

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  11. Full Monte

    At a certain point, the winter of my discontent has turned to outright despair.

    The snowplows have piled the banks up so high in my neighborhood, you can see little doors poking out half-way up the piles. Mailboxes. The piles alongside the driveway are so high the snowblower can’t shoot snow any higher; instead, I throw shovelfuls shoulder high, sweating inside my sub-zero water fowler coat. The snow pile on the deck is higher than the hot tub, which hasn’t seen use since November. In the middle of cul-de-sacs, snowplows have given up; front end loaders come in the night to pile the snow right in the middle, 20 feet high. Kids sled down them, build forts.

    This week, we’re flirting with 130-year-old record lows, with more snow on the way.

    I’ve lived in western Michigan, Minneapolis, was born and raised in South Dakota and went to college in Sioux Falls. I know snow, cold, blizzards. But I can’t remember anything as bad, as long, as cold as the 2013-14 Chicago winter. My bike’s tires haven’t touched asphalt for three months.

    My dream of moving to Alaska someday has been shattered like the ice now piling up in bus-sized chunks on area rivers. Instead, I’m 100% behind my wife’s desire to move back to her home state of Florida. Right now, in fact. Cuz I can’t take it any more. Starting to freak the fuck out. If you see a guy running around outside with an insane grin like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, that’ll be me.

  12. Andrew

    By way of “balance”: took the dogs for a 90 min hike this am. Ok, it was -14F, but it was gloriously sunny, not another soul was to be seen, bald eagles swooped down within 20 ft of us, and the birds were singing. I complain, but I actually love it here.

    1. Author

      @All – I think this is the crux of it, and what I was trying to get across. Winter is great. Snow is great. It’s beautiful and awe-inspiring and challenging in good ways, but it is also soul-crushing and hard and deeply discouraging, and I don’t know anyone that loves it all the time, nor that hates it all the time.

  13. Peter Lin

    I feel your pain in worcester. I’m so ready for spring, so I can go climb wachusette summit. Atleast we’re not as cold as MN or ND. Some of my friends fatbike around the trails and they have loads of fun. Below 10F is too much for me.

  14. Brian

    So, when you apologized for using the f-word, you didn’t really mean it. You’re a writer, right? Think of all the words you could have used and chose not to. Seems like a cop out to me. Lazy. Or, maybe you realized that that word would be clearly visible on the home page and could maybe grab some more attention that way. Congratulations. I clicked on the article not because of the interesting bike-related content but because of the foul word you used.

    1. Author

      @Brian – I did mean it, in the sense that I believe using the f-word in that context correctly expresses my feelings about this winter some of the time. I excused my use of it, because I know not everyone feels about profanity the way I do. Words are important. I take them seriously. I worked on this piece (believe it or not) for two weeks, editing it completely three or four times, so perhaps I copped out, but it wasn’t about laziness. I hope, beyond the word, you found something to enjoy in it. Thanks for reading, regardless.

  15. Andrew

    Wow. Let he who has never uttered the word (at the top of a long climb, or after a flat in the rain, or when that same damn guy pipped you at the line) cast the first “fiddlesticks”.

  16. Full Monte

    Well, that was a fun response thread while it lasted till someone got indignant and started wagging a finger, putting the brakes on the good-natured banter. Yeah, Robot’s a writer and a very good one. And using fuck in contemporary writing is pretty much standard practice. I remember when a professor emeritus of English visited our senior creative writing class for a guest lecture (and this was at a private church-affiliated liberal arts college). The 90-year old widely published author, without any sense of embarrassment, moral outrage, or sexual-hangups, launched into the appropriate use of fuck — along with a myriad of other “bad” words — in creative writing. His point: There’s a time and place, and when you need an adult explicative, nothing quite does the job like the tried and true f-bomb. So as this brutal winter grinds on, depriving most of us any opportunity to ride our bikes, Robot nailed it. Fucking snow indeed. BTW, a Google search for “Fucking Snow” returned 117,000,000 hits in .27 seconds. So it’s not like Robot’s some evil outlier. I’ll wrap this up by quoting the immortal words of Sergeant Hulka, “Lighten up, Francis.”

    1. Padraig

      Full Monte: Thanks for that.

      All: if I may, Brian’s comment is why we clamp down with a very firm hand on comments. It didn’t constitute trolling, so we let it fly, but in shaming the writer over one fucking word, this distracted the conversation from the more interesting subject of the post—making it through a snowy winter when you are a cyclist. That’s worth discussing, one fuck, less so. As RKP is a private enterprise, we’ve made the decision to limit what appears in our comments for this very reason.

      Put another way: think of the comments as a pace line. If you’re not going to take a pull, don’t screw it up for everyone else.

  17. Jeffrey

    “Put another way: think of the comments as a pace line. If you’re not going to take a pull, don’t screw it up for everyone else.”

    ^^^ AWESOME.

    Normally, reading the comments section in online media is a big no-no for me, but RKP is the exception. I appreciate the discourse and like-minded people I see here. Thanks for keeping the trolls at bay.

  18. John Kopp

    When I lived in Minnesota, half the year was great for cycling. Commuting to work, club rides on the weekend, and the occasional century ride. But with the first major snow, it was time to put the bikes away and pull out the skis. Then I lived for tHe snow, cross country skiing on the weekends, at work, maybe even a commute and the occasional Vasalopet and Burkebinner. If you live in the snow, you must embrace the snow, or the cabin fever will get the best of you. My only regret was not commuting to work by canoe, but work brought me to California before I could accomplish that.

    Hang on, Robot, spring will be here soon!

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