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
The night slips in quietly, coldly, gray to black. Streetlights flicker and ignite, and headlights maraud across town swooping and swerving while we, in our fluorescent offices, stare out into the darkness and think about riding home.
Like most little kids, I was afraid of the dark. My six-year-old reminds me of this. He clings close if we have cause to walk through the nighttime neighborhood, not sure what he’s afraid of but sure it’s out there. And I can relate as I sift through my layers, base, middle and top, thinking about the ride home.
It is scary, especially in this early part of winter when the clocks fall back, and the drivers are still getting accustomed to driving by halogen. The darkness magnifies sound, cars sloughing through the thin air, tires jabbering against the sandy roadways. You feel isolated, strapped to the wing of the plane, while everyone else sits in coach, munching peanuts and watching the free movie.
Preparation is central to success. Cables connect lights to USB ports, and laundry needs attention to make sure all the necessary layers can be ready. Warmers and booties and gloves and hats. Jackets and vests and clear-lensed glasses. Lumens spill onto the pavement, limning the potholes and patches of ice. Tires get wider.
The transition we were talking about only very recently is here. The need to keep pedaling has grown acute. This is not the hardest part, but the hardest part is coming. We will need some momentum, now that it is dark.
We can talk about the cold with its tingling extremities and its runny nose, but the cold is always manageable. Mostly, riding generates the warmth you need to go on riding. But the darkness oppresses. The darkness discourages. The darkness is the real challenge. Just ride to the solstice and hang on as we roll out again into the light of spring.
I have a very real sense of commitment being tested. It is not how many days I can set out from home, but how many nights I can throw my leg back over the top tube and return. And all those adventure days, when snow swirls across the road and the street lights make bright puddles to leap through, they are all made of a commitment to setting out in the dark now, as the sun falls in the middle of the afternoon.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
January is a funny time of year for cyclists. Where July is all the same in the Northern Hemisphere—that is, warm and filled with rides in short sleeves and bibs, January can mean almost anything. Here in the South Bay we’ve got brilliant sun, temperatures in the 70s and sunsets the Internet dating sites wish they could sell.
I swear, June isn’t this nice.
But January is supposed to be a time of cold, snow and ice. At minimum it should be the exact opposite of what makes you yearn to ride. It is to the romance of a bike ride what grocery shopping with your sweetie is to falling in love. Some places are suffering real winters complete with frozen slushy stuff, while other places are at least reasonable if not downright mild.
And for those who are riding, this ought to be a time of base miles, at least, in theory. Again, the left coast gets this wrong as well. I’ve got friends who are drilling three-hour rides. Base? If they ever did it, those miles were finished before Christmas. After all, the racing has already begun here.
So what’s it like where you are? Double if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere. Are you getting to ride? If so, what sort of miles are you doing? Is it fun or is it a chore? You don’t have to explain why. We know the why. Life without cycling wouldn’t be life.
Image courtesy Ray Assante
Ride time temp 24˚ F. Light wind. The snow from last week’s blizzard has mostly melted out, but where the sun eats away at the remaining piles you will find slick, black ice creeping across the pavement.
This is the thick of it.
Fleece-lined knickers with tights over top. High wool socks. Baselayer and midlayer and windproof outer. I wear two pairs of gloves, one thin but warm, and one windproof, because I prefer to have the use of all of my fingers, even in the bitterest.
When the sun shines and the wind is light like this, the cold is just the cold. It’s ambient, only really amplified by your own speed. Descents hurt, but the flats, where you can build some heat in your core, are more than tolerable.
The river is frozen in great, sweeping, Nazca lines of blue gray ice, the wind-swept ripples of its final moments of fluidity preserved there like fossil. Ducks dabble at its edges, tuck their heads under their wings, nap.
At these temperatures, of course, if the wind picks up, you’re hosed. A ten knot westerly will turn the evening commute into a survival race, extremities smarting with the struggle to keep blood in fingers and toes. You duck your head to keep your face out of the line of fire and focus on turning the pedals over.
South of 20˚, you run into mucoidal problems. A mentholated something pops up in the back of your nose. Your snot is freezing. Uncomfortable. Disconcerting. Even in a balaclava, the bridge of your nose stings. Your cheeks turn red and maybe start to itch. I call this “face cold.” One probably ought not be riding when it’s face cold, but one does, because that is just how it is.
But today it’s not face cold. It’s just regular cold, and we will be lucky if it stays that way. Brief periods of warmth only serve to melt what ice is there. When the mercury dives again, it leaves the roads all slick and dangerous.
No. Better just to stay cold. And dry.
Photo copyright Matt Person©
At the top of the steepest hill is the water tower. In the pre-dawn, six small lights bob and weave up the hill towards the tower, like a handful of winter moths drawn to a pulsing streetlight. Those six lights are six riders, strung out in line, strongest to weakest. They are training. In the dark.
The winter moth is one of very few moths that is active in the cold.
I am an ardent cyclist. As a New Englander, I pride myself on pushing the edge of winter cycling. Very few days pass without me throwing a leg over a bicycle. But you will not find me spinning my way up to the water tower in the blackness, looping at the top, diving down and hitting the hill again.
Winter Moths are considered an invasive species in North America. I find them stuck to the front door, sheltering in the heat of the lantern that hangs beside it. They sit quite still, even if, as my five-year-old is wont to do, you squash them. The are stubborn, intractable and persistent.
The only reason I know there are cyclists on the hill at that time of not-yet-day, is that my dog’s bodily functions sometimes force me from bed and out into the park before the alarm clock administers its daily shock therapy. Standing there at the edge of the road, dog urine steaming from the frosty grass, I watch six souls, heartier and more committed than I am, slogging their way up that cruel incline.
“There go the winter moths, ” I say to Eddie. He wags his tail and turns for home, where it’s warm and smells of brewing coffee.
What I most admire about those cyclists who ride the steepest hill over and over while the rest of the neighborhood sleeps is that they are completely anonymous. I have never seen Hushovd or Hincapie, Cancellara or Contador on that hill. If the winter moths are racers, it is at a level that will never be subjected to the hortatory stylings of Liggett or Sherwen. It is with no support vehicle, no soigneur to kneed tired muscles before work.
The pro peloton is full of hornets and fire flies, riders with the strength to sting and the style to dazzle, but then, they’re paid for their efforts. As this off-season grinds toward the New Year, we will see more and more of our heroes tweeting about training camps on Grand Cayman and Mallorca, and all the while the winter moths will be riding.
Straight up the steepest hill. In the dark.
It’s still winter. It’s still cold. There’s snow down. Ice. Sand and grit. The wind is a flying dagger and the pavement is a black hole. Every night as I ride home in the dark, pedaling in and out of the glare of a million hostile headlights, I feel as though I’m on the moon. The wintertime road is a lonely place, a seeming light year from spring.
They say that discretion is the better part of valor, and that truism has been echoing in my head for the last month. Some weeks ago, I rode home with the air temperature at 9 and the wind gusting to 45mph. It was, as the kids say, epic. And perhaps stupid. My doctor friends warned me of the possible consequences of “exercising” in extreme temperatures. My wife looked at me askance and shook her head. Her eyes said, “Would it have killed you to take the bus?”
Of course, I’ve been reading a lot of my fellow sufferers lately. They talk about the form they’ll have in the spring, the misery of couchtime, the boredom of the trainer.
But I come back to discretion. Perhaps it would be better to take this time off, rest my body and hit the spring fresh. I could scale the mountain of books by my bedside with two full hours of reading on the train each day. The trainer is boring, but I can do laundry while I spin in place. To everything turn, turn, turn.
This winter is taking its toll on me. I am physically exhausted from riding into the wind every day. I have a chest cold that is moving into its third week of residency in my thorax. My skin appears to be sagging like the legs of a fat man’s bike shorts. I am slow. I am worn smooth, like a river stone. I am a winter shadow of my summer self.
Is this what the last section of pavé in Roubaix feels like? Is this what the third week of a Grand Tour comes down to? Is this my Mont Ventoux?
The word ‘toll’ denotes a price paid for some privilege, usually passage over a road. In that regard, I’ve certainly thrown the metaphoric coins in the metaphoric basket by continuing to scale the snow bank in front of my house with my bicycle slung over my shoulder.
In a tertiary definition, Webster’s also talks of that price being “grievous or ruinous.” In this connotation of the word, the toll is seen to be excessive, and maybe this is how I resolve my enduring ambivalence about this daily struggle. On the one hand, I’m paying for a privilege. I’m gaining access to something others aren’t allowed. And if that toll isn’t, in the final analysis, either grievous or ruinous, then perhaps the strictest discretion, those bits of reason that would put me on the couch in front of winter reruns or on the trainer, in the basement, next to the dryer, that discretion is not the better part of valor.
The better part of valor is softening your knees as you roll through a patch of slushy ice, keeping your weight back slightly to keep the front wheel from sliding out from underneath you. And, upon arrival, telling whomever asks that no, it’s not really that cold out.