The deleterious effects of Hurricane Sandy notwithstanding, fall is normally my favorite riding season of the year. The cooler temperatures mean I can go farther, faster than I do in the oppressive summer months. I seem to be particularly susceptible to the heat, sweating like a cold coke on a summer dashboard. I dehydrate like astronaut ice cream, like the sand at the edge of the tide line.
Winter is under-rated. The snowy season has given me some of my coolest riding experiences and most challenging circumstances. From the pure joy of a cold, bright morning ride, to testing yourself against driving wind and sleet, I would never call winter my favorite, but, like an old girlfriend, we’ve had some good times together.
Spring, at least where I live, is a pretty blessed time. Exiting the cave of winter, you get that first taste of warmth, the expanding light of lengthening days. Again, you are doing more than the bare minimum. Your cycling pops like a daffodil from the frozen soil.
And let me not completely disparage summer. The salad days run long and give rise to improbable after-work rambles with friends. I struggle with hydration and the challenges of being soaked with sweat for hours on end, but it is all worth it, returning home with road grime pasted to your ankles and your helmet straps white and distended.
This week’s Group Ride asks the simple question: What is your favorite season to ride and why? Our Southern Hemispheric friends are all exiting winter now, not plunging into Autumn. I wonder how they feel about it. I wonder if anyone else suffers the summer quite the way I do.
Standing in the loom of the garage door with rain dripping from the wide jamb. Water pooling in oblong puddles in the road, small mirrors to the gray sky and power lines. The autumnal breeze sweeps the street and shuffles the few leaves not already stuck to the ground. It’s a fitful rain. Hard to tell whether what makes it to ground is from the clouds or just heavy globs stirred from the trees by the wind.
I stand there in my pristine kit, gloves still warm from the dryer, one hand on the bars, one on the saddle. This is the testing moment.
Dressed by the bedside in the shade-drawn bedroom, only the digital forecast beamed in through the phone to guide my clothing choices, now I wonder, have I gotten it right. I pull up my arm warmers, re-layer the jersey where they overlap. Snug up my light rain jacket at the collar. I try to imagine myself riding out into the maw of the weather. Without moving, I can feel the first fat, cold drops landing on my back.
I know that in an hour I will be wholly wet and not care. I will have been soaked by the rain and also from the upspray, my front wheel spitting against the downtube, the rear cascading water up my back, my chamois soaking through, cold at first, but then body-warm.
Even in this leaves-down cold I will sweat, my core temperature rising to meet the challenge of the weather. And everything will be fine and comfortable as long as I am moving, the effort drawing all my attention away from sodden socks and that one dangling drop at the front of my cap.
But in this testing moment I always waver. Those first minutes of soak-through and of real body cold are deeply imprinted. I know them like I know their opposites, the first sip of hot coffee on the other end of the ride, or the steamy warmth of the shower with road grime streaming off my legs.
I could not be doing this. I could turn and hang the bike from its hook and walk straight back up the stairs into the dry, warm kitchen. The wife would hardly bat an eye. The kids, anaesthetized by Saturday cartoons, never knew I left, wouldn’t register my return. No one is forcing me out. There is no noble purpose. This is a practical matter.
This is how I go to meet myself. This is how I reconnect to the world after I’ve spent the week with abstraction and distraction, gazing into this glowing rectangle, trying to make it pay. The way is cold and wet today, but it is the only way to get where I need to go.
It all comes full circle in my head, and then I’m just standing there in the half shelter of the garage. I throw my leg over and push out into the ride, cleats snapping into pedals, pedals turning over, the trees shaking their leaves in a warning I ignore.
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A virtue of cycling is as seasons pass, we take note of it. As I ride to work each morning & home each evening, summer’s sun is leaving us. The sun lazily breaks later and later each day and the evening dusk arrives earlier and earlier. This tightening of time doesn’t make allowances for the cyclist who wants to ride early before work nor do the darkening shadows allow for one to work late unrepentantly, expecting to catch the local Tuesday night world championships later, for now sunlight is lost.
Autumn’s setting sun reminds me of the old adage of the 5 o’clock shadow, much like my dad’s 5 o’clock shadow salt and pepper beard he evidenced after his long day at work. It was obvious he was no longer fresh, and had just done a full day of work as he came home dirty from welding, carrying his empty steel lunch pail, his posture a bit broken with a slowed gait, his eyes tired. And after a moment of refreshing, he would be ready for more. A virtual parallel to our 5 o’clock shadow—as cyclists, we pass from a season, dirty, tired, our lunch pails empty, having done a full season’s work, and are now in need of respite.
Every season to the cyclist has both obvious items that we take away and other items may be taken away from it that are more obscure. Autumn’s lowering shadows across the golden brown landscape brings with it indifference for this rider, for there are feelings of Thanksgiving to the moderating temperatures. Whereas one should find contentment in that and be fully satisfied, the reality that there also is a sense of contempt because temperatures will fall for the next three months as winter’s chill will seek to suck out the marrow from our bones. For now we go for free rides ever mindful that there really is nothing for free and that there is an price we will pay for our obsession in winter. These things are obvious to us, obscure is knowing exactly what lies ahead.
As we ride in autumn we duly recognize there is a season past. The year’s accomplishments are but a memory. The memory of summer’s sun, southerly tailwinds, the endless miles that have seamlessly ticked over, the PRO’s season all are on the forefront of our mind’s eye. It indeed does bring a smile to our faces as we spin and reflect and after all, autumn seems to a most appropriate season of remembrance. If we are honest with ourselves, this introspection enables and empowers us in reflection on the season’s accomplishments and thus improve ourselves—both maximizing our strength and improving our weaknesses. And with that the grim reminder of old man winter’s latency is but around the corner and not all of us live in sunny California. Here in the Midwest, spring defeated old man winter and the cold grip he held. Spring liberated us as cyclists to throw our windblock bib tights into the bottom drawer and don our lite summer jersey … but … old man winter is back like a bad smell and he is leering from the corner of the room.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International