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
Every Christmas my mother buys me a book. We are book people, and the gift is a great way to reconnect with each other over the words that have knit us together since I was a kid raiding her shelves to stoke a literary curiosity which, thankfully, burns on.
In recent years, this book has been a cycling tomb. The Death of Marco Pantani, Merkx: Half Man, Half Bike and Laurent Fignon’s We Were Young and Carefree have all appeared beneath my tree, and so I have come to associate the holiday with cycling books, if only because it’s the one time of year I get a few days to read in (mostly) uninterrupted stretches.
If cycling literature is part of your holiday as well, you might consider Andrew Homan’s Life in the Slipstream: The Legend of Bobby Walthour, Sr. Walthour was a leading light in the turn-of-the-century racing scene in America, an Atlanta bicycle messenger turned velodrome sprinter and pace-following pioneer.
For those who have read and enjoyed Todd Balf’s Major Taylor biography, Homan’s Walthour treatment fills in that history with sketches of still more of the characters who populated early pro cycling in this country. While the mercurial Georgia boy serves as main character, the really compelling thing about the book is the way Homan conjures the passions of rapidly evolving sports entertainment.
Part endurance sport, part daredevil show, the cycling of those times was big business and the nation was in thrall to its drama and personalities. Much the way Balf’s book shone the light on an era when cycling was king, Homan’s book reinforces the idea that sport as entertainment was born of the same forces that gave us, by turns, baseball, basketball and football, a reminder that any sport’s time in the limelight can be generationally fleeting.
Homan writes in the McPhee style, the story moving forward on a tide of well-researched details brought vividly to life with the odd, well-chosen adjective. The author knows that, in Walthour, he has all the character he needs, so he dutifully stays out of the way to let the story tell itself. It makes for a thoroughly enjoyable and easy read. You might finish it in a few sittings, maybe off to the side of the holiday proceedings, with a cup of coffee or a (small) glass of egg nog.