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
I try not to write about weather too much, even though, as a cyclist, I am fairly obsessed with what is happening outside. I monitor a variety of meteorological services more than once a day to stay up to the minute, to glean every possible detail before I step out the door.
Is it a problem? I don’t know. I think I could quit if I really wanted to.
And in bringing up winter (again), I am only too aware that many of our regular readers are in Australia, not to mention the other cycling nations who cling steadfastly to the underside of the planet. So bear with me.
Yesterday, the local department of public works carted 15 bags of leaves away from my house. This event marks, in my mind, the true beginning of winter. With all the leaves down, there is nothing left but for the snow to fly. Of course, in true New England fashion we marked the passing of the leaves with a bracing round of icy rain showers that made my regular Friday morning ride into something of a survival event.
I find myself wondering when the winter is going to winter on us. I know my friends in Minnesota are no longer wondering. It’s already wintering there.
This week’s Group Ride asks a few weather-related questions. First, how heavy a winter is coming our way? And who do you believe when they tell you what it will be like? Second, how deep into it will you ride? What are your criteria for staying off the bike? If you ride straight through, what is your key to surviving the worst days? For our friends in the Southern Hemisphere, you will be coming into summer now. How did you do this past cold season?
I need a favor. As I type, the leading edge of a winter storm that local meteorologists are calling “significant,” “historic,” “potentially dangerous,” “severe,” and the subtle but chastening “non-trivial,” is showering us with small, angry flakes. Predictions for final accumulations are being made in feet, rather than inches.
So I’m off the bike today.
Instead of converting glycogen to watts, I’ll be converting wood to smoke. Any exercise I get today and probably tomorrow will best be measured in shovel/inches, a unit that captures the density and weight of the snow rather poorly, but does give some representation of gross work done. The small, plug-in snow blower I went halfsies on with my neighbor a few months back must surely be cowering back in the corner of his garage, worrying about its worthiness to do battle with a blizzard.
But enough about me, and on to you.
You are riding today. It may be winter, but you are a hearty soul. Or, you live in a place where this storm is only an obscure news story. Perhaps it’s even summer where you are. Hello, Southern Hemisphere! You’re in the thick of it. You’re living the dream.
Today’s Group Ride just wants to hear about your ride. Is it warm? Is it dry? How far are you going? Who are you riding with? Are you fit? Are you psyched? Or are you just spinning out the minutes on the trainer, cursing the winter weather warnings and trying to build some base? Give me something to think about while I shovel and curse and then dry my feet by the fire.
My wheels traced black ribbons in the snow and my breath was a great billowing gust and the flakes swirled in my headlight like a million darting, cold mosquitoes. All up and down the road, lights blazed in living rooms and kitchens, people arriving home to get dinner started, to be safe and warm and whole and well. And I felt my place in the world, in the saddle, keenly, the weather shutting out thoughts of anything other than my work at the pedals and the promise of the embracing warmth of my own home.
I labored up the hill and wondered at the heaviness of my legs in their winter form, but was glad for the struggle, heat rising in my chest and pushing out at my temples. The world seemed ordered and perfect, as it often does when I’m on my bike and the traffic hasn’t followed me up some obscure back road. Somewhere near the crest, I glanced to my left and saw a squirrel laying dead in the middle of the road, his lifeless form a silhouette in the white dusting.
For some reason I pulled up and stopped.
The neighborhood was winter quiet, darkness heavy as a stone, and my breath quickly fogged my glasses, turning the street lights to Van Gogh haze. I pulled them off and felt the cold in the moisture at the corners of my eyes. I stood there in the road peering down at my small dead friend and thought about what had brought him there. The poor guy, grown to fatness but unlucky on an out-of-the-way lane, beyond saving, beyond comfort. There but for the grace…
I stayed with him for another minute, thought to take a picture to remember how perfect and still he seemed, but my double-gloved hands wouldn’t find my phone and a moment’s reflection told me it was a creepy idea. And then a snow flake snuck in at my collar, landed on my neck, and reminded me that I was still among the living, standing tragi-comically on the centerline with a deceased rodent.
Is this the feeling Frost was trying to capture in Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening? My 8-year-old had recited it to me just a few nights earlier. I remember memorizing it when I was his age, or just a bit older, another assignment I didn’t understand in a long string of rote efforts, not unlike riding a bicycle, that would later yield inspiration.
I get it now, even if the horse is a bike and the woods are a catacomb of neighborhood streets, a recent roadkill the thing that brings me up short. It’s about savoring these transcendent moments of twinkling beauty, the brief pauses that crowd out life’s persistent pestering. And they can only be brief, cold creeping into your bones, time grinding its way forward, the Earth and its never ceasing rotation/revolution/hurtling through space.
Frost knew in his winter reverie that he had miles still to go. His poems are always tinged with melancholia. There is a nearly audible sigh at the end of Stopping by Woods. I pushed off and clicked back into my pedals, steadied myself against the slight slipperiness of the new fallen snow and made for the warm place where I had promises to keep. They are, after all, good promises.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
In certain latitudes, if you mean to ride through the winter, you need to put some time into clothing strategy. One approach is simply to wear more stuff. Long sleeve baselayer, wool jersey, windproof jacket. Sometimes two jerseys. Sometimes with a vest. Two pairs of gloves. Etc. Etc. This can be an effective, if scatter shot, strategy that almost always means you are wearing or carrying more clothing than you actually need. It also takes a lot of laundry cycles to maintain.
The Pearl Izumi P.R.O. 3×1 takes a different tack, an integrated garment that is very serious about riding in very cold weather. It combines a top-of-the-line windproof soft-shell with a snap-in quilted Primaloft mid-layer and balaclava. When it arrived at my home, I took about half-an-hour to pick through it, understand its various connections, evaluate its fabrics and to appreciate the amount of design that went into its creation. I slipped it on in front of the mirror and was impressed. Immediately, I could tell it would be the single warmest thing I had every worn on the bike, and I was anxious (and a little fearful) to test it in some difficult conditions.
Over time, I wore all three components, both together and on their own, in a variety of cold weather riding conditions to get a sense for each piece, as well as the whole. It is important to note that this is not a commuter piece. It’s designed for long rides in tough conditions, and I found that it served that purpose well.
My first ride was winter warm, 39F degrees, so I donned just the outer soft-shell with a long sleeve base layer, and it was impressively warm, all on its own, too warm, in fact, for my relatively short commute. I should mention, at this point, that I run pretty warm, probably 10F degrees warmer than the average rider, so warmth is almost never my problem, heat transfer is.
Heat transfer is actually the whole ballgame for winter riding apparel in my estimation. If simply staying warm were the challenge, there are any number of thin, light, insulated jackets that would do the job. The problem with those garments is that, though they hold warmth extremely well, they don’t dissipate it when it becomes too much. The great challenge for any winter riding gear is to build and store the right amount of heat without becoming a mobile steam bath.
My second ride in the PI 3×1 was at 32F, and again I used only the outer shell. Over the same short distance, I was still too warm, and I began to think that I was going to have to pan the whole jacket as poor at its job, but in reality, I only needed to find the right conditions to make the 3×1 shine.
The next day the mercury settled in at a more wintry 23F, and I donned the complete system to test its mettle in what I imagined was its more natural climate. If you can push out from the driveway on a day like that and not feel a whiff of cold, you are wearing a formidable garment. The balaclava is nice in that it is designed to come up over your nose, but the way the nose section is cut allows it to nestle securely on your chin as well. There are vents at the ears, so you still get enough sound from your surroundings to keep from being flattened by approaching trucks. I warmed quickly, was briefly too warm, and then settled in at a comfortable temperature for the rest of my trip.
The 3×1 doesn’t transfer heat quickly. It doesn’t just cool down with a zipper adjustment or a loosening of vents, but it does settle to a nice, comfortable temp over time. This is probably the right strategy for riding in more extreme temperatures, when you don’t want to worry about dumping too much heat too quickly and going hypothermic.
In succeeding rides I had the opportunity to test the shell in a frosty rain/snow mix, and found that I stayed warm and dry in a way that made what is perhaps my least favorite weather, fairly comfortable. I can’t tell you the point at which the shell no longer tolerates moisture and leaks, because I didn’t find it.
It’s windproofness is also excellent. 27F with a 20mph wind? No problem. Even in that scenario familiar to anyone who rides in these conditions, whipping down a hill with the wind in your face, the bridge of your nose stinging from the cold, the jacket and balaclava insulated me completely from suffering.
Initially, I had a hard time envisioning the market for this product. Minneapolis, Green Bay, Alaska? But over time I could see that the ability to mix and match the three pieces, on top of being able to use the whole system for the worst winter days, make it an exceptional value (at $375 MSRP), to anyone who rides through a real winter.
The fit is true to size and what I’d call race cut, slim, longer in back, long in the arms, meant to be stretched out over a top tube. I am normally a solid medium, but was able to squeeze into a small. If you are on the small side of medium, I would consider sizing down to maintain close body fit.
The sleeves are articulated. It has a nice single rear pocket that is subdivided internally to keep your stuff organize as well as two easy-access chest pockets for phone and/or small foods.
What I return to, over and over, when I talk about this jacket, is its seriousness. I have owned jackets and liners and mid-layers and balaclavas and ear warmers and any number of winter accessories all of which was meant to be cobbled together to achieve some level of winter riding comfort. I have not, in my time on the bike, ever encountered as integrated and thoughtful a winter riding piece as this. If you want to do long miles while the rest of the world is having their winter off-season, the Pearl Izumi P.R.O. 3×1 is a worthy piece of equipement, the difference between cobbling it together and dialing it in.
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
After flogging my road bikes around town all summer and early fall, the change in the weather has me thinking about the perfect everyday bike. Of course, where you live has a lot to do with what you ride.
I live in Boston. It snowed here last night shortly after it finished raining daggers. I was on my road bike with a stupid, clipped-on fender, and I got soaked and spent too much ride time wondering what hypothermia actually feels like. You start to feel warm, don’t you?
Yeah, that didn’t happen.
My challenges are: 1) I like to go fast. I do not have the patience to ride an upright bike with fat tires, fenders, panniers, etc. 2) I live at the top of a steep hill. The end of every ride features a kilometer that varies between 6% and 14%. It’s not a back breaker at all, but it’s always there whether I feel strong…or not. 3) We get a lot of rain, snow and in between slop.
So how do I go fast, keep a gear small enough to climb a real hill and keep the weather off me, all at the same time?
My current thinking is to build out a titanium cross bike with an internally geared rear hub. I’d run mini V-brakes for better stopping power. I’d put 28mm or 30mm tires on it and a good pair of fenders.
The titanium will resist the rust that comes from so much water and salt being sprayed at the frame for so many months out of the year. The internal hub will also add to weatherproofness and simplicity. I need my everyday bike to need less tuning. Simplicity is good. The mini Vs will stop when they’re wet. I have never run a pair of cantis that had that ability. In Boston’s winter rush hour, you want to be able to stop. Your life depends on it. Finally, the slightly wider tires give me stability in bad conditions, but still stay skinny enough to make time across town. I hate fenders, but they’re a no-brainer.
I think I will build this bike. Given my time constraints, I should have it ready for the first sunny day of Spring.
Anyway…this week’s Group Ride asks the question: What is your perfect everyday bike? Build it out for us. Explain your choices.
Do you live in the flats where a single-speed demon will do the trick? Do you live in a warm, dry place, where you can ride your carbon race bike 360 days a year? Do you live in the Yukon and have designs on a snow bike with 4inch tires? I cling to the perhaps foolish belief that there really is a perfect bike out there, and that if I listen to those who know better, and think as hard as I can, I will eventually build that bike and ride it all the way to the grave.
What you are about to read involves no bike. In this case, it really isn’t about the bike, because there isn’t one. There is only snow and ice and slush and wind, narrow, choked roadways, invisible sidewalks, copious amounts of wool and down, rock salt and sand.
Here in New England we are enduring a winter that failed to read the record books before unleashing its snowy fury on us. I could wax all hyperbolic about it, but suffice it to say that even the hardiest souls have nowhere to ride their bicycles. Mine are hanging from the rafters of the garage. I’ll not mention them again.
In the morning, I take my oldest son to kindergarten. Normally, this is a short walk across a beautiful park, but this isn’t normal and the walk, despite remaining the same distance, is no longer short.
Just today, my boy and I were inching our way down the street (the park is waist deep) clinging to the four foot snow banks to keep passing cars from spraying us with a syrupy mix of salt, sand and melting snow. I had the dog with me, because he hasn’t been out except to answer nature’s call in three days. Every few feet we had to stop to scrape the salt out from in between his paws. It collects there and stings until he’s limping and whimpering and sorry he didn’t just stay on the couch. Even with two cups of coffee sloshing around in the tank, I was struggling to put a happy face on the day.
And then it occurred to me.
This is just a different flavor of suffering. And I know about suffering. In better weather, this is a thing I seek out, cultivate and measure myself against it. It is an essential ingredient in my sanity, such as it is.
So beneath my hood and under my wool hat, down between my ears where I am always warm, I simply shifted gears. It is true that life is all headwind at the moment, but if I down shift and keep my head down, if I hide in the peloton and keep the pedals ticking over, eventually I will arrive.
I know how to suffer.