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 don’t remember the last time my ass hurt, more specifically the lower connections of my gluteus maximus to my adductor magnus, that soft spot where sitting and pedaling come together. Before Sunday, I had been off the bike for something like six weeks, a combination of injury and bitter cold forcing me to concede that discretion was called for this winter, rather than valor.
But Sunday was warm, nearly 50F, and I didn’t feel I could sit on the couch any longer. Dawn cracked. I pulled up my big boy tights and set out to do some pedaling.
The first ride back is always revelatory, isn’t it? To feel your body working again, to be outside and engaged, to cover some ground under your own power, it calls up all those things elemental to cycling. And of course, there is the revelation of form, really the lack of it, the slowness, the struggling, the cruelty of the wind. Coming back up the hill to my house, I couldn’t believe how slow I was and how hard it felt. Except that I could.
My neighbor has been stealing rides between snow storms, running to keep up his fitness when the bike is a poor option. He asked me to ride with him on Saturday, and I should have gone, even just for an hour, but I was afraid. I wanted to suffer alone first, to see where I was before showing anyone else.
The good news is I still love riding bikes.
I took a slow spin into the city. No one rides into the city on purpose, but I do sometimes. The roads are all awful, snow plows and salt breaking down an already patchy network of asphalt, the pot holes spread like mines in a field. But the low winter light plays across the faces of buildings and throws shadows across the river. Winter ducks cluster at the water’s melted edge and the streets are quiet, too many people stuck in their cold weather routines to recognize the beautiful day dawning outside their windows.
It is a pain in the ass to start over, especially when there is little prospect of a quick return to form. The snow hasn’t finished with us yet, and this January thaw will fade back into frigid cold again. I won’t be piling up miles any time soon. But that’s ok. Sometimes it’s good just to remind yourself of what you’re waiting for, to roll around aimlessly and feel like a cyclist again.
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 don’t know why I woke up. Maybe one of the kids called out in his sleep. Maybe my wife shifted in the bed. It was raining. That could have been it.
The alarm was set for 5:30, the coffee maker locked and loaded, and my kit laid out on the dining room table. I had mounted lights before turning in for the evening, affixed a fender.
The rain was forecast, those little drizzle icons slotted into the hours 5 through 7, but we were resolved to ride anyway. With the temperature hovering around 60F a little rain wasn’t going to kill us. And sleeping in…well that just might.
As it turned out, the real precipitation had long since fallen when we rolled out. The roads were all puddle and shine, but the sun, as it rose, burned off the low-lying fog and dried the asphalt in short order. It turned into a gorgeous morning.
I commented on just how perfect it was to my riding companion, and he smiled and said yes, and that it was almost disappointing how much better it turned out than anticipated. We’d have to put off feeling tough for another day.
This time of year (Fall in New England), consistency and rhythm and that pure, pig-headed, Yankee perseverance become the valuable currency of winter riding. Nary a flake has fallen. The wind hasn’t yet drawn its daggers, but if you’re not riding now, you’re probably not riding later.
Just like any Grand Tour, if you miss the transition, you don’t ride the next stage.
So I wake up in the night, hear rain and instead of mentally cancelling a planned ride, I lay my head down and sleep lightly, anticipating the alarm. It’s only October, but it might as well be January 1st. It’s time to locate warmers of every shape and application, to begin devising layering strategies, and above all, to keep riding.
This week’s Group Ride asks, how do you manage the fall/winter transition? Do you pack it in or gear up? How do you maintain motivation as the going gets tough? Can you take time off and get back on when the weather is inclement?
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
My first New England winter was an ordeal of such profound and biting discomfort that it served as not just an education, but an expansion of the possible, both in terms of conditions man could live in, and a larger indication of just how inhospitable the universe can be. I nailed a blanket over my drafty bedroom window, dressed in four layers and gave up all cold foods for the season, thus depriving myself of peanut butter and jelly, a staple of such reliable presence in my life I never once considered giving it up for Lent, good Catholic that I was.
In February, when I got my courage up enough to attempt road rides that passed the wind-scarred potato fields of the Hadley farmers, I struggled to find the exact mix of wardrobe necessary to prevent the wind’s blade from penetrating straight to my marrow. I had neither the knowledge nor the patience to understand how riding easy would allow me to generate enough heat to keep me warm. Instead, I would charge out my door and sprint past sensibility and straight to ill-advised, drippy perspiration. I’d return home sooner than anticipated, but long after I’d started to go hypothermic, too destroyed to reflect on my mistakes, thus doomed to repeat them a day or two later.
I took note of what the local Cat. Is and IIs were wearing. We had a half dozen of them and I did my best to do whatever they were willing to suggest. I pestered them with questions, and while I use the plural, “questions,” the fact is, I kept asking a single question over and over: “What’s that?” Coming from well below the Mason-Dixon Line, I was familiar with shorts, jerseys, thin Lycra tights and windbreakers, but nothing more sophisticated or specialized than that. I’d yet to even learn what bib shorts were.
I couldn’t help but notice that all the cool team kits that I had eyed with envy the previous fall had been interrupted by garments awash in sponsor names new to me. Guys were pulling out their very heaviest pieces, thermal jerseys, Roubaix tights and bibs, insulated and windproof arm warmers and booties, lobster gloves not to mention secret-weapon base layers we never saw.
The combined effect was a garish mish-mash of earth tones and neons, pastels offset by saturated vibrant hues. In short, it was a kaleidoscope disaster as offensive to the eye as static is to the ear. Of course, at a certain point, wearing the most retinal-scorching combination became a kind of competition, evolving beyond one’s need for insulation on those coldest rides to the worst possible combination on merely cold days. These were the occasions to pull out those Roubaix bibs, no matter what they said on the side. Extra points went to those who could make a pair of team tights or leg warmers peak from beneath a pair of another team’s bibs. Ditto for combining a thermal vest with mismatched jersey and arm warmers. Double points if that short-sleeve jersey was thermal. The nod always seemed to go to the riders with the greatest history, the Cat Is and IIs who through dint of their experience could turn a pile of Lycra into an abstract expressionist’s canvas, slashing the air with more light than the optic nerve was designed to carry.
At its heart, the anti-kit is about comfort rather than looks, even if the look cultivated is deliberately contrary. It’s an acknowledgement that mother nature trumps all other loyalties, and beating the elements is survival itself. It embodies the message that form doesn’t always follow function, that suffering isn’t in the gear but in the effort, that a body wrapped to face the elements is the body that meets the winter willingly, able to find a reason—after all these years—to stay out, rather than turn home.
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.
With full apologies to our friends in the Southern Hemisphere, winter has begun to arrive in my New England home. Like the first guests showing up to a party, winter is milling about in the living room, eating chips and making small talk. We’re not in full force yet. The cops haven’t knocked on the door to tell us to quiet down, but the music is playing and it’s on.
This morning, with the temp at 29F (-2C) and a fair wind blowing, I opted for a sleeveless, synthetic base layer, a long-sleeve wool base over that, a wool jersey and then a super-thin wind breaker. Wind front tights. A pair of RKP wool socks, with a thicker wool sock over top, and then toe warmers, in lieu of booties.
If the wind weren’t blowing, I’d have foregone the windbreaker and maybe chosen a vest. The beauty of multiple wool layers is that they create layers of warmth, but still breathe. They allow me to practice my own personal cold weather riding strategy, which requires spending the first five minutes of the ride legitimately cold, before settling into the perfect range for long-term pedaling.
I like a thin windbreaker or vest, because I can always pocket it once I’m warm, which I can’t do with the myriad thermal jackets out there. I don’t like to be cold, but I really don’t like to be overly warm either.
I find that one or two of the pieces need to cover my neck. If my neck is warm, I can ignore a lot of cold on my arms.
When things get serious, and they will, then I’ll switch over to Gore-Tex shoes and a heavier, waterproof wind jacket. All of this seems to work for me, given the conditions here, and the only piece I’m still trying to figure out is the gloves.
I like to maintain manual dexterity, so I eschew lobster gloves, but I find that no one really makes a bomb proof, warm winter glove. If you’re a glove maker, and you’re reading this, and you think you have a glove that will do the job, send it to me, and I will run the rule over it.
My friend Neil maintains that makers of cycling apparel just don’t understand gloves, and he only wears ski gloves in winter. I have ski gloves that mostly do the trick, but they’re big and bulky and not all that attractive (I am unfortunately vain). Is there an ideal glove out there?
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: What is your basic, cold weather strategy? What items do you incorporate that we might not suspect? What gloves do you like? I know some of you are using chemical hand (and foot) warmers. Tell us your best kept secrets. Tell us what you’ve tried that doesn’t work. Winter is here, now how do we beat it?
Image: © Neil Doshi
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.