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
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.
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 a mouthful to say, for sure. It’s not the sort of thing you want to walk into a shop and ask for unless the shop is as well-versed in Castelli’s line as, say, the Apple Store is in iPhone Apps.
A few months ago I wanted to revisit the concept of the thermal bib, I requested a set of Castelli’s Claudio Bib Shorts. I’d been looking at different thermal bibs and an introduction to Castelli’s Nano material at Interbike (which involved a cup of water, four tired legs and a bench) led me to the conclusion that the Claudio was a fresh take on an old but rare idea.
The SG0.6 Short-Sleeve Base Layer was included in the package in, ‘Hey, check this out’ style. Initially, I didn’t appreciate its finer qualities, namely light weight and a wind-proof front. It’s a rare combination, but we weren’t far enough into the South Bay fall to call for anything of that ilk. Heck, even the Claudios were a stretch for that time of year.
I pulled the SG0.6 Short-Sleeve Base Layer out for the first time last week. I’ve done laundry almost every day since just so I can wear the base layer as routinely as humanly possible. It’s as wind-proof as aluminum sheeting but as light as saran wrap. The combination of gossamer weight and impervioutuity (new word, you heard it here first) to wind make it the perfect piece to pair with the Claudio Bib Shorts. Not that you need the Claudios to make use of this base layer, but honestly, if it’s cold enough to make you think that a pair of bib shorts made from Roubaix Lycra is a good and helpful thing, then this base layer will clarify that comfort isn’t as arbitrary as cell phone coverage in the mountains.
Anything this wind-proof would, based on a description alone, would make me think that it was front-heavy, as in thick like an incumbent and inflexible like a values-based PAC. What’s remarkable is just how wrong that assumption is. The SG0.6 material (I’m sorry, but that name is dumber than a trailer park in a flood plain) is one of those materials for which we probably pay a royalty to NASA. Nothing could be this windproof and light without having first been to space. Thank God they only use it in the front. The rest of the garment has to breathe like new wine to keep you from sweating to death under the SG0.6 material.
No matter. It seems more durable than my son’s forehead and it dries faster than sand in the desert, which means I should be able to get through this winter with only one of them. Good thing. The suggested retail on these is more than I’m willing to spend on an exquisite Pinot. Even on special on the Interwebs, they can go for $70, which is about what I expect to pay for the run-of-the-mill jersey, not a base layer.
As part of Castelli’s Rosso Corsa line, it was worn by the Cervelo Test Team; even if they didn’t win more often thanks to it, I can guarantee they were more comfortable for having it. The base layer comes in one color—white—and six sizes (S-3XL) so you should be able to find one that fits you. These run small though; if you’re a medium in most brands, you’ll be a large in the Castelli.
I shouldn’t be surprised that anything nearly bulletproof would be pricey, but it takes something akin to chutzpah to market a $100 base layer. It takes brilliance to make one worth the price, though.
If there’s a better winter base layer, I’ve yet to try it.
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.