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.