The Toll

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.

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  1. Souleur

    Wonderful prose and insight, as usual.

    I have been lately meditating upon our passion and sacrifice during this time of year. Our winter riding isn’t really sacrifice, your correct, its a toll for the privilege, and it may be collected now in january or later in spring. I prefer the prior.


  2. Blake Barrilleaux

    Nobody’s pushing you out the door. Quit yer bitching. Then put another notch in your “I rode more than you” belt and carry on, me ol’ son.

  3. Velosopher

    “Yes” to all your thoughts. And well-written. And. Be aware… I rode through a chest cold in similar temps last year and ended up missing about two months of training — because the chest cold turned into pneumonia which I didn’t get checked out until too late. Hope you stay well, and then… suffer like a dog, brag like a stag.

  4. Jim Morehouse

    Whenever you’re in doubt, watch the 1985 Paris Roubaix race. And then go out and ride. There’s not that much time left. Use it well. Ride the bike, ride the bike, ride the bike.

  5. hans

    Yes – be very careful about any chest cold and if it has lingered for three weeks (!) then you should really get it checked out asap.

    I thought the rule of thumb was: If you are sick above the neck, train all you want. If it is below the neck – STOP, do not pass go and sit on the couch with some chicken soup until it has passed.

    It is not necessary to dig yourself a trench that (as Velosopher points out) may take you months to get out of!

    Be careful!

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  7. Robot

    Thanks all for comments and concern. I have been off the bike for a few days, and, oddly, am feeling better, though a little stir crazy. Funny how riding really becomes physically (and mentally) addictive.

    Where are my endorphins?

  8. velosopher

    Really glad to hear you’re feeling better. Chest colds have to really be watched, they’re insidious. I thought that was all I had (for four weeks) before I went to the doc and he diagnosed it walking pneumonia and gave me antibiotics, which killed it over the course of a few weeks. Yuck.

    Man, do I know what you mean about those endorphins!! When I skip a day or more this winter to maintain overall health (skittish after last winter) I tell myself, “Better a few days now than a couple months later.” Usually works… Meantime, there’ll be Tour of Qatar to look forward to…??!! Oh, well.

  9. Aaron Hawkins

    This is the first winter in some time that I’ve really “behaved.” If it is truly too cold to warm up and be productive, I do an hour on the rollers and follow up with a good turbo session. I used to suffer as a bike messenger all year long, with rain, snow, tornadoes (Midwest), and if I don’t have to be out in the nastiest, coldest weather, I just skip it. I don’t miss my fingers looking like they belonged to a corpse, or my face cracking from the wind. I used to be sick all winter long, and now, I can actually breathe and feel good.

    I know that doing those character building miles is important, but as I get wiser, I just try to keep the health up, and expose myself to less brutal weather.

    So, don’t think any less of yourself, just stay healthy, I missed a whole season last year because of illness and injuries due to bad off-season training.


  10. WheelDancer

    It’s always a pleasure reading about another soul slogging through the winter on two wheels. For me the chest cold is the quickest way to get me off the bike since I tend to get bronchitis very easily. Good to hear you are on the mend.

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