Cycling Stories: Winter Riding

It’s no exaggeration to say that every fiber of my being rebelled at the idea of getting out of bed. It was cold in our barely-insulated farm house in rural North Carolina. Hoarfrost coated the window panes, and thin grey morning light dimly illuminated the bedroom. Under the down comforter it was snug and warm. But I know I should get up. As I shifted to slide out from the covers, my wife threw a warm arm over me and sleepily said “you don’t have to get up…just ten more minutes”. I was sorely tempted, and if you asked me why I would want to get out of a warm bed at 6.30 AM on a Saturday morning to go ride a bike outside, I couldn’t answer. I would have shrugged and said “I love the ride.”

The shock of the cold air hit me, I wrapped up in my robe and shuffled out to the dark kitchen. I put the kettle on to boil, ground some coffee for the French press and switched the space heater on. A few minutes later, I was sipping on a cup of coffee, eating some oatmeal, and thinking about the ride ahead. ‘Should I do the long route or the short route? Should I stop for lunch? Do I really feel up to climbing today?’

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The weather app on my phone said it was 23 degree outside. I checked the other app, which promised 24 degrees. The high would be 37 with 10 mph winds. I finished my breakfast and began getting ready. I laid my clothing and equipment out. I took some things out, added other things in. Eventually I was satisfied. I would be gone for at least five hours, and needed to be ready.

Thick wool socks, bib shorts, sleeveless wool baselayer, long sleeve wool baselayer, WindStopper tights, softshell jacket, wool neck warmer, skull cap, merino wool glove liners, heavy insulated gloves, cycling shoes, and shoe covers.

Into my pockets I shoved my phone, some cash and cards, a few gel packets, a set of lights, a spare set of liner gloves, a spare skull cap, and spare sleeveless baselayer.

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Winter is the season for LSD (long steady distance) riding, and this ride wasn’t going to be an exception. I left the full carbon race bike on the rack and pulled down the rain bike, the one with the metal frame, nice relaxed geometry, compact crank, and alloy wheels. I filled up two bottles, put my Garmin in its mount and checked the saddlebag contents, ensuring I would have all the tools necessary.

The moment I stepped outside it hit me like a slap in the face. 23 seems like just a number, but this was a real, physical thing. Again, I felt half tempted to just forget it. To go back inside, remove all these layers and get back into bed like any sane, rational person. But I did’t. I would miss the ride. I headed onto the road, and instantly felt chilled. The muscles took forever to warm up. There was no hurry, no need to push it. All I have to do is pedal. I felt the deep peace I always feel on the road begin to wash over me, and I began to settle into the rhythm of the ride. As I crossed the bridge over the lake, my mind cleared of all the work worries I’d carried with me into the weekend, the worries about budgeting for the holidays. This was my time to sink into myself and let my mind quiet for a few hours, and the cold only intensified the feeling.

There is a certain beauty to riding in the winter. Anyone can get up and ride on a sunny 80 degree day, but it takes fortitude to get out and ride when you don’t want to. You will be cold, you will suffer like a dog, and you will at times question why you do this. But, like anything else, the joy is found in the small things. A warm coffee shop. The empty roads. A beautiful vista, a hot meal, the feeling of flying when you find a nice straight stretch of road behind you with the wind at your back all take on a new significance that will stay with you for the rest of the day. And believe me, home has never seemed so inviting as when you pull up in the fading, cold evening light to see the windows lit, throwing warm, welcoming streaks of light on the snow.

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30 miles later, I hit one of my favorite stretches of road. I was riding into the headwind, and was working hard, every turn of the cranks feeling like an immense effort. But I didn’t care. I crested a hill, and it came into view. It’s an area where the usual dense pine forest opens up into empty farm country. At these higher elevations bits of snow still clung to the side of the road, and stuck to shadowy spots. The fields were barren and covered in frost. The roads were empty. In the distance across the fields smoke rose from the chimney of a farm house, ascending into a leaden sky. I could smell the faint scent of wood smoke on the air. Something about this sight makes my breath catch in my chest. At the bottom of the hill, I pulled over, and watched an unkindness of ravens peck with purpose at the fallow fields around the house, until for reasons unknown to me they rose and took to the air, indistinct black shapes wheeled higher and higher. I watched them until the cold became too much. These are moments you never have in a car. You might catch a glimpse, but you don’t experience it the same way, and much is lost.

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At 45 miles, I passed through town, the half way mark. By then I was thoroughly damp and chilled, and I couldn’t wait to get to the coffee shop. Smells carry further on the cold, dry air, and the smell of roasted coffee beans was never so delicious. I leaned my bike against the window, noting the other bikes there. Two were familiar, one was not. I walked in, nodded hello to the other cyclists, asked them about their rides. I ordered a coffee and a cookie, and refilled my bottles. At my table, I piled up my helmet, gloves, and neck warmer, then headed to the bathroom, where I changed into my dry baselayer. Back at my table I hung my soaked liner gloves, baselayer and skullcap on the back of the chair to dry. My first sip of coffee was beyond delicious. The chocolaty smell, the deep rich taste, and the warmth suffusing through me. It was a small cup of heaven, and I prolonged it as long as I could. I sat back, took a bite of cookie, and relished in the feeling of being warm. Finally though, cookie and coffee done, it was time to go. I pulled on my spare cap and gloves, helmet and glasses, repacked my pockets, and headed back out into the cold.

As I remounted my bike, I wondered again why I do this. For a split second I contemplated making The Call.  The cold, the suffering in the wind, the long day spent away from home, is it worth it? It doesn’t matter, not really. I pedaled through the intersection and began the long climb out of town. Soon, I reached the place again where where all the worry disappeared and I found my rhythm again. I left the outskirts of town, and the wind gusted. My thoughts turned to warm soup, a cold beer, and the indescribable pleasure of my legs turning in circles. I pulled my neck warmer up to my nose and the brim of my cap down a little further.

I’m out here for the ride. It need only be as simple as that.

Sometimes it's looking forward to simple things that keep you motivated.

Sometimes it’s looking forward to simple things that keep you motivated.

One Response to Cycling Stories: Winter Riding

  1. Erica says:

    I really enjoyed this article. It’s so true that almost anyone can bike in nice weather. It feels like more of a workout in the cold and rain. Plus, the allure of espresso or a hot meal after makes it all worth it in the end!

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