The Long, Cold, Pleasant Ride

Once the mercury drops below freezing, I generally have little motivation to ride outside for an hour. Four hours: that’s another story.

It’s probably part of cycling culture I’ve picked up over the years, on my progression from person who rides to cyclist. The best description of it is one I read in a book review by Juliet Macur of the New York Times. Reviewing Gironimo by Tim Moore, she wrote,

“Because, after writing about the sport for the past decade, I’ve learned that cyclists know a thing or two about tackling daunting physical feats just to prove a point. (Like going out for a six-hour training ride because a five-hour ride simply won’t do.).”

It’s one of the most succinct descriptions of cyclists I’ve read, and one I return to frequently, if only because I have a love of long rides.  Proving a point can be to oneself, to others, or both. The book, btw, is fun at the start, loses its way, as does the author, and becomes a bit of a challenge itself, en route to the finish.

Part of the pleasure has to do with preparation. Dressing for the cold takes longer. The extra layers make it feel like the time pulling on layers before and disrobing after are too long for the payoff of only 60 minutes of pedaling, though thicker, more costly layers, make donning threads easier.

On the other hand, when you know you need to get clothing right, the preparation has to be fairly mindful. Wear too much and you’re bathed in sweat. Wear too little and you’re never able to warm up. Or get frostbitten. When I worked at Campmor, there was a popular expression about winter hiking, “Cotton equals death.” Dressing right can make a huge difference.

The prep extends to the food and drink brought along. The stuff in the bottles has to have electrolytes, preferably calories, something I’ll want to drink even when I don’t feel I need to drink, and salty enough so it doesn’t freeze in insulated bottles. Maybe it’s my bottles, but I haven’t found a bottle or formulation that stays unfrozen after about 18-degrees Fahrenheit. Food likewise has to not freeze in the cold, and interesting enough that I don’t get bored. I tend to change food and drink in the winter, partially to prevent boredom from creeping in, partially because some foods, like chocolate covered anything, get too messy in warmer months. Mmmmn, chocolate. Thinks like cookies and Pop Tarts are also easier in the cold, if only because I’m never going that hard.

A larger part of my aversion to short rides in the cold has to do with how my body reacts in to the chill. When it’s below freezing, I usually feel warm the moment I go outside, then my body gets cool for up to 20 minutes, then it warms up and finds equilibrium. 40 minutes of equilibrium isn’t enough. On days when it’s below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, my body can take 30 minutes or more to warm up. The ratio of cool to comfortable on an hour ride is too close to even to feel the cold part is worth the comfy.

On the other hand, when I’m out for four hours, the time spent dressing, the time spent warming up feels short in comparison to the amount of time I feel comfortable.

Part of the pleasure has to do with finding and feeling that balance, the sweet spot of riding hard enough to keep warm, but not too hard to overheat. Riding too easy is just as bad as riding too hard—you’ll either lose the warmth necessary for comfort or never have the below-jacket microclimate to that point. Getting the effort just right, so you’re flowing along, without dawdling, without killing it, is a kind of meditation, an endeavor where you’re focused on the moment, paying attention to your body, while keeping your head open enough to see the world.

Once out, the appeal of riding in the cold becomes more apparent. There’s a stillness to the world, even on windy days that is hard to experience any other time of year. For one thing, few people are out. Most animals seem to be hiding as well; birds aren’t chirping, dogs aren’t hanging out in yards. While the wind blows, the rustling of leaves is gone, replaced by the creaking of trees. The sun, when not hidden by clouds, feels brighter, the air seems more clear, a crispness in both that is absent in warmer months.

Occasionally, things do go sideways. I’ve gotten used to the cold that even if there’s a forecast of a light snow, I typically go out anyways. So long as it seems unlikely that the snow sticks, or is predicted to be no more than a dusting, I’m usually going. I’ve found that I feel fairly safe so long as there’s no more than a little snow on the ground, and in most snows around there, that means I have about 90 minutes to make it home before I feel it’s too dangerous. A few years back, the forecast was wrong. 45 minutes in there was already an inch of snow on the ground. It took almost twice as long to get home. And by then, there were a few inches on the ground. Super slippery. On the plus side, I experienced snow falling upwards as I rode home over the George Washington Bridge. Never seen that before.  Maybe the good days are all the same; the bad days are memorable because they’re not, which is good, in a way.

There is fun to be had starting in the morning, and riding into the warmest part of the day. It also makes a certain kind of sense in that you can, at least theoretically, underdress a little and have the time and temp shift warm you up. The roads, too, often warm up and melt a bit making riding possibly a bit safer. But the more interesting time of day is to start in the warmer hours and ride until near sunset. While the temperature drop is an issue, and a wrong turn or flat tire can be a bit more costly, the light is usually more visually striking and the feeling of having timed the ride to perfection adds a little bonus to the miles ridden and calories burned.  Salt stains on baselayers add another bonus point.

Coming home to hot chocolate, a warm shower, and dinner finishes the day in style.

Living this dream makes indoor riding tolerable, too.  But then again, under 15 degrees Fahrenheit, and I reconsider.  But I like to blame that on not having the right clothing, or perhaps bike, for that kind of weather.


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