The Most Difficult Thing About Winter Cycling

3 01 2011

It’s not the cold. It’s not the snow or the slush or the salt or the muck. It’s not the ice, even when you get right down to it (FTR, falling on ice > road rash). It’s not buying the perfect bike, or the right set of tires, or the right technical clothing. It’s not finding a light with batteries that aren’t affected by the cold or making your presence known to drivers who aren’t expecting you. And it’s certainly not the windchill.

The most difficult thing for me about winter cycling is the moments before I cross the threshold and leave the house.  The anticipation of the cold and the snow and the ever changing conditions is always worse than whatever the conditions of this frozen city actually are.

At the top of this parkade there is a giant pile of snow and a pretty cool view of snow and fog enveloping downtown.

Every morning brings a twinge of dread when I look out the window or check the forecast. Every morning, doubt worms its way into my head and tries to convince me that I can’t make it cross town under my own power on a two wheeled machine. Even though I know that I always feel better after a ride than before one. Even though I know that I’ll be warmer riding than waiting for a train or sitting on a bus. Even though I have never regretted a ride, but have certainly regretted not riding. A little momentum can take you to your goal, but the most difficult part is creating momentum when you start out with none. Everything gets easier after that.

This cool view doesn't have much to do with my post, except it wouldn't have happened had I not been riding like everyday was an adventure.

When people (outside of the bike scene) initially find out I ride all winter, I am pretty used to them thinking I’m crazy. I’ll often protest, “No, actually it’s pretty fun! And you’re moving so you stay warm. I don’t mind at all! It’s a great way to go, fast, cheap & good exercise. And my studded tires grip ice better than my boots…”

But as I peer out the window at my frozen bikes on a cold winter morning, I wonder, for a moment, if I really am crazy, and if this lifestyle actually is a bad choice. I’ve never counted, but I believe it takes me about 2 – 5 cranks of the chain (depending on how cold it is) to completely alleviate this doubt, at least until the next cold winter morning.

Empty streets, mysterious atmosphere, lights up 'til Orthodox Xmas, overall a fine night for parkade topping.

Maybe I am crazy, but it’s because I doubt doing something that’s always sure to put a smile on my face.

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Return to the Valley

19 02 2010

Hills and ice are a combination I try to avoid at all costs, and as a result, I very rarely ride through the river valley in the winter, even though in the summer I credit my regular river valley detours for maintaining my sanity. This week it was warm enough, light enough and not quite melted-and-refrozen enough to tempt me to head down the hill into the river valley wilds. The bike paths were mostly snow covered, and the only icy patches were in the few places that caught the full day’s sun and the brutally glazed wooden pedestrian bridges.

The snow packed trails that snaked down near the river were a perfect match for my studded tire, and felt more forgiving than their loose gravel covered summer counterparts. There’s a place I often go in the summer after a long day in the sweatshop that I call “Secret Beach.” I decided to check out but found it was fairly nondescript underneath 2 feet of snow.

I left Ol' Nelli up the hill above Secret Beach.

View across the river from Secret Beach. Note the set of tracks that go out onto the river but don't come back. I hope they made it to the other side.

This tree is huge by E-ville standards. And everything does look this blue around dusk in the winter at this latitude.

As the trail follows the river around the bend, it becomes steeper and more exposed (hence, icy). This part of the trail was closed last summer “due to erosion,” and I don’t think it was ever officially reopened (I suspect it was random citizens who removed the signs). I won’t lie here, even on the driest summer days parts of this path genuinely scare me. But the giant trees, lush micro-climate, exciting twists and turns, lack of people and the exhilarating ride along the side of a crumbling cliff are so worth it.  I remember bringing a group of friends riding here a couple of summers ago, and some of them still talk about the time they nearly fell off a cliff into the river…

To the left, a 30 foot drop onto the river bed.

This is where I face my fear. My brain knows that my studded tires have far more traction than my cheap boots, but my body would not budge. It didn’t help that I stopped to take pictures, therefore negating any forward momentum, and allowing more time for fear to build. My brain eventually won this battle, and I cycled up the cliff as I had dozens of times before in fairer weather and on fairer bikes.

I’ve been getting over a cold this week, and am still wheezing and coughing a lot, so I wasn’t really feeling like taking a big hill to get out of the valley. The solution: the Edmonton, Yukon & Pacific Railroad, now known as the trail down Mill Creek Ravine. I could chugga chugga outta the valley on a grade so gentle it doesn’t feel like riding uphill on a shady, and thus snowy not icy, trail, and *only* end up riding an extra 40 blocks out of my way. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The ravine darkened eerily, and by the time I rode under Whyte Ave, I could feel a fine precipitation in the air but couldn’t tell in the darkness if it was rain, sleet, snow or just fog.

The camera flash illuminates the precipitation but does not help with the liquid/solid question.

The combination of mystery precipitation and the last traces of daylight create a moody air. This photo was taken in the same spot as the photo above.

By the time I got out of the ravine, my bike and I were covered in a layer of fine white ice crystals. The fog was thick and inviting and made everything strangely beautiful, but I felt compelled to deal with more pressing matters, like food and rest for my still recovering body.

Streetlights highlight rare Edmonton fog.