After living in mild climates for twenty-one years, I moved back to Indianapolis where real winter comes every year. In my former life as a Hoosier, I was able to make the seasonal shift, cycling to my teaching job all year ‘round, even on days when the morning temperatures were ten below zero. The guideline for recreational rides was twenty-five and sunny.
One dark morning this week, with a temperature in the twenties, however, was unnerving. I have clothes that can keep me warm and OK routes on which to ride. What’s missing is the habit, the firmly implanted custom of not asking if it’s too cold to ride and, instead, checking the temperature only to decide how much to bundle up before heading out.
These days in Indianapolis, commuting is well under way an hour before glimmers of daylight brighten the dark sky. From my writing desk, I see them on the street five stories below my window: strong beams of light, some steady, some blinking, as people bicycle to work some place downtown. Not as many as on a summer day, but enough to prove that some riders keep going even as a warm fall morphs into a cold winter.
During the day as I wander around town—sometimes on foot and sometimes by bike—I see other cyclists who are riding, seemingly oblivious to forty degrees and twenty-mph northwest gusts. One day last week, when there were glints of sunshine in the sky, I was doing an errand on my bike. At a traffic signal, a man twenty-five years my junior was on his much-used bike next to me. ”It’s the only way to get around town!” he declared through the scarf that covered his face. And I agreed.
On another day, when my errands were easier on foot than on my bike, I realized that many of the cyclists I saw right then looked like bike messengers. Mostly young men, dressed in black, tight jeans or shorts, on simplified bikes with single gears and some with no brakes, they rode hard and fast; mostly on the street, but sometimes on sidewalks, darting through parking lots, little daunted by red lights or the niceties of urban traffic.
One of them showed up to make a delivery at my apartment tower just as I came home. “How many of you guys are there?” I asked, to which he responded: “Fifteen of us work for Jimmy John’s Sandwiches, and I have no idea how many more there are.”
A quick check on the internet suggests that the number is large, and it certainly must be the case that they’ll be out all winter, doing twenty to sixty miles a day, delivering goods and communications as fast as they can go. Blizzards in the air and thick ice on the streets, I suppose, will keep them in, but then the whole city will likely shut down for a few hours or days.
Since I’m a retired, self-directed writer, there’s no place where I have to go. My church, grocery store, and coffee shop are close enough to walk, and family members can come to dear old dad’s rescue when winter gets him down. But it irks me to let a mere contingency like winter keep me off my bike.
On a cold New Year’s Day in 2011, with temperature in the thirties and a cold east wind blowing down the Columbia River Gorge, I chickened out by driving ten miles to my Friday morning breakfast with the Friendly Old Fellows from my church and coffee with the New York Times at Peets Coffee and Tea. Usually I cycled down but on this morning it seemed too cold.
There at her usual table at Peets was one of the regulars, knitting while she sipped her tea. In a little while, she told me, she would suit up and join friends for a fifty-mile ride including hard climbing in Portland’s west hills.
Shamed and inspired by her example, I changed into cycling clothes as soon as I got home and out I went. Although the route I chose was only forty-seven miles long, that was close enough. The new year started with my sense of self restored. Later that day I posted a blog entitled “Character vs. the East Wind.”
Today, however, I won’t be heading out into the coldest day of the year so far. I’ll take a nap, write this blog, and wait for the winter storm that’s coming our way. There’ll be plenty of time next week, after the first snow fall of the season, to work on character.