Is it ever too cold to ride?

snowEvery morning as the Mass Ave neighborhood in Indianapolis comes to life, bicycle riders are part of the mix. They join walkers and drivers on their way to 8:00 a.m. destinations. Even as winter’s darkness and falling temperatures settled into place, bikes, most of them with lights, kept appearing

On a Friday morning, I watched from my window with special interest: 7 degrees by the thermometer, minus 2 with the wind chill factored in; frozen slush on the Cultural Trail that cyclists prefer, and salt-treated but damp streets.

Walkers were out, some with dogs on their morning constitutional and others with business-like bags slung over their shoulder. And cyclists? From 7:15 to 7: 35, I saw two, a smaller number than on summer mornings, but there they were. The bikes had straight bars and lights, and the cyclists were bundled up and wearing back packs.

The surprise was that they were riding on the slushy and slick Cultural Trail rather than on the street where traction was probably better. This makes me think they were commuters rather than messengers, because those who ride their bikes to make their living usually pick the streets where they can ride hard and fast.

Twenty-five years ago, when I lived in a traditional Indianapolis neighborhood, I biked three miles each way to my teaching job regardless of temperature. On the coldest morning I remember, the temperature was officially reported to be minus 20, but the roads were dry and I waited until it was light enough to see. “It’s my benign eccentricity to ride regardless of weather,” I told students.

“15 above was my limit,” a book group acquaintance told me, “when I was commuting 10 miles each way to my job in Chicago. No matter how you dress, you have to breathe that super cold air, and I worried what it would do to my lungs.”

My rule for training rides back then was 25 and sunny, and decent roads. Under those conditions, I could manage a fast hour’s ride. During my recent years in the Pacific Northwest, I upped the limits to 35 and sunny, but I also factored in the east wind that on bright winter days could whistle down the Columbia River Gorge, over snow fields, and then chill out all but the most resolute cyclists

As a short distance commuter in Indianapolis, I wore my regular suit and tie, with trench coat, ear muffs, and heavy gloves when the weather turned cold. Training rides called for warm leggings over my cycling shorts, shoe coverings, and alternating layers of short- and long-sleeved shirts and jersey above the waist. A wool scarf and a wind breaker provided added warmth and could easily be removed to avoid over-heating.

A more challenging task for a cold weather cyclist is attitude adjustment. How can you keep going out day after day when temperatures fall?

For a commuter, the secret is to make the daily trip by bike a matter of basic routine, something you do every day as a matter of course. Once I decided that I would travel to campus by bike or by foot, it was easy. The daily question was not if I would head out on my bike (or when the roads were slick, on foot). Instead, the question was how to dress to meet the current conditions.

For training rides, the attitudinal factor was somewhat different. When I didn’t have to keep riding, it was easy not to go out when weather was unfavorable. What pushed me to keep going was a basic desire to stay in shape. I wanted to be in good enough condition that I could do 100 miles any day of the year. This meant that even during the winter I had to do rides that lasted from one to three hours so that during our annual short visit with our Florida son and his family, I could do much longer rides.

Now that I am an octogenarian open road cyclist, I am experiencing a weakening resolve. Short trips to the grocery store, bank, and library and occasional fifteen-mile round trips to the Irvington and Butler-Tarkington neighborhoods are as far as I’m likely to go,  unless the temperature gets into the 40s. That’s enough to keep be in good enough condition for my annual Florida and Arizona winter break when there will be many days with many more miles.

In March, when I get back home, spring will be coming back to Indiana. Hurray!

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