Holding Winter in a Bicyclist’s Embrace

December 28, 2017

The bike riders are out today, even some on rental bikes from the stanchions across the street. And why shouldn’t they be! Bright sun, dry streets, quiet traffic. A nice day, except for the temperature, 17 degrees.

When I lived in Indianapolis during my working years, I commuted three miles to the campus where I taught regardless of temperature, even on sub-zero days, except when the roads were slick. I would do 20-mile recreational rides on sunny days when the temperature was 25 or higher.

But so far today, during the first seriously cold winter weather since my return to Indianapolis, I’ve been sitting in my sun-filled bachelor pad trying to talk myself into going out for a trial cold weather ride. During the next six or eight weeks, there are places I will have to go, including a doctor’s office next week. Some will be too far to walk, and bus connections are awkward. That leaves my bike as the preferred option, unless snow is falling and the roads are slick.

“Go for it!” the gals in the apartment rental office told me. “You won’t get as cold on your bike as you would waiting for the bus both ways.” Biking to my appointment next week will take fifteen minutes each way rather than an hour on the bus (including walking, waiting, and transfers). I still have the heavy winter gloves from former years and know how to protect my ears. By layering my civilian clothes, I can be reasonably warm while maintaining suitable appearance for activities at the destination points.

It’s not a choice between prudence or cowardice as it was a couple of weeks ago on a morning when there was a glaze of ice on the streets. Today, it’s a question of character. Am I going to live up to my regula, to borrow a word that Laura Everett uses in her book Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels?

If using buses and bikes instead of an automobile is to be a guideline for the next period of my life, then there’s no choice but to take a break-the-ice bike ride on a winter’s day as nice as this. If I lived in Erie, Pennsylvania, with five feet of snow on the ground, then bus or snow shoes would be the only options, but here there is practically no white stuff even on grass in shaded places.

So bicycle it has to be, and today is the day for moving into the out of doors that now is my world.

Even when the temperature is as warm as 17 degrees, I found out on today’s five-mile ride, my winter cycling attire needs to be improved: something to cover my face, better ear coverings, warmer gloves or mittens, and long underwear or heavier civilian pants. A trip to REI or Patagonia is in the offing.

At 3:15, the sun is obscured by an apartment tower across the street, but today’s ride, even though it was only five miles and ten or twelve minutes long, is casting its own brightness for the rest of the day.


Is it ever too cold to ride?

January 7, 2017

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!


Riding into Winter

November 27, 2013
"Your Icy Eminence"

“Your Icy Eminence”

Intense storms across a wide swath of the country are a sharp contrast to the continuing mild weather that we enjoy in the Pacific Northwest’s gentle marine climate. Even our wintery November has been reasonable: a week or two of cloudy days with soft rain showers followed by ten days of sunny skies and temperatures in the 40s and 50s.

Cyclists have to dress for the weather, but in this part of the world, we can ride outside all through the year—which is why I was surprised when a senior cyclist told me at a club meeting in early September that because of our crummy weather he can’t ride much for three of four months of the year. He wanted suggestions for what he could do to stay in shape.

I understand how he feels. On gloomy, rain-threatened days, I hate to dress for wind and rain. Even with sun and temperatures in the 40s, the east wind along the Columbia River is cold and my resolve to ride withers. On Friday mornings at 6:00, as I prepare for my weekly eight-mile ride to breakfast with the friendly old fellows from church, I vacillate, although on most mornings my resolve to ride wins out.

What’s the point of riding all winter, I wonder, especially for a senior cyclist like me? Two answers come to mind:

1)     With the right kind of equipment and clothing, cyclists can be comfortable even in the winter. Once you’re out on the road, you realize how good it feels to ride in adverse conditions. One of my happiest rides most weeks is the trip back home after the Friday breakfast. Even though I’m riding at an old man’s pace, I feel young again.

2)    With modest adjustments in their riding schedule, open road cyclists can stay in shape all year round. During my Indiana years, I rode all winter, except on days when the roads were slick. Why not keep up the practice in the easier winter weather where I live now?

For winter riding, bikes need good fenders and for early mornings and evenings a good lighting system. Wool clothes close to the skin and a couple of layers more are indispensable. For rides when wet weather threatens, a rain shell, waterproof chaps or leggings, and booties are important. So too are woolen gloves with long finger and a water resistant cover for your helmet.

Falling LeavesA problem for solo cyclists like me is that we’re prisoner to our own emotions and motivations. To keep going all winter is probably easier if you ride with a group of all year cyclists, like the Portland-based bunch of seniors I see on Thursday mornings at Java House near my condo. While I sit there writing this blog, or another few pages on my book, these guys and gals are putting in 40 miles and then socializing over coffee. Now that I’ve sent my manuscript off to the publishers, I may join them.

I have been out on my well-equipped Davidson this fall, through showery weather with leaf-covered roads, and on bright sunny days along the Columbia. When the sky is clear, I’m pulled into my ride and into the east wind blowing through the Gorge by the inspiring view of “Your Icy Eminence” commanding the eastern sky.

Note: The pressure to finish my book manuscript by the December 1 deadline has necessitated a leave of absence from blogging. This morning the manuscript flew through the ether to the publisher, and I hope to get back on schedule during the holiday season.