I like to bike almost as much as running. Sadly, my bike season is usually short. I live in Northern Canada, so it’s barely a six-month-no-snow season: I start in May if the snow is gone, except when a freak snowstorm gives one final, hacking cough before leaving in a huff. I end in October … unless September is grouchy – “Just get these leaves off my back already!”. So this year, I decided to not put the bike away. Enough! I live in a half-winter year and I will not be snowballed into hibernation! Plus, with my new job at the university, I can stay in the trails for most of the ride. So, here I am, one month into the winter season, with almost every condition already under my belt – a veritable Ph.D. in winter survival skills. I’d like to pass along what I’ve learned.
- If you’re going to ever move beyond the notion of winter biking to actually doing the activity, you need to prepare.
Practice what to wear during shoulder season. I tried out all kinds of layers. Wind resistance is a big thing with biking, even in the trails. Also, extremities. A pair of glove-clad hands origami-squeezed into fleece mitts is a bigger commitment than marriage: I better like the gear level that I started with because I won’t be changing it until I’m done the ride. There are a LOT of hills between my home and my job. Climbing that last GD hill to my office in what feels like Gear 50 has had me ponder my own mortality – “This must be what a heart attack feels like.” ‘Til death do us part.
The head/neck area is especially tricky: two buffs, strategically placed around my neck and under my helmet, were great…until I warmed up. Sweat dripping down one’s head like a slowly cracking egg should be on the list of “How CSIS breaks a war criminal”. Combine that with the suffocating feeling of being strangled by a sweat-soaked helmet strap, and the jarring smell of whatever the heck I ate for breakfast, it’s enough to have me ripping off my buffs mid-ride more than once.
And how do you stop little piggies from going wee-wee-wee all the way home? If there are not enough layers, it’s easy enough to break off the frozen stub-cicles at the end of the ride. Too many socks, you cut off circulation. Make that mistake more than once and the only colour you’ll ever see on your feet again will come from the beauty salon. My solution: Sorels. Survival is not a fashion show, folks.
2. Once you’ve practiced in cold weather, ask a pro.
It’s easy to default to “online research” for winter advice. This does not work. Mostly because the people who write these articles don’t believe that anyone can actually survive outdoors in a real (insert “not west coast”) Canadian Winter. “Don’t your lungs freeze?” Yes, asshole, that’s why we have to smoke so much pot.
Instead, find someone who lives in your city and who actually bikes all winter. Road or trail, doesn’t matter. The only noticeable difference is tires; bad-assery is equally off the charts for either group. I wanted to learn trail skills, so I started asking questions on a social media site called Edmonton Mountain Biking. In my mind, these were face-tattooed, nipple-pierced MMA fighters who biked trails because driving cut into their training. Really, they’re more like cheerful Ewoks who never left the forest and don’t ever want to grow up. Also, the most helpful people on earth.
3. Once you’ve tried out layers and done some research, get your bike ready.
Biking is no more a cheap alternative to driving as running is a cheap alternative to gym memberships. We naively convince ourselves that we are going to save SO MUCH MONEY! Lies, all lies. You don’t have to break the bank, but you will have to set a budget or by spring, you’ll be mortgaging your home.
For me, I found Shawn. Shawn is my bike guy. He fixes bikes for a living and he knows where all the deals are, what you need and what’s really not that important. Shawn has talked me out of a number of pointless purchases. “Sheryl, I can NOT in good faith upgrade your bike (a gift from a friend’s 10-year-old) any more. The new cassette is worth more than the frame.” He has also talked me into value-added winter gear for my price-point: studded tires, bar mitts, bigger pedals to fit my Sorels. Everyone needs a Shawn.
4. You’ve tested your clothing, you’ve made biking friends, you’ve found a Shawn. Now, the most important thing to winter biking is this: you must bike.
This step is definitively the hardest of them all. Once the snow hits, no amount of preparation will ready you for the heart-clenching fear that wraps around your chest in a gnarly-fingered death grip. I should mention that this feeling may not be true for everyone. My husband has taken a Canadian Tire 10-speed onto river cliffs with a 45-degree drop just because “it was the most direct route”. I, on the other hand, am not a natural athlete. I have to work at it. And there is nothing graceful about the process. If I fall, it’s gonna leave a mark. If I lose control, I may leave a serious dent in that birch tree before I lose consciousness.
So, my biggest fear has been sliding and falling. Here’s how I’ve overcome that fear. I’ve done a lot of sliding and some falling. My very first winter ride, I must have slid 50 times. But, by the end of the ride, my startled shrieks and AK-47 “f*cks” had turned into chuckles and a perma-grin. It is quite possibly the most bad-ass I’ve ever felt. And I’ve done some pretty bad-ass stuff.
Yes, I realize that there is a disconnect between how I think I look and how I actually look. How I think I look: 007 agent parachuting onto the top of a mountain with my bike strapped to my back, riding down a cliff at break-neck speed just slightly ahead of an avalanche in hot pursuit of terrorists. Basically, I’m saving the world. How I actually look: a middle-aged woman balanced precariously on a small child’s hand-me-down while maneuvering wide, groomed trails like a cheerful drunk. We are what we believe. We are the voices in our heads. Mine is on her fourth martini.
Winter riding has reminded me why I’m a huge Star Wars fan. Do. Or do not. There is no try. We can theorize and philosophize, plan and analyze. The reward, the thrill, the high – is to do. You gotta put yourself out there.
If you’ve been thinking about winter riding, follow the four steps above, it’s that easy. Except the fourth one. That’s hard. The doing is the work. Everything else is chatter.