The studded snow tires turned out not to be the best tool for the snowy path yesterday. Even though there was no more than a couple of inches of snow in the deepest areas, cold temperatures had kept it dry and unconsolidated.
The ride started promisingly enough on a well-packed dirt road. The bike slithered a little, but the tread or the studs caught quickly as the surface varied between loose and frozen. But on the trail nothing had packed the snow. Foot traffic had made the texture irregular, but nothing was firm. The bike fishtailed and jerked. The soft surface ate all my energy, like running in loose sand. With a temperature in the teens I was soon soaked with sweat from the effort needed to keep the bike moving and maintain course.
This went on for the better part of six miles at an average speed 50 percent slower than when the trail is firm and fast.
I planned to offer to buy my coworker Jim the craft brewed beer of his choice from Beveridge's, a craft beer (and soap) shop in our building, if he would drive me back to my car at the end of the day. There was nothing fun about the ride. I mean the weather was nice, the sun was out, but the relentless labor to gain every yard when the route was essentially downhill all the way to town indicated that the return trip, uphill, on conditions unlikely to have improved, would probably be much slower. I'd been pushing it, leaving the dog home by himself for the normal length of my bike-commuting day. Now that day looked like it could be at least an hour longer.
Unfortunately, Jim had walked to work. To make the situation worse, late customers kept us more than half an hour after our normal closing time. I would have to get myself back up that hill.
Somehow, heavy foot traffic on the inner portion of the path had managed to pack it somewhat better, though it was still irregular, requiring constant steering. I was tired from the morning grunt and the long day at work, so the improved surface only provided a temporary advantage. I was soon sweaty again, even with fewer layers on than in the morning.
With steady effort I reached the car after almost an hour. I tossed the bike in and hurried on home. The dog had endured eleven hours of confinement without springing a leak. He was the hero of the day. He got pets and treats until bedtime.
A day like that emphasizes the "do or die" aspect of rural bike commuting. With basically no transportation alternatives that don't involve inconveniencing another person, the rural commuter has to choose a mode and make it work. I could have whined to people until I finally got someone to give me a lift, but it might not have gotten me there any sooner. And I saved the beer money I would have used to bribe Jim so I can spend it on myself. So many beers. So little time.
A fat bike might have handled the soft stuff. I don't have one to try, so I don't know if the rolling resistance of a four-inch tire would cancel out the flotation in the bothersome fluff. And I know from interviewing a fat bike rider who was doing winter commutes that the fat tire does nothing for you on ice. Then you need fat studded tires, which can retail for more than $200 each.
A woman on cross-country skis was not going faster than I was, but she wasn't working nearly as hard, either. Who would have thought that a scant inch or two of snow would yield a skiable surface? And the cold is preserving it amazingly. It's kind of the perfect setup: not enough snow to close out the parking at various trail access points, but enough to slide on if you have some beater skis. If I can get myself going early enough tomorrow I'll give it a shot.
A weekend storm may bring a real accumulation. Then, ironically, I won't be able to ski anymore because I won't have a place to dump the car. And until the snowmobiles pack the rail trail I won't be able to bike it with my merely normal-width studded tires.
Nature always has another trick.