On Wednesday I arrived to begin my work week and found a road bike clamped in the work stand. With the persistent lack of snow, its owner had decided to begin riding outdoors. His timing wasn't very good. Late Wednesday night, snow began. It changed to sleet and freezing mist not long after sunrise. This transitioned to more significant icing after nightfall on Thursday. But he's ready if winter falters again.
Winter has mostly faltered this year. It has managed to dish up a tasting menu of wintry tidbits, including some skating and ice boating, but not a lot of any one winter pleasure. The snow last year, though below average, was dense and durable. The cold, though not bitter, was persistent enough to put together longer stretches of wild skating, and keep the ski trails just holding on. For your cross-training outdoor athletes of any level it provided a seasonally-appropriate selection much of the time. This year has been much more frustrating.
I used to switch readily to riding when I was already doing more consistent training of all kinds. Since I am the absolute worst at indoor exercise, I hardly did any, but I could always find something to do outside. However, as I've gotten older, I really notice how cycling alone does not provide complete enough exercise. It actually hurts you if all you do is pedal. It neglects too many other muscle groups and does nothing for bone density, flexibility, and core strength. A false start on riding season just makes me repeat saddle toughening multiple times before the real season sets in.
Road riding has one massive advantage: convenience. There's a road right at the end of your driveway. If you happen to live where there's a trail -- bike, hike, ski, or what have you -- right outside your door, that's great. But most of us don't have that. Okay, I do, but I know that it's not the norm in most places. But a road rider on any form of the machine can walk out, hop on, and pedal away. My winter choice is the fixed gear, but you have to develop a taste for that. The guy who brought his road bike in this week has a fixed-gear that I built for him, but he doesn't automatically think to go that way. He used to compete in triathlon at a high level, so his introduction to cycling was on sophisticated, multi-geared machines. He seemed to enjoy the fixie when we rode together a time or two, but it didn't win him over.
When riding season actually gets close I will start the routines of riding and supporting exercises. But riding has always fit my schedule best when I use it to commute to work, so that it eats less time out of the rest of my day. The supporting exercises are fairly minimal. When I can get on top of my seasonal depression, I do them even when I'm not riding. But if I can ski regularly it takes care of everything I need until early spring.
Cross-country skiing is the ultimate one-stop shopping for general fitness. It goes beyond the obvious cardiovascular benefits. Classical skiing especially works the limbs through a nice, full range of motion, while the core is exercised symmetrically in support of the stride. Skating is less satisfactory, but still better than anything else outside of a planned and varied program in a gym, using specific exercises to isolate muscle groups and boring the shit out of you until you quit. But you can't get up and go on your skis if the trails are brown, or if thin cover leaves subsurface obstacles that could dump you on your face.
Just trudging around on cross-country skis provides a muted level of the muscular benefits, but less of the cardiovascular aspect, unless you really go out and bulldoze on your heavier boards. You will get your heart rate up, but I find it hard to persist at that level when I'm not making much headway through the landscape. Also, groomed trails get chewed down to nothing when they're not refreshed with new snow at regular intervals, so your trudging is likely to be done off-trail. Mature hardwood forests offer many passable spaces. But it's now more of a hike than a swooping flight in pursuit of a sleek physique.
Even the trudging had started to suffer from the lack of a consistent surface. On a recent bushwhack up the mountain behind my house, I rediscovered the sensation of actually walking, when the steeper slopes turned out to have melted off. It was downright pleasant. The snow that fell Wednesday night won't improve the skiing enough up there, and it will make the walking harder. But that's New England. It might freshen up the smoothest of the groomable Nordic trails for a low-grade version of the high-grade experience. And I might even get a shot at it before it turns into some other weird, half-frozen thing.