Sunday, May 15, 2022

The weather was all somewhere else

With summer-like weather predicted, this was a good week to live without the car while it got some long-overdue service. As of last Tuesday, the days looked increasingly warm, and free of rain, through Saturday.

Naturally this didn't hold up.

I never know for sure how long it will take my mechanic to finish servicing the car. Sometimes he turns it right around within a day or two. Other times I have to get along for close to a week, depending on how busy he is with other jobs, and what complications he finds with mine. I am unusually well situated to live without a motor vehicle in the milder seasons with longer daylight, because I have been stubbornly focused on it at the expense of some other things. Most people order their lives differently.

On Tuesday I made the long ride home from Gilford after dropping the car at his shop. The least worst bike route goes through Wolfeboro, so I often split the trip around a work day on one end or the other. This works best for the pickup after it's fixed, although it means the longer segment with almost 1,000 feet of climbing after a full day at work. There are also unavoidable narrow sections of road. These include the two worst climbs. The 1,000 feet is distributed over quite a few hills, but the one out of South Wolfeboro is the longest and steepest, with basically no shoulder. On the other side of the lake, in the section I call "White-knuckle Shores," Route 11 runs right along the edge of the lake. After Ames Farm, the road climbs one last grunter.

Wednesday was warm and dry. I felt pretty good after the 43 miles on Tuesday. I carried everything I might need in case I got the call to head over to Gilford after work, but the call never came. Same for Thursday, only even warmer and nicer. By Friday, the commutes were starting to wear me down a bit on their own, without the extra distance and hills. Later on Friday evening he called. So Saturday was the day.

Saturday shop hours start an hour earlier, but end a half-hour earlier right now. So add short sleep to the challenges facing an aging idiot flogging himself across miles of New Hampshire hills. And the forecast had gotten interesting: 20-30 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms. Thunderstorms could produce gusty winds and small hail. The high temperature had been at or near 90 F by mid afternoon, and hadn't dropped much by the time I set out with complex cloud formations arranging themselves around the sky.

The route out of town starts with a long grind up South Main Street, on a narrow, busy road. Traffic speeds aren't too bad, since the road goes right past the police station, but drivers are getting impatient because they've already had to endure the congestion of the town center, no matter where they entered it. By the time they're heading out South Main Street they've had all they can take.

From the crest of South Main Street by the high school, you lose almost all of what you laboriously gained, on a slightly shorter, slightly steeper descent to the corner of Middleton Road, and the fun 90-degree bend into more descending to the bottom of the wall I call Alpe de Suez, for the restaurant East of Suez near the top of it.

The route goes southeast, then southwest, then south, before heading generally northwest along the lake for about 15 miles. As my direction changed, the aspect of the sky also changed. Hills and tree cover also limit the sky view. One window might show a dark mass of slaty gray, followed minutes later by a light overcast. Once over the Alpe de Suez, the road widens to a 55-mph highway with full-width shoulders. While the elbow room is nice, it can be more of a grind to do your best next to motor vehicles effortlessly ripping by at 60. It's a relief to exit onto Chestnut Cove Road for a few minutes respite from the stress of passing motorists.

The weather radar had showed blobs of convective action blossoming all around the area, rather than a well-defined front. I hadn't had time to study it for long enough to discern an overall direction to the storm cells. I had no choice in any case. I'd brought an extra vest in case the rain found me. I hoped not to need it.

Once the route turns the bottom of Alton Bay and heads up along the southern shore of Lake Winnipesaukee, long views are more frequent. And at that point the wind was mostly in my favor. But would it push the storms out of my way? At each overlook I could see the deep blue-gray clouds trailing curtains of rain, occasionally lit by pink-white flashes of lightning. Beneath them, the mountains showed as dark silhouettes, Thunder followed across miles of open space. Was it from the distant storms, or from one closer, and threatening, obscured by the overhanging trees and rising hills on my left? The air was still comfortably warm, and the sky above me only cloudy. All the drama and discomfort was far away, happening to someone else, like a war in another country, or oppression of a minority that you're not part of. Those storms seem to be someone else's problem, too, until you realize that the winds can change and put you in the path of trouble.

My mileage for the week is laughable: 174 miles over five days. The longest was 43 miles, followed by three days of 30-mile commuting days, ending with 41 miles to fetch the car. Setting aside that I'm 65 years old, with multiple stressors in my life, I wonder if the rides would take less out of me if the routes themselves were more serene. They're not as bad as in really built-up urban and suburban hells, but traffic is traffic. It always carries emotional weight. However, bike-only routes are almost never designed to support the full speed potential of habitual cyclists trying to cover distance on a schedule. If the choice is a 12 mph plod on a path versus a higher average on a shared route with motor vehicles, I still tend to take the road that allows me to push it where I can. Coming down the Alpe de Suez northbound into Wolfeboro, I routinely hit 40-45 mph on the descent. I exceed 35 mph on the descents on every commute.

Full-size streets let me come off of a motor vehicle draft at 25 mph and lay into a corner to carry momentum into a side street that climbs slightly. Toddling into an intersection like that at 12 mph would give me nothing going into the grade. But would I miss it if I wasn't also having to manage motorists? Every ride is a race in places where a rider needs a bit of snap to hold a place where oblivious or malevolent drivers might clot things up by pushing past when they should wait.

I have no idea why I can still chase cars as strongly as I do. It's certainly not as strongly as I used to. But in my weakened state it's even more important to be able to take advantage of every benefit that gravity and wind will bestow. These are benefits that every rider should have access to. A path built for the maximum possible number of riders will be the size of a real road, to accommodate the potential numbers of riders and their full range of potential speeds. Or we figure out how to accommodate pedalers on the transportation routes we already have in place, while minimizing the conflicts with motorized users to increase cyclist safety.

Almost no one passed me in a very unsafe or threatening manner on my ride. Incidents have become quite rare in what most people think of as bike season. The problem for sensitive riders is that a bad crash can come at any moment when motor vehicles are around. Decades of trouble-free riding count for nothing at the moment of impact. This knowledge rides along with everyone who still pedals on the road we all own. It adds at least an extra gear's worth of fatigue in upper body tension, and heightened vigilance.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Quitters

 "I don't feel safe out there."

"The roads are so narrow."

"People are all on their phones."

"Someone I know was killed."

These are just a few of the lines I hear from the quitters: the people who are getting rid of their road bikes because they don't enjoy being out there on the travel ways that we all pay for with our taxes and have every right to use. If they're in the shop, these quitters aren't quitting cycling outright. They're just being intimidated into leaving the public right of way to go play on various closed courses, or highly limited corridors like what passes for a rail trail around here.

Most of the time, I overhear the conversation between the quitter and a salesperson on the retail floor while I toil away in the repair shop. It makes a weary day wearier.

To be fair, if I lived in Wolfeboro I would probably come to dislike road riding, too. Every time I think about moving closer to work I think about the severe limitations on riding, imposed by the hills and water bodies that have shaped the road system since colonial times. The typical New England road has a white line and a ditch. Combining that with resort-area traffic in the summer makes road riding increasingly stressful as what used to be a rural area gets overrun by creeping suburbia. We're not seeing too many cookie-cutter housing tracts yet, but the attitude of drivers, and their numbers, make the roads busier in all seasons, compared to how they were in the end of the 20th Century.

Creeping suburbia extends to my area as well, but the terrain of the glacial plains allows for longer sight lines and some degree of wider roads, and the lack of particular geographical attractions, like top-tier lakes or brag-worthy mountains means that most people on the roads are just passing through. But we do have our dinky rush hours. And GPS has turned the road in front of my house into some kind of "secret" escape route for southbound motorists when Route 16 is choked with traffic.

One quitter this week said that a friend of hers "passed away while riding on the road." Passing away is something you do in your sleep. Even if you die from natural causes rather than the smashing trauma of a motor vehicle impact, if you're mounted on a bike when you have your stroke or heart attack you're going to hit the ground hard. People are funny about death. If your friend's terminal experience was horrendous enough to get you to give up a form of cycling that you say you loved, say "killed." Give it the full horror and outrage that it deserves. Highlight this side effect of humanity's bad decision to prioritize the passage of motor vehicles over the health and safety of nearly everyone and everything else.

Other riders quit the road because of physical limitations that accumulate with age and injury. Some retreat gradually through upright bikes that replace their drop-bar models. Some go straight to the e-bike. Some try mountain biking. Some head straight for the path.

There are very few transportation cyclists around here. I'm pretty sure I'm one of the most persistent, and I ain't shit compared to real dedicated car-free people in areas and occupations more conducive to it. My occupation has been quite supportive of my cycling fixation. It just pays so horribly that I can't recommend it to anyone as a long-term program. But other people, better people, in generally more populated places, manage the synergy of a decent-paying career and a bike for transportation, to demonstrate how the world could be a better place for productive citizens, not just dilettante fuckoffs with silly dreams.

Transportation cyclists seem less inclined to quit than recreational riders. When you just do something for fun, you stop as soon as it is no longer fun. There are days when transporting myself across the necessary miles isn't a lot of fun. A couple of days ago as I rode down Route 28 I tried to estimate how many miles I've logged on just this route. I'm sure it's more than 40,000, possibly as high as 60,000. That may seem like a lot, but it's over 32 years. My average annual mileage wouldn't even make the charts among real year-round transporters, long-distance tourists, or anyone training to race. It's just the result of stubborn, stupid persistence. My total mileage in that time is far higher. I used to ride more for fun. And I didn't include the training miles I log to get ready for the commute or to stay in some kind of shape transitioning into winter. The 40-60 figure was just on the principal commuting route. 

I don't push myself as hard as I used to. When I pushed myself harder, it didn't feel as hard. I was younger. The key to longevity as a road cyclist -- aside from not getting crushed by a motor vehicle -- is avoiding debilitating injury. Especially with a somewhat long route, a dedicated bike commuter is an athlete with more than just the riding career depending on completing the course, day after day. So I go ahead and take the car on the grossest days. Recovery is key, and an aging body doesn't recover as well over a single night, especially if the aging rider has gotten too frisky the day before. Commuting turns into a time trial. Oops! How did it get to be so late?! Oh well. I'll sprint this one as hard as I can and promise to do better tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow, stomps in this hectic pace to the last syllable of yet another work week.

The rides are frantic, sandwiched around days so incredibly tedious for the most part. But you go from moment to moment of reward, finding something of value in the neck-deep mud of your own created predicament. And be glad because the mud so far remains below your face. If I could have imagined anything else in sufficient detail, while there was still time to implement it, I would have done it. So without real complaint -- just a continuous profane grumbling and self reproach -- I get on the bike for another day.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Cold, Clear Water, Thawing Manure

 Here in the southern part of northern New England, April weather notoriously bounces between occasional pleasant days and raw, wet ones that can bring rain or snow. This gradually transitions to the somewhat milder promise of May, before giving way to the tepid disappointment we call June.

Yesterday was one of the mild ones. The wind was light, the sky was clear. I needed a ride to continue my recovery program from a sedentary winter. The commute doesn't feel any longer than it used to, but it takes a little longer, and I feel its effects longer afterward.

During my first spring in New Hampshire, in 1988, I was training for an epic ride that I hoped would form the basis for one or more magazine articles. Starting in March, I went out on a set of training routes through the rural landscape just to the south of the eastern Sandwich Range. I watched the snow recede, the brooks and wetlands fill to flood, the brown and tan dead vegetation pressed flat by the weight of winter slowly rebound, pushed up by the green growth seeking the sun. It was a time of creativity and hope.

Every spring has its version of this, enriching spring training rides with actual and remembered rejuvenation. Where I live now, I pass several places where they keep livestock. First is the draft horses, less than a mile down the road. Their manure pile is well thawed now. On the opposite side of the road, a brook rushes with clear, cold runoff, that started as snow melt from our meager winter, and now conveys the rains that follow. Wood frogs and peepers have begun to sound, when the air is warm enough.


A cold snap shuts them up. I imagine their annoyance.

Around the route I pass several other places where the smell of animal dung dominates the atmosphere. It reminds me of a race I used to do in Carlisle, PA, when I lived in Maryland. It was a 50-mile race in April. For some reason I believed that the other competitors would be in a similar state of early season development as I was. I thought I trained over the winters: commuting, riding rollers, sneaking in a road ride or some fixed-gear training as it fit with weather, daylight, and a full-time -- albeit low-paying -- job. Hey, it's April. We should be easing into our season. Right?

Invariably, I ended up chasing the breakaways from somewhere in a splintering field torn apart by the riders who had gone south for their early miles, or perhaps for the entire winter, or who had pounded their bodies with high-intensity alternative training during what passed for winter in the Mid Atlantic coastal and Piedmont region. Any longer race -- more than 30 miles -- was open to Cat. 2,3, and maybe 4, in the years before Cat. 5 was anything but a joke we would make about novice riders. The difference between the categories is not subtle, it's exponential. The top category sets the tone, chased by the most ambitious of the category below them.

Once the field breaks up, you may find yourself alone or with a group of riders sizable enough to create the illusion that it's the main field or a significant chase group. Thus I would hammer through the early spring landscape of central Pennsylvania, sucking in oxygen with whatever other freight it carried. A lot of that air smelled like a large farm, because a lot of large farms lined the 50-mile loop of the Tour of Cumberland Valley. Except for the part of the course that crossed the Appalachian Trail, we rode through a landscape dominated by agriculture.

Regardless of the annual rebuke the race always provided, it still felt good in its weird way to be out there, immersed in the almost inescapable hopefulness of spring.

Every brook and stream, every vernal pool, marsh, and wetland is about as full as it's going to get, unless we have a summer of floods. Yesterday's route was calculated to mix steady cruising with some climbing. The fixed-gear forces continual effort and smoothness. Every pedal stroke moves you the exact same distance forward, regardless of the slope or wind. Slope and wind determine the effort demanded from the rider. Grunt harder or spin faster. Look to the scenery for distraction and inspiration, or just to enjoy it. Each year adds to the fund of similar memories to deepen the connection to grateful observance.

Sunday, April 03, 2022

Big Dealerships take over bike retail

 As part of the bike industry's damage control response to the Covid-19 bike boom, major players like Specialized and Trek have cut loose dozens (at least) of small shops in what they consider minor market areas. At the same time, they have started offering online direct sales, and bought up larger independent retailers to establish concept shops for their own brand where population is more concentrated and disposable income theoretically more common.

In 2021 we managed to wrangle several Specialized ebikes for wealthy customers who ordered them fully prepaid in the fall of 2020. First the orders were delayed by the supply issues that racked every industry, but hit the bike business particularly hard. Then the Big S jacked the price on them even though they were fully paid at the original price, requiring the customer to fork out hundreds more dollars per bike. Then Specialized told us that they didn't think they could deliver the bikes, which would have required us to refund all that money. The full order arrived eventually, a bike at a time over months. We ordered electronic diagnostic equipment to communicate properly with the brains of these technological marvels. Then Specialized terminated our dealership, leaving the people who bought their bikes in good faith with no reliable product support. 

Schwinn used the dealership strategy to build and hold market share for decades. Capitalizing on the dealership concept accepted without question in automobile sales, Schwinn had its shops, where a customer could be assured that all the parts were "Schwinn Approved," and would definitely fit. They had their own size of 26X1 3/8-inch tire, so that a generic 26-inch wouldn't fit the rims on Schwinn bikes. Their shop manuals standardized procedures for their mechanics. The bikes were mostly notoriously heavy, but undeniably durable. The business model weathered competition in the 1970s bike boom, but fell apart in the mountain bike boom that followed, although a lot of that could have to do with mismanagement by the inheritors of the company, who considered the family fortune to be as indestructible as the bikes themselves.

In Concord, NH, Trek has gone into direct competition with one of its own established and popular dealers. Trek bought the Goodale's chain of shops and converted them to Trek concept shops. This included the Concord location. Sorry, S&W. You're just collateral damage.

To the bean counters, a shop network that only follows the money is a good thing. The accountants don't care if riders find themselves in a town or village many miles from an authorized service center and suddenly need a proprietary part, or "dealer-only" service on an electrical component. While I have no sympathy for riders who shackle themselves to proprietary parts and electrical components, I acknowledge that new riders don't think about those issues when they buy their great new bike. Even a lot of riders who have been doing this for years never thought to worry about the trend. The onus is on them for enabling and encouraging the bike industry to do this to us all. Only a few relentlessly annoying voices spoke out against it.

Interesting footnote: I found some ridiculously expensive rigid mountain bike forks on the QBP site the other day when I was looking for rigid 26-inch forks to retrofit customers' bikes that have cheap suspension. This indicates to me that a cult of rigid mountain bikes may be taking hold. While they still embrace the ridiculous drivetrains currently fashionable, the new converts to rigid bikes are seeking refuge from the ongoing costs of maintaining suspension, and the generally poor function and heftiness of cheap and mid-price suspension parts. By making some crazy expensive forks of space-age materials, the industry helps the convert to rigidity show the world that it's a step up, not a step back. See the price tag? For that kind of money, it's got to be good.

The big dealer concept is going to hurt Big Bicycle eventually, if not sooner. In the meantime, my advice is what it always was: buy simple, durable stuff whenever you can. Hold on for its eventual return. There may always be people who will pay too much to have a very limited and expensive experience like technical mountain biking, but I wonder how long that sort of indulgence will survive the kind of economic and social reckoning that is being forced on us by consumer society's willful neglect of the consequences of its appetites since the mid 20th Century.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Train like a pro

 In 1980 I was somewhat sketchily employed and had a chance to ride regularly with a sponsored "amateur" bike racer. While he did not receive a direct salary for riding, he had reached a high enough level that he was able to ride as if it was his job.

During the spring and summer he was often around Annapolis. He welcomed company on his long, easy days, and on many of his interval training days, the pattern of effort and recovery allowed a few riders far below his level to play along anyway. When he had something really serious to do, he generally did it somewhere else, with riders in his category.

Because he had to ride, but he had complete control over his schedule, he mostly rode in the nicest part of every day, if the day actually had a nice part. I did go with him on one rainy day, for hours, getting steadily more soaked and gritty, but for the most part we went when the air was mild, and the gentle sun shone just enough through perfect puffy clouds -- or so it seems in memory. He did say that he preferred to train during his highest energy level, which was the heart of the day. It was a pretty seductive life. Eat well, sleep well, ride a lot, tune your bike...

He did have an obligation to perform in return for this indulgence. I got a small closeup of it one day when the group wanted to go long and mellow, but he needed to do a time trial effort to prepare for a race. I went with him when he peeled off to do this on the way back to Annapolis from south of town. We were on Route 2, for anyone who remembers what that was like in 1980, with the classic Chesapeake southerly wind behind us. He accelerated steadily to top gear as I stayed an inch off his wheel, as he had taught us. Then he pulled left so that I could ride through on the inside to take a turn at the front.

I felt like a flag in a gale. I clawed my way past him, with a bit of shelter as he dropped back. He looked down at my bike.

"You've got two bigger gears," he said.

I knew that, but I was finding out that they were mostly decorative. I shifted into them and promptly roasted my legs. I lasted about seven seconds out there before he pulled through. We tried to switch off a couple of times after that before he just told me to stay back and hang on.

There's a reason that the time trial is called "The Race of Truth."

That day offered a rare chance to see a tougher part of the process. When I was in an actual race with him, the district road championships, I saw him depart on his breakaway with a couple of other riders, and saw him no more until we were back at the parking lot when it was over. He had a job to do. I was just playing.

I think of those days now as I try to train up for commuting season more than 500 miles north of central Maryland. I try to ride in the nicest part of the day, but with a regular job, and with early season niceness often less nice, for shorter periods, I'm out there with a cold wind leaning on me on the few days when I have the option to ride when it suits me. Even so, I find it easier to dress for a slog in the frigid gale than for stationary riding in a room that is too warm and too cold at the same time.

After a lackluster winter, we're told to expect a cold spring. Once I get into the commute, the ride time is set and the weather just comes along with it. The nicest part of the day often takes place outside the shop windows in the middle of the work day and is gone by the time I head out into the chilling evening.

Bike riding is seen as a hobby and an indulgence in this country, but for me it has been a vital part of a life less reliant on fossil fuels, and more conducive to physical fitness -- not for vanity, but for the ability to live more economically within humanity's global family budget. It has also helped me to survive on really pathetic paychecks by reducing my transportation expenses. If I could go back to living without a car, I would. However, by the time our urban areas are redesigned actually to support the workforce, I will be a very old man, or the decomposing remains of one. So for now I indulge myself in rural surroundings, and push my rusty old car through the seasons when transportation cycling is not practical in this climate.

Tuesday, March 08, 2022

Train your customers to reject simplicity

 Another breathless article about the "advanced" features that some bike brand or other might be slopping over onto more and more models illustrates the evolution of bicycles from vehicles of personal independence into vehicles of technological dependence.

A certain percentage of bike users will learn to work on them, regardless of how complicated and temperamental the mechanisms get. These riders will feel independent for as long as they can maintain their investment in tools and time. But it reminds me of people I know who work on their own cars, but who don't own a real auto garage with lifts and compressed air, and some level of machining capability. Those drivers have to make arrangements of various kinds to use a shared facility that they have to go to at the available time. The less of a workshop a given rider has, the more that rider will need to pay for a facility in which to work or someone to do the work.

The latest article on "improvements" in bike spec reported on the steady retreat of rim brakes in favor of disc brakes. This goes along with the overall weight gain among certain categories, as electric motors are added. Motor vehicles need more powerful brakes that impart the braking force more centrally, but that comes with several costs. A brake light enough to be carried on a chronically under-powered vehicle (even with electric assistance) will have relatively small brake pads that have to be replaced frequently, if you can find them in stock. Brake rotors are more prone to deteriorate when the bike sits idle, compared to your aluminum rim. Disc brake calipers are full of little crevices in which water and dirt can brew up mischief. Hydraulics complicate disassembly.

I could go on, and I have been known to. Suffice to say that bike maintenance is ever more the province of a professional mechanic with a lifestyle to maintain, as well as his or her shop full of expensive tools that have to be constantly updated, because manufacturers like to squeeze money out of them, too. To the consumer, that means steadily rising prices and a hunt for really good mechanics, akin to what we have gone through for years trying to keep cars on the road.

Key to this progression has been the ongoing campaign by the bike industry to get customers to scorn simplicity and embrace complexity in the name of performance. Niche riders are most susceptible to this. Triathletes want the most sinuous steeds that slice the wind. Mountain bikers want bikes that serve their specific interest, which seldom means pedaling up a hill. Just as alpine skiers don't ski up the Alps, mountain bikers aren't interested in climbing for its own sake. To be fair, how many of us who pedal are truly interested in climbing for its own sake? But still, it used to be a respected skill for a complete rider. But beyond the allergy to strenuous aerobic efforts, the mountain biking community also has come to depend on the suspension technologies that allow them to bomb down their trails without picking their way among obstacles that can't simply be launched over.

The varieties of unpaved trail surfaces and degrees of slope have led to very specific subsets of mountain bikes, each more than $1,000 (at least) to purchase, and costing hundreds of dollars a year to maintain properly. Or you do what most riders do, and ignore problems until the machine simply won't go anymore, and then either dig into it yourself or dump it on your chosen expert.

A thousand bucks ain't what it used to be. I've had a theory since the 1970s that the real driver of all economic fluctuations is the price of gas. By gas I include diesel. Motor vehicle fuel, anyway. The basis of all currency is the petrodollar. Right now, for instance, Americans are all freaked out that gasoline is over $4 a gallon. Back when I started driving, and gasoline was 28 cents a gallon, I had to endure the horrifying spectacle of it doubling in price within a couple of years. By the end of the 1970s it had topped one dollar! Eek! So either gas prices drift down again or everyone gets used to it as all other pricing adjusts to make it normal. Workers' wages will still lag. The rich will get richer. The international situation will be desperate as usual.

The fact that a widespread adoption of simple bikes for transportation would have headed all this off in the 1970s isn't even worthy of academic consideration. The "ten-speed boom" started a little social movement, and the mountain bike boom drove it off the road. It turned cycling back into a consumerist hobby.

As factors combine to give transportation cycling and other riding on the public streets some leverage, it also depends on the expense and complexity of electric assistance to exert that leverage. All of these technologies have their place, but it's in addition to older, simpler machines, not instead of them. Soon, very soon, I will pump up the tires on the old fixed-gear and start riding again. It's that simple. Each bike in turn as I need it comes down off its hook, gets dusted off, tires checked, and off I go. There's not much to go wrong with a simple machine. It won't suck money out of you relentlessly.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Good for nothing weather

 

 Wow! It's porn outside!

 Rain drummed on the roof. I heard the ice on the steep part shift as it moved closer to the edge. The temperature was 50 degrees (F), as it had been all night and for much of the previous day. The splashes in the driveway burst up almost on top of each other. What had been an almost unbroken layer of ice and compacted snow had turned to mud, except where it hadn't. As the temperature falls today, the remaining ice will set back up for the weekend. Within an hour, the sun had started to come out, but the air was still warm, and water flowed steadily from the roof.

This is Presidents' Day Weekend, the opening weekend of Massachusetts school vacation week. This is traditionally the biggest moneymaking period for New England ski areas if they didn't have a big Christmas week. Cross-country ski areas can't count on a big Christmas week the way downhill areas that have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars -- or millions -- on snowmaking can. Our overhead is much lower, but we're at the mercy of the weather. In the past couple of decades, that weather has been increasingly merciless.

It all freezes up again this afternoon, but the damage is done. The trail system has been cut in too many places. The sections with usable snow are cut off by either bare ground or plates of ice that the tiller on the grooming machine can't reconstitute.

The fat bikers always pipe up about now to try to tell us that they are the answer. I will wearily dismantle that claim again as necessary. For instance: we might rent 30 or 40 sets of skis on a busy day. There is no way we could keep a fleet of 30 or 40 fat bikes. And our ski rental fleet is much larger than 30-40 sets. We have more than twice that many. The estimate of 30-40 pairs is a bit conservative. On a really crazy day we'll clear the rack and re-rent stuff wet to latecomers who are remarkably willing to put on boots that literally just came off of some stranger's sweaty feet.

The trail system can absorb far more skiers than bikers, as well. Skiers are much better equipped to slither past each other in a congested area, compared to rigid bicycles with 31-inch handlebars. So even if we flung the gates open wide and invited the bulbous crowd to cavort, it could look like the stampede scene from some movie about a cattle drive of longhorns.

Then there's cost: fat bikers who own their own will have shelled out somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,000 to $2,000 for their mounts, assuming that about half of them picked up a used one from some other rider who realized that it was more of an encumbrance than an asset and cut their losses. You can pay a lot more. In contrast, a new ski touring outfit costs about $400.You'll pay $400 just for studded tires for your fat bike. Used stuff is almost as hard to find as new stuff with the ongoing pandemic disruptions, but if you do find something it could be quite cheap. And skis just lean quietly in a corner when you're not getting to use them. They take up little more room than a furled umbrella.

Snowshoeing remains an option, but the popular perception of snowshoeing is weird. A snowshoe is just a boat to float you on the snow. The size is calculated to keep you from slogging in your bare boots, anywhere from knee deep to waist deep. The addition of traction devices to the bottom is more recent, to make traversing hard frozen sections safer and more convenient. But once "snowshoeing" became a discrete activity performed for its own sake, rather than as part of the general category of winter hiking, people started using them on shallow snow and firm frozen trails that most of us with experience in winter hiking would see as just good footing without the encumbrance of snowshoes. Lots of rock and ice, and irregular ground, takes a toll on snowshoes. They're designed to be supported by a fairly uniform resistance from the snow beneath them.

In the "anything for a buck" mentality of winter rental, upper management will still say, "well, you can snowshoe," but anyone experienced already knows better. You will be better served to use Microspikes or a similar device. We don't rent those. Maybe we should.

Just on the basis of canceled reservations, we've lost hundreds of dollars. That may not seem like much in a world that considers an operation with 500 employees to be a "small business." but in the realm of really small businesses like ours, it's somebody's paycheck for a week. Along with that go retail sales we might have made from the group when they visited the shop to get their rentals or drop them off, and losses to other businesses in town if most of the prospective visitors decide not to come here at all. And we lose the walk-ins and same-day last minute reservation calls we typically get on a Saturday or Sunday morning. There aren't enough fat bikers in the world to equal that head count.

Indoor trainers laugh indulgently. They may not even look out a window from November to March. The super cool computerized systems feed them the virtual experience at whatever level they can afford to simulate. But indoor training depends on fantasy life. If you're like me, and have no fantasy life anymore, indoor training is just torment. All that ever propelled me through periods of indoor training were bright daydreams of the myriad ways I was going to use that fitness on pleasurable challenges.

I do look forward to commuting season. Driving sucks. But it's hard to maintain a lot of trainer enthusiasm just based on that. I can nip out for a few base mile rides when actual commuting season seems imminent, and be good to go. Maybe I'll get on the rollers a couple or three times for old times' sake before that.