Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Winter Riding Tips

There are real winter riders out there, but I’m not one of them. I will definitely ride in any month, but if the snow is good I’ll be on Nordic skis. So I haven’t delved into the realm of studded tires or traffic techniques for snowy days.

When I lived in Annapolis, where cross-country skiing was much rarer than weather too bad for riding, I did commute in the snow a few times. Eventually I decided it wasn’t worth antagonizing the motoring public for marginal gains. I could skip the day or two the roads were slick. Bike commuting is not practical for many people in the warm months, and for even fewer people in the winter. I will only ride in winter when I can function efficiently in traffic.

That said, I have gleaned a few techniques, tips and tricks.

First off, the fixed-gear bike is your best friend. Cheap to build, easy to maintain, the fixed-gear deals best with slick roads and poor braking conditions.

Direct drive means you can’t coast. Your control is better if you pedal continuously anyway. With direct drive you can keep a constant, steady pressure on the pedals. Vary it slightly for fine-tuned speed control. Reinforce your brake with a little resistance-pedaling to slow down quickly under optimum control.

In cold conditions the fixed-gear keeps your muscles moving. It also keeps you from getting too frisky, pushing big gears or descending too fast through frosty air. I’ve been happy for decades with a 63-inch gear for cruising and most climbing, with a 73.5 as the flip-side gear for long descents, tailwinds, or increasingly rare days of extraordinary energy.

Tape over the front vents on your helmet. Leave the rear vents open to let moist, warm air escape. I use a very light helmet liner in cool to cold conditions, with little biscuit earmuffs for temperatures below freezing. These are sold in bike shops under the Pedro’s brand, and in ski shops as Swix. You probably don’t need as much hat as you think you do.

Keep your legs warm. It should be obvious, but I’ve seen too many riders over the years, legs boiled-lobster red, maybe even blotched with white, who insist on riding in shorts in the cold. Because they don’t feel the discomforts that day, the next day or even within a few weeks, they discount the fact that their bad habit will catch up with them later in life.

Warm legs help you keep warm feet.

For ultra-warm feet in the coldest conditions, put on a micro-thin liner sock. Cover this with a plastic bag. Put your outer sock over the bag. Put on your shoe. Use an insulated shoe cover on top of everything. The plastic bag keeps your unavoidable moisture from working its way all the way out through your insulators to chill you. Just make sure your winter riding shoes allow room for reasonable socks.

I prefer to wear extra fuzzy layers rather than put on a shell jacket. Even a breathable wind breaker will trap moisture which will eventually chill you in winter conditions. Extra fuzzy layers transport moisture outward and slow the inward flow of cold air toward your skin. Body moisture will condense whether you are wearing a shell or not. Without a shell, you at least have a chance that it will reach the surface, where you can brush it away.

I’ve been pretty happy with a Craft Shift jacket with Gore Windstopper in the front of the body and sleeves, but I do note that it traps more moisture than the 20-year-old Italian wool jacket it replaced. The Craft jacket has a nice rear pocket, which is handy in winter when your jersey pockets may be buried under a couple of layers.

Speaking of layers, I layer everything. Rather than have a pair of heavy, wind-front tights, I put long johns under my regular tights, and then leg warmers over them. This uses three pieces I already have. It saves the expense of one limited-use piece. More dedicated winter riders in more consistently wintry conditions may feel they get good value out of the heavier winter tights. It’s your call.

My favorite gloves are North Face Windstopper fleece gloves. They seem to work in a wide range. I can stick liner gloves under them if I need more protection. On really cold days I stuff a pair of mountaineering shell mittens in a pocket as last-ditch emergency cover. On the fixed gear I don’t have to worry about operating shifters or brakes.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Daily dosage

If you want to have ridden, you have to go ride.

Hit the snooze bar one less time. Dredge yourself up. Have half a cup of coffee and a banana, and head out. The rest of breakfast will taste so much better when you get back, even if you have to grab a toasted peanut butter sandwich and the rest of the coffee and haul ass out the door to work.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

The Impoverished Athlete

A musician joke asks, “What do you call a drummer without a girlfriend?”


You could as easily ask that question about a bike racer without a girlfriend or accommodating parents or any friends or acquaintances who will let him crash on the couch.

Steadily over the years, a number of women have also followed the lure of cycling performance. When I raced they were rare. That’s changing.

A bike racer in my district, or the next one over, supposedly lived in a self-storage warehouse whenever he was in the town he called home, because it was the cheapest roof he could put over his head. He used the bathroom at the gas station down the block. He ate out or bummed meals off friends. On racing trips he lived out of his car.

Almost every racer I knew was poor. It was part of the challenge. In a peculiar way, it was part of the reward. Focused on racing, we had to arrange the rest of our lives into some form of order, even if some riders did it by abusing and discarding personal relationships until they were left with a bike in a bare-walled room with a naked light bulb hanging above their grubby sleeping bag on the floor.

No one was going to find their ticket out of the ghetto on the bike racing circuit. A few of the penniless strivers might make it to the big time, with some sponsorship to help them in their subsistence lifestyle, but more often they came up against racers favored with a bit more money going into the race.

Racing takes money, it doesn’t make it. The number of million-dollar salaries going to bike racers would barely put a single starting lineup on a pro basketball court. In the United States it probably wouldn’t put a doubles team on a tennis court.

Racing bikes is more like riding rodeo. Battered competitors drag themselves from one event to the next. Win or lose, they usually leave quietly in the end. Face it, who’s watching? And yet some riders remain devoted even as their hair turns gray, their knees stiffen up and that separated shoulder begins to ache with arthritis.

Most people don’t stick it out that long. Riders may keep riding, but the holy quest of youth, to be faster, stronger, more resistant to pain, gives way to a wiser, more measured pace. Sure, one might go for a little hammerfest, or duke it out with a group of friends and acquaintances, but that isn’t real racing.

Many sports begin with this trial by poverty. You get just enough, or maybe even not quite enough, to get by. In sports with real earning potential, the payoff can make the difference between unimaginable wealth or selling used cars and polishing your high school trophies.

Just as backpacking is really just recreational homelessness, some racers just play at being poor. Those of us with really tight finances had to guard our resources and our bodies carefully, while the rider with the safety net could tolerate more risks. We used to say you could tell the sponsored riders from the unsponsored ones because the sponsored riders would pull their leg out in a crash and let the bike scrape across the road, saving their skin. Unsponsored riders would lift the bike up and take the burn themselves. Flesh heals, equipment doesn’t.

We became battlefield medics for ourselves and each other. Washing down after a crash was called The Screaming Shower. Cyclists traded folk remedies and little tips and tricks we got from real emergency room doctors and paramedics. Keep that road rash moist. Change the dressings several times a day and never let the wound dry out. Treat it as you would a burn, to minimize scarring and stiffness. We didn’t care too much about appearance, only fast healing and full range of motion. Crashing isn’t the worst part, it’s the down time afterwards.

Soon I hardly knew anyone with a normal collarbone. The bump was either in the middle from a fracture or at the end from a shoulder separation. If you hadn’t busted a collarbone, were you really going for it? Riders without the telltale bump were either very smooth and very good, or had simply broken something else instead.

At a time when the country wasn’t having any popular wars, bike racing was our own trial by fire. It was a great way to test yourself without involving any innocent bystanders. On the best of days it hurts. On the worst of days you may not wake up for several days afterwards.

Life is simple in the race. If you’ve ever watched a professional race or a good film about one, you notice how the racers are surrounded by their motorcade, separated from the world around them. In some areas spectators can reach in and touch them, but often they proceed as if in a tunnel. In an amateur race there aren’t even many spectators.

The race becomes a miniature world. The objective is clear. You see the reward for your effort immediately. Once you cross the finish line you want to start the journey toward the next one, to preserve that clarity. Once you care about anything else, the pure intensity is gone. You might serve another cause with your racing, as Lance Armstrong and Tyler Hamilton do, with their charitable foundations, but they do it as part of their racing, not as a distraction from it.

At the start of it all is the impoverished athlete who has chosen this hard journey to see how far he can go. The price will be the same when following any dream. It costs your life, no matter what. The time passed. What did you do with it? It wasn’t about winning as much as about trying to win, because you can’t win without trying. It was about distilling life to one pure effort.

At the time it is just how you live. You live in the rhythm of training. It becomes as big a part of life as you want it to be. If it becomes the biggest part for a while, it is because you wanted it that way. Only after it is over might you notice the skeletal simplicity and the dedication to it that snuck up on you. We leave a life like that for many valid reasons, but it was good to have lived even a little of it.

Benefit Ride

A bicyclist finds bicycling solutions to transportation problems. Cyclists also find bicycling solutions to other problems, like fund raising for charities and other beneficial causes.
There was supposed to be a 150-mile ride to benefit Attention Deficit Disorder, but everybody lost interest after five miles.

I hope you know I’m kidding.

Since bike riding is beneficial in so many ways, many rides could be considered benefit rides, helping more than just the rider to health or fitness or glory. In a way, Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France victories make that grand spectacle into a benefit ride for cancer research and treatment. He would have raced anyway, even if he hadn’t gotten sick. The race would have been its own great showcase of athletic performance with its own heroes and role models, but Lance’s brush with fatal illness added that other dimension. Perhaps no one will ever view the race the same way again, because Armstrong’s human struggle connects to so many lives that would never have been connected to that race.

Back in the real world most cyclists inhabit, the benefits are less spectacular, but no less meaningful. Perhaps cycling just helps one or both partners in a marriage to maintain their sanity. Perhaps it allows two people to exist with only one automobile for all or part of the year.

Last week my cellist had an evening gig in North Conway at Schouler Park. I had to work in Wolfeboro that day. How would I get to North Conway without a car so we could come back together after the performance? Ride the bike.

Only people who value a physical challenge will understand that the prospect of a 41-mile ride racing both sunset and the weather can be a pleasure. I admit it would not have been, had I dug deep and found nothing. But in that case my musical friend would simply have scooped up my exhausted body wherever I happened to have fallen by the roadside. Pride’s easy enough to swallow. I couldn’t lose.

The ride let me rekindle my acquaintance with Route 153, one of the best bike roads in the state. There are roads with less traffic, and probably roads as good, but 153 provides a great route up the eastern state line.

The road changes character as it passes through different towns. In Wakefield it crosses some steep hills. But I’ve ridden the full length of it once and portions of it many times and always had a good ride. Rude encounters with motorists have been few and mild. The speed limit is often around 40 miles per hour. Drivers don’t tend to really rip. The country character and pretty scenery may make people less aggressive.

Cycling gets its hooks into you. I got hooked in the mid 1970s, a particularly good time for it. Road bikes were near the height of their beautiful evolution as handmade works of usable art. They had not yet become the soulless, mass-produced tools of today. Buying a bike was the start of a long-term relationship. Nothing that technology has added has changed the basic reality of pedaling or the basic physical dynamics of the position.

You can still develop the relationship with the modern product, but it’s easier with some than with others. And maybe you just don’t have the temperament for it. If you like to ride, ride the way you like.

As it happened, I pulled into North Conway under drizzly skies, just after sunset. The benefit to the cellist was obvious in her welcoming smile from the stage. She would be happy to have company on the drive home and I was happy to have dragged my aging carcass out for another stomp over the countryside. The massed motorists in the North Conway jam were happy, though they did not know it, that I had removed one car from the mix. There were plenty of others to take my place, but one can only do so much.

After I stashed the bike in the cellist’s car and put on dry street shoes and a rain jacket, I bought some food from vendors whose proceeds benefitted local causes, and tossed some money in the donation bucket for the arts group sponsoring the concert.

Children played with beach balls and glow-in-the-dark throw toys on the rain-sodden baseball infield. The clouds jostled turbulently overhead, but no more downpours fell. A little puppy on a leash touched my ankle with a cool, wet nose. Music played and fireworks ended the show. It seemed like a beneficial evening for all concerned.

Say What?

Don’t you love it when they yell? Someone in a speeding car going by yells what sounds like “aileron!” or something and then rolls the window up.

“Broccoli stalk!”

“Inna Gadda Da Vida!”

What the hell are they saying?

There’s a little thing called the Doppler Effect. It makes sound do weird things when the source of the sound or the listener is moving at a high rate of speed. Add wind noise, motor noise and so many people’s mush mouth delivery. They only have a half a second to get their point across. Yet still they try.

Is it encouragement or criticism? Unless they accompany it with a digital gesture or a thrown object, I can’t tell.

Something about a person on a bike just says “captive audience” to these public speakers. They’re inspired to share something with the world just because they saw a cyclist.

“Albert egg-timer!”

“Get the fuzz off the toad!”

Now that last one I can decipher.

I would much rather hear a yell than a horn blast at close range. The automobile horn was designed to convey alarm and disapproval. It’s like a fanfare of trumpets to announce the arrival of a majestic middle finger. Horns are put on cars to tick other people off. We use them to anger the people who have angered us.

Thrown objects also send a message. Frequently the message is “Don’t quit your day job and sign up for pitching camp, Buttercup.” But the marksman intends to send more of a threat. Sometimes the missile connects, damaging the bicyclist as the thrower intended. Intent counts for a lot with me.

Motorist harassment seems to peak in the spring and fall. In spring, cyclists are out there retraining the motoring public to expect to see people on bikes. In the fall, frustrated teenagers are back in school, days are getting shorter, schedules are getting more full as school and business settle down after summer’s hiatus.

Fall is the time for broken glass. I attribute this to young adults chafing against the restraints that school and work bring after summer’s freedom. In all my years of riding I have always seen some kind of increase in the number of broken bottles in September.

You can do a lot of amateur anthropology and sociology from a bike. The human parade goes by in all its uninhibited glory. You can step aside from the hurtling roller coaster of tailgating maniacs and just watch them work out on each other. Feel the love.

Cyclists have figured out that the journey is the destination. Do you really get more out of life if you have to get somewhere as fast as you can so you can hurry up and do something there so you can get back out on the road and hurry somewhere else? And all you leave behind you, echoing in the breeze is the mysterious word “aileron.”

Friday, November 19, 2004


Citizen Rider is the title of my bicycling advice column. This blog will reproduce issues of it for web viewing. All material copyrighted by Tim White