Friday, December 20, 2019

Holiday treats

Here's another one that could go as appropriately in my ski blog as in this one.

The turn of the year brings holidays typically associated with food and festive beverages. But the combination of weather, darkness, and the needs of my employer usually reduce my physical activity to its lowest point in the year.

I'll freely admit that one reason I chose human-powered travel so many years ago was so I could be a little undisciplined about what I ate. Humans were meant to move themselves around. We have invented various devices to carry us, but that fosters a mental addiction that leads to physical decline. Forcing myself to ride a bike to get from place to place inserted a naturally recurring period of exercise, augmented by additional exercise to travel anywhere off of my routine paths. Motorized transportation has its place, but a life built around minimizing it as much as possible helps the body get the regular use it needs. It also makes tasty treats taste better. It's fuel! It's fun! It's both! Oh hey, I ate a little too much. Sorry, everybody. I just have to ride farther. Or walk farther.

There is a form of bulimia in which the purge phase is excessive exercise, so that's another spectrum we can find ourselves on. But just because one end of the spectrum is a dangerous condition doesn't mean that the middle is bad. I would bet that most of us -- myself included -- slide more readily toward the sedentary end than the gaunt and haunted figure stomping on a treadmill at 3 a.m. And I do not make light of that person's plight. These days, I eat too much and I gain weight, because it's harder to justify the time spent playing outside. What do I need my health and fitness for? I should be trying to die, to make way for the younger generation to flourish in the space I vacate.

Life is habit forming. I don't want to live any longer than I'm enjoying it, but I don't want to cash out before I've had the last possible fun. How do you know when that is? You kinda want to hang around until it's obvious, since you can't unkill yourself. Besides, I can still be helpful to people who might need to learn something I can teach them.

Pretty heavy musings on a buche de noel, eh? But I used to be able to burn off baked goods within minutes after I ate them. Now I promise to try to burn them off some time in June. If all goes well I will be laying down base miles to get ready for bike commuting by early April, but the winters have been such physiological quicksand that the first month and a half is just damage control.

On the plus side, I'm not a very imaginative cook or sophisticated eater, so I revert to a fairly boring diet based on my attempts at nutritious food. Even so, I enter each new bike season with deep fear and doubt, which deepens my appreciation when I regain strength. Always in the mist of the future I can see the thickening shape of the serpent that will one day trap my limbs and squeeze my lungs as I fight vainly to rise one more time.

I love to start the day with a nice cup of coffee and some kind of baked goods. The coffee pot alone is sometimes the only thing that gets me out of bed, but throw in some pie, or home-made cinnamon rolls, or a whole bunch of other things the cellist is good at making, and every night is like Christmas Eve. And, since she's home so little now, I have to get it while I can.

This year I have front-loaded the queue of baked treats by making the cellist a Boston cream pie for her birthday cake. That's what got me started thinking about the Solstice baked-goods binge. The recipes I used for the pastry cream and ganache were not printed out, they were scribbled on scrap paper, so I -- inexperienced in the kitchen -- couldn't visualize the amounts. I'll be carrying pastry cream and ganache for lunch tomorrow...and probably the next day.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Nordic got run over by a fat bike (originally posted on Explore Cross-Country)

Think of the tune, "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."

Cross-country skiing is dying, killed by climate change throughout its range. This is happening more rapidly in the lower 48 states of the USA than in Scandinavia, but all over the Nordic racing world events are being held more and more on manufactured snow. And that's only possible if temperature and humidity -- not to mention budgets -- allow for enough snow to be made and distributed over a trail system.

Racers will put up with incredible tedium to develop and maintain their fitness, and then submit to torture on a challenging course. Any skier might prefer more variety and free range, but the addicted competitor will go around and around and around and around and around and around a kilometer or two for the sake of race-ready strength and technique. They are not the majority of cross-country skiers, but they are the ones who will spend the most money on it per capita.

Tourists make up the vast majority of the small portion of the population that still skis cross-country. Tourists have a variety of motivations, fitness among them, and cheapness strongly evident. That's a major reason that the ski industry as a whole dislikes them. Frugality generates little profit compared to addiction.

It takes money to run a trail system. Cross-country ski centers have to maintain trails in the off season and groom them in the ski season. Since the widespread acceptance of skate skiing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that calls for a machine that easily costs more than $100,000.00, requiring fuel, maintenance, repair, and a skilled driver. Larger areas need multiple machines and drivers. Any area also has to maintain the trails themselves in the face of erosion, encroaching vegetation, blowdowns, and abuse by unauthorized or destructive shared uses.

When Surly introduced the Pugsley as a complete bike in 2011, it launched the category as something people could buy "off the shelf." Our own shop and touring center pondered whether the bikes would make a worthy addition to our mix of users as a way to weather the increasingly irregular winter conditions that the changing climate had been bringing us. However, our early experiments discouraged us from trying to blend skiers and bike riders on a single trail system.

When the bike industry tried to make fat bikes the next big thing around 2015 there was an explosion of interest that looked like it might turn into a bit of a boom. But as the browsers browsed, most of them chose not to invest upwards of a thousand bucks in yet another bike. Various media outlets ran weirdo-news features on the nutty people riding goofy bikes on the snow(!), but the curiosity was not matched by significant sales. Meanwhile, in the bike industry's usual fashion, they mutated the bikes rapidly, challenging consumers and shops alike to keep up with the need for newer and ever more expensive tools and parts.

Once the tool of intrepid, self-reliant adventurers, fat bikes seem to have attracted a demographic that might view itself that way, but often presents itself as entitled whiners. Our small touring center has seen a determined assault by a handful of riders who have looked for any possible leverage to force us to allow them onto the trail system. They have also proudly posted pictures on social media of themselves poaching the trails. I believe that it's become an obsession with them that means nothing more than another notch on their bedpost. Their own representative has stated at meetings that most riders aren't looking for a 20-foot-wide trail like an interstate highway through the woods. Minimum width for a skate groomed cross-country ski trail is about 12 feet, but much more would be needed to accommodate bike traffic and ski traffic in busy periods.

Will there be busy periods? Between the decrease in natural snow and the daunting expense of buying a winter bike, both sports remain a small percentage of winter recreational activity, far outstripped by motorized activities and downhill sports using motor-driven chair lifts. So what happens next? People want to find a place that has bought a rental fleet of fat bikes for them, on top of expanding the trail system for this new user group. How many touring centers can afford to put together a fleet of expensive and complex bikes and maintain them in readiness for whoever might want to try them out? This situation is being forced on the cross-country ski business by an alien culture.

This isn't just as simple as the ski versus snowboard debate. It has elements of the skate versus classic debate, in the different ways that the user groups occupy space on the trail and flow through the terrain. Having skied both classical and skate, I can tell you that the two techniques can come into conflict when skiers of each type converge. Now throw in some bike riders. The skate skiers can at least bring their skis parallel and double pole through a pod of slow tourists. Skiers don't have 31-inch-wide handlebars. And riders with 31-inch-wide handlebars can't reduce that dimension for a courteous minute or two, even if they might want to.

Skiers also have their feet on the ground. If a skier has to stop, it's not that hard to step off the trail, or at least move to the very edge of it and stand in a way that leaves plenty of room to pass. It's not as easy when you come off the pedals and either need room and time to dismount or need to waddle along straddling the bike. Also, your 5-inch tire at 8 psi might not make much of a mark, but your big clodhopping feet do.

Life is full of inconveniences. We have to make allowances for each other. Motorists hate having to accommodate bicyclists on the roads, and make many arguments about the differences in speed and maneuverability between the various size motor vehicles and the ones being pedaled. The difference is that all of our taxes pay for the public right of way, and that we all have a right to travel freely. A trail system is not the public street. The idea that cross-country ski trails should be coerced into admitting fat bikes is fairly recent even in the short history of fat biking itself. The pioneering riders used things like snow machine trails, just as their ancestors did, way back in the 1990s, when winter riders on the mountain bikes of their era either bought or made studded tires to go ride on those trails or on frozen lakes, woods roads, and other open venues.

The group of fat bikers that set its sights on the trails in Wolfeboro saw trails already groomed and looked for a way to commandeer them. With absolutely no respect for the decades of time, effort, and non-governmental investment that went into the trails, they seized on a flimsy legal possibility to force their case. Since they opened this can of worms, other user groups have tried to present themselves at the same loophole to be allowed to walk their dogs on the trails. The grooming is not done by town employees using town equipment and town funds. If a dedicated non-profit organization had not devoted itself to maintaining the trail system in town, that system would not exist, and we wouldn't be having this discussion. The fat bikers would be riding on whatever was open, just like the poor kids do in towns that don't happen to have a well-established and once-respected ski association.