Friday, December 16, 2022

Sliding into Winter

 One job is two jobs when you work for a shop with dual specialties. The cross-country ski business has been doomed in the Lower 48 states of the USA for decades, but a few of us keep on out of force of habit and our loyalty to our aging customer base. A trickle of younger participants comes in, but never in great enough numbers to bring us younger coworkers.

As with cycling, cross-country ski racers are somehow viewed as elite even though they will never be enough to support an industry and an economic sector. They are the most impressive athletic specimens, but their competition requires a level of commitment to physical abuse that is beyond healthy.

 Racing makes a beneficial activity pathological. That being said, racing equipment can be very fun to operate at a more survivable level of exertion. This may be more true of ski equipment, because there's less mechanical complexity to suck money out of you in repetitive repair and maintenance costs. And a full-on racing bike feels the most nimble and effective when the rider is in a position that is frankly painful over the long haul. The fact that racers grow accustomed to it does not make it less damaging to a rider who hasn't agreed to trade the physical abuse for the glory of victory, or even the mere consolation of participation. "Comfortable" is relative.

Transportation cycling offers plenty of opportunity for lung-hucking sprints and death-defying maneuvers in a tight field of ruthless adversaries. And you get to save lots of money and eat whatever you like. You don't have to drive yourself to a race venue and pay club memberships and entry fees. Just hop on outside your home and slide into the nonstop Madison flowing past on the streets.

The arrival of snow brings other options. When I lived in Annapolis, Maryland, snowstorms would bring the city to a halt. Cross-country skiers would appear among the other pedestrians enjoying the forced break from the daily churn. For a couple of days the city might be bright and friendly before plows and salt trucks turned the streets into rivers of grimy brine that splattered onto the neglected sidewalks as the citizenry climbed back into their capsules to pass each other with the usual indifference verging into hostility. Up here in New Hampshire, the scene is the same, only there's a snow-based tourist industry operating alongside the imperative to have the streets cleared for normal motor traffic. Cross-country skiers seldom get a chance to slide along unplowed streets, because the snow removal is so well organized and prompt. Residents on side and back roads roll their eyes a bit at this, but everyone gets cleared out within a couple of days.

Roads cleared for motor travel are not necessarily in the best shape for a cyclist. In a dry or warm winter, the edges might thaw back far enough to expose the shoulder, but in a normal or colder year the snowbanks narrow the road and cut off emergency bailouts. I'd rather use the snow for snow activities than fight it to remain on two wheels. Even in a bad snow year, lack of daylight combines with the winter stupor that afflicts many drivers, to limit riding opportunities.

Bad snow years have become the rule more than the exception in New England. The terrain creates variation across the region, so maybe the far north or the western half lie in the snow zone, while to the south and east we forget what winter ever looked like. It's easy to forget that about half of the United States lies to the south of most of Europe. Our north seems so far north to us and Canada is just three blocks south of the tundra.

The last ice age did tilt oddly toward northeastern North America. Weather and climate don't uniformly march across lines of latitude. Without human interference, the glaciers would have sent their ghostly reminders year after year to the areas once buried beneath thousands of feet of compacted snow and ice. Not so much anymore, though. Increasingly, we have to figure out what to do with months of slush, ice, and mud.