Sunday, January 15, 2023

"Road Biking is so dangerous!"

The road is the least popular place to ride a bicycle. We don't bother to stock road bikes anymore. I am the last person associated with our shop who does ride on the road. This may include former employees as well as the current staff. Among our clientele, road riders are a minority. Some converted to gravel. Some shifted their concentration to mountain biking. Many only ever mountain biked. And we have lots of path riders. Some of the path riders used to ride the road and gave it up because of age-related deterioration, or traffic fear.

I've said before that Wolfeboro is not a nice place to ride a road bike. When the summer people aren't here, some of the local drivers like to be reckless with the clear running room. The major arteries of the town are state highways, so there's some amount of through traffic all year. Lake season adds thousands of seasonal residents and visitors, some of whom arrive already hostile to cyclists. You can sneak past some of this to escape to the north and west, but you have to go farther and farther to get to a bit of peace before you head back into it. I'm sure that lots of towns have their own discouraging aspects.

Road riding is somewhat dangerous, though not as dangerous as it seems. We are "vulnerable road users," at the mercy of the drivers around us. But those drivers present a far more gruesome hazard to each other.

Last week, a northbound driver on Route 16 over in Wakefield crossed the center line and hit a southbound vehicle, killing the driver and sending the passenger to the hospital. The offending driver also ended up in the hospital, but has not died. The accident is under investigation. State police have asked for witnesses and any dashcam footage that someone might have caught. It sounds pretty forlorn. Did anyone see? Did anyone happen to capture the grim event on camera? What could any of that tell us about why some numbnut crossed the centerline at highway speed and smashed into some poor idiot just driving along? Route 16 is notorious for this type of crash. One back in the 1980s was attributed to a yellowjacket that flew in through the driver's open window and stung him in the crotch. That grim bit of slapstick cost several lives.

Crumple zones, air bags, passenger compartment reinforcement and restraints all improve the survivability of a motorist blunder, but the death toll is still in the tens of thousands every year. It's really easy to hit combined impact speeds of 80, 100, 120 mph when vehicles collide on two-lane roads, or someone ploughs through the median on a divided highway to visit the opposite lanes. In the course of a normal day of driving you pass thousands of people. Any one of them could be The One.

Then there are motorcycles. I thought about getting one back in the late 1990s, when a friend was selling a nice vintage BMW. It might be nice for those days when I was too tired to pedal, but I didn't want to be stuck in a car and have to take up a full parking space at work. But that got me thinking about what I was really gaining. Not much, actually. On a motor vehicle I would be obligated to keep up with the other traffic, without the easy option to pull off and get out of the way, the way a bicyclist can. It seemed like all of the vulnerability with none of the best advantages.

Lots of people love riding motorcycles. Everyone acknowledges the danger compared to being in a car, but I'll bet that most people think that a motorcycle conscientiously operated by a properly dressed and helmeted rider is safer than a bicycle in traffic. Maybe yes, maybe no. In stop and go traffic where the vehicles can accelerate to 30 mph or more between slowdowns or stops, the motorized cycle will be able to keep up, while the bicyclist will have to deal with motorists who are probably already impatient squeezing past in the faster sections. But just in the general run of things, the motorcyclist is exposed to impacts at higher speeds, and is in danger not only from the mass of other vehicles, but from the mass of the motorcycle itself.

A lot of road bike safety depends on traffic volume and speed, topography, and the design of the road itself. I don't think that heavily urban areas offer road biking as such. Streets call for different strategy and tactics. It's the difference between a road race and a criterium, only with a full-on tank battle superimposed on it. There are definitely places I would avoid on my bike, but I would also look for ways to circumvent them so that I could continue riding.

If nothing else, when I'm pedaling along the highway on my way to work, if someone wants to come across the centerline and peen me, they're going to have to come a lot further to reach me than if they come at me when I'm trapped in the lane in my car, winging along at 60.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

It ain't really winter 'til your nose hairs freeze

 Every time we get a weak winter, I compare it to my memories of 1990-'91 and 1991-'92, the two that stood out for late arrival of snow, little accumulation, and overall mildness. The winter of 2005-'06 was another disaster for winter-based industries in New England, in which I recall doing more riding than skiing or other winter-specific activities. But a check of the records shows that in all of those winters we had at least some short periods of usable winter, and a few nights of nose hair freezing cold.

Your results may vary, but I find that nose hairs begin to freeze as the temperature nears 0°F, and intensifies as the temperature continues to drop. For instance, someone misread our digital thermometer and told me that it was 17°F one morning, but I knew as soon as I walked out and breathed in that it was 1.7°. 

When I'm stacking firewood into the shed in the summer, I often think about what conditions will be like when I reach that part of the pile during the dark and frigid months. I can recall many images of shivering under the cold LED light in the shed, pulling down an armload of logs to keep the wood stoves cranking against the implacable cold of the universe, toward which our end of the planet is pointed during the northern hemisphere's turn to aim away from the sun. This winter, just about every trip to the woodshed has been more like late March, or even April, except for the sun angle and day length.

I could post this as a ski column on Explore Cross-Country, but there is no skiing, and there might never be. It should surprise no one that this is the warmest, wettest, least useful winter on record, at least until the next one. We're already getting calls about bike service, not from winter riders, but from people who want to get a jump on their spring tuneups. We still have demand for ski services, so we don't want to reconfigure the workshop for grease, but we may need the income soon. It's still too early for full bike shop efficiency, so the wise rider will wait until at least mid-March, but that could change if winter-specific demand dries up.

I did notice in my training diaries from the 1990s, that I took more opportunistic rides back then. The training diary is also my daily quick summary of weather conditions, which I started adding right around that time, to give my other activity entries more context. Now I find that I really miss the hour or so that I carve out for a ride or a hike, when I have so much other stuff to get done on a day off. From the perspective of age, it seems that the people who get things done are the ones who long ago sacrificed their health, and fitness to the priorities of work. It shouldn't have to be that way, but any better way takes too much thought and care for each other's well being, to make sure that anyone who wants it can have a balanced existence.

The other argument against too much riding is that a rider needs weight-bearing exercise for bone density, and to use the body in different ways that relieve the muscles and joints from the limited range of motion provided by pedaling. You can do weight training, and definitely should stretch in some way, but for the unscientific trainer it's easiest to go do something else. Yesterday, I hiked up the mountain behind my house. I probably won't do it again, because the logged areas are now choked with brambles and sweet fern, and the uncut swaths are filling in with bushy little saplings flourishing because so much sunlight can get in. With decent snow, the brambles and sweet fern are at least somewhat covered and separated by it. Yesterday, I was either wading through the thorns or pushing through the beech thickets to try to gain a few yards on the remnants of the old forest floor.

Because I started late, I did not gain a summit, only one of the intermediate steps that offered a view westerly. To the north I saw that Ossipee Lake is not fully frozen. That is not a deep lake. I know that the big lake, Winnipesaukee, isn't frozen shut, but it is deeper and much larger, requiring a longer, harder freeze. Even giant mud puddles like Province Lake had such thin ice that the ferocious winds of the storm on December 23 broke it all up and piled it on the leeward end, where it refroze into a surface useless for skating. I remember a hike in about 1997, on a small range just over the border in Maine, from which I saw the startling blue of Sebago Lake, unfrozen in a landscape of white. We did have some snow that winter, although as climate change really started to sink its claws into the region, the weird sight of open water provided a warning to the few who cared to acknowledge it.

A native of the area used to say that he hadn't noticed much change in the climate, even up to a couple of years ago, but he has been pretty quiet about it recently. I doubt if his nose hairs have frozen any more than mine have, even if he does live in one of the colder little valleys. And, as a logger, he knows darn well that the wetlands haven't firmed up to allow the normal amount of winter cutting.

No matter how much the temperature warms, the sun angle and day length won't change. There will be more losses than gains, from many economic sectors. People have already reported ticks. Various unpleasant insects are expanding their ranges. The purifying freeze, as hard as it might feel at the time, serves a purpose for the overall health of the ecosystem. Unfrozen lakes in winter warm sooner and reach higher temperatures, aiding things like cyanobacteria, which ruins summer recreation after a warm winter ruined that season's recreation. Cyanobacteria can kill your dog. And it's not that great for humans.

We're only at the beginning of winter's July. There's plenty ahead. Averages are made of highs and lows, so we could get slapped with a little cold snap. The longer it takes to get here, the harder it will bite, because we can't help instinctively feeling like spring when the temperature mimics it. As the sun launches more and more steeply up the morning sky, the first half of a mild day will make you forget how much winter still lies ahead, until the instant shift to late afternoon light reminds you. The sunset is getting noticeably later, but it darn sure isn't late.

Tuesday, January 03, 2023

Ride in the New


Thanks to climate change, I had New Year's Day off for a change. The snow had been obliterated by rain in a storm right before Christmas. The lake and pond ice had been obliterated by a later surge of warmth. The local indoor rink would be closed for extensive remodeling through January 3. With nothing to stay open for, upper management opted to give us all the day off.

While lows had dipped below freezing most nights, every day ran well above. On New Year's Eve, the temperature never went below freezing, after a midday high pushing 50F. So once I got the morning chores out of the way on Sunday I suited up to head out for my first ride in almost a month, and my first purposeful exercise in 15 days. There's always a bit of wood splitting, and snow removal as it happens, but snow hadn't happened since December 16-17. That stuff had been the most heinous cement imaginable: disc-rupturing, hernia-ripping heart attack snow. It broke a lot of trees and took the power out for hours in places, and days in others. Only a few piles and patches of it remain. Like a horrendous battle, a storm can seem like it's never going to end, as it wounds and kills, but it does end, and the signs that it ever happened grow fainter and fainter. The lost are still lost, though, for whatever it was worth.

With the roads fully clear and a mild day, the only discouraging factor was the gusty wind. A rider learns how to manage the local winds. Around here there aren't too many attractive routes to take advantage of an upwind start and a downwind finish when a strong westerly blows, but I can ride a good few variations to the east that take the flying tailwind early and then tack back upwind on roads largely sheltered by trees.

Keenly aware of my advancing age, I wonder after any layoff how much fitness I will have lost. Coming out of a commuting season into the late fall and early winter, will the body remember the strength of the regular season or already have slumped into off-season sloth?

The first few pedal strokes on the trusty fixed gear didn't feel too ominous, although the mysterious aches that have plagued me for years teamed up with the rapid atrophy that pounces on aging, unused quads. It was manageable, but not a glorious hammerfest, joyously reuniting with the bike in exquisite synergy of muscle and machine. Nope. Just trudging doggedly to get to the real tailwind stretch on Route 25.

With gusts to 30, the elderly cyclist spun along at 20-plus for much of the three miles to the next turn. The next turn is onto a dirt road called Loon Lake Road. That's about a mile and a half unless I take a diversion onto a longer section of mostly dirt, that goes along the Ossipee River for a while before connecting to pavement again to head out of Freedom Village to hit Route 153.

The freezing and thawing had softened Loon Lake Road an inch deep in places -- mostly inconvenient places, like climbs. The route is basically flat, but there's this one little jumper that has a southern exposure... The dirt felt like a glue trap. But embedded in it were sections of ice, so I might be grinding hard just to keep moving forward upright, and risk hitting well-lubed compacted snow. When a dirt road is well frozen or only slightly thawed, sand kicked onto the icy stretches often provides more than adequate traction. With the road more softened, the icy parts looked like they had been rinsed fairly clear. They lay as traps that I had to avoid wobbling into as I slithered toward the next paved road. I skipped the river run in favor of a quicker return to pavement.

With a mild forecast for the second day of 2023 after a frozen night, I went out again to get a few more miles before the weather reverts to more wintry offerings. I wondered whether the saddle would punish me for my month of idleness or if I had retained saddle conditioning from the season that didn't seem so long ago.

I hadn't. Oh yeah. I resolved to ride rollers two or three nights a week for the rest of the winter, just to keep my sittin' parts in shape. We'll see how that really turns out.

Because the dirt road had stiffened up somewhat from the freezing night before, the river route provided a scenic variation with only one glue trap. Of course that was on the climb from river level to the paved road.

On the New Year's Day ride it struck me that I might not have ridden on New Year's Day since 1980. If I had, it probably was before I moved to New Hampshire, where weather and priorities would have made riding on that particular day less common. This was especially true once I had a job where New Year's Day is often one of the most busy, and what passes for lucrative, in the cross-country ski business. When I dredged through old training diaries I discovered that I recorded a New Year's Day ride in 1986 in Maryland, as well as a couple or three on January 2 in various years up here when time and weather allowed. I never wrote down the tequila-fueled fixed-gear slither through the outer environs of Alexandria, Virginia, that spanned midnight as 1981 came in on a light snowstorm.

I never cared much what I did on the first day of any year, aside from still being alive. But sometimes it's almost interesting to review how one has spent time.