Saturday, January 3, 2009

Winter Riding

Do you ride your bike through the year? What do you do to accommodate riding in bad weather? I know you folks in San Diego have to bring arm warmers along for the morning but I’m talking about the rest of us who serve our sentances in northern North America.

My hat is off to those of you who ride where snow and extended sub-freezing temps are the norm in winter. I don’t know how you do it. I’m sure you get something out of it, a lot in fact. But the few times I’ve ridden in those conditions I quickly realized that this ‘experience’ is so much different from ‘normal’ bike riding that it is really something else. So, if you are beefing up your Pugsley with studded tires and getting your snowmobile suit ready for your winter commute, you have my respect if not my admiration. I think you are crazy but I also like that bicycling is such a big tent that there is room for you inside, if only over in the corner there behind the tent flap.

I’ll talk a little about what happens here in the soggy Pacific Northwest. I do ride through the winter though not as much as many, and certainly not as much as I do in the summer. I’m going to go on about this, but it’s not because I think it is ‘epic’, or more epic than your epic. It’s just what I know.

There is no universally accepted approach for winter riding here. That should come as no surprise, big tent and all. The thing to keep in mind is that winter here means rain. Cold rain. This is significantly different from summer, or warm rain. So for most winter riding there is some accommodation made for rain.

There are a few riders who don’t follow this general rule. Often they are on ‘fast bikes’. You’ll see them in race team colors, without fenders, and with the same minimal gear they ride with in the summer. In their heads I suspect they hear Phil and Paul calling the Arenberg Forest segment of cobbles at Paris Roubaix. I think they are foolish, but that’s just me. And I have to remind myself …big tent here and I’m not the bouncer working the rope line.

It’s like they are making some sort of statement. I think the message they are sending is: “I’m a serious cyclist and I’m not going to let the elements change what I do or how I do it. I can suffer like the pros!” But this message goes through some sort of psycho-translator between my ear and my brain. What I hear is: “I want you to be impressed with me because though I could make a few simple accommodations and thus reduce the problems I create for myself, I refuse to do that, so you can be duly impressed!” I’m not impressed. Just because you have a convertible does not mean that you HAVE to ride with the top down in a blizzard. If you do, you’re either mentally deficient or a poseur. Whoa! Did I just say ‘big tent’ and then dis one of the acts under the bigtop? Shame on me, the rain made me do it.

But this is a pretty small segment of winter riders. Most people here cobble together some sort of fender system. For those with off the rack fast bikes, there’s usually no clearance for fenders under the fork crown or seat stay bridge, These folks often resort to those clip on half fenders (‘half fast’ fenders I call them). These do a half baked job of reducing the mud stripe up the back side, but are pretty ineffective at keeping gritty road spray off the riders feet and drive train. And of course, anyone riding within 20 yards to the rear of this rider will get a face full of gritty road spray. Yummo.

This brings up the central philosophical question, what are fenders for? Are they to protect you and your machine from the ravages of road spray, or are they a courtesy to other riders? These two schools of thought offer endless hours of debate among cyclists. More controversial than talking about taxes around election time!

Then there is the issue of lights. If you ride much in the winter here you will just about be assured of riding after dark. We are in the depths of winter, on ‘standard’ time so now I arrive at work in the grey light of dawn. But it is pretty much night when I leave work. My commute is two hours one way so riding to or from work is a ‘night ride’. This issue too offers two schools of thought: Are lights just for seeing or are they also for being seen?

Here I do want to get up on my soap box for just a minute. When it is dark around these parts, it’s really dark. On a cloudy night, rain or no, out in the country, or even the burbs where street and commercial lighting are limited or non existent, the inky black night just seems to soak up light like a black ink blotter. If you are not wearing brightly colored clothing, with reflective material, and with multiple lights you are damned hard to see on a country road. Even if you have all these things you are still hard to see, because that light blotter is conspiring to soak up all the light you are trying to emit. Think black hole here. And though bikes are more numerous here in our parts than some other areas, not all drivers are conditioned to expect bikes, at night, in winter, on the public road ways. It might be even worse for urban commuters. In that environment your feeble little bike light getup is competing with all the commercial, street, and residential light, which often times is reflecting off wet pavement. Do yourself a favor; make serious attempts to make yourself visible in low light conditions. (OK, rant off)

Winter specific tires are also worthy of consideration. Sure you can go over the wall and put on studded snow tires but as you might suppose, when these are in order you won’t find me out on a bike. But the roadways become a lot more treacherous in winter so beefier tires are a smart move provided you have clearance for them and the fenders. A flat is never fun, but out in the rain, in the dark of night, well definitely no fun.

Some people don’t ride their ‘good’ bikes in winter. They ride their ‘rain bike’. It may sound like a novel concept but this is a sensible approach. Note; if having more than one bike is some kind of mind bending concept, this may not seem so practical for you. For those who think the right number of bikes to have is ‘more’, this is a perfectly logical solution.

Your ‘good bike’ is probably a go-fast machine, and retro-fitting it for winter riding (lights, fenders, mud flaps, a winter-proof seat bag, bigger tires etc) is probably going to be pretty inconvenient and probably only marginally effective. Then there is the geek factor. The ultimate expression here comes forma friend who rides a beautiful Colnago, retrofitted with fenders hand crafted from old coroplast election yard signs. I'm sure that if Ernesto Colnago were still alive he would be negotiating a contract with the Genovese family. Throw in the fact that your 'good' bike probably has the nicest paint job, the highest spec components and wheels you can afford and then you start having real reservations about exposing this ‘investment’ to the rough conditions that come with winter riding.

You might think it could be a good thing, to ride this bike in the rain, sort of like taking the bike to the car wash every day. The reality is something much different. After one ride through the winter weather here, your bike looks like one of those Semi’s parked in the lot at Spiffies restaurant after having just come over White Pass: It not only looks bad covered in road grime, it is bad for your drive train. Your chain, cogs, chain rings, rims, tires, brake pads, cables and housings, in fact everything on your bike is exposed to something very much like grinding past. If you went out in these conditions once, for a couple hours that would be one thing, but repeated exposure to these harsh conditions really puts the hurt on your bike in just one winter of riding.

Enter the rain bike. This is not your ‘favorite’ bike thus you don’t feel terrible guilt pangs after every winter ride. In fact, there is some sort of perverse pride in riding a bike like this into the ground. I suspect this is very much like the serious rider’s sense of heroism for riding without fenders. A reverse ego that says "Hey look at me, I’ve totally ruined my big ring and chain in just one short winter!” Some go so far as to make that winter ride a fixed gear or single speed bike. This means only one gear, and in the case of a fixed gear bike, no coasting! It drastically reduces the number of moving (and fairly expensive) parts that will suffer from the abuse that winter riding dishes. It also boosts your ‘cred’ as a ’serious’ cyclist, but only in cycling circles; in the real world it only removes you farther outside the perimeter of ‘normal’. It wasn’t long ago that fixed gear riders were looked upon as a curiosity, much as a person with a third eye in the middle of their forehead might be. No more! Now fixed or single speeds are fairly common, so much so that big name brands are offering stock models. Instant cred, now available in the LBS of your choice, on an installment plan. To me, this portends the approaching end for fixed gear bikes; the crescendo of a fad is when it becomes ‘main stream’, just before it becomes a passé statement that you are tragically unaware and out of step.

Some of us don’t require much of a switchover. I for example ride a bike through the year that is equipped with fenders and lights. It’s just easier to ride with that gear all the time than to take it off and put it on. I’m used to it and fortunately my bike was designed for these items. Yes these things do add to the weight, the wind resistance, and geek factor but because the bike was designed that way, I’m not constantly fiddling with the fenders or retightening or reposition the lights. That may sound a little smug, like I’m a ‘serious cyclist’ but really, I’m just lazy.

I’ll ride this winter, I’ll get soaked, I’ll see piles of dead salmon carcasses in the creeks and watch eagles, hawks, and ravens feasting.

I’ll see the gray sky merge with the leafless grey treescape where the alder and cottonwoods stand naked along the creek bottoms waiting winter out. I’ll try to keep track of the number of blue herons and bald eagles I see perched on pilings along Hood Canal,

I’ll drink gallons of bad convenience store coffee, and quarts of really high quality boutique coffee offered by the independents out in the middle of nowhere. I’ll make sure my batteries are always fresh, and at least one of my tail lights is on blinkie mode. I’ll probably get around to putting a little longer mud flap on my rear fender so that nobody gets a face full of grit when they ride along with me (though I am slow enough that I’m usually behind you any way)

I’ll sort through and arrange my raingear. In our neck of the woods you don’t have just one rain coat, or just one pair of booties or gloves. And I’ll clear out that spot in the corner of the garage, near the door where I’ll strip off my soggy, gritty riding togs before I stumble into the house and make a bee line for the shower.

There will be days when I shout at the sky, and swear that I won’t ride again until there is an ironclad guarantee that it won’t rain for 48 consecutive hours. I’ll see you out there and exchange a nod, and maybe even turn and ride along with you for a bit. Misery loves company (hope you have a mud flap on).

PS: Read this and my winter riding whine rings hollow.