Will You Leave Me For A Palm Tree? On Cycling in New England Winters.

I love New England. I’m always on its defense. Living in the Boston area I meet a lot of transient folks who are here for school or work. Everyone’s always talking about moving elsewhere and people always ask me when I’m thinking about leaving. I’m not sure if that’s happening any time soon. There’s something that strangely feels like home here.

Winter is when my love for New England is put to the test. Living in an antiquated city such as Boston winters gets old quick. Public transit is highly susceptible to delays caused by weather and streets made smaller due to snow make an already infernal rush absolutely unbearable and on top of that the potholes here could swallow a car.  We all get a touch of seasonal depression and it get’s hard to get out of bed. The tiny New England dwellings only amplify cabin fever.

Despite the long winters and wet springs, New England has a vibrant cycling scene. We’ve had plenty of fast bike racers come out of here. Why does New England produce so many great cyclists? I blame it on the weather.

When the weather frequently dips below 20 degrees any day over 30 is a heat wave. The cabin fever builds inside of cyclists and we’ll do almost anything to get outside. I dread riding rollers and hooking my bike up to things that look more like medieval torture devices than workout equipment. I’ll take treacherous roads over riding my bike on the hamster wheel in the living room.

Being a cyclist in New England means learning to ride just about anything. Even if your goal is just to be fast on the road, I highly recommend mountain biking or cyclocross as cross training. You’re going to need those skills in the winter. Despite my freezing cold hands and feet on base mileage rides little things keep me grinning like the skills I’ve learned from cyclocross and mountain biking.

Potholes are more pronounced during the winter and weird things find their way into the roads. Having confident bunny hopping skills helps you avoid tire punctures and excessive weaving which is dangerous in traffic and group riding. Sometimes it’s not even a full airborne hop, but just a simple body-weight transfer to ensure your wheels stay out of the pothole without slamming your bike down. A bit of Body English goes a long way with keeping a straight line in traffic or a pace line. You stick your hips out one way to dip your bike into the smooth section of pavement and the bike remains virtually straight moving only millimeters.

Yesterday the weather was awful, however I kept a shit-eating grin on my face on the ride home. It gets dark early in the winter and sometimes you can’t always help but to come home in the dark. I found myself out in Bedford as the sun was retreating behind the trees. The 11-mile bike path from Bedford to Cambridge is always a fantastic way to bail out in the dark. In the winter it is plowed, but not well. Last night it was a combination of sheer ice and a quarter inch of snow.

Despite the possible danger I decided to take it all the way home using only a 500-lumen headlamp to light up the ice in front of me. From years of riding in this I knew to use my core muscles to keep the bike straight and to let my arms go limp and let the front wheel do whatever it wanted to. I kept my butt firmly planted in the saddle to keep my weight over the rear tire. I kept my hands in the flats of the bars daring not to touch my brakes inducing a skid. I managed to keep the rubber side down until I rounded the corner by Alewife, where I fell into a puddle. Two women who were apparently more concerned with my health than I asked me profusely if I was all right. I came home a shivering mess.

My ride today was equally filled with misadventure. I headed out knowing that a snowstorm was on its way. I found myself out in Stoneham only to realize my fender was about to snap off and my back brake stopped working because it was jammed with road grit and salt. A 10-mile ride in the snow with only a front-cantilever brake is less confidence inspiring than riding a brakeless fixed gear. I once again arrived home shivering and wet.

At the moment I’m sore and achy from riding 6 days this week. I’m supplementing ibuprofen with beer while eating a monster bowl of pasta. My body is depleted of chemical energy from riding in the cold and I’m slightly tipsy from drinking an embarrassingly small amount of beer. Getting tipsy from a single beer is the ultimate litmus test for fitness in my mind.

I’m sitting in a cold apartment dreaming of warmer times. In no time we’ll be sticky with sweat sitting in buildings without air-conditioning. Young men wearing shorts will gawk at women in sundresses and cyclists will acquire bad tan lines.  The flowers and exquisite colors of a New England summer will make up for the doldrums of winter. I’m not going to lie and tell you New England winters are amazing, but without pain you would never experience pleasure. New England winters keep you tough and as a cyclist keeping motivation in disgusting weather only means we’ll be rearing to go fast once we can take these damned leg warmers off.

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