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Something Wintery This Way Comes

By Karl Rosengarth (SingleTracks #65, Originally published in Dirt Rag)

Lead shadows smashed office windows as a dim orange sun exhaled a final breath of frozen copper pennies. Dozing granite telephones shivered silently against the cold. Today there were no calls to cancel afternoon appointments, no offers to round up the gang and head out on the bikes. Those were the messages of summer evenings past.

Five o'clock strikes. Minute hands point to heaven, sending mole people scurrying. Their feet make the sound of dried leafs blowing across a frozen river. Urged by thoughts of microwaved meals, TV shows, lovemaking, alcohol or nothing in particular, the mole people steer frigid metal boxes toward luke-warm nests.

My urge was for "her" (names are not important). We met recently and shared an electricity generated by discovery, surprise and unpredictability. Car-less by choice, I could not resist pedaling to her this night, despite the winter weather. I was no mole, damn it!

Digging through my winter closet, I became a squirrel scratching for acorns, a bear excavating his den—an animal instinctively reacting to changing seasons. It had been 12 months since the earth last tipped on its side, cutting my daily dose of solar radiation to a subsistence ration. But, with experience to guide me, my plan for surviving-make that enjoying-a long hard winter of mountain biking was taking shape.

Layering, yes, that was the key. Already sporting the mid-weight polypro tops and bottoms that would wick my perspiration and keep me dry, I stuffed chilly dogs into warm wool socks. Nothing like wool to keep the dogs happy. I chewed the last bite of a Clif Bar (gotta keep the engine stoked), as I considered my next move. For rain or frigid cold, Gore-Tex would be the obvious choice-shell, pants and boots (or socks). This night promised dryness, so I continued rummaging until I found my Versatech shell-light weight, wind resistant and ready to deflect a random splash or light drizzle. No need for a fleece vest or jacket-it wouldn't get that cold tonight. Plus, I had my beloved ear and neck gaiters, small scraps of fabric that made a big difference between suffering and enjoying the ride. It was all coming back to me.

I silently recited my mantra: "If you're warm in the parking lot before the ride, you're overdressed." One thing for sure about winter mountain biking—once you were cranking, the problem was dumping-rather than retaining-body heat. A knowing grin performed a snappy "jig and reel" across my face as I recalled my good friend Al's favorite saying: "You can ride naked in the woods and stay warm." Yes, I thought, sweat too much during the ride and no fabric will be able to keep you dry—you'll end up wet, cold and miserable. An extra riding jersey stashed in my waterpack was my backup plan—just in case it cooled off or I had to stop and deal with a mechanical. Winter is manageable, but don't take her lightly.

I debated pulling my tights over the polypro bottoms, or ditching the polypro and just wearing tights, or layering up with some windpants. All were viable options, depending on my mood and the temperature. For routes involving a lot of road sections, I preferred layering with wind pants. My favorites were a pair of Patagonia Gore-Tex, with a cycling specific cut. They breathed amazingly well and never snagged on the saddle like my generic nylon ones, which had their niche-stuffed into a waterpack as just-in-case backups. Finally decisive, I shed the polypro bottoms and slipped a pair of lightly-lined Pearl Izumi tights over my riding shorts. Heading to the garage, clipping my helmet strap and sinking my hands deep into Thinsulate gloves—I was ready. Unlike the mole people, I would not hide from winter. Astride my mountain bike, I'd meet it head on.

Pedaling, finally. As I stroked through suburban streets, headlamp burning and taillight strobing hypnotically, I felt warm waves of surreal memories crash on the beach called my mind. Memories of mountain bikers in the most unlikely settings, doing the most unlikely things. New Year's day, six years ago: 24 mountain bikers on the annual Ride and Spew crunched through fresh snow to the spot where the ride leader had stashed the champagne and stale Christmas cookies. Toasts witnessed by bare trees, thirsts quenched by bubbly swill, a festive impromptu party-complete with cheesy plastic champagne glasses. If the mole people could have seen us then, I wonder what thoughts would have fluttered across their small minds before melting-snowflakes falling into an open fire.

A dump truck driver staking a solid claim to his piece of the narrow street flipped my toggle switch labeled reality. Spiked with adrenaline, my heart rate whirred as rhythmic cadence propelled me ever nearer to my love-the motivation behind my motivation. Instinctively, I glanced at my watch, though I knew she'd be waiting for me. How warm it would feel to embrace her. I wished all my friends could be here with me-experiencing the warmth of this moment. So many of them had turned into moles—hiding from the winter instead of pedaling head-long into its splendor. What happened to them?
I blamed television. A one-eyed monster, expert at the bait and switch, promising intellectual nourishment, but delivering sugar coated sugar-always leaving the marks hungry for more. More quarter pounders and light beer. I cursed spinning classes-stronger legs-but what about the mind? The most important muscle for slogging through icy muck holes or carrying forty pounds of bike, mud and snow up a greasy death march lies between the ears. Riding in a gym, the brain says, makes perfect sense in nasty weather—as it throws in the towel and Mother Nature pumps a fist in the air while performing her victory dance.

Winter can be brutal. But this is mountain biking—not to be mistaken with living room biking, day at the beach biking, I don't want to ride because it's windy biking or see ya later it's getting dark biking. Preparation mitigates suffering. The rewards are moments of splendor—tires glued to fresh snow, wailing the trail faster than possible on dirt, pedaling your ass off with a big stupid grin on your face. Hey boy, better wipe off that drool before it freezes to your lips.

Turning my two-wheeled dream machine into the woods, I felt totally relaxed. Movements flowed like molten metal. Time was molasses left on the porch overnight. Love was close at hand, in the air and poised to conquer all. I could sense her presence, just over the next ridge. Up, over, then stop—savor the moment. There she was. The most beautiful piece of singletrack I had ever seen, and the night was ours.

Reprinted with permission from Dirt Rag magazine, Issue #69,


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